Monday, October 08, 2012

Crossing the US in a Light Aircraft


Take a look at an aviation chart for most any part of the US and you’ll see something amazing: A multitude of small airports in small towns offering a refreshing antidote to the crowded skies, huge runways, and bustling taxiways found at big city airports. A dream of many a pilot is to load up a airplane, top off the tanks, and head out across the country: Not just a long cross-country flight, but a long cross-country flight. I’ve been fortunate to fly across the US in a small plane on several occasions and have some thoughts on planning and experiencing a multi-leg, multi-day trip.

Lay Out a Course

On a quiet, cozy night, curl up with your iPad or a selection of paper charts and start researching, planning, and imagining. Dozens of factors will eventually narrow the route you choose and there are many ways to solve this aviation puzzle, but for now just answer this basic question: Are you trying to get some place as efficiently as possible (perhaps for a wedding or family gathering), or do you want to explore and have fun, or do you desire a combination of business and pleasure?

Great circle route for a recent trip from Columbus, OH to Oakland, CA

When efficient travel is the goal, lay out a direct, great circle route to from point A to point B. ForeFlight is a great tool and will provide a rough estimate of the total time and fuel burn for the entire trip (minus time and fuel to climb as well as time required for intermediate stops). Weather specifics come later, but overlaying NEXRAD radar on the VFR chart will provide a good idea of where the weather might be ... uncooperative.

Same route, with NEXRAD overlay

For complicated reasons, a stop in Illinois was required on my last trip across the US and a direct route from Columbus would have been to Vermilion Regional Airport in Danville (KDNV). I learned to fly in De Kalb (KDKB), a small town about 110 miles north of Danville, and have some close friends who live there. So why not wander north, catch up over lunch, and avoid having to rent a car or hire a taxi to get to and from the airport? Choosing a destination like this would be impractical, time-consuming, and expensive when traveling by airliner, but this diversion was easily accomplished in a small plane. Spontaneity is one of many advantages of traveling by light aircraft.

Drag-n-Drop diversion

After a stop in Illinois, the name of the game was to hightail it back to Oakland. We agreed that two or three hour legs would be the most comfortable approach for bio-breaks. Using ForeFlight’s pop-up ruler made it easy to estimate that we could cover about 350 miles in a reasonable amount of time with an acceptable fuel reserve. So we came up with intermediate stops in Omaha, Cheyenne, Ogden, and Reno.

Measuring legs for bio-breaks

ForeFlight makes it easy to store flight planning for each flight, but you can do the same sort of thing using DUAT, DUATS, FltPlan or most any other flight briefing service. If you plan to file an IFR flight plan and are good at sticking to a schedule, FltPlan lets you schedule the legs several days in advance and automatically file each flight plan. The user interface is a bit convoluted, but you get used to it after a while.

 Planning Meets the Real World

The best laid plans may need to change for weather or a host of other factors. If you’re going to have fun, maintain a low level of risk, and maximize your fun quotient you’ll need to be flexible and patient. If you have external pressures you may make choices that you’ll regret. Unexpected delays can crop up so take your time and handle them. Bring a good book or use the down-time to explore and learn more about the place where you find yourself delayed.

Our first hiccup resulted from arriving too late to connect with the maintenance folks. Our goal was to prepare the night before so we could depart by 9am or 10am the next morning and make it to Cheyenne for an overnight. By the time we made it to the shop they were closed. It didn’t matter that we’d been up since 3:45AM PDT in order to catch the earliest flight out of SFO. Oh well, we headed out and had a nice dinner.


The next day started with breakfast, surprisingly good local espresso, and some early morning sightseeing on the main street before arriving at the maintenance shop to survey of all the equipment that needed to be loaded. Armed with a weight and balance spreadsheet on the iPad, we still faced an interesting puzzle. It took time to weigh each item and decide how to arrange everything so that the CG would be within limits. Our final weight would limit the amount of fuel we could take, so the aux tanks stayed empty.

An annual inspection had been completed and a shake-down flight around the pattern immediately uncovered a G1000 gremlin. It was just after 11:30am when we decided to head to another airport to visit the avionics shop. We took on fuel before departing since a top-off at the Big City airport was going to cost more. The avionics tech eventually uncovered the problem, but the delay would prevent us from making Cheyenne the first overnight stop. When life hands you lemonade, make margaritas! Should have packed one more change of clothes, though.

More Curveballs

Flying over Illinois and Iowa in clear skies the next day provided ample opportunity to regale my companion with bits of trivia I learned growing up here. We flew over Ronald Regan’s hometown as well as the college from which he graduated with a C+ average (not a fan, sorry). Ulysses S. Grant’s home was just north of our course. A friend had attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City. We did the best to relieve the monotony of the flatlands.

Arriving at Council Bluffs Memorial Airport (KCBF) we discovered the only Jet-A available contained PRIST, something not allowed for the DA42. Oh, bother! A few phone calls and we were headed to nearby Eppley Field (KOMA) where the fine folks at Signature topped off the main tanks with unadulterated Jet-A. Thinking ahead, we called the FBO in Cheyenne and found their Jet-A was premixed with PRIST, too. Several calls later, we decided that our next stop would be need to be Denver Centennial where we would once again visit the nice folks at Signature. Our oxygen bottle needed refilling and they were able to arrange it for a reasonable cost, even on a Saturday.

Weather or Not

The atmosphere had been reasonably nice to us so far, but then convective SIGMETs popped up to the north and south of our course. The route west toward Rifle looked reasonable if we stayed VFR under the clouds and avoided the scattered areas of precipitation. We needed to be able to turn around or divert if things got uncomfortable or icing conditions were encountered and the diversion airports would need to have Jet-A, negative PRIST. After some more phone calls we were armed with a reasonable plan and departed with three viable alternatives.

Crossing the Rockies, the DA42’s performance was confidence inspiring. Climbing to 14,500 feet, 900 feet/minute climb rates above 10,000 feet were easy to achieve. The DA42’s long wings easily soaked up the turbulence we encountered (the wing loading on this plane is much better than the DA40 or DA20). Add in the G1000’s synthetic vision and XM weather capabilities and you have a comfortable, reliable airplane. I would have avoided this leg of the trip in a non-turbocharged single. In addition to XM weather, we had a Stratus ADS-B/GPS unit on board. We discovered there is little ADS-B coverage over the Rockies and were very glad that we had both ADS-B and XM weather on board. We were fortunate that the weather didn’t delay us or provide too much unwanted adventure. We were prepared to delay our flight or even park the plane and fly back commercially. It goes without saying that get-there-itis and other external pressures need to be managed very carefully on a long trip.

Parting Thoughts

The best flights are the ones we share with others: Friends and family will enhance your traveling pleasure whether you take them on board or visit them along the way. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The best ornament of any flying adventure is the friends you are fortunate enough to include.”


1 comment:

Colin Summers said...

Excellent work navigating across. My own adventures in our little DA40 are all on this page: http://www.flyingsummers.com/crossing-the-country/

Crossing the Rockies is really the biggest part of the adventure each year. I am always impressed. I am always aware of the number of little planes who have gone down in those areas, underestimating or misunderstanding conditions.