Cross Country Planning and Flying
By: Ralph Shultz
Well here we are with a desire to fly somewhere over the horizon. We are armed with at least a basic idea of what to expect along the way and what to do about it. But now we are faced with actually planning the flight. So many details that need to be put in order, solved and committed to a plan for our flight. How to start?
The first thing to keep in mind is that we are making this flight for the fun of it. We don't really have to go there and indeed if we feel uneasily compelled to do so, we probably should not! Keep that thought in mind. Anytime in our flight, and for whatever reason, we get that uneasy feeling about continuing it might be wise to consider a precautionary landing somewhere close and safe to do so, or doing a 180 deg turn and trace our back course. Once safely on the ground not much can hurt us. The plane may be another matter although there are things we can do as well to protect it from the elements or whatever.
The second thing to remember is that our “Basic Aircraft”, though very capable and soooo much fun to fly, was not designed with true cross country ( X-C ) capabilities in mind. It is true that many have flown some very impressive X-C flights in their basic aircraft but I would venture to say that very few if any fly these types of flights on a regular basis. Now having said that, I will also say this should not stop us from planning and making such flights. The nature of “Basic Aircraft” is that they usually have few creature comforts, relative low cruising speeds, a very limited fuel supply and lack sophisticated electronic navigational devices with the exception maybe of a hand held GPS unit. Because of the above we will plan and fly our flight using the principals and techniques of “Dead Reckoning” and “Pilotage” and use the GPS as a security blanket.
The method and steps presented in this article describe one way X-C flights may be planned but by no means the only way. This method is safe, easy and will get you there. Some steps presented may be altered or eliminated altogether as you gain more X-C planning and flying experience.
Dead Reckoning is basically nothing more than flying an aircraft on a specific heading, and multiplying the aircrafts speed by some time will equal the distance your plane will fly along that heading in that length of time. If the wind speed and direction is known a correction can be made for any wind effects, such as drift, that might be expected. We will get into more on this correction a little later.
Pilotage is basically IFR flying, ---- just kidding. But not really, as in our case the IFR stands for “I Follow Roads”. This too may be a misnomer. What it really means is locating our position on a map by looking outside of the airplane and figuring out where we are in the vicinity of our planned flight path by using references to terrain features and landmarks that are seen around us, then being able to transfer that land position to a map location. This most often works hand in hand, that is map, terrain features, map, back and forth one supporting and confirming the other.
Pilotage may sound easy, and it is, but it may not come naturally to many pilots. I for one, at times, have a heck of a time doing just that, especially when flying over flat relatively featureless terrain or trying to find airfields. Believe it or not, most pilots must learn this skill just like they learn to fly, a little instruction and practice, practice and more practice. So remember to actually practice terrain, map-----map, terrain as often as possible when out flying.
The GPS is a God sent blessing, just ask anyone who has flown X-C flights. It is so nice to able to just sit and watch the display showing the airplanes progress. All the while returning all kinds of data that fifteen years ago were only a wishful dream. It does it all, compass, ground speed, course bearing, distance and time to next waypoint. Why some even have altitude information and a moving map display to boot! Life is great, ----- that is until the darn thing goes dark! Oh s-t, what now? Well really not much if we are skilled in pilotage and have been following our progress on our flight plan and map. But if we were just following the GPS, PANIC along with all his little cousins come into our lives! The point here is total reliance on the GPS will not build the other skills a pilot should possess and could end up killing us. This has happened, remember the flight of “Flight 19” ? Planning and executing the plan is the key to successful X-C flying.
So here we go!
From part one:
Gather all useful data:
On to the Map ~ San Francisco Sectional, North
Numbers correspond to areas of interest on the map.
(1) Locate departure and refueling stop airfields.
(2) Locate possible alternate landing sites. (On this flight it looks like we had better keep our eyes open)
(3) Familiarize yourself with enroute terrain features, elevations and landmarks.
(4) Using a straight edge, draw a course line on the sectional chart, starting with the departure airfield, pick out land features or landmarks that will define your actual course path to serve as check points, and ending at the refueling airfield then continue until you reach your destination.
When planning your first few X-C flights, especially across terrain having less than obvious features or in poor visibility conditions, don't hesitate to plan a zigzag course to pass over more easily identifiable features. Flying zigs and zags 10-20 degs. from a straight run will add very little to the distance or time to a flight.
(5) Draw a series of “X's” spaced out along the route lines equal to a distance of about 33% of the expected cruise speed for your flight, these will serve as check points. (This 33% value is only a beginning rule of thumb and may be altered according to the terrain being flown and as your experience dictates).
(6) For each leg, or heading, along your route transfer a line that is parallel to the course line such that it passes through the center of a nearby VOR compass rose and make a small line cutting the circle of the rose in the direction of flight. Looks like 263 degs for the 1st. leg, 250 degs for the 2nd., 247 degs for the 3rd. and 320 degs into the 1st. fuel stop. These will be your magnetic courses for these legs. Do the same for all legs and headings to the destination airfield.
(7) If you have wind information, plot its direction and speed on the same rose, if not estimate the wind direction and speed and do likewise. Remember that wind data is always reported as the true course FROM which it is coming. So be sure to convert it to a magnetic heading.
(7A & 7B) This can be done by examining the chart in the area of the flight path. You are looking for two, somewhat parallel, heavy dashed lines that will run diagonally across the face of the chart, from edge to edge. These lines are called “Isogonic Lines” and they will point generally toward magnetic north. Each line will have a number printed along the line. These numbers, such as 15 deg 30 min E and 16 Degs E, will tell you how much Magnetic North and True North differ. Be remembering the phrase “East is Least”, no pun intended, will remind us to subtract for E and add for W. Use this number to convert the wind direction (WD) to the VOR rose markings.
For our flight we have reported winds at 210 Degs. at 15 knots all the way to and through our 1st. fuel stop. Note that the first leg of our course runs between the lines marked 15 Degs. 30 Mins. E and 16.0 E. I have never been able to hold a heading within ½ deg much less to a ¼ deg. so I will usually use the closest deg value, in this case 16 Degs E. The magnetic wind direction would then convert to WD = 210 - 16 = 194 Degs. And the speed in knots converts to 1.15 x 15 = 17 MPH.
(Converted wind is: 194 degs at 17 MPH )
Note: If we were using knots for the aircrafts speed no correction, knots to MPH, for wind speed would be required for use in calculating the wind correction angle (WCA) needed.
(8) It's now time to make some flight altitude decisions. By carefully following the course lines, check out terrain feature altitudes and heights. Keep in mind such things as being high enough to easily clear the terrain under and ahead of you and to glide to a safe landing spot if that becomes necessary.
As you decide on the altitude to be flown for each segment, leg or special interest terrain, record it on a flight-planning sheet. At the end of this article I have included a simple flight-planning sheet that fits well on a 3” x 5” index card. See Figure 2.
(9) For those wanting to correct their planned indicated airspeed (IAS) to true airspeed (TAS) for more correct ground speed and wind correction angle (WCA) results, should remember from the part one article, that TAS will increase approximately 2% for each 1,000 ft. above MSL. Using this relationship, we convert our IAS for the altitudes we have chosen for each segment or leg of our flight. This conversion looks like this:
= [1 + (3.5 x .02)] x 75
= [ 1 + .07 ] x 75 Note this is a 7% increase
= 1.07 x 75 = 80.25 lets say 80 MPH
Make the conversion for each segment or leg and record on the flight-planning sheet.
(10) Alright folks, it's time to do what many pilots chose not to be bothered with. You guessed it, the Heading, WCA and ground speed (GS) solutions!
C) Corrected wind direction and speed
With this input we can solve for:
Using an E6B calculator or a hand held aviation calculator, which can be purchased for under $75, we solve for the Heading, WCA and the GS of each segment or leg in the flight and record the data on the flight-planning sheet. See figure 2.
Don't forget to add 2 minutes to the time estimated to fly a segment for each 1,000 ft. of climb required in the segment.
This simulator does every kind of calculation you could ask for and it can be saved to your computer and used without being “online”.
The items depicted in figures 2 and 3 can be put to good use in the above planning.
The following flight tips can be very helpful:
If you would like to learn more about weather reporting and get a better understanding of the symbols and terms used check out the following “Keys to weather reports “
Here's a simple tip that can help keep you on course. Whenever turning to a new course heading, bring the plane around so that the desired course is showing on the compass. Once the compass heading has settled in, look over the nose of the plane and locate the best terrain feature or landmark on or near the horizon that is laying straight ahead on that course heading. Then turn to the correct compass heading required to offset the wind-induced drift. Fly this heading but keep visually checking that the plane is progressing to that feature or landmark. If the wind has changed, small heading corrections can be made to keep the plane on the correct course line if you are monitoring the plane's heading, ground track and progress toward the distant feature.
Here's another tip addressing early ground speed checks. After cranking in your WCA for a flight segment or leg, fly that heading for six minutes, then check the ground covered, hopefully along the course line, and multiply by 10.
3” x 5” index card flight planning sheet: (See figure 2)
This is a method for a flight plan record that was taught to me by my instrument instructor many years ago. It is a combination of the “Shorthand” writing used by instrument rated pilots and includes information relevant to your flight. It is easy to learn and use. Can be as comprehensive or as simple as you want to make it. It stows easily in a shirt pocket and provides an excellent personal record of the flight.
Time, speed and distance Plotter scale: ( See figure 3 )
I ran across the concept for this very handy transparent scale that is easy to make and easier to use. I almost never plan or fly a flight without it. Folded in half it's about the length of a folded sectional chart. Mine was drawn on drafting vellum paper, and printed on Mylar vellum at a blueprint printing company. It must be printed full sized. Ask them to print it on the wrong (back) side of the Mylar so you can mark and erase on the right side without fear of damaging the scales.
Use the scale by lining up the expected GS scale over the course line drawn on the sectional map. The time, or distance, to any point on that line can easily be read. It works just as well to any point on the map. A tick mark, or line drawn, may be made on the GS scale lines at the 6 minutes point for easier GS checks.
Figure 3 below is a copy of the one I made for myself and have used for many years.
For the making of a time scale plotter see figure 4 below.
Cross country flying can be an exciting journey made enjoyable by careful planning before hand and attention to your plan during the flight. Remember, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the easier it becomes, the more the pucker factor will go down! Have a great flight!!