By Alexander Sack
Remember, your first real cross country?
No, not that one.
Your first one on that perfect VFR day to a random, instructor approved, negotiated destination that was at least 50nm in a straight line from your point of departure doesn’t count. Not even close.
Your first real cross country was the one that you used to justify your ticket with. You know what I mean—you spent thousands of dollars (probably more, don’t worry, your secret is safe with me) to get your license and now you want to use it to take your friends and/or family on that “only a private pilot could possibly do this” day trip. That one.
My first one was to Mystic, Connecticut. Here’s how it all went down: My wife’s sister at the time had been going to Mystic every summer and absolutely loving it. The town is well-known for its rich, nautical heritage, quaint downtown shopping district, and of course the aquarium (yeah, yeah, and that pizza place, too). She has been selling it to my wife for several years now. So of course, one fateful summer, my wife asked me if we could do Mystic that year, too. The day’s loose itinerary would be for our 5-year old son to touch a baby shark, command a pirate ship, then grab a bite to eat before returning home.
Looking at Google Maps, it was a three-hour drive with traffic or a little over one hour flight to Groton-New London airport (GON). And, if we flew, I could take them down the Hudson Corridor for some sightseeing too. Eureka! I had a destination that was too far to practically drive as a day trip yet far enough to justify the use of my ticket and legendary crosscountry skills. She agreed.
Now that I had executive management approval, I immediately reserved one of our club’s airplanes and 91.103 subsequently kicked in: I got several dozens of weather briefings before and on our day of departure, planned the route and reviewed the airspace, memorized GON’s runway layout and taxi diagram, called the FBO in advance to reserve a car in order to know where to park on the ramp, how to get fuel, and most importantly, ensured the popcorn machine was still fully operational. Yet despite all of my preflight planning, I was still unprepared for this flight.
First mistake: When I reserved the airplane, it wasn’t the club’s Skyhawk or Skylane. It was the Diamond. But my wife was a bona fide expert in getting in and out of a high-wing Cessna, not a low-wing Diamond. And though she is not a big women by any stretch of the imagination, by the time I loaded her into the airplane and got her “comfortable,” I was pretty sure she was going to call the Teterboro FSDO office to file a formal complaint after we got back.
Takeaway: Always brief passengers on the exact type of airplane and its cabin layout before reserving it. Pay particular attention to passenger ingress and egress depending on wing type.
Second (related) mistake: Of course, I did the weight and balance for the flight! In fact, I overestimated my weight, her weight (don’t you dare say a word), my son’s weight, our day bags, and then added full fuel. I also double-checked that Garmin Pilot had the latest empty weight number from the airplane’s last weigh-in. The result: Well under max gross and the CG was pretty much in the center. Perfect. Unfortunately, when my wife discovered that the Diamond had a stick instead of a yoke, she made it crystal clear to me she now wanted to sit in the back.
Takeaway: Calculate several weight and balance sheets for different passenger seat configurations or agree upon seating arrangements before arriving at the airport.
Third mistake: After everyone was loaded, I did my standard “SAFETY” briefing, went through all of my checklists, and was ready to depart. At this point, my wife and son were having a conversation with each other in the back while I was focused on taxing. After my run up, I proudly announced on CTAF of my intentions, taxied onto the runway, and departed. Takeoff was butter smooth. Unfortunately, I could no longer hear my wife through the intercom. After spending a few minutes of playing Charades, we finally figured out my son had twisted her headset cable just enough to cause the contacts to get loose. In addition, my wife adjusted her mic too far from her mouth during taxi to the point where she could no longer break squelch causing further grief.
Takeaway: The “T” in “SAFETY” is not just about my passenger’s ability to talk but also mine. I should have verified before we took off that I could clearly communicate to all of my passengers and vice versa. Audio issues need to be handled on the ground not in the air. Now before every departure, I ask my passengers if they are ready to depart right before I actually take off. This is not just for their comfort level but also to address any audio issues while still on the ground.
Fourth mistake: After calling up Newark Tower and getting my clearance to do the Skyline Route at 1,500 feet, I was then able to negotiate Flight Following with LaGuardia. All went smooth, and I was pleased with my overall radio performance. Unfortunately, after I exited the Bravo, I stayed at 1,500 feet for the rest of the flight. To this day, I still don’t understand why I just didn’t climb to 3,000 feet (or higher) to give myself more gliding distance. It wasn’t illegal, and I didn’t bust any airspace, but it was poor ADM nevertheless.
Takeaway: Knowing airspace is not just knowing cloud and visibility requirements, but understanding what altitudes you are going to fly and why. Every VFR cross I plan now factors in gliding distance and makes heavy use of airports as waypoints. If I have to land because the oven quits or my bladder has reached TBO, I can.
Fifth mistake: After a fantastic, albeit tiring, day in Mystic, we returned the rental, paid our bill, and walked onto the ramp. I then loaded everyone up and started to do my preflight. This of course was a terrible idea. It was a hot summer day, and the tarmac made it more so. So while I was still preflighting, my wife and son were baking at 350 degrees while constantly letting me know that fact, which in turn caused me to rush. Not good.
Takeaway: Preflight the airplane before loading passengers. I even might call up Delivery to pick up my clearance first, or in the non-towered case, call up Approach and ask for a “Hold for Release” before finally loading my passengers. This ensures my two favorite cookies are always soft-baked.
Sixth mistake: When I was about about 20 miles from home base, I cancelled IFR. Soon after, I made a position report and started my VFR descent. Life was good. My wife of course was upset. Why? Well, our son had just woken up from his in-flight nap and was a little hungry. As a result, she had taken out some dry snacks for him to eat and wanted some warning before our descent so she could clean-up the cabin and prepare both herself and our son for landing.
Takeaway: I should always brief my passengers when we are close to the destination. It gives them time to both mentally and physically prepare for landing.
In the end, we had an incredible trip, and my wife was very impressed we were able to do Mystic in a day. Mission accomplished. However, my first real crosscountry exposed a lot of weaknesses of mine as a pilot—none of which had to do with the physical act of flying!
What my first real crosscountry trip exposed to me was my lack of what I like to call my “C-Skills”—the “C” in PIC that is. My primary training, as well as my instrument and even my commercial, were all mainly focused on the “Pilot” side of PIC. I am beginning to understand that I now have to use these newly acquired “P-Skills” to develop my “Command” ones. So, the next time you plan a cross country trip, think of both sides of the PIC equation to ensure both you and your passengers have a great flight.