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Tips for long cross-country flights

Because I take my helicopter where the work is, I often do long cross-country flights between my permanent and various temporary bases of operation. (After a lot of careful consideration, I’ve decided that it’s safer and more cost-effective to fly the helicopter from point to point than to buy a custom trailer and tow it.) I’ve been making cross-country flights in excess of 500 miles since 2004 and, for six consecutive years, made an annual round trip between the Phoenix area (where I lived) and north central Washington state (where I now live) for cherry drying work. Nowadays, I make an annual round trip between north central Washington and the Sacramento area for frost control. I flew solo on about half of these long flights; the other half was usually spent with a low-time pilot building PIC time at the controls while I tried not to be bored (or sometimes sick from PIO—long story for another time).

I flew home from California in late April. It was another solo flight, one that I’d been looking forward to mostly because I would be doing all the flying. And, instead of the 5-6 hour direct flight, I planned to fly west and then north up the California and Oregon coasts before turning inland again. Total flight time would be about 6-7 hours.

CA Coast

My first look at the California coast on a recent flight from the Sacramento area to Washington State.

Although the flight wasn’t as pleasant and uneventful as I’d hoped, I’m not complaining. But it did remind me of some tips I could share with other pilots preparing to do long cross-country flights.

Planning the Flight

Whether you plan to file a flight plan (which I recommend doing) or not, it’s important to plan for the flight. This pretty much goes without saying. In addition to the usual things to check in advance–weather, fuel availability, TFRs, route options–consider the following:

  • Make your flight segments shorter than they have to be. Sure, Robinson Helicopter claims I can get 16 gallons per hour in my R44 so I should be able to fly 3 hours (less 20 minutes reserve) between stops. But do I really want to fly that long without a break? Probably not–especially after those first two cups of coffee. Yet I’ve seen more than a few flight plans that had us in the air as long as possible.
  • Don’t just study your route before the trip—study everything around it. How many times have I tried to fly up or down the coast, only to be forced inland by a typical “marine layer” of fog? Too many to count. I’ve learned to study my route and alternate routes that would be easy to get to if I needed to change course.
  • Know where the fuel is along the way. Do you think you could make a planned fuel stop if you hit  30 mph headwinds that weren’t in the forecast (or flight plan)? This happened to me on my April flight. I was lucky that there were several airports with fuel along my planned route so I could stop sooner than expected.

Preparing for the Flight

Once you’ve planned the flight, you can prepare the aircraft for conducting the flight.

  • Gather and prepare your charts. If you use paper charts, mark them up with your intended route and fold them with the route easy to access. Then stack them in the order of use. That’s how I used to do it when I used paper. Sure beats fumbling around one-handed. Fortunately, we’re in the 21st century and have tools like Foreflight to provide accurate, up-to-date charts. Make sure you’ve loaded and updated all the charts you’ll need. Use the flight planning tools to mark your route. Then make sure you’re fully charged up and, if necessary, have backup power available. A backup device is handy, too. I use, in order: Foreflight on my iPad, Foreflight on my iPhone, and a panel mounted Garmin 430 GPS.
  • Make an airport and frequency list. I don’t do this much anymore–Foreflight makes it easy to get this info on the fly–but when I used paper charts, I also made a list of all the airports along the way that included frequencies for CTAF (or tower) and AWOS/ASOS (or ATIS). I could then program all the airport codes into my Garmin 430 as a flight plan and make frequency changes as I flew from one airport to the next.
  • Bring oil. I use W100Plus oil in my helicopter. It’s isn’t exactly easy to find. That’s why I usually bring along a quart for every expected fuel stop. That’s not to say that I’ll use it all, but it’s there when I need it.
  • Pack snacks. I always have a small cooler on board for long flights and do my best to fill it with ice (or frozen water bottles) and good snacks before I go. Even if you planned a meal stop along the way, circumstances might prevent you from making that stop. Maybe you had to change your route. Maybe the restaurant closed 30 minutes before you arrived. Or maybe the restaurant that was supposed to be a quarter-mile south is really more than a mile and a half from the only airport gate on the north end of the field. Bringing beverages like water or Gatorade-like drinks is also important. You don’t want to get dehydrated.
  • Pack an overnight bag. If you weren’t planning an overnight stay, pretend you were. A change of clothes, toothbrush, and credit card can make an unscheduled overnight stop a lot more pleasant. And if you think roughing it might be necessary, consider a sleeping bag or bedroll, either of which can make sleeping in an FBO–or the helicopter–a lot more comfortable.
  • Pack an emergency kit. I’ve spent so much time flying over remote areas that I forget that many pilots don’t. My helicopter has an emergency kit under the pilot seat that includes a first aid kit and equipment like fire starters, a signal mirror, a “space blanket,” energy bars, water, and so on. If weight is a factor–and it certainly is in my R44–you’ll have to limit what you bring. But some essentials can save your life if you’re forced to land in the middle of nowhere.
  • Make sure any required power supplies, cables, or batteries are handy. If you rely on electronic devices for navigation, you’d better make sure you’ve got back up power for them. My iPad’s battery can’t survive a 7-hour flight with the screen turned on and the GPS running. I use USB cables hooked up to a power supply to keep the battery charged. If you have a battery-powered GPS, make sure you have a spare set of batteries.
  • Set up your tunes. I listen to music or podcasts when I fly solo. My aircraft’s intercom system automatically cuts the music sound when a radio transmission comes through. Handy.

During the Flight

It’s during the flight that your preparation will really pay off. If you’ve done everything right, you’ll be prepared for anything.

  • Open your flight plan. I recommend filing and opening a flight plan for each segment of the flight. Again, with a tool like Foreflight this is very easy. I can open and close a flight plan with a few taps on my iPad screen. This beats the frustration of trying to reach Flight Service on the radio in a mountainous area when only 700 feet off the ground.
  • Remember that your flight plan is not carved in stone. I can’t tell you how many flight plans prepared by pilots who were accompanying me that went out the window before the second fuel stop. Stuff happens–usually related to weather–and changes are a fact of cross-country flying life. The only time I’ve ever done a long cross-country flight plan exactly as planned was on one trip from Wenatchee, WA (EAT) to Phoenix, AZ (PHX), and that’s because our straight line route across the Nevada desert didn’t have any other options for fuel stops. We had to do it as planned.
  • Know when to pull the plug and wait it out. Weather an issue? While scud running is something we’ve all probably done at one time or another, it probably isn’t something we should be doing. Tired? Tired pilots make mistakes. When low visibility, severe turbulence, or simple pilot fatigue makes flying dangerous, it’s time to set the ship down and take a break. If you did all your homework before the flight, you should know whether there’s an airport nearby to make the wait a little more comfortable. I remember unplanned overnight stays in Rosamond, CA (not recommended) and Mammoth Lakes, CA (which would have been nicer if I’d been prepared for snow).

Experience Is Everything

Low Clouds

Hard to believe that only a few hours after hitting the coast I was forced inland by low clouds and rainy weather.

My April flight was a mixed bag. It started with a beautiful but slightly hazy dawn just west of Sacramento, a gorgeous morning on the coast, moderate turbulence with strong headwinds, low clouds, hazy coastal weather, drizzly rain, more low clouds, even lower clouds (and scud running), and bumpy air on a cloudy day. If you’re interested in details, you can read about it in my blog. Although it isn’t common, it is possible for me to have a perfectly uneventful cross-country flight of 500 miles or more in a day.

If you do enough long cross-country flights, planning and conducting a flight becomes second nature. I’m always thinking about what’s up ahead and working on ways to get more information about alternative routes when things aren’t looking as good as you want them to. I’ve occasionally used my phone to call AWOS and ATIS systems at airports I think might be along a better route. I use radar in Foreflight to get a feel for how weather is moving and where it might be better or worse than I am. I’ll change altitude to avoid mechanical turbulence. If I have to do any scud running, I do it slowly and carefully, always aware of exactly where I am and where I can go if things get worse.

It’s all about planning and preparing and using your experience to handle unexpected situations as they come up. After a while, there’s very little than can surprise you.

17 Comments

  1. Maria,

    Nice article here with lots of good reminders! Nice job!

  2. I fly both helicopter and fixed wing so I do cross country without a blink. Helicopter cross country is unique.
    Thank you for sharing excellent and reasonable advice.

  3. Don’t scud run. Bad idea! I am surprised you endorse it.

  4. You talk at length about it in the link to your blog. You even wrote an article about nearly being killed by scud running so I’d expect a definite statement from you declaring NO to EVER scud running.

  5. Helicopterguy

    May 29, 2015 at 7:08 am

    Awesome, especially the reality of 2-hour flight legs and plans that change almost constantly. I live in Michigan, and have flown from Michigan to Yellowstone, Maine, the east coast, Florida, and will be headed to New Orleans this summer. As far as my thoughts on reasonable scud running within your personal minimums, if you fly enough, it’s going to happen. Like any other flight risk, it just needs to be evaluated and controlled. A 400 foot ceiling over corn fields in Iowa is way different than 400 feet over rustic mountains. Part of the versatility of helicopters is that you can do things that airplanes can’t – including land in a field and wait out a storm if needed. That’s why the visibility and cloud clearance minimums are lower for helicopters. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    • Thanks, Helicopterguy! It’s all about experience and personal minimums.

      The thing that scares me most about low ceilings in flat areas is the probability of tall towers. That’s why it’s so important to know where you are on a chart — which hopefully has those towers marked — especially when you’re unfamiliar with the area.

  6. Nobody endorsed scud running. It’s a term most pilots use to discuss low visibility conditions that we all are faced with occasionally due to changing weather. If you fly for a living or often using your aircraft/rotorcraft as a transportation tool you will be faced with low visibility conditions during your planned trip. No pilot I know makes plans to fly in low visibility scud running weather but hey do and I do plan to be prepared. If you are with me and for some reason we find ourselves needing to deviate do to low visibility you want someone who has planned and prepared and remains calm to get you to a safe area or haven.
    I have unfortunately witnessed to often sunny day only pilots, usually those whom only fly within 50 miles of home get caught in low visibility unplanned, unprepared and in their anxiety and fear make horrible decisions, usually ending with bad results.
    I never plan to fly in low visibility and avoid it like the plague but if you are ever in a pinch you really want someone like me or Maria that has studied the process and has real life experience to get you calmly and safely out of it or to a safe haven.

    • Near where I live, I-90 cuts a winding path through the Cascade Mountains. When ceilings are low, that’s the route some non-IFR pilots try to cross the mountains. I’d done this route in a helicopter a few times and when the clouds are really low, I’m stuck in a pretty narrow canyon with granite walls on either side and wires stretching near the roadway. Once, the ceilings were so low that I had to make a U-turn in the canyon and come back out. Yet periodically some airplane pilot will try the route and fail to make the sharp turn near Snowqualmie Pass. Good example of a horrible decision with bad results. Thanks for clarifying this for me, Dan.

  7. “Low visibility” really means “I can’t see very far in the horizontal direction”

    It has nothing to do with the ceiling. The height the bottom of the clouds are above the ground.

    The scud cloud is explained in this video. http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-glossary/what-are-scud-clouds/5507655

    They are usually easy to navigate around if needed.

    I have done a good share of flying under low ceilings when the horizontal visibility is very good.

    I also only do this with the “home court advantage” Knowing where the towers are and over a frequently flown route.

    And I never do it when the ceiling is lower than the towers are high.

    Not following these rules can get you into a lot of trouble.

    But these are my personal minimums.

  8. “Remember that your flight plan is not carved in stone.” – I like the Eisenhower quote along the same line that planning is everything but the actual plan itself is nothing. Good write up Maria.

  9. sound advice, thank you. What do you do to relax during a two hour leg? instrument checks, land marking, watching for other traffic, weather, force landing sites are ongoing but do you listen to music? or can that put you at risk?

    • I do listen to music or podcasts on long cross-country flights when those flights don’t involve going through a lot of controlled or busy airspace. I can plug in my phone and pipe the music into the Intercom system where it plays in stereo on my Bose A20s. When a radio call comes in, the intercom cuts out so I don’t miss a call. There’s also a handy volume knob to turn down the sound.

      I’m also pretty good at keeping situational awareness. A long time ago, I watched an AOPA safety video where the airplane pilot was relying on a battery operated GPS for navigation and the battery died. He hadn’t been paying attention and had no idea where he was. Duh-oh! Even though I don’t need a runway to land, I don’t ever want to be clueless about where I am and what airports are near. So I follow along on Foreflight — I’ve been signed off by the FAA to use that as my EFB — and always know where I am and what’s around me.

  10. Nice overview of the process, lots of good pointers. . One critical difference about cross-country helicopter flight that most airplane pilots just don’t understand is is that you can’t trim them out for hands-off flight like you can in a plane. Unless you’re flying a multi-milliion dollar turbine model there is no such thing as a helicopter autopilot either, since the avionics and hydraulics required are several orders of magnitude more complex and expensive than that required for fixed-wing aircraft.

    Even the most inexpensive airplanes allow long periods of hands-off flying, but helicopter pilots don’t have that luxury. In a helicopter you always have to be holding the cyclic control, either with your hand or between your knees, and it literally only takes seconds of inattention to find yourself in an unusual attitude. There is zero stability in pitch or roll, and the’ll turn turtle in a flash.

    We’re used to this as helicopter pilots, but it’s a rude shock to airplane-only students when they transition to helicopters.

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