Cross-Country Flight Planning for VFR Private Pilots

Everything taught in flight school prepares pilots for the real reason most of us fly: to get from point A to point B.

As a student, everything about your cross-country flights is meticulously planned and checked. You know exactly what route you’re taking, you have checkpoints every 10 to 15 nautical miles, and you know exactly how long each leg will take (and how much fuel you’ll burn). So the student pilot assumes this is how pilots fly cross-country.

Unfortunately, many private pilots seem to quickly forget what’s involved in planning a cross-country flight after their check ride.

The reasons are many. There’s no CFI watching over their backs, there are time pressures to take off more quickly, there are passengers along for the ride who don’t want to wait, and there are new technologies like GPS that make navigating a no-brainer.

But just a pilot should never skip a checklist; every private pilot embarking on a VFR cross-country flight should adhere to minimum flight planning standards. Here’s a refresher:
A thorough weather briefing – Hopefully few pilots are neglecting the most important part of flight planning – weather. With all the weather data available, pilots have few excuses for flying into IMC, icing, or convective activity.

Weight and balance – If you’re used to flying solo or with one passenger in a four-place aircraft, you probably haven’t done a weight and balance calculation in a while.
But anytime you take a passenger or baggage, make it a habit, especially if you rent different aircraft.
There are two ways to find an aircraft’s weight and balance limits: Calculate them before your flight, or let the NTSB do it for you later.

A flight plan with winds aloft – Even if flying direct with a VFR GPS, it’s essential to calculate your actual time en route with the latest winds aloft.
Even if you’re not flying far enough to risk running out of fuel, you’ll worry your friends on the ground if you’re 45 minutes late due to a nasty headwind.

A backup navigation plan – No navigation unit is infallible, and however unlikely, you must plan for the possibility of navigation failure.

At the very least you should know how to get where you’re going via VOR radials and intersections. Better yet, remember you’re flying by VISUAL flight rules.
Pick out landmarks on your sectional along your route and near your destination airport.

Communications planning – You probably know the frequencies at your departure and arrival airports, but what if you need help en route? Even if not using flight following or entering controlled airspace, I never take off without a clearly written list of the following frequencies:

  • Departure airport ATIS, ground, and tower or CTAF
  • Nearest departure control to departure airport
  • At least two ATIS stations en route
  • Nearest approach control to arrival airport
  • Arrival airport ATIS, ground, and tower or CTAF
  • Alternate airport ATIS, ground, and tower or CTAF
  • Of course you can always find these frequencies as you need them on your sectional, but having them laid out saves precious time in the cockpit.
    When flying I would always rather be over prepared then to need something and not have it. This is especially true when flying cross-country. Remember to follow at least these cross-country flight planning standards and have happy and safe travels!

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