by Chris Findley, CFI
One of the great milestones in your flight training, after your initial solo, will be your solo Cross Country. Don't let the name intimidate you, you'll only be going 50 nautical miles, but it is nonetheless a huge step in your flying. One of the things that makes your solo XCs so exciting is that you'll actually be going somewhere! It will be the first time you use the plane and your training to do what flying does so well-- travel!
As you get ready for this flight, you'll have a million things to think about. The good news is that it gets easier the more you do it and you'll get faster and more proficient as you do more of these trips. Your instructor is required to review your route and planning with you and you'll receive an endorsement from him/her for each solo XC you make as a student. Remember, the fact that your instructor is kicking you out of the practice area indicates that you have progressed in your knowledge and training and are ready! Let that fact alone give you confidence! Here are a few things to remember as you prepare for this historic event:.
1.) Take your time on your planning. There are a lot of things to think about on a XC. This is the first time you've had to put so many of principles of flying and navigation to use at once, so take your time. Begin planning several days out. Review your books and notes on navigation. Although we can use GPS to remove much of the planning burden, I require my students to do their first couple of XC plans without using tools such as online flight planners. You need to know the principles, things like how to correct for wind, what deviation is all about, how to figure your weight and balance etc. Use a XC form and fill in as many of the blanks as you can. Although you know that you won't run out of fuel on a thirty-minute leg, figure your fuel consumption and then check yourself on return and see how well you made your calculations. Learn to be logical and thorough in your planning.
2.) Be very diligent about examining the weather along your route Weather is a huge part of the learning process for XCs. I encourage folks to use all available data for weather, especially http://aviationweather.gov/. Unless you have a great CAVU (Clear Air Visibility Unlimited Day) you'll probably notice that you're extra observant about the weather (this is good!). Watch especially for winds at altitude and on the ground, frontal activity, convective activity, and ceilings and visibility. Watch for trends. What's the weather supposed to do before and after your flight? Sometimes weather changes faster or slower than forecasted, so don't depend solely on the forecast weather at a specific time. I ask my students LOTS of questions about the forecast weather prior to sending them off.
3.) Have a solid diversion plan Know the airports along your route. What are the best alternates in the event you need to change plans do to weather, mechanical issues or an over-sensitive bladder? Related to our concern for weather is the question of which airports are predicted to have better weather. Always know where the better weather is located and what fields are good alternates. Be able to calculate time enroute and fuel required to make that airport. Yes I know the NRST function on the GPS will tell you, but you're planning this long hand, remember? In a bona-fide emergency of course, use the GPS. This brings up the point that you should be proficient in the basic functions of the GPS if your plane is so equipped. I just encourage students not to be overly dependent on it until they have mastered the basics of navigation.
4.) Know who you will be talking to and when Review your communication procedures and frequencies. Who will you talk to first, second and so on? What might you expect? For instance, when might you expect to be turned over to the tower and what is the frequency? Spend some time thinking of the most logical way to have the frequencies set up in the radios. I always set mine up top-to-bottom. So in COM 1, I have CTAF, the first frequency I'll need. Standby frequency in COM 1 is the second frequency I'll need, Approach/Departure. COM 2 is set to the second Approach/Departure Frequency because I know there's another frequency for the west side of Nashville's Class C. Then in COM 2 Standby I have my destination CTAF. If I need more frequencies I just roll back through the radios top to bottom. So while I'm using COM2 I'll find a minute at some point to program my next needed frequencies into COM 1 so they're ready.
5.) Rehearse your arrival procedures The day of the flight, when you have an idea of the winds on the ground, consider which runway will be in use. How will you enter the pattern? What's pattern altitude for the field? If the winds shift and you have to use another runway, how will you enter the pattern? If you're going into a controlled field, listen to the ATIS (if available) and be sure to note the pertinent information, which often will include the active runway. But rehearse this because this is a busy time of the flight and you need to stay ahead of the airplane.
6.) Don't forget the return leg! I once had a student make an awesome XC plan. But in his quest for thoroughness on his first flight he simply forgot to plan the return leg. So be sure to examine critically the weather at the time of your return and be sure to make your calculations to get home!
Lastly, don't forget to HAVE FUN! This is an exciting time. Plan well, fly well and enjoy the day. When you taxi to the ramp on your return you will know that you've taken your next major step toward being a licensed pilot!
For more articles from Chris on flight training, visit "The Hangar"