Cross country flying is what aviating is all about. Going from one place to another in a (relatively) straight line, completely unrestricted by roads. A successful cross-country flight requires solid cross-country flight planning. Today I’m going to show you what it is all about.
Can You Fly Cross Country VFR?
Yes, you absolutely can! In fact, flying visually is the primary way you should be navigating.
VFR means visual flight rules. You’ll be using features on the ground to check your progress and ascertain your position.
A cross-country VFR flight will be one of your first major milestones after you have gone solo. Your first solo flights won’t be long, but gradually you’ll begin to work your way out. First to a local training area before then embarking on solo navigation exercises!
To navigate, the first step starts, not in an airplane, but in the planning room.
Let me show you how to do it.
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How Do You Plan a Cross Country Flight?
At first, planning a cross-country flight may seem a little complicated; however, with practice, you’ll be able to whip up a route in a matter of minutes.
Here’s a quick guide about the steps you’ll need to take to chart a course and plan your flight.
1. Arrive Prepared
What do I mean by “prepared”? Well, there are actually a few criteria.
First, arrive nice and early.
Because when you are rushing, that is when you are more likely to make a mistake. There is no worse feeling than feeling under pressure when you are trying to perform calculations over a map.
Give yourself sufficient time to plan your cross country, including time to check it over.
Second, make sure you have all the required equipment to plan your route. As a minimum, I’d suggest keeping the following in your flight bag at all times:
- A chart of the area in which you intend to fly
- A collection of sharpies
- A flight computer
- A chart plotter or straight edge
- Alcohol wipes (perfect for rubbing out lines on charts)
2. Decide Where You Are Going
Before you can set off, you need to decide where you want to get to. How far do you intend to fly?
Making this decision can be a little trickier than it sounds. Will you have enough time to get there? Is the weather at your destination going to be suitable? Is fuel available so that you can get back?
These are all questions you need to ask yourself before making a single mark on the map.
3. Be Strategic in Your Waypoints
Once you have decided where you are going, you will need to seriously think about how you are going to get there.
While it would be a nice luxury, you seldom can fly from point to point in a straight line. There’ll be things that you definitely want to avoid.
- Restricted areas
- Class A Airspace
- Busy airports
- Rough terrain
- Danger Areas
- Military corridors
- Vast expanses of featureless land (otherwise, how will you navigate?)
As a result of avoiding all the above, you will need to split your route into legs. Each leg is a separate navigational section. These are punctuated by ‘waypoints’.
What’s a waypoint?
A waypoint is an easy-to-spot feature that is unique enough to let you fix your position accurately.
These are really important. So choose wisely.
I’ve included a separate section to show you some best practices for choosing waypoints below.
4. Check the Weather
If you are navigating cross country, then you are going to need to see features. For that reason, you must check the weather.
There are numerous ways you can do this. Most pilots don’t rely on one source and try to get a good view of the ‘bigger picture’ using a variety of weather information providers. You could consider using:
- The FAA Flight Service Station (FSS)
- The Aerodrome Terminal Information Service (ATIS)
- The Aviation Weather Centre (AWC)
- The National Weather Service
Remember, it is also vital that you check the forecast too! The weather when you depart and the weather when you finally arrive at your destination might be very different.
5. Pick a Sensible Altitude
The next task is to assess what you consider to be a safe altitude.
What is ‘safe’?
This depends on the cloud base, but as a general rule, you want to fly at least 500ft above any obstructions 5 miles on either side of your route.
If you inadvertently enter cloud, you know for a fact that you aren’t going to fly into the terrain.
Top tip: Every man and his dog cruises around at ‘even numbers’ on the altimeter, such as 2000ft or 4000ft. This increases your chance of coming into conflict with other traffic. My advice? Pick a level that isn’t likely to be used, like 3,300ft
6. Work Out the Direction, Distances, and Time
The next step is to measure your distances, work out how fast you’ll be flying, and plan how long each leg will take.
Using your flight computer, you’ll make corrections for the wind and then write this information down on a flight log. Consider this your ‘directions’ that you are going to follow once you get airborne.
Most navigation errors occur, not in the aircraft, but at this stage. So once you have completed your navigation log, go for a coffee, come back and check it over!
7. Check Restrictions
Now that you have got your cross-country route planned, you can identify any problem areas. Is that restricted airspace open or closed? Is that parachute field open today? Is there an air display taking place on your route?
These are all things that need to be checked. The best way to do this is to check the NOTAMS.
8. File a Flight Plan
By this point, you’ll have a good idea of where you are going, how you will get there, and what time you will arrive.
So why not tell someone else to inspect you.
File a flight plan with the tower. They’ll activate it for you as soon as you get airborne, which means that people will expect you at your point of arrival…
They’ll also raise the alarm if you don’t turn up, so this is a crucial step.
9. Plan for Contingencies
Want to know what makes a great pilot?
They always plan for the ‘what if’! While you hope your cross country will go smoothly, there is no harm in making a few contingency plans along the way.
Consider where you will divert to along the way if there is a problem.
Check your route again. Will there be areas that you could make a forced landing if something goes wrong?
Consider as well what will happen If you get to your destination and can’t land. Let’s say the wind had gone too strong or the runway became obstructed?
Do you have ‘something in your back pocket’ to allow you to fly elsewhere?
Expect the best, plan for the worst. Suppose you find that there are few options available. In that case, I’d suggest going back to the drawing board and considering a different cross-country flight route.
How to Pick a Visual Reference Point
I’ve included this section as it is an area many students struggle with when first learning to navigate cross country. Things that look great on a map in the planning room can look very different from the air.
Here’s a quick guide that wills how you the things that make the best reference points for aerial navigation.
Go for Specifics and Pick Three Features
The best navigation fixes are super-specific ones.
Want an example?
If possible, don’t just go for a railway line crossing a road. There are loads of those around. It can be hard to know which one is the correct crossing if several are along a stretch.
Throw a third feature into the mix. Say a railway line that crosses a road, that crosses a bend in a river, or something similar. This allows you to ensure that the fix you are looking for is the fix that you see.
Big visual reference points are always nice.
Because you can see them from miles away. A huge lake or transmitter station is easy to see and navigate towards while flying, making your job so much easier.
There is a caveat, however.
Don’t pick overly huge features. Imagine flying to one of the Great Lakes in North America. Sure, it is easy to see. Lake Superior also happens to be 563km long! If you were using this as a navigation point, you would still have no idea where you were.
If you can’t find a specific enough feature, you still have a tool in your back pocket.
Radio navigational aids, such as a VOR or NDB. You won’t use this to primarily navigate while flying visually, but they are a great backup. Draw a line from the navaid to your fix and measure the bearing. You can reference the instruments when you get overhead!
It’s a bad day when you’ve planned to arrive overhead a town, and there is one that looks identical next door.
Flying around trying to work it out is a waste of time and could have been easily solved had you taken your time performing your cross-country planning.
Avoid using features that are nearby and similar.
Does Anything Stand Out?
Sometimes aerial navigation features don’t need to be big, just specific. Take a good look at your chart when flight planning.
Does anything really stand out? Here are some great examples of fixes you could use:
- A peculiar bend in a river
- A distinctive railway junction or depot
- A disused airport
- A town with a unique road system
- A well-known factory
- A popular and easy to spot landmark
Make sure every single one of your navigational waypoints has something unique about it, and you won’t go wrong.
How Long Should a Cross Country Flight Be?
In terms of official terms, the FAA mandate in part 61 states that a cross country flight is any flight that exceeds 50 nautical miles between the point of departure and arrival.
However, you are going to need to be able to fly further than that!
To gain your license, it is required by the FAA that you also undertake at least one solo cross-country flight exceeding 150 nautical miles. This will also include three full-stop landings that must be made at least 50 miles apart.
And yes, this is something that you will be required to do solo, so your flight planning has to be absolutely on point in order to achieve our pilots certificate.
What’s so Great About Cross Country Flying?
Pilots seem to gain a greater perspective on their lives by seeing their small world in the context of the larger world. That home you live in is one of a thousand or maybe a million homes that you’ll fly over. That workplace, with all of its frustrations, is just one small building among many buildings. Snarled traffic below looks like a parade from 3,000 ft.
Your cross-country trip will help you see your flying and maybe even your life in a new light. So enjoy your cross-country flying, your first solo trip, and the hundreds to come. It’s good for your health and your outlook
Cross country flying is one of the most pleasurable things you can do in an aircraft. However, to enjoy it to the full, you’ll need to invest some serious time into flight planning before you even set foot on the airplane.
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Follow my guide above, seek advice from your instructor, and above all, enjoy the view when you finally get on the way!
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"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide