Although planning a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) cross-country flight can seem like a daunting task, choosing destinations along the way is easy—for the most part. Much of the time, pilots choose to fly to the airports with the best restaurants and the best service.
There are some other things to consider, though. Under VFR, the weather must be clear enough for you to see air traffic around you. And as a student, you'll likely have certain lesson requirements to accomplish. You may need to fly at least 150 nautical miles in one stretch. Or your instructor might want you to practice in different types of airspace environments, and he might send you to an uncontrolled airfield first and then to a busier towered airport later. Make sure the lesson objectives are being met, and then you can perhaps squeeze in some practice time during the flight.
You should also keep in mind the services offered at your destinations. Make sure fuel is available when you will need it. And once you have your next destination in mind, get a weather briefing and NOTAMs before you continue to ensure you won't run into bad weather or a closed runway.
Choose Your Route
Choose a route that will allow you to fly at a safe optimum altitude for your aircraft while still allowing you to easily identify checkpoints on the ground. If you're going to navigate with the help of instruments, you can choose routes that are covered by VOR ground stations. (VOR is a radio-based navigation system.)
If you fly a small airplane, you might not be able to climb high enough to fly over a mountain range and your only option might be to go around it. Be aware of terrain, military operations areas, and temporary flight restrictions as you plan your route. And make use of the VFR routes that go in and out of busy airports—that's what they're there for.
Choose checkpoints that are 5-10 nautical miles apart and are easy to identify. Lakes, rivers, towns, and other airports are usually easy to spot. Over very flat land with less-than-ideal checkpoints, you might need to fly an indirect route to make sure you don't get lost. It's important to stay aware of your position at all times, so don't be afraid to plan a deviation from the straight-line path in order to find your way.
Once you choose your route, plot it out on a VFR sectional map.
Get a Weather Briefing
You can get weather information by contacting a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Flight Service station (FSS). Calling 1-800-WX-BRIEF (1-800-992-7433) will put you in touch with an air traffic control (ATC) specialist who is certified by the FAA as a pilot weather briefer. This is especially helpful if you need assistance translating weather codes or if you have any weather-related questions.
You might also use the Leidos Pilot Web Portal at 1800wxbrief.com to access free weather information. This service replaced the Direct User Access Terminal System (DUATS) that was shuttered by the FAA in May 2018 in a cost-cutting move.
Finally, pilots can use one of a number of other widely available sources for weather information, so long as it can be considered reliable. That generally means sticking with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, airport weather observation reports, and pilot reports.
Choose an Altitude and Cruise Profile
You'll want to fly high enough to maintain the required clearance from terrain and obstacles, of course, but you'll want to consider aircraft performance and the ability to find checkpoints from the air as well.
The performance charts in the pilot operating handbook or pilot information manual for your aircraft can help you determine the altitude and cruise power setting to use to get the best range or best endurance.
Compute Airspeed, Time, and Distance
You'll need to calculate the speed, distance, and time for each leg of the flight, as well as the fuel consumption. It's easiest to follow a navigation log form for this. You can do it by hand, with the help of a flight computer, or with an iPad application like ForeFlight, although your instructor may require you to be able to do all of the computations without any electronic assistance. Utilizing a navigation log can help you organize the data in a way that makes sense.
Familiarize Yourself With the Airport
If you've ever been stuck at a busy airport without an airport diagram, then you know that it's imperative to keep your situational awareness even after you land. If you're unfamiliar with them, large airports can be challenging. Taxi instructions can be lengthy, and you'll want to know what you're doing when you're surrounded by Boeing 737s and MD-80s.
Besides getting familiar with the airport layout, you should know which fixed-base operator (provider of airport services) to use and its hours of operation. You'll want to make sure fuel and other services are available if and when you need them. And you'll probably need a restroom.
Double-Check Your Equipment
If you're reliant on certain navigational instruments, ensure they are in working order. Check that the GPS database is up-to-date and operational and that the FAA's VOR test facility check has been done and that the VOR is reliable.
Make sure you are equipped with survival gear, appropriate clothing for the weather, flashlights, charts, and water. And don't forget to charge your iPad.
Get an Updated Briefing
For most people, it takes a few hours to get everything prepared for a cross-country flight. Weather can change quickly and airports can close unexpectedly, so be sure to call the FSS for an abbreviated briefing. If the winds have changed, you may want to make a few adjustments to your speed and time calculations before you depart.
File a Flight Plan
After you get your updated weather briefing, you'll want to file a flight plan with the FSS or through the Leidos Pilot Web Portal. Doing so adds a layer of safety; if you don't show up to close the flight plan and you can't otherwise be found at your final destination, search and rescue will be alerted. That means you'll need to remember to close your flight plan when you arrive safely!
Be Prepared for the Unexpected
A flight plan makes cross-country flying a breeze. But as everyone knows, sometimes things don't go as planned. Be prepared mentally to adjust your plans as necessary.
If the winds are stronger than predicted, you might need to adjust your calculations en route and even update the flight service specialist with a new estimated time of arrival. If your VOR fails, you might need to rely more heavily on your map reading skills. And if the weather deteriorates, you may need to divert to a different airport.
If you plan for the unexpected, you'll be ready for anything.