Cross Country Flights
There are lots of different reasons to fly, and everybody has their favorite, but for me, there’s nothing I enjoy more than the cross-country flight. When you are a student pilot, cross-country flights are required in order to get your license. I have seen different strategies from different instructors, some better than others. Recently, I talked to a young man who had made three solo cross-country flights from Beaufort, each one up the coast to Myrtle Beach and back. While that flight certainly checks the boxes, there’s probably not a whole lot learned from the first trip, and certainly nothing for each subsequent trip.
Cross-country flights are meant to stretch the pilot’s skills, maybe even create a little anxiety, because overcoming obstacles is what creates confidence and develops good pilot-in-command skills. When I was learning to fly, I was lucky to have an instructor who made sure my cross-country flights, both dual and solo, were challenging enough to make me think, and yet not put insurmountable obstacles in front of me. One dual cross-country always included a stop at a real grass field, which allowed me to do an actual soft-field landing and takeoff, instead of just a simulated one. This is an important experience that every pilot should try at least once. I learned that I made my best landings on a grass field, where I could actually hear and feel the blades of grass on my tires and so know exactly where my landing flare was in relation to the runway. That kind of revelation is impossible to do during a simulated soft-field landing on asphalt or concrete. And while flying up and down the coastline is certainly picturesque, it’s also kind of hard to get lost. Keep all the water on one side of the plane or the other and you’re pretty much guaranteed you’ll find your target- where’s the challenge in that?
Using GPS is another way to destroy the value of a cross-country flight. As a student pilot, you will learn how to fly by both dead reckoning and pilotage. In this day and age, you will probably very seldom, if ever, use dead reckoning again after your private check-ride. Pilotage, on the other hand, is simply comparing what you see out your window to what you are looking at on your chart. That’s an essential skill, because no matter how sophisticated your avionics, you should always know where you are solely by visual reference. And besides, isn’t that why most of us learn to fly? To look out the window and enjoy the sights from on high? When you and your instructor are planning your next cross-country flight, build a little challenge into your trip. If you have a gigantic prominent landmark such as an ocean or mountain range, fly away from it. The payoff is tremendous! Don’t be afraid to get lost – use your temporary situational disorientation as a learning experience. There’s no rush like that “aha!” moment in the air.
Another way to get extra value from your cross-country is to actually fly someplace where something is going on. Some areas, for example, have fly-in events at different airports on a regular basis. Here in our state, we have a breakfast every two weeks, and sometimes more often. Events like that are a great destination for a dual cross-country. First of all, there’s breakfast! Even if the meals are nothing more than scrambled eggs and link sausage, it’s still breakfast! And flying into a non-towered airport with a lot of other airplanes in the pattern, where you really have to listen sharply to the radio and keep your head on a swivel, is a really valuable learning experience. And on top of all that, you get to meet a lot of general aviation pilots and see a lot of different airplanes. General aviation is an exclusive club and flying to an event serves as your general admission. And did I mention breakfast?
For your solo cross-country, it’s always nice to find an airport with a restaurant on the field where you can sit and relax before your return trip. Unfortunately, airport restaurants are becoming more and more rare. Hickory, NC has a nice restaurant on the field and Grand Strand has several eateries nearby and a generous crew car policy. A nice day trip from our area is to Jekyll Island with a very short walk to the Grand Hotel, especially for Sunday brunch. Or search the web for a new adventure – some good resources include Fly2Lunch and Fun Places To Fly. If you have a favorite destination, please share it with us. Use your solo cross-country as a scouting trip for a special destination for your first passenger.
In short, I don’t think there’s anything more fun to do in an airplane than to fly someplace I’ve never been before. I love the planning, I love looking at the charts, and I love exploring new areas. But most importantly, I really enjoy that I learn something on every cross-country flight I take. Every cross-country experience is different, and each one is valuable. Enjoy and learn!