March 25, 2013
By Ian J. Twombly
Three days and 27 hours of flying from AOPA’s headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, to San Jose, California, for AOPA Expo last week taught us a lot about long cross-country trips. Between unusual radio conversation, local procedures, mountain flying, and weather, the entire trip was a great learning experience.
Many pilots, especially those who are newly certificated, have expressed a sense of doubt as to whether they could make such a trip. The secret to any cross-country is to break it down into manageable chunks. Just as student pilots break down 50-mile trips with 10-mile checkpoints, a pilot without longer cross-country experience can break down any length into 100-, 200-, or even 500-mile segments. By doing so, the overall length of the trip becomes irrelevant.
The second key to a long trip in an airplane such as the 2008 Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Piper Archer is flexibility. It’s great to make detailed plans for the entire journey, but don’t be married to the plan. Again, take each segment as it comes. By doing this, you’ll always be mentally prepared to divert if it becomes necessary, which is quite common going coast to coast.
Beginning pilots always wonder how to plan such a long trip. A good place to begin is by defining the length of the legs. The Archer does 3.5 hours comfortably. The next step is to determine the general direction of travel. Since we made this trip in early November in an Archer, flying direct wasn’t the best idea. Colorado, Utah, and Nevada are probably beautiful this time of year, but cold temperatures mean ice would have been likely. Instead, we decided to go south towards New Mexico and Arizona. That assured that my copilot Chris Delisio and I could continue on without delay, even in the clouds.
For the majority of the planning, we used AOPA’s Real Time Flight Planner (RTFP). First I planned the entire route and dragged the line through the Southwest. Then I found airports every 3.5 hours and planned and saved individual legs. This way I had access to them during fuel stops, where I could call for a briefing and file the flight plan. We had a full compliment of charts, but planning this entire trip via IFR low altitude en route charts would have taken hours. With RTFP it was pretty quick.
When it came time to leave Frederick we were already an hour late. In the scheme of things that wasn’t much, but it probably meant having to stop short of our planned destination for that night. The first leg took us through West Virginia, where they had already gotten hammered with snow. We took on fuel in Clark County, Indiana, a great stop with an old Ford Crown Victoria for a courtesy car. Delisio said it felt like warp speed when you pressed the accelerator.
After Clark County we soldiered on to Springfield, Missouri, a Class C airport with a very friendly FBO. We finished the day in Altus, Oklahoma. Interestingly, only Clark County was a planned stop. The others were alternates that we had to use because of unforecast winds. Because we had planned to push the range of the airplane, any headwind meant having to stop short, which we almost always did. That’s why flexibility is key.
Because of clear skies and unlimited visibility, we decided to go VFR for both legs the next day. Going IFR would have meant flying at least 10,000 feet, thanks to some very high minimum en route altitudes surrounding mountains. But VFR allowed us to go no higher than 8,500 feet, allowing for some spectacular views.
After a night in Phoenix, it was off to San Jose on the final day. Without wind, this day was scheduled to take five hours. In reality, it took 7.5 hours. You can see why flexibility is important. We filed IFR out of Phoenix to make the airspace transition easy, and despite MEAs of only 6,000 to 8,000 feet, we were given 10,000 feet. The winds were howling up there, which just meant we had a longer time to enjoy the scenery.
The final day took us through Van Nuys for fuel, and then on to San Jose. And it was on that final day that we were tested the most. Upon entering the Banning Pass near Palm Springs we were in a mountain wave. This had become common over the past two days, but this particular wave was strong enough that we were unable to maintain altitude. Going VFR that’s no big deal, but we were IFR. The controller had apparently heard all this before, however, as he was happy to let us descend as needed.
Van Nuys was our first instrument approach of the trip, and fittingly it was to Runway 16R. After a splash of fuel, we were on our way to San Jose, hopefully to beat some weather. Again we were given 10,000 feet, where the wind was 40 knots on the nose. Although we finally got lower around Paso Robles, the penalty was being IMC. At night. In heavy rain. It continued like this as we were given three routing changes and the datalink weather started to pop red. Near Salinas the controller advised us of extreme precipitation two miles ahead. The datalink showed nothing, not even light rain. A vector got us around the worst stuff and we were cleared to San Jose.
Finally, as we got close, the wind shifted and we had to wait for the airport to get the opposite ILS online. As we continued in a makeshift hold outside the outer marker, two airlines made the approach. By this point we were in a pocket of more stable air and we could see city lights below. Finally, we were cleared for the approach and landed without incident.
Looking back, I’m not sure I would have made the same decision to continue on. But I felt a certain amount of get-there-itis and the datalink made me believe we could easily circumnavigate the worst of the rain. But this was after 26 hours of flying in three days, the last two of which involved turbulence. Sure the airplane has a fantastic autopilot, GPS, a glass primary flight display, stormscope, and datalink weather. But it also had a tired pilot.
I think it was a good lesson that our minds become fatigued well before our bodies do. And since flying is a mental game, it’s important to realize when that’s happening. I also wonder how much I allowed the technology to be an enabler. In other words, if I didn’t have it, would I have continued? The weather briefer said it was supposed to be light rain with no chance for it intensifying. I was current and comfortable in IMC. So, ultimately, yes I probably would have made the flight. The avionics were a good tool to help keep us safe, which I think is the only thing they should be.
Next week: How much? What can I do?
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