“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:
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.
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.
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.