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Proficiency: High and dryProficiency: High and dry

Tips for desert flying

This planet may be mostly covered with water, but there are plenty of broad stretches of intensely arid landmasses scattered around the world, too. How do I know? I’ve flown over many of them.
Photography by Mike Fizer

Flying over the desert for hours and hours in a small aircraft is not for the squeamish, particularly in a light single-engine aircraft. That said, it is done safely by pilots every day. You just need to take a few simple precautions to make sure that your trip goes smoothly. Here are some tips to get you started with your planning.

In the desert, water is life. Yes, water. Carry a couple gallons of water on a desert trip. You’ll get dehydrated fast; there will be no easy place to find water if you have to land in an emergency, and you may need that water for days. While you are at it, add some powdered electrolyte solution (Emergen-C is one brand) to your emergency bag, as well as a couple of well-wrapped power protein bars for energy (nothing diet—you’ll need calories).

Keep yourself cool, keep your aircraft cool, keep your electronics cool. Consider bringing cooling solutions with you, whether the ice chest/fan air conditioning hack (hey, the ice is going to melt into water) or something a little more sophisticated. Watch your engine temperature, too, as the outside air temperature gets pretty hot. Consider that it is cooler at altitude, and think about flying high over the desert. The views are still astounding, and the safety margin is better.

Flying over the desert for hours and hours in a light aircraft is not for the squeamish, particularly in a light single-engine aircraft.Do you use personal electronic devices when you fly? Keep them cool, too. You haven’t lived until you try to navigate the restricted and prohibited airspace areas of the desert Southwest without your charts because your iPad shut down from overheating. (I travel with two now.)

Fill up with avgas and be conservative in your flight planning. Airports with fuel are few and far between in the desert. Consider planning your flight to follow above or alongside major highways, or even a minor one. Can’t quite do that where you’re headed? Go a little out of your way to at least cross a few roads, so that you’ve got multiple emergency landing areas where you might be closer to a cell tower, or a good Samaritan. If your straight-track route takes you over high terrain, see how long it might take to deviate around the highest of the mountains. Remember, a big bump sticking out of a wide plain is liable to have some squirrelly winds wreaking havoc with it (ergo those surreal rock sculptures in the desert). Avoid if at all possible, or pick an altitude for crossing at least 2,000 feet above the highest obstacle.

Desert storms happen. Be prepared. A sandstorm could reduce the visibility at lower altitudes and choke your engine to silence. Even a thunderstorm that is raining virga (rain that does not appear to reach the ground) can develop dangerous turbulence and visible microbursts that must be avoided.

Have an alternate. Maybe two. Yes, summertime weather over the desert tends toward consistently hot, windy, and dry. It’s a desert, after all. Except when it is monsoon season, which brings low, moist clouds and violent, sudden rainstorms. You may need to divert from your initial planned route, and with airports scarce, it is better to have a couple planned options ahead of time. It’s also a good idea to check your actual progress (groundspeed) against your planned progress and calculate a point of no return—after which the course is forward, rather than a turn back. With a virulent headwind, where that point lies on your course line may surprise you.

Desert flights are fantastic opportunities for taking in the vast expanses of sky and brilliant colors of sand, rock, and scrub that lie between the verdant grasses of the prairies and the mountains and coastlines that frame them.Have a backup battery for your phone and external GPS/ADS-B. In emergency situations, it’s critical that you have a battery backup for all your external devices. Your mobile phone battery may not make it through an emergency, especially if your LTE radio is straining to reach a distant cell tower. Your GPS/ADS-B unit is critical for noting your position. Without the ship’s power, it will need a boost. And, finally, always have fresh alkaline batteries in your handheld radio (you’ve got one of those, right?). That way you can communicate if your aircraft has an electrical failure, and also with any rescue aircraft looking for you if you go down. Some people are turning to portable solar panels as part of their emergency kits. They’ve come down in price and weight, and could offer recharging options in an emergency.

Carry emergency numbers and information. Always have emergency contact information with you. Have the phone numbers of a relative and your doctor, as well as a list of any medications you take. Speaking of which, you might want to stash some extra of those medications in your emergency kit.

Always carry enough clothing and blankets. The scorching heat in the morning and noon will change to bone-chilling cold once the sun goes down in the desert. A packable puffer jacket and a couple of mylar blankets should be mandatory in your emergency pack (right next to the double-wrapped energy bars, lumen stick, strobe light, and signal mirror). A small sleeping bag, a fire starter, and maybe a backpacking camp stove (not one that takes compressed gas fuel) might be good additions to that emergency pack.

Consider renting a satellite phone for long excursions. You may never need it, but the investment would be worth if you are in distress without any conventional cell tower signal. Think of it as that raft you rent every time you fly long legs over water with no sight of land.

Most desert trips in an airplane are fantastic opportunities for taking in the vast expanses of sky and brilliant colors of sand, rock, and scrub that lie between the verdant grasses of the prairies and the mountains and coastlines that frame them. You could be in Namibia, the Sahara, the south of Spain, or the southwestern corner of the North American continent. Airplanes are perfect for traversing these wide-open spaces, and you can do it safely with just a little time and forethought.

Amy Laboda is a National FAASTeam member, CFI, and freelance aviation writer.

Amy Laboda

Amy Laboda

Aviation freelance writer
Amy Laboda has been flying airplanes since she was 15 years old. She's taught flight students from East Coast to West, and currently serves as a National FAA FAAST Team member, providing Aviation Safety Seminars for FAA certified pilots in the U.S. and abroad. She was the Editor in Chief of Aviation for Women magazine for nearly 13 years before returning to her freelance writing and multimedia career.

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