My “Winging It” Cross-Country Flight-Part One
Flying cross-country is my favorite thing to do. Planning the route, choosing fuel stops, deciding on the destination…it’s all full of opportunities and anticipation. Using ForeFlight to manipulate the planned track and compare scenarios is better than many Netflix shows.
How To Decide Where To Go
My flight planning can be sporadic at times. Recently, there were a few days available that allowed me to earn some solo cross-country time in my little plane. There really isn’t anywhere that I wouldn’t want to go. There’s a long list of destinations in every direction across the country that I’d like to visit at some point. This trip would require flexibility, as many do.
There are times when I’m pretty specific about where to go and when. Mother Nature doesn’t always agree. There are times when our family calendar allows a block of potential time to get away. The summer is my family’s least scheduled time of the year. It’s also thunderstorm season in the Ohio region (and everywhere else it seems during these past two weeks). The weather would completely dictate this trip. It seemed going east, over some mountains, would be the best option. I would travel as far east as possible. My hope was to make it to the coast, find a beachside hotel to lay my head for the night and wake up for a walk on the beach.
My last experience flying over mountains was in Colorado over the Rocky Mountains. Within minutes of taking off from Colorado Springs for mountain flying training, I was sure that it was going to become a new episode of Alive! My copilot Uncle bailed on me to fly in a fancy new Cirrus with some friends and left me to fly with a British RAF stranger. If ever there was a time that a sedative sounded enticing, that was it. The mountain wave turbulence was terrifying. However, as the pilot-in-command, sedatives are unfortunately frowned upon. It ended up being one of the greatest flying experiences to date, even if my grip on the yoke left my hands aching for days (my copilots British accent helped calm me too).
My Tips For Minimizing Risks
As a recently licensed pilot, I want to push myself somewhat so that experience can be gained, but not too much so as to put myself in serious danger. The possibility of pop-up storms and diversions were part of this flight planning process.
Rule #1: Always Have An Out. My planned route would not take me to an area where there wouldn’t be an airport fairly close if landing became imminent. It may not have been the most direct route but it kept airports within a reasonable distance if needed. Not only was the avoidance of potential pop-up storms used to determine my flight path, other reported airport conditions played a role, specifically winds.
Knowing that mountains can bring more challenging wind conditions, avoiding airports that were reporting stronger crosswinds and gusts also played a key in my routing. There were airports reporting crosswinds that would be pushing my comfort level. With a full day of flying ahead, constantly testing my limits throughout the day could make me more vulnerable to errors. Again, if avoiding those areas meant a longer route, that is the price that I’d have to be willing to pay.
Rule #2: Full Tanks Provide More Options. Fuel starvation has yet to become a threat for me because “topping off” is my mantra at every stop. There are too many stories of pilots running low on fuel and in a desperate situation to land or make it to an airfield. I do not want to ever be one of those stories, even if it means adding a mere 6 gallons at an airfield. If they want to look at me like I’m crazy, so be it. It gives me time to use the restroom, get a snack, make some new friends or add my little push pin to their map and provides some peace of mind.
Rule #3 (&4): Reevaluate And Be Flexible. During the flight and at every fuel stop, I continually reevaluated, looked at the weather and planned different routing options, slowly narrowing my final destination options. The weather is constantly changing. Using my onboard XM satellite weather and ForeFlight weather tools helps to stay aware of what’s going on in the atmosphere around me but the big decisions are made on the ground. For me, there are too many other distractions going on in the airplane for me to make a definite, fully-informed decisive commitment. Once grounded for a bit, relaxed and refreshed, I reviewed every option and determined my next leg.
The first leg of this three day jaunt required two stops before making it to my final destination for the night, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. One stop was made to wait-out oncoming thunderstorms. My second stop was made for refueling, stretching, taking a rest (and to add a specific airport to my log book). Landing at Myrtle Beach that first night brought such satisfaction to me.
I flew from Ohio to South Carolina. Alone. In my little plane. I’m capable of flying a single engine airplane, by myself, over mountains, all the way to the ocean! Wow! The possibilities of aviation are mind-blowing. When my Uber driver picked me up from the airport and started making small talk, his jaw dropped when he found out I flew myself there from Ohio on a whim. The most satisfying smile spread across my face. I felt two inches taller in that moment. Becoming a private pilot is the greatest gift I’ve ever given myself.