Things to Keep in Mind Before Your Next Private Flight
by Crista Worthy
To a non-pilot who doesn’t have a phobia of flying, hopping into a general aviation airplane might seem like the most carefree thing in the world. Just hop in, turn the plane on and get going, right? For the pilot, however, much thought and planning has gone into the upcoming flight, even before arriving at the airport.
- Where Are You Going?
You have a destination in mind, but can you get there? At home, I can pull up Skyvector, click the sectional I think will cover my target destination and find the closest airports. Then, I usually pull up Airnav. You probably have your own favorite flight-planning app.
But here’s what you’re looking for: Is the runway long enough? Does the airport have Instrument Approach Procedures (IAPs) if needed? Can you get fuel? Will you need transportation? How about a rental car? If several airports look promising, check fuel prices and the roads; this may help you decide which airport you’d prefer. You might also need a fuel stop en route.
- Your Route
Once you’ve chosen your destination airport, look your route on the sectional via Airnav or your app. Scroll out to get the big picture and zoom in for details.
Depending on your aircraft’s ability to climb as well as weather conditions, you may need to go around tall mountains, especially if winds aloft exceed 25 knots. Depending on your aircraft’s ability to climb, you may need to go around tall mountains rather than over them. You may also set limits based on the weather, going around mountains if winds aloft exceed 25 knots, for example. You may want to fly around large bodies of water like the Great Lakes or avoid Class B airspace. Read the FAA’s notice on Special Use Airspace for determining altitudes included in any MOAs, Restricted Areas, and other Special Use Airspace. Certain areas, like the Washington D.C. Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), require you to complete an FAA briefing before entry. After completing the briefing, it’s a good idea to print the confirmation of completion that’s sent afterward print your receipt and carry it on the plane.
- Equip Your Aircraft
Depending on your route and destination, you may need to equip your aircraft. If you anticipate snow, remove wheel pants, so snow and slush won’t accumulate in them. When flying over remote areas, a satellite tracker is smart, as is survival gear appropriate for the season. If you’re flying over water, you may need PFDs or even an inflatable raft. The best PFDs are those you can wear while flying and that inflate only outside the aircraft.
- Weight & Balance
Making laminated cards with your plane’s weight and balance data can come in handy. Kids grow, so make sure your weights for them are up-to-date.
Enlist your friends’ help if you are bringing non-family members; they will need to weigh their bags, and you may need to give them a limit.
We were once ramp-checked at Sedona, Arizona when an FAA inspector observed my husband loading many large bags into our plane, along with our three kids. I immediately pulled out my weight and balance data. It was winter, and our baggage was mostly pillows, parkas and other lightweight materials. I let the inspector see my calcs and pick up the bags. We were plenty under gross, and he thanked us and wished us a good trip.
The prudent pilot keeps an eye on the weather days in advance. Check that your charts and/or databases are current. If you’ll be IFR, have your approach plates organized and brief them. NOTAM and TFR check, plus a thorough weather briefing, are mandatory.
Understanding the terrain you plan to fly over may affect your inquiries. We once made a one-hour flight from Santa Monica to Lone Pine, just east of the Sierra Nevada, in February. The weather was severe clear, so off we went. We had a 10-knot tailwind as we approached the mountains, but we had failed to check the difference in altimeter settings on both sides of the mountains, and we hadn’t studied the winds right at the ridgeline. As we approached the mountains (which are at about 14,000 feet MSL right there and drop nearly straight down on the lee side) our tailwind suddenly increased to 69 knots.
We should have immediately turned back. Instead, we hit a rotor on the lee side and extreme turbulence. My digital VSI at one point read 8,200 fpm down, and at another point, 5,600 fpm up. Eventually we escaped and landed at Lone Pine at the base of the mountains, where it was calm. This is a good example of a time when local conditions were all-important. We missed them and nearly didn’t make it.
Use IMSAFE (Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotion) to self-assess and don’t hesitate to cancel if you’re not up to the trip. Remember that diphenhydramine (such as Benadryl) lingers in your system, and the FAA mandates you wait 60 hours after using it before you fly.
There’s a lot to check on before you make your next trip. It’s part of your responsibility as PIC. But knowing you’ve done your job means you can make that flight with confidence. Your passengers may not know how much prep you’ve done. They just think it’s awesome that you’re a pilot!