ADF in airplane
6 min read

“Flying is boring,” said no pilot. Ever.

Although most will agree that on a long VFR cross country flight, there are stretches of time when your mind can wander. Other than doing the usual drill during those lulls, here are some suggestions to put slack time to good use. In classic David Letterman style, here are the top 10 activities for a cross country flight:

ADF in airplane

That ADF isn’t the most accurate tool for navigation, but it’s not worthless. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

10. Play with the ADF. Who says an ADF is useless nowadays? If you’re blessed with older avionics, chances are good that you have an ADF in your panel. While the antiquated Automatic Direction Finder is intended to provide navigation based on the location of an AM radio station, it also allows you to tune into the AM broadcast band. Tuning between 540 and 1610 KHz, you’ll find some interesting programs on the air, and by watching the ADF needle and confirming the station on your chart, you’ll learn more about how to use your ADF. Once, while flying over a rural part of Kansas, I listened to a quaint AM station talking about the local obituaries, and announcing who’d graduated from high school. It was as if I’d been time-warped into the 1940s – it was fun to listen.

9. Submit a PIREP (PIlot REPort of actual weather conditions enroute). Regardless of weather conditions, even if it’s severe clear and smooth air, reach out to Flight Service and give them a PIREP. You’ll become familiar with the format and exchange, and it’ll be useful information for the next pilot who comes along. A quick search on the web will reveal how to properly submit a PIREP; however if you’re enroute and have forgotten the standard dialog, just ask Flight Service to help you through the process and they’ll be glad to do so.

8. Create an efficient scan of critical instruments. While it’s rare nowadays to experience mechanical issues during flight, it’s still good practice to habitually scan important instruments such as oil pressure and temperature, battery (alternator performance), vacuum, fuel quantity, EGT (Exhaust Gas Temperature) and even CHT (Cylinder Head Temperature) if you have it. If you’ve not already developed an optimal scan pattern, then here’s your opportunity to create one – this might be a left to right, top to bottom scan, or another pattern depending on your panel layout. Then, use your scan regularly… someday it might give you a warning of impending failure and you’ll be glad you caught it early.

7. Play the Alphabet Game. On long family vacation road trips, we’ve all played the game of calling out letters, in order from A to Z, seen on road signs or license plates. If you’re flying with your kids, then play the Alphabet Game with tail number suffixes heard on the radio. It’s a way for young pilots-to-be to learn the Phonetic Alphabet, and it encourages them to listen what’s going on with ARTCC. Caution: this game can be fast-paced in Canada and Mexico!

6. Refresh your VOR skills. VORs (VHF Omnidirectional Radios) are slowly being phased out, but are still valid means of determining your location should alternatives be unavailable. If you have a NAV radio, tune to the nearest VOR and confirm the CDI (Course Deviation Indicator) indication agrees with other means of navigation. If you’ve got two CDI instruments, play with triangulation and predict when both CDI needles will swing through center.

Garmin Pilot nearest

Monitor those nearest airports as you fly.

5. Monitor NRST. Most aviation GPS units have a “NRST” button (or similar), allowing you to instantly see a list of the nearest airports. If you’re rusty with its use, it’s good to play with this functionality. Typically, the list of airports is in order of closest to farthest, and the list will automatically update as you travel. Watching this list will give you increased situational awareness, and it’s also fun to visually identify the airports you see on the list as you go by them.

4. If my engine quit right now… where would I land? Monitoring NRST is good, but more often on a cross country, the nearest airport is out of gliding distance. Even if you’re not on a cross country, develop the habit of looking at regular intervals for an emergency landing spot. If it’s a road, is it clear of power lines? Are the trees alongside the road too close for comfort? How well traveled is the road? If it’s farm land, are there furrows to be considered? Or, if it’s rocky, raw desert, which surface is going to give me the best chances of walking away after the landing? If my aircraft flipped over during landing, how would I escape? When your co-pilot least expects it, ask him or her, “If the engine quit now, where would you land?” Such simulations are bound to become opportunities to learn, and may spark an occasional debate – but it’s time well spent.

3. So, my engine did quit… what speed would I immediately establish? Vglide is the speed which produces the most efficient (farthermost) glide if you were to lose power. During cruise, pull out the POH and confirm the Vglide speed. Then, commit it to memory. On most aircraft, the best glide speed is roughly half way between Vx (best angle of climb) and Vy (best rate of climb). Best glide speed increases with weight, and the published speed is likely computed for a max gross weight configuration. Is your best glide speed a knot or two less since you’re under gross? Know this number; it might save your life in an emergency.

Morning fog

Look out the window once in a while – you might find something nice.

2. Turn off the GPS. Most of us are spoiled nowadays by having our precise position depicted on the chart on our tablet or moving map. This means we tend to get rusty with our pilotage skills. If you’re running a GPS, then turn off or momentarily disable it. Look outside for visual cues – mountain tops, highways, power lines, railroad tracks – and match them to your chart. Leave the GPS off for a while, then make it a game to pinpoint your precise location and turn the GPS back on to see how close you were. If your GPS ever fails, then by occasionally having taken this challenge, you’ll feel more comfortable navigating solely by the chart. Just think, we have all this fantastic technology to thank for forgetting some of the basics!

And, drum roll please … here’s the #1 activity for a cross country:

1. Enjoy the flight. Consider that in the history of mankind, only in a small fraction of our timeline have we been afforded the luxury of air travel. During this short golden age of powered flight, only a select few of us have the aptitude, ability and budget to be a PIC. In fact, based on 2015 FAA Annual Statistics, American pilots represent approximately two-tenths of one percent of the U.S. population. This puts us pilots in an elite group of human beings. Our privilege to fly at will could be threatened in the future by technological changes, personal budget, and even in an extreme case, political climate – so pause for a moment and consider how fortunate we are to be pilots. We’ve got it good.

Steve Thompson
11 replies
  1. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I still occasionally listen to AM radio on the ADF, but I also have an automotive XM radio plugged into my audio panel which I usually listen to on long cross countries. My subscription is “mostly music” for both my car and my airplane. At 172 speeds, it helps to avoid boredom and sooths, just like it does on a long highway trip.

    Another boredom-avoidance trick is if there’s an autopilot, shut it off and hand-fly, trying to nail the altitude and navigation exactly, not within PTS/ACS standards but exactly. Most pilots, if they try harder, can fly much better than Otto/George and certainly better than the certification standards require.

  2. Tammy
    Tammy says:

    Articles and comments like this always surprise me. I guess I’m lucky and live in a great area where you can see mountain goats or elk hanging out on top of a hill side. Geological features such as what appears to be a crater, a small coulee that turns into a huge canyon, or rock that looks like popcorn are all things that can be seen from the air not the ground. The craters in this area just look like foothills from the ground. Look out the window, you may be surprised at what you find.

  3. Tom Curran
    Tom Curran says:

    Scan for traffic; Practice correlating/calibrating your eyeballs with TIS-B ‘targets’ (if equipped); Monitor 121.5…..

    • Seán-Thomas Bickerton
      Seán-Thomas Bickerton says:

      I’ve monitored 121.5 on long X/C flights in unfamiliar territory. What I found was airline pilots who evidently key up the wrong mike and make their “Welcome aboard ******* Flight ###…” on the emergency frequency. Oops.

  4. Michael Cowan
    Michael Cowan says:


    Getting bored while flying isn’t new! Nor is NODDING OFF WHILE FLYING NEW!!

    In the mid-1960s we in the USMC were using up a lot of CH-46 choppers in Vietnam. Enough so that we’d often go to the Boeing Vertol Plant in Philadelphia Pa. to pick up and ferry new 46s to our MCAF in Santa Ana California.

    Of course, since we were limited to daytime VFR only, had to refuel every 200-300 miles, and tried to only refuel where our JP-4 was around $.10 per gallon versus about $.50 a gallon at private FBOS, our route was pretty limited.

    We’d typically head down the East Coast and at some point in time turn West. Then we always had to go through NAS Dallas and on to Midland Texas. At Midland we’d wait for favorable winds so we could fly to El Paso with the fuel onboard. With high heat and winds from the West, BIGGS AFB wasn’t reachable!

    So now we’re flying across Texas, Arizona, etc. all the way to Santa Ana Ca. heading almost due West at about 110-125Knt SOG looking into the sun with in (a bubbled) cockpit temperatures of close to or often over 100*F!

    More than once sitting in the left seat I’ve woken up and noticed the H.A.C. in the right seat was also asleep!!!! HEY IT HAPPENED!!!

  5. Wilfredo Vargas
    Wilfredo Vargas says:

    My opinion is based on the last statement. Why aviation is only reserved for the rich who can afford the very high cost of flying schools, aircraft rentals, books and the like? Can anybody can fly in United States without sacrifice? Why not sign an affordable flying education act, the similar way as we can afford to drive a car? I know it will sound crazy, but many people keep from learning to fly for many reasons. Many of them quit because they have to decide to eat or to fly. Only two tenths of people are pilots in United States as the article said, this has to be changed!!! We are in need of more support for the new “talent” who one day will replace the fellow pilots we have right now. Any suggestions?

    • Michael Cowan
      Michael Cowan says:

      WOW!! Wilfredo, YOU REALLY NAILED THE TRUTH ABOUT FLYING!! Even in the 1960’s rental of a small and basic chopper, wet, was well over $100 per hour! I’d certainly never have been able to afford any license, much less added ratings if the USMC hadn’t paid for them!!

      And from what I hear, many/most commercial pilots today have to start off making less than $30,000 a year to fly “commuter flights” before they can move up. When you figure all the pre & post-flight time into their job, I’d guess they’re flying us around at below minimum wage!

      BTW: Every time I board a “commuter” flight I remember the pilots up front probably aren’t making as much a year as the taxi driver at the airport!!?? YES, SITTING IN THE BACK, THAT FACT IS WORRISOME!!!

  6. Gary Sackman
    Gary Sackman says:

    Great article on keeping active on a long flight. I would recommend two of Dick’s videos, “Staying Ahead of the Airplane” and “Practical Airmanship”. They offer a more extensive list of tasks to accomplish in order to occupy your time before touchdown. Both are worth the time and effort to improve your skills in the air. You won’t have time to fall asleep. They are available at Sporty’s.

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