How to Plan a Cross-Country Airplane Trip

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Ever dream of flying from sea to shining sea? Once pilots reach a certain level of proficiency, it's natural to start thinking about endless adventures in the wild blue yonder. Making a long-distance flight in a small airplane is really just a series of one-day flights. As long as you don't take short cuts with standard flight procedures, everything should go fine on your journey.

Review the requirements governing cross-country flights and be sure that you and your aircraft meet them. Prerequisites include training in navigation, emergency procedures and knowledge of airport-traffic procedures, among many other things. In addition to your basic flying certificate, you will almost certainly need to have an instrument rating (ability to fly in low-visibility conditions, using only the instruments) in order to fly cross-country safely.

Chart your intended course from airport to airport. It is essential that you have your flight plan worked out ahead of time and that you're familiar with each airport. Know the location of alternative landing spots. Use a GPS plotter to enter your course information for the entire trip before you leave home.

Set an optimal schedule, but understand that flexibility is key since delays are likely. Small airports may not always have staff available to help with maintenance, and large airports may have crowded flight schedules that can cause problems with takeoff and landing times.

Study basic meteorology. Pilots need to be skilled at interpreting the weather patterns around them. Modern weather forecasting is very helpful, but there's no substitute for your own eyes. Call ahead to airports along the way and other planes in the area for up-to-date weather information.

Adjust your flight plan as the weather dictates. A reluctance to wait out bad weather is a major contributor to accidents. Don't be overconfident about your ability to handle bad weather. Listen to advice from more experienced people and know when to exercise caution. Sailors have a saying: "The captain with the most time gets the best weather." In other words, if things don't look good, wait an hour or a day until they improve.

Learn the technical and performance parameters of your plane. You should know your maximum flying range at various speeds and under different weather conditions, ceiling altitude, rate of climb, and required takeoff and landing distances.

Train yourself in basic airplane maintenance. Even if you never actually repair your own plane, this knowledge will help you handle problems as they arise. For example, knowing how the landing gear works could be very handy if it stops retracting.

Tips & Warnings

  • Know the optimal season to travel. When is the jet stream most likely to be in a favorable position? When is the risk of hurricanes and tornadoes lowest?
  • See 491 Learn to Fly and 482 Make an Emergency Landing.
  • Be sure you're comfortable flying over unfamiliar territory. New destinations mean that you'll be seeing landmarks and runways for the first time. You won't have any visual clues to guide you to a landing. If your navigation skills aren't honed, you can expect problems.
  • Assemble a survival pack. A search and rescue operation can be very fast and effective, but there's still a lot of empty country out there. Pack food, water, a first aid kit and spare clothes. In the event of a forced landing, stay with the aircraft; it's much easier to find than a wandering person. See 466 Assemble Emergency Kits and 474 Survive Being Lost.

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