Once you learn how to fly the airplane you must learn how to navigate while flying the airplane in order to safely get your destination without becoming lost and if you're already a pilot skip this first paragraph. After all most of us would like to take off and land at a destination other than where we started right? Well that's exactly what a cross country flight is. A flight in which a takeoff is made from one airport and you fly to and land at an airport other than your destination, not literally across the country as in the United States. Flying from Atlanta, GA to Washington, D.C. is still a cross country even though you departed and landed on the east coast. For those of you who may into the more technical explanation here's an excerpt from the 2013 FAR found in part 61.1:
Cross-country time means—
(i) Except as provided in paragraphs (ii) through (vi) of this definition, time acquired during flight—
(A) Conducted by a person who holds a pilot certificate;
(B) Conducted in an aircraft;
(C) That includes a landing at a point other than the point of departure; and
(D) That involves the use of dead reckoning, pilotage, electronic navigation aids, radio aids, or other navigation systems to navigate to the landing point.
(ii) For the purpose of meeting the aeronautical experience requirements (except for a rotorcraft category rating), for a private pilot certificate (except for a powered parachute category rating), a commercial pilot certificate, or an instrument rating, or for the purpose of exercising recreational pilot privileges (except in a rotorcraft) under § 61.101 (c), time acquired during a flight—
(A) Conducted in an appropriate aircraft;
(B) That includes a point of landing that was at least a straight-line distance of more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure; and
(C) That involves the use of dead reckoning, pilotage, electronic navigation aids, radio aids, or other navigation systems to navigate to the landing point.
If you read all of that I'm almost positive my simple definition was more than enough. In my last post I wrote about my unofficial cross country trip to Llano, Texas and back to Killeen. That flight was unofficial because I had not yet reached that point in my course syllabus and it was suppose to just be two hours of flying at night. Why not kill two birds in one stone? All of the requirements were met so I was able to log that time in my log book which is really all that matters. However before you can just get in the airplane and go, unless you're using GPS, there are some areas that must be covered and I'll touch on my own personal experience with each area in the following paragraph.
As you read this I am now well into the official Cross Country phase of my flight training that has been laid out in the syllabus. Just in case you haven't been following along I attend Central Texas College a part 141 school located in Killeen, TX and it's a great program that provides it's student's structure. CTC's goal is to get you thinking like a professional pilot from day one and they do a great job of it. My first flight would be ILE-GYB-ACT-ILE in the daytime followed by ILE-T82-AUS-ILE the following night.
Professional pilots communicate with ATC every flight and now it would be my turn to join the conversations. I'd open my flight plan with San Angelo Radio, receive flight following from Gray Approach, handoff to the very busy Austin approach, again to Waco approach, Waco Tower, and eventually back to Gray Approach. It may sound daunting but proper preparation makes it a piece of cake. Luckily for me, unlike most student pilots who are just starting out, the radio doesn't intimidate me at all and hasn't from day one, so very little ground school was needed on ATC prior to my first day cross country flight. Liveatc.net has been a tremendous help in getting me up to speed with the terminology and just the sheer speed at which the controllers speak, and the value of listening in as a training aid can't be understated. If you’re a student pilot struggling with ATC find a nice class C airport such as KAUS on live ATC and just listen. I've also been communicating via FM radio in the military for the past 8 years and I'm told most military students make that transition with ease.
Planning the actual cross country takes a considerable amount of time the first you do it and it progressively gets easier with each flight. Even though some of our aircraft are GPS equipped, both of the Archer's I fly have GPS, they still teach us the fundamentals which I like. Pilots today seem to be losing the ability to perform the most basic task due to over-reliance on automation as the recent Asiana Flight 214 seems to point towards. In the event of a GPS failure they want us to be able to use, as quoted from the FAR, a combination of "dead reckoning, pilotage, electronic navigation aids, radio aids, or other navigation systems to navigate to the landing point".
You not only plan your route of flight to the destination but you must also calculate how much fuel you will need to reach each of your destinations as well. Regulations state that for day cross country flights you must have enough fuel to reach your destination and have a 30 minute reserve of fuel. At night time the regulation is the same except the reserve must be at least 45 minutes of fuel. Selecting checkpoints along your route that you can see from a few thousand feet AGL is a must also. It would do you absolutely no good to do all of that planning and still end up lost because you're checkpoints were unusable. I won't go into too much further detail but your sectional, plotter, and E6-B are the back bone of your planning as well as one often over looked person that isn’t yourself or your flight instructor.
Dialing 1-800-WX-BRIEF will, after a prompt or two, connect you with a briefer. Most briefers are really good and will give you a lot of information including; the current conditions along route of flight, forecast for route of flight; winds aloft at your cruising altitude; NOTAMs; and any other pertinent information pertaining to the areas your flight will be traversing. Out of all the things I just listed the one that can make or break your flight is the winds aloft. That's because you must use that information to calculate a wind correction angle that's either added or subtracted to the true heading you calculated using your plotter and E6-B.
If the information is accurate you should have no problem sticking to your planned route and reaching your checkpoints and destination. Downside is bad winds aloft can have you flying a heading of 180 for 100NM when you really should've been flying 170. Moving along with a groundspeed, also derived from winds aloft information, of 100kts you can see how getting lost would be a problem for the pilot. You expect to be at a certain place at a certain time but you just don't get there even though you planned it the best you could. Pilots reading this can probably relate to what I'm describing.
The last part of the process is calculating the aircrafts weight and balance for the aircraft to ensure you have a CG (center of gravity) that is within you're airplanes limits and to ensure that you will not exceed the airplane's maximum takeoff weight. Your aircraft's POH will continue most of the information you need in the weight and balance section of the manual. Once all things are verified you will be ready to get into the airplane and actually fly and navigate at the same time.
GW and MOM of our fleet
All of that and you haven't even preflighted the airplane yet. I told you it takes a bit of time but it really does get easier and it's not difficult at all. It just requires you to be tedious and through, but when you hit your check points exactly when you said you were and make it to your destination the hard work you put into it will pay off. The better the planning the better the flight.