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Instructor Tips

Teaching Cross-Country Flight Planning

Federal aviation regulation 91.103, titled "Preflight Action," states, in part, that "each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight."

For a student pilot just starting to learn cross-country flight planning, this can sound like quite a daunting order. After all, how can any pilot become familiar with all of the information concerning a flight? The truth is, no pilot can know everything about a particular flight.

What the regulations basically want is for a pilot to determine, in advance, whether the proposed flight is reasonable, and whether it can be completed safely within a given set of parameters. To satisfy this requirement, we teach our students how to carefully plan their flights.

Unfortunately, since this process involves quite a bit of detail work, sometimes students get bogged down in the details and end up missing the big picture. This is when we need to step in to keep things in perspective. We need to teach not only how to plan but also the thinking that goes on behind the planning. Some of the subjects you should discuss with your students are addressed below.

Initial Planning

Preliminary flight planning starts with a departure, a destination, a route, and an altitude. The first thing that students need to do is to select a route. Many students will simply plan a direct course between the departure and destination. Although a direct route is the shortest distance between two points and the most expeditious, sometimes a direct course is not the best choice. Here is where you can step in and discuss other factors that your students need to consider, such as airspace, terrain, navigation, and emergencies.

Have them check along the proposed route for any special-use air-space that they may have to receive permission to enter to circumnavigate. Modify the route as needed. With regard to terrain, the proposed route should provide a minimum of 2,000 feet of terrain clearance but preferably much more. It should also avoid high terrain to the degree possible. In fact, many students don't realize the disadvantages of planning a route over inhospitable terrain such as mountains.

For example, a route over mountains opens the door to potential turbulence and clouds, and it greatly reduces the number of precautionary landing sites. Routes that avoid high terrain and follow roads offer more options if there should be a problem.

Another common issue is that students don't realize that sometimes the route will have to be modified depending on the type of navigation used. For example, if the flight is being conducted via pilotage and dead reckoning, then a route with adequate landmarks will have to be selected. On the other hand, if the flight is being conducted through the use of radio navigation such as VORs, then a route with VORs along it will need to be found. If the flight utilizes more than one kind of navigation method, then a suitable route that satisfies both requirements will have to be selected.

As with routes, there are many factors to consider when selecting cruise altitudes as well. Students need to think about more than just the hemispheric rule and adequate terrain clearance. For instance, if there are clouds along the route (even fair weather cumulus), they need to ask themselves where the proposed cruise altitude would place the aircraft - above the tops, in the clouds, or below the bases? Likewise, is there any haze, smoke, or blowing dust that needs to be considered? If so, will the aircraft be in the relatively clear air above the obscuring phenomenon?

Turbulence is another important factor to consider when selecting a cruise altitude. Basically there are two common types to deal with - mechanical turbulence caused by strong winds blowing over uneven terrain and thermal turbulence caused by rising air currents from a hot surface below. In both cases, a higher altitude will usually result in a smoother ride.

Thus, a good altitude will comply with the hemispheric rule, provide a minimum of 2,000 feet of terrain clearance and adequate radio navigation reception, minimize turbulence, maximize visibility, and provide a reasonable glide distance to a suitable landing area should the powerplant fail. When considering all of these factors together, a cruise altitude that provides at least 5,000 feet of terrain clearance is preferable.

Unfamiliar Airports

One of the most exciting aspects of a cross-country flight is that the student gets to venture beyond his own backyard and explore outside the confines of his local training area. Sooner or later this entails a landing at an unfamiliar airport.

It is quite a thrill to land at an unfamiliar airport, but sometimes it can be a little confusing as well. Fortunately, this is an area where prior planning can make a huge difference. Using resources such as the airport facility directory and one of the many other commercially available airport guides such as AOPA's Airport Directory, have your student review the expected arrival and departure routes based on his general arrival or departure direction. On the descent from cruise altitude for the airport, remember that another difference from his home airport will be the airport field elevation and resulting traffic pattern altitude.

Review the runway lengths available (perhaps a short-field landing will be required), and check the prevailing wind direction to get an idea of which will be the active runway. From this information, the direction of the traffic pattern can be anticipated. Some students even like to draw a mini airport diagram with runway numbers, traffic pattern direction, and altitude right on their navigation logs for use in the aircraft.

If the airport has a complex surface layout, surface movements could be a potential problem. You need to brief your student on surface movement procedures. And he can study the airport diagram and taxiway layout to determine the most likely taxi route from the active runway to the general aviation ramp or FBO. If he is ever in doubt about taxi instructions, he should know to ask for clarification and how to get progressive taxi instructions. With surface movements, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Finally, students need to remember that all airports have one thing in common, and that is a big patch of painted asphalt called a runway. By utilizing the common traffic pattern, and making some minor adjustments, a good landing can be made on any runway. The key to remember about unfamiliar airports is that, although the surroundings may look different, the techniques are still the same.

Planning For Contingencies

No lesson on flight planning would be complete without a discussion of contingencies. Although it is impossible to predict every contingency, some of the more common ones and their scenarios need to be discussed with your student.

For example, if he becomes lost, he should remember the five Cs. These are climb, conserve, communicate, confess, and comply. The student should climb to obtain a better perspective of the terrain while looking for any familiar landmarks. Climbing also extends the range of radio communications. Once at a safe altitude, he should conserve fuel by reducing the power. Then the student should communicate with any air traffic control facility or flight service station and confess his situation. Finally, he should comply with all instructions. If fuel is low, he should consider a precautionary landing.

Other reasons to make precautionary landings include lowering ceilings and/or reduced visibilities, an aircraft system problem, or smoke or fire. It is much safer to make a precautionary landing (even off airport) than to scud run when the weather starts closing in or fight to keep control in a cockpit filled with smoke.

You should also discuss the elements of the search-and-rescue system and what actions are expected of a pilot on the ground. In addition, you can take the opportunity to discuss what to do until the search-and-rescue forces arrive on scene.

Students should know about loiter speeds and holding as well. Brief them on how to set up the aircraft for holding, including airspeed, power setting, and configuration. For example, if there are delays en route or at the destination airport (such as a temporary runway closure to remove an aircraft that landed gear-up), and landing clearance cannot be issued promptly, they can slow down the aircraft and hold until the problem is corrected. Or they can proceed to an alternate airport.

The Navigation Log

Once your student has completed his navigation log, you should review it carefully to catch any gross navigational errors. Along with the usual arithmetic errors, some of the more common errors students make when flight planning include taking reciprocal courses when measuring courses and misreading the mileage scale on the plotter when measuring the mileage between checkpoints. Look for headings that are 180 degrees off and distances that seem too long or too short. Be sure to check the wind correction angles as well. Many students will inadvertently subtract when they should have added, and vice versa. Finally, you should check the entire plan for reasonableness. For example, check the total mileage for the flight and compare it to the estimated time en route and fuel required. All three estimates should agree and make sense.

Post Flight

After a cross-country flight, it is useful to analyze the completed navigation log and note the differences between the estimated and actual fuel flows, power settings, airspeeds, and time to climb. This way, students can see the difference between the pilot's operating handbook performance numbers and the actual numbers. If you're working with an older trainer, most likely the actual numbers won't be as good as the book numbers. These differences can sometimes be attributed to tired engines, hangar rash, misrigging, or missing wheel pants.

Next, you and your student can tweak the performance data to develop very accurate performance numbers for that particular trainer. This new data can be used for future flight planning with that particular aircraft. For your students, this is a great confidence-building technique and one of the best ways for them to really get to know their aircraft.


A good flight plan accomplishes many goals. In the preliminary stage, it acts as a go/no-go indicator, telling the pilot whether the proposed flight is even possible under the given set of conditions.

In addition to fulfilling a regulatory requirement, it is also a tool for safety. It is a dress rehearsal for the proposed flight. It allows the student to make an in-flight evaluation of the flight parameters, and it allows a determination to be made of whether the flight is on schedule, ahead of schedule, or behind schedule. It exposes trends before they become problems. And it allows a pilot to get to know the aircraft, to learn about its capabilities and performance.

When teaching flight planning, remember to give your students the benefit of your experience, and make sure that they understand the reasons behind the flight planning decisions. The true benefit of the hard work of flight planning is the satisfaction and comfort your students get when a flight goes smoothly, safely, and according to plan. And that makes for a happy ending to any flight.

By Christopher L. Parker

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