As you mark your course on the sectional chart you might see reasons to avoid specific areas. For example, your course might cross a restricted area or other temporary flight activity that could be dangerous. Or you might decide to avoid a mountainous area until you’re more comfortable with flying.
My first solo cross-country had me crossing directly over an airport that was relatively inactive — except on the day I wanted to fly over. That was the day the airport held their annual air show with stunt fliers and all types of traffic a student pilot shouldn’t be in. Fortunately, the flight service station (FSS) notified me of the activity before I went flying and I simply charted a course around it. It was fun to watch — from a safe distance.
Along the course you select you will see numerous landmarks including airports. If you’re flying by pilotage these will be your visual ground references. In fact, you should select the most prominent of these as your cross-country checkpoints, hopefully about 5 to 10 minutes apart. Depending on where you’re flying, these landmarks can be lakes, mountain peaks, major road intersections, railroad train yards, towns, and even water towers (with the town name often written on them).
If you’re flying by ground-based radio navigation you will be depending on VOR (VHF omnidirectional range) radio stations to give you a signal. Depending on your navigation equipment, you could decide to fly from VOR station to VOR station because many of them are located near airports. You also may have a primary or backup GPS system to help you navigate. A smart pilot uses all available tools.
Remember, you can get additional information about your destination airport and others you’ll pass along the way by referring to the FAA’s Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) or to one of the VFR (visual flight rules) facility directories. Listings in these resources include the airport name, location identifier, elevation, location relative to a nearby community, latitude and longitude, telephone numbers, operational information, and other things you should know such as noise abatement regulations.
Each airport listing also offers airport frequencies including ATIS (automatic terminal information service), the tower frequency, CTAF (common traffic-advisory frequency), approach and departure control frequencies (if controlled), AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System), traffic pattern information, and a runway diagram. The listing also tells you how long the field is, what surface (grass, gravel, paved), and other useful information for identifying and using the field. Most important, it tells you whether fuel is sold there, what kind, and when.