How to Fly Across the Country

There is now an updated version of this guide.

I’ve only done it twice, so I imagine that I will make alterations to this guide after we have done it as a family. Both times I was with people with a high tolerance for discomfort, which helps with this sort of adventurous travel. Keeping that in mind, here were the simple tenets that helped us across, once to the East and one back home to the West.

0. It’s not about getting there.

If you want to get from Los Angeles (or, really, Long Beach) to Boston, take JetBlue. They are fast, efficient, comfortable, have bathrooms on the plane and you can watch television while you cross the country in less time than it takes the little plane to cross Texas. For the longer trip in the little plane, remember that James Taylor sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”

There are a lot of things that can go wrong as we traipse across this great land’s sky. We can get stuck beneath a line of stubborn thunderstorms that won’t move along. (In general, in the summertime, there is a continuous line of thunderstorms drawn north to south up the country. It moves across the country west to east. Sometimes more than one line is moving at a time. These are high-energy serious storms and you avoid them even if you are on JetBlue.) We can have mechanical problems and although I have driven across the country in vehicles that suffered from one malady or another, I have never flown a plane any significant distance if there was even the slightest thing wrong with it. There’s no percentage it. You just have to enjoy where you are for a little while longer. Maybe you had some bad shrimp at the last stop, or you’ve got motion sickness that keeps you on terra firma for a few hours. See what birds might be native to the area. Do a photo essay on the planes at this particular airport or the particular portions of your luggage visible in the packed plane.

It’s enough to be on your way
It’s enough to cover ground

We’ll have iPods, so we can listen to JT sing as we cross the plains.

1. Don’t worry about the money.

Aviation is an expensive hobby. Unless you are somehow getting paid to do it (you teach flying, you fly for a commercial concern, you do aerial photography), you only fly when you have some disposable income. In that way it is like skiing, collecting art, playing golf or racing cars. There are a lot of factors involved in the decisions you make as you fly across a continent, and I keep cost near the bottom of the list.

That doesn’t mean I ignore it, but if I am looking at where to stop next I am not worrying about whether the gas is sixty cents more a gallon at the larger airport (where I might be more comfortable flying in at night: big airport, big lights). If I run the tanks dry sixty cents a gallon is a little over twenty dollars and if I feel safer landing at the bigger field I can’t worry about twenty dollars. I do look at the cost of things and if the FBO recommends two possible hotels I look at their prices and consider their features. Do I need a pool for $125 a night, or can I make do without one for $95 a night?

A friend of mine (who has flown across the country more times than I have) said that his interest in aviation introduced him to more cheap motels than he had ever stayed in before. It is a huge luxury to be able to fly in a little plane, and sometimes you balance that with some Motel 6 and Airport Inn nights.

In general, the people you are meeting are making minimum wage. If a crewmember at an FBO is especially helpful, tip him. Ten dollars is almost definitely more than he is making in an hour. Certainly work to keep a smile on your face, because you are the one climbing out of your own plane on a week-long vacation and he’s the one sweating in the sun to wave you into your parking place.

2. Pick a minimum on-the-ground time.

On the long trip that Bob and I took from Santa Monica up to the San Juan Islands (and back) we made one major miscalculation: on one of our stops we didn’t spend enough time out of the plane. That meant that on the next long leg it was if the leg were joined with the previous one and we had been in the plane for six hours continuously. Since we are both over forty it meant that we hobbled from the plane into the FBO on our next stop and we couldn’t stay on the ground long enough to recover.

We swore on the trip West that we wouldn’t make that same mistake again. We set a minimum-on-ground time of forty-five minutes. In general, the fastest you could get back in the air is probably fifteen minutes (pee while the truck is fueling the plane, pay, pre-flight and fire back up). I’ve done that (and faster when I didn’t need the fuel) on short trips. It is something to avoid on these longer trips.

3. Research where you are landing.

This past weekend I spoke to a pilot who had flown his Socata Trinidad across the country right after getting his certificate. He had his wife and daughter in the plane and hopped from one little field in North Carolina to another. When he was touching down on the second field it felt wrong. The plane was speeding up on the runway, even though he had cut the power. He put the power back in, and decided to go around. The trees were taller than he thought and he wound up shearing the wings from the plane and dropping it into a field. Everyone walked away.

He said the major lesson was: know where you are landing. He hadn’t checked “the little green book” and the runway had a significant slope to it. No one landed the direction he was trying to land. (I carry a little brown book. I carry the little green book, too, but the little brown book is easier to read.) Before I land I know the layout of the airport, I know the runways (lengths, widths, surfaces). I know which is the “calm wind” runway (where I am meant to land if there is no wind). I know the terrain around the airport as best I can. I try to learn what sort of airport it is by the businesses listed in my little directory, but that’s not always accurate.

Originally, Adam and I flew over a lot of unfamiliar airports so that we could check things out from directly above. I’ve done this a couple times if the runway was short (up at Oceano, for instance), but in general I found it didn’t gather the information I had hoped for. Planning the pattern entry, knowing the assigned runway, and being very up for the landing are the things that make the difference. We did tend to use a “sterile cockpit” rule, which meant that there was no talking about things unrelated to the landing and airport once we were within fifteen miles (about five minutes) of the airport.

4. Plan ahead, as much as you can.

In the morning, I would open my laptop and check Weathermeister. Drawing a line between our current location and our ultimate destination I would look at the latest radar weather maps and the projected weather along that course. I knew I wasn’t going to make it the whole way (usually), but it was good to get the long view. The radar shows precipitation, so if I needed to adjust our route that morning (toward a thinner part of the line, because as they dissipate there are holes in the line you can (carefully) fly through). On the computer I can easily get the names of the airports or navigation aids I want to add to the route.

At each stop during the day, I would check the weather again. And there’s weather (via XM satellites) in the plane, so we have updates that way. Mostly we’re watching for thunderstorms (which aviation weather reports refer to as “convective activity”). Cloud cover over the airports is no longer the issue is was before my instrument rating. I watch the wind speed at the various airports up ahead, because high crosswinds can make a landing trickier, and high winds over hills can mean a bumpy ride for your passengers.

In the morning I have also looked ahead to the first probably landing spot and checked the reviews of the various FBO’s on the field. I’ll look at a couple different airports of different sizes and see if there are any restaurants or spots that people have identified as “not to be missed.” I hate to miss those.

But, that sort of planning isn’t really that helpful. The truth is that in a little plane the distances from stop-to-stop are pretty small and the distance is greatly affected by the winds aloft, along with anything that forces a detour. Flying West we though we would fly from Springfield, Illinois directly to Manhattan, Kansas, but we had to detour way, way south around a line of thunder storms. That meant we stopped at Columbia, Missouri and let the storms drench the plane (and the winds push it against its tie down straps) on the ground, rather than take our chances in the sky.

On our next trip across I hope to have some additional help planning stops, figuring that there might be some points of interest that are of interest to the non-flying passengers.

5. Three strikes and you stay on the ground. Have your own rules.

General Aviation is a bunch of regulations from the government and then there are the rules that pilots make up for themselves. The government says you can’t plan a flight in VFR conditions without a half hour fuel reserve. That makes me nervous. I won’t do that. My rule is simpler: if the flight is more than twenty minutes, fill the tanks to full. Land after three hours, which means I’ve only burn three quarters of the fuel on board. With this rule I have only three times come even close to the dashed range ring on my moving map that represents the beginning of my reserve fuel.

Pilots tend to group those sort of rules into a set they call “personal minimums.” Friends of mine always used oxygen within ten miles of the airport, even at sea level, because it sharpened their thinking and improved their night vision. A friend of Adam’s won’t talk to anyone while he is doing a pre-flight inspection of the airplane because twice while he was talking to someone he missed things. I now have a no-Cheetos rule in the plane. Well, okay, that’s different.

The point is that before starting out on a long trip, you should have some rules that you set out and that you stay within. I was unwillingly to fly within twenty miles of precipitation if there were thunderstorms forecast. And, in fact, I stayed away from clouds in general on those days. Make some sound decisions ahead of time, and don’t stray outside the boundaries you set. Many, many pilots (and passengers) are dead because the pilot went against their gut, because they were convinced, “I’ll just push it this one time,” or “That looks clear enough through that pass.” It’s impossible to know if pushing the envelope that one time is going to work out and it is very tempting. Just remove the temptation, say ahead of time that it is a rule, not a guideline.

The three strikes rule isn’t one I follow, but I have heard it from a couple sources. You keep track as you start your day of things going wrong and if it hits three you don’t fly. Lost the key to the plane, that’s one. Forgot to leave the hotel room key at the front desk, that’s two. One of the tires is flat, that’s three. No flying for the day. I would have too difficult a time deciding if something was a strike or not, so that’s not a good rule for me, but feel free to use it yourself.

On the half hour fuel reserve: the FAA regulation does work. A friend was flying across the country and selecting his landing spot by the dashed line on his range ring. One leg, west bound, he made it to Goodland, Kansas (a field I have landed at myself). He didn’t see any planes in the pattern and figured it was just a quiet day. He announced on CTAF his arrival in the area and his various reporting points in the pattern. It was only as he got a little closer to the ground he saw the big white X’s on the runway and the trucks doing work. The airport was closed. He pressed the Nearest button on the G1000 and flew to Cheyenne, just twenty-four nautical miles away.

I hope if you fly across you’ll keep a blog of your adventures. I’m never going to get to do it often enough myself, and I would enjoy flying vicariously through some of you.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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