Beyond the $100 Hamburger
Flying Vacation Preparedness
by James Williams
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation
The snow has long since melted. You’ve done a
flight review, and, if you’re instrument-rated,
you’ve done your Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC).
Your airplane is up-to-date and all those nagging
maintenance issues are solved. So what now?
Well, you could fly two towns over and stop at
your favorite shake shop for that $100 hamburger,
or maybe you’re feeling a bit more ambitious. Perhaps
you’ve scheduled a long weekend or a few days off
work or even a family vacation. One of the great
things about being a pilot is that, when things
work out, you can grab your flight bag, head out
to the airport, and a few hours later are several
states away. When you have a few days, the list
of possible destinations expands tremendously. And
there are always those places you’ve been meaning
to visit that are only a few hours away by air.
Even for those aircraft with a more relaxed pace,
a day’s worth of flying can take you quite a distance.
However, whatever the length of your trip, it is
in your best interest to become familiar with your
proposed flight path, so you can make some simple
decisions before starting out. In this way you simplify
your choices and allow yourself to make intelligent
decisions, if the need arises.
When you consider these trips, you also must
consider more complex issues than when you head
out to the airport for your $100 hamburger. Now
you’re looking at a trip involving fuel stops; a
flight plan (IFR or VFR); alternate, unfamiliar
areas; a possible change of climate or terrain;
unfamiliar airspace; and possibly even more factors.
So clearly this is no longer a “check the ATIS (Automatic
Terminal Information System) and go” affair. There
are many decisions to make.
Let’s consider two different types of trips.
The first is a short trip with less rigorous requirements.
The second is a longer, more intricate, trip that
will require more attention to detail. The first
flight is from Montgomery County Airpark (GAI) in
Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Sandusky, Ohio, (SKY).
The second flight is from Tucson, Arizona, (TUS)
to Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC). Each of these flights
has different challenges and different potential
passengers. Just one quick comment: As it says on
those old demonstration charts you used in ground
school, this article is NOT FOR NAVIGATIONAL PURPOSES.
Even if you are planning to fly exactly these routes,
you need to do your own planning and make decisions
that suit your own flying style, comfort level,
and aircraft capability.
Scale of Planning
The first choice we have to make is the length
of our trip. This will determine our scale of planning.
A hop to the next state requires less planning than
a true cross country excursion. My personal preference
on long trips to completely unfamiliar airports,
or ones I rarely visit, is to use Instrument Flight
Rules (IFR). This is especially important in the
Washington, DC, area to avoid any issues with the
Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), but more
on that later. In any case going IFR allows me to
not worry about airspace clearances and restricted
areas along the way. Although you should make an
effort to be familiar with the areas you are traveling
through, going IFR ensures you won’t be denied entry
into any Class B airspace along the way.
In deciding to go beyond the $100 hamburger flight,
we have to plan for fuel stops and possibly overnight
stops. In running longer flights you have to deal
with operating the aircraft near its range limits
and setting realistic reserves. This is where research
and planning is important because knowing your route
of flight will dictate how much reserve you need
to carry. For example, doing most of my training
in Florida, the need to carry a large reserve was
pretty minimal for most flights. Along the east
and west coasts of Florida there seem to be airports
everywhere. The corridor between Tampa and Orlando
also has no shortage of available stopping points.
But traveling directly from the Fort Myers/Naples
region to the Fort Lauderdale/Miami region could
be daunting for pilots unaccustomed to being out
of sight of hospitable landing sites.
By deciding the scale of the trip we want to
undertake, we can start to consider what destinations
lie within our range. The kind of passengers we
plan to have aboard will also affect the scale of
the trip. A trip of about three or four hours with
a stop in the middle for a family vacation would
allow for manageable legs for small children and
would not stretch the range of the aircraft. If
we are carrying young children or people less comfortable
with flying, we may want to plan a shorter trip
with more stops. If our intended passengers are
adults with no qualms about flight in general aviation
(GA) aircraft then we don’t have to be as concerned.
We could select a two day trip which would require
a closer to maximum range approach, and fuel management
and planning become more important.
Now that we have an approximate range and a stop
strategy in mind we can start to look for possible
destinations. Usually I have a destination in mind
before I start planning, but some of the best trips
can be ones where you don’t have a preconceived
destination in mind. Take a map and measure out
a piece of string, stick, or something to the mileage
scale, and place one end at your departure airport.
This will allow you to quickly figure out what destinations
lay within the reach for your adventure. A personal
favorite of mine is Sandusky, Ohio. Living in the
Washington, DC, area, Sandusky is well within reach
at less than three hours flying time for most aircraft
in most conditions. Sandusky is home to Cedar Point,
in my opinion one of the best amusement parks in
the world. The park is geared toward roller coaster
enthusiasts, so if that is your kind of park, you
will not be disappointed. This makes it a good weekend
vacation spot for many people.
Now that we have a destination, the hard work
starts. We are departing from Montgomery County
Airpark (GAI) just northwest of Washington, DC,
in Maryland. For the most part, this is a pretty
simple flight. There are mountains that need to
be crossed, but they are relatively small. Our biggest
challenge will be airspace. Our path of travel will
take us from the Washington, DC, ADIZ through the
Pittsburgh and Cleveland Class B areas. Also along
our way is the Prohibited Area known as P-40, which
expands from a 5 to 10 mile radius when the president
is there. Keeping informed and giving it a wide
berth is advised. There is also a restricted area
that sits on top of P-40, so attempting to over
fly P-40 to avoid it is ill-advised. Checking
Notices To Airmen (NOTAMs) for this area is
critical, so make sure you get your money’s worth
out of your briefing. This is definitely a briefing
I would want to do by phone, not computer, and if
you are unsure about anything ask the briefer.
The other major airspace restrictions are Temporary
Flight Restrictions (TFR). TFRs restrict the airspace
around and over events, VIP movements, and other
sensitive things. Two examples include the TFR around
Kennedy Space Center during space shuttle launches
and the TFRs over major events like the Super Bowl.
These TFRs are usually announced ahead of time and
Flight Service should be able to let you know. In
the case of VIP movements, these TFRs can be moving
restrictions which is a good reason to be in touch
with air traffic control (ATC).
If you are flying in the DC area, become very
familiar with all the security procedures involved
while doing your preflight planning. This will lessen
potential problems once you are in the air. You
will need to be in contact with ATC, have an assigned
transponder code, and file a flight plan (at least
a DC ADIZ flight plan) to depart the ADIZ, so you
might as well use the rest of the benefit of IFR
handling and go IFR. If IFR isn’t an option, you
must at least file a flight plan and request flight
following. This will improve your chances of not
having your day ruined by a Class B airspace violation
or worse by a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot politely,
but firmly, recommending you land immediately so
you can have a long discussion with nice people
from various local and Federal law enforcement agencies.
Also be very aware of your location within the ADIZ.
Another way to ruin your day is to change your transponder
code while still within the ADIZ’s boundaries. These
kinds of incidents almost always end up in enforcement
actions and no one wants that. The best solution
is to stay informed and in touch with ATC. It might
not solve all possible problems, but it will help
Now that we have a quick overview of what lies
between us and our destination, it’s time to figure
out precisely where our flight path is. One of the
quickest ways to do this is to go to the Direct
User Access Terminal System (DUATS). This is an
FAA funded program which allows pilots to get weather
briefings and other information online. It also
allows flight planning and filing of flight plans
over the Internet. There are two DUATS providers.
The first is <www.duat.com>;
the second is <www.duats.com>.
These sites sound similar, but are run by two different
companies. Duat.com offers a more graphical interface
with greater complexity. Duats.com offers a simpler
more text-based system. Both have their advantages
and it’s really a matter of personal preference
which one you use. For this article I used duat.com.
DUATS can generate a flight planner based on a number
of different methods of navigation (VOR to VOR,
Airways, and RNAV Direct). As a pilot who learned
how to fly instruments using VORs (Very high frequency
Omni-directional Ranges) and NDBs (Non-Directional
Beacons), I usually prefer to follow the airways.
This gives you protected airspace and guarantees
you obstacle clearance as long as you comply with
the relevant altitude restrictions. So after punching
in a few details about the aircraft and selecting
the type of route, DUATS generates a flight planner
for our flight. This is what the flight route will
look like: GAI LUCKE V8 BSV V40 DJB V6 SKY. DUATS
calculates 301 nautical miles, two hours 33 minutes
en-route, and 25.8 gallons of fuel burned. Of course,
these numbers are based on many assumptions about
aircraft performance and current weather (most notably
no wind for this particular time and fuel burn).
But this gives us a starting point. In light or
even moderate head winds this is probably a one
leg trip, unless other factors dictate a stop. So
now that we have a basic plan and fuel strategy,
let’s get down to the planning.
We need to look a little closer at those charts
we scanned earlier. I would recommend using both
VFR and IFR charts, since both are needed to get
the full picture. First, let’s look at our route.
GAI LUCKE V8 BSV V40 DJB V6 SKY. That’s the short
version. In reality we’re going to go direct to
Westminster VOR (EMI) for radar identification.
From there it’s still possible to proceed to LUCKE,
but it’s likely we’ll get vectors on course. Our
IFR flight plan is composed of checkpoints at Navaids
or airports (three letter identifiers, e.g., MRB,
although anyone using GPS will precede U.S. airports
with a K, e.g., KGAI), intersections (five letter
identifiers, e.g., LUCKE), and airways (identified
by a letter and number, e.g., V103, in this case
they are V or Victor Airways since they are below
18,000 feet; above 18,000 feet they are call Jet
routes and J’s are used instead of V’s). Our expanded
plan would be GAI EMI LUCKE V8 MRB V8/V213 ELGEE
GRV V8/V92/V214 CHOKE GALLS OBEID AHTIY AIR V8/V75/V103
ATWOO V8/V75 BSV V40/V75 JOSEF KEATN RITZS SAROW
DJB V6/V30/V126 SKY.
With our route selected, we can start looking
for alternate and emergency landing sites. Obviously,
in the case of something like a fire or engine failure,
we might not have much choice where to land, but
in the majority of emergencies we have some time
and latitude to decide where to stop. So having
some familiarity with what is along the route of
travel is a good thing. You really don’t want to
be rapidly scanning the Airport/Facility Directory
(AFD) or, worse yet, blindly diving toward a random
airport. So it’s best to take a few minutes in advance
to look into what airports and what services are
available at those airports in terms of approaches,
maintenance, fuel, lodging, rental cars, etc. Although
FAA Aviation News does not endorse any company or
product, another good source is the Web site <www.airnav.com>.
Air Nav lets you see what services are available
and shows reviews of fixed base operators (FBO)
and other services on the airport. Taking 30 minutes
or so to look into alternatives and some airports
along the way could make the difference between
a pleasant diversion and a nightmare stopover.
It is also a good idea to call ahead to
destination and alternate airports to insure that
services are available. Some FBOs operate seasonally
or change hours during low seasons, so it’s wise
to call and be sure at least minimal services are
available. In the case of our example I would nominate:
Greater Cumberland Regional (CBE), Morgantown (MGW),
and Akron Canton Regional (CAK) airports as potential
stopping points. Burke Lakefront (BKL) and Mansfield
Lahm Regional (MFD) would make good alternate choices.
Why did I choose these as stopping points and alternates?
All have Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) and four
of the five are towered. I have always preferred
towered airports. If you don’t, just pick another
one, there are a host of options. As was discussed
in a previous FAA Aviation News issue, there are
good reasons for picking larger airports. (See “A
Tale of Two Diverts” by Michael Lenz, in the January/February
2007 issue on the Internet at <JanFeb2007.pdf>
page 11.) The point is to look around and pick airports
that suit your needs and preferences, and familiarize
yourself with some of the things you’re planning
to fly over.
So far we’ve only discussed IFR planning, let’s
take a minute to look at Visual Flight Rules (VFR)
considerations. My major concern would be airspace,
airspace, airspace. There so many things to trip
over along this route that you really should be
on your toes. As mentioned earlier, you must receive
a transponder code and be in communication with
ATC within the ADIZ. This means contacting ATC before
takeoff. If you need a refresher on this airspace,
you can take a short online course from the FAA
Safety Team (FAASTeam) about Navigating the DC ADIZ,
TFRs, and Special Use Airspace at <http://faasafety.gov/gslac/ALC/course_catalog.aspx?categoryId=11>.
As part of your preflight planning, you should ask
about departure procedures at your FBO to make sure
to give yourself every possible advantage. You may
also contact the National Capital Regional Coordination
Center (NCRCC) at (703) 563-3221
with questions about the DC ADIZ; again, preparation
is key here. Make sure you have a good idea what
you’re doing before takeoff and, when in doubt,
ask. Ask before you take off and put your certificates
in jeopardy. The current NOTAMs outline the procedures
for operating in the ADIZ.
Assuming you’ve done what you need to do get
out of the ADIZ, let’s look at some basic checkpoints.
With the airspace restrictions around Washington,
DC, VORs would make good initial checkpoints. VORs
allow you to minimize navigation errors in this
critical area. The path from the Fredrick (FDK)
VOR to the Martinsburg (MRB) VOR would allow you
to cleanly exit DC and then resume your own navigation
knowing you were well clear. After MRB you could
follow the same route as the IFR flight planner.
In reviewing the VFR charts, there doesn’t seem
to be a compelling reason to deviate too far. This
path allows you to avoid Pittsburgh’s Class B airspace
to the north. Further along you may chose a more
southerly course to avoid Cleveland’s Class B, although
the more northerly route does provide a higher airport
concentration along the route. Either route would
allow for VOR navigation.
Weight and Balance
A quick word on weight and balance might be warranted
here. Not about how to calculate it, since any private
pilot or beyond will be able to tell you, but about
why we need to consider it. For many pilots the
long trip with bags and passengers is something
out of the ordinary. Many pilots spend time doing
training, or going on short jaunts, or just simple
pleasure flights. In training we tend to have very
similar weight and balance every flight, and every
flight we take off with no problem with plenty of
runways to spare, and no control problems to deal
with. We get used to maybe 10 pounds of flight bag
in the back seat and nothing in the baggage compartment.
Now we have an entirely different situation.
You probably have maybe two or three passengers,
baggage, and whatever else is needed (perhaps some
spare oil). So now we’ve got to be concerned about
gross weight and center of gravity (CG) issues.
That’s before we start thinking about fuel loads.
For longer trips we want to carry as much fuel as
possible, but now we have to sit down and calculate
how much we can take. We also need to consider our
carrying needs. Four people and bags might not be
possible in some GA aircraft, no matter what fuel
load. So you need to know what you can take with
you and what kind of fuel adjustments can be made
without compromising safety. These factors will
be especially important in our second example where
density altitude becomes an even bigger factor and
there is less performance to be had. Remember just
because you can get it off the ground and maybe,
just maybe, get it up to altitude outside of either
CG or beyond max gross weight, it doesn’t mean you’re
home free. It’s usually when you least expect it
and are least prepared that bad things happen. Knowingly
exceeding the aircraft’s capabilities is just asking
I won’t discuss detailed flight and fuel planning
more than I already have, but a word on fuel reserves
is warranted. In most cases the flight of 300 or
so miles should be easily made with plenty of reserve.
But remember, the more fuel you have means more
options in case you need to deviate. Keep in mind
that if you feel like the winds are stronger than
predicted or you get delayed, you can always stop
to refuel. Better be an hour late with lots of gas,
than not make it at all. One trick is to figure
out a ground speed at which you will start to cut
into your reserve. This “Do Not Accept Speed” will
give you a predetermined metric for making a decision.
While this is not a hard and fast process, it gives
you a clear decision point that says if my groundspeed
falls below this point for more than a few minutes
I need to start thinking about stopping for fuel.
This concept is used in long range flights where
options are limited and fuel margins are tight,
which brings us to the next proposed trip.
Planning Trip Two
For a different perspective, let’s consider a
flight from Tucson International in Tucson, Arizona,
(TUS) to Jackson Hole in Jackson, Wyoming (JAC).
The Tucson to Jackson Hole flight poses an entirely
different set of challenges. The theme of this flight
could be called the National Park survey. The course
of this trip passes over or near Grand Canyon National
Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Tetons National
Park, and, of course, Yellowstone National Park.
These are some of the most scenic and rugged areas
in the country. The 755 mile flight demands at least
one stop for most GA aircraft. In light of the difficult
terrain and lower availability of bail out airports,
two stops might be a wiser strategy. While airspace
is a consideration as always, one of your biggest
challenges will be mountainous terrain. With that
challenge comes high field elevations and density
altitudes. This may also play a significant part
in your fuel and load planning as it could place
serious restrictions on where or when you could
land. It would also restrict how much you can carry
in terms of people, baggage, and fuel.
Another issue we face on this trip is for supplemental
oxygen. Much of the Victor Airway route to Jackson
Hole has Minimum En-route Altitudes (MEAs) of more
than 12,500 feet above mean sea level (MSL). Title
14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) section
91.211 states: (a) “General. No person may operate
a civil aircraft of U.S. registry.
(1) At cabin pressure altitudes above 12,500
feet (MSL) up to and including 14,000 feet (MSL)
unless the required minimum flight crew is provided
with and uses supplemental oxygen for that part
of the flight at those altitudes that is of more
than 30 minutes duration;”
With even the lowest available IFR altitudes
at 14,000 feet MSL, we know that supplemental oxygen
is going to be a factor if we want to fly IFR. This
also means we need to think about performance. These
altitudes may exceed your aircraft’s service ceiling.
In fact they probably do. According to Cessna, the
service ceiling of a brand new 172 is 13,500 feet
MSL. While you might be able to get the aircraft
up there, it might not be able to perform properly
in the event that emergency maneuvers are required.
One of the other major players in the rental/single
owner market, the Piper Cherokee/Warrior/Cadet,
has a ceiling of 11,000 feet MSL in its newest model
the Warrior III. I have heard reports from some
other pilots of climbing Warriors to 14,000 feet,
but personally I’ve found the Warrior struggles
beyond 10,000 feet. My point is that, while you
might be able to get the aircraft up to these altitudes,
you would find yourself very performance limited
and possibly unable to hold altitude.
Considering these factors, a VFR flight seems
to be the best option. Although this places weather
restrictions on the flight, it is probably the only
way to get the flight done under the service ceiling
of small GA aircraft. This is not to say that the
flight can’t be done IFR by a number of different
aircraft, but in our mainstay Sky hawk/Warrior it
would be difficult. This means you need to very
carefully calculate the kind of aircraft performance
the manufacturer says you can expect. I would round
down from there to give yourself an extra safety
margin. It’s always better to have a little more
performance than you need as opposed to a little
less (as in just clearing the top of a mountain
versus just failing to do so).
As mentioned previously, density altitude is
going to be a big consideration on this trip. A
brief scan of the sectionals for the general route
show that north of Phoenix, Arizona, the ground
rapidly becomes a series of tan and brown patches
proceeding to dark brown and more reddish hues.
This is a nice way of saying on a trip like this
you are probably going to have to be very careful
in calculating your density altitude, because its
effects could put you in a situation where you may
have to delay or even reschedule your trip. With
landing fields at 4,000, 5,000, or 6,000 plus feet
above sea level a reasonably warm day, much less
a hot one could make it impossible to take off safely.
You might be able to get in, but you won’t be able
to get out until things cool off, so keep that in
mind. For a more complete discussion on density
altitude and its effects, see Doug Gilliss’ article,
“Into Thin Air” in our March/April 2007 issue at
Another thing to consider is survival gear. In
looking at the general path of travel, you’ll probably
realize there are long stretches where there just
isn’t much around. This makes carrying survival
gear a really good idea. If an emergency occurs
and you’re forced to put the aircraft down off the
airport, that’s just the start of your problems.
Even if you ace that landing you could be miles
away from the nearest help. This means you need
to be prepared to spend some time on your own. There
are places where even if rescuers know exactly where
you land, it might take a while for help to reach
you. You need to consider bringing along supplies
for all occupants.
With sections of the route covering both high
and low deserts, in addition to some of the most
rugged terrain in the country, there are many differing
survival concerns. The low desert is characterized
by extreme heat and lack of shade or any resources.
The high desert is a dangerous place also. The days
are hot, but in many cases don’t seem nearly as
hot due to lower humidity and the fact that your
sweat is evaporating before you know it’s there.
This leads to dehydration so water is critical.
Nights can be cold. This temperature swing can be
a problem if you are not prepared. More recommendations
and information about survival planning can be found
in our January/February 2007 issue (available at
the article deals mainly with winter flying, but
many of the points apply and resources highlighted
in the article could prove valuable in many circumstances.
Now let’s look at our route a little more closely.
I’m proposing two stops. The first is at Grand Canyon
National Park (GCN). I’m sure the fuel might be
more expensive—but it’s the Grand Canyon, how could
you not stop there? For our second stop I selected
Utah’s Ogden Hinckley (OGD) Airport just north of
Salt Lake City. My reasoning is the same as before,
both airports are towered, both have ILSs. Even
if we are going VFR, we want to give ourselves options.
The first leg between Tucson and Grand Canyon is
about 260 miles. This is well within the range of
our aircraft and leaves us a large reserve in most
cases. Although atmospheric conditions or carrying
needs could dictate a reduced fuel load, leaving
a margin would be wise. Grand Canyon to Ogden is
about 330 miles; the flight distance might be a
little more depending on how much deviation is necessary.
The amount of deviation will depend on current conditions
though, so it’s hard to say ahead of time. The final
leg from Ogden to Jackson Hole is about 220 miles,
which leaves you plenty of fuel for a possible diversion.
These shorter legs give us maximum flexibility in
case of weather or other factors.
On this route there are very few choices for
alternate or emergency airports. This is the nature
of the area and something those of us from other
regions aren’t used to. I would recommend looking
up the information for some of the airports that
are situated anywhere near your flight path. This
leads me to a bigger issue, route planning. This
may mean selecting the route with the most advantages,
not necessarily the shortest route. It could be
that route A is over flat ground and route B is
over the mountain. Maybe route A has more airports
along the way. But maybe route A takes you closer
to the city and you don’t want to deal with the
airspace at the local airline hub. So it’s about
picking the route that makes the most sense.
In this flight we have a perfect example.
The shortest route for the final segment of the
flight proceeds directly from the Malad City, Idaho,
area to Jackson Hole, roughly along the path of
Victor 465. While this is a perfectly fine route,
there are some disadvantages. The terrain is rough
and high. While the high part is generally unavoidable,
the rough part should be noted. Also you see there
is not a lot of anything out there. As I mentioned
earlier, this could lead to a more difficult survival
situation. An alternative might be to head north
out of Malad City and follow the roads toward Arimo,
Inkom, and Pocatello, Idaho. From there you could
turn northeast and fly over Idaho Falls, Rigby,
and Parker before turning southeast toward Driggs.
From Driggs you could fly on to the Teton Pass and
over to Jackson Hole. This route, although longer,
provides you with airports and cities along the
way. Think of it as an insurance policy against
Flying in the mountains is a significant change
for us flatlanders. For us, 8,000 feet is a high
cruising altitude. In these Western mountains that
could be several thousand feet underground. It’s
a shift in thinking, to say the least. Mountain
flying is a skill of its own requiring excellent
pilot age and dead reckoning. In preparing this
article, I contacted Bryan Neville and Rick Stednitz
of the FAA Aviation Safety Team (FAASTeam) out of
Salt Lake City who were able to provide me with
some excellent insights into mountain flying and
flying in the Salt Lake City area. This leads me
to another point. The FAASTeam is there to help
pilots. So before a trip into unknown areas, log
on to <http://www.faasafety.gov>.There
are many FAASTeam representatives and managers who
would be happy to give you some advice or words
of caution to help you complete your trip safely.
In many cases electronic navigation aids (Navaids)
like VOR or NDB are useless because of blocked signals.
Conversely, because you are flying high, it is also
possible to pick up multiple VORs on the same frequency,
so it’s very important to carefully identify the
VOR signal you have. Having a current sectional
is imperative. Blindly following a direct to course
from a GPS could likely put you in a canyon, mountain,
or cliff face your aircraft can’t climb out of,
over, or around. This is why inexperienced mountain
pilots would want to fly routes with the least possible
chances for problems. Again planning ahead would
provide you with assistance that could be key. There
are a few books dedicated to the topic of mountain
flying. One such book is The Mountain Flying Bible,
by Sparky Imeson. Reading a good book on the subject
is a start, but you might also consider calling
ahead to one of your fuel stop airports and arranging
to talk to a local flight instructor or FAASTeam
member with knowledge on the subject. For the price
of an hour or so of ground time, or perhaps just
a lunch, you could get some insights into the local
area and mountain flying in general. But remember,
you need to have some knowledge and preferably some
training BEFORE you try to head into the mountains.
The experts also recommend carrying a good fuel
reserve because airports can be few and far between,
especially ones with round the clock services (or
services at all for that matter). At least an hour
would be a good place to start in setting a fuel
reserve. Avweb has an excellent article about how
to improve your mountain flying skills (available
FAA Aviations News also published an in depth series
of articles on mountain flying in the April 2001
issue. Unfortunately, it is not available online.
A limited number of copies are available upon request.
Weather in the Mountains
Weather in the mountains is a critical factor.
There are a number of weather risks we need to be
aware of. Because a comprehensive discussion of
these would require more space than this article
allows, I’ll only mention a couple of examples.
You also need to be aware that the weather in the
mountain changes quickly and dramatically, so check
it early and often, at every stop, and while en
The first weather challenge is one of geography.
Mountain airports tend to be located on the flattest
sections of land available, which tend to be in
the valleys between the mountains. Our proposed
destination is an example of this. At an altitude
of about 6,500 feet Jackson Hole Airport is surrounded
by peaks ranging from 9,000 to almost 14,000 feet.
According to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce,
the term “Jackson Hole” refers to the valley that
is about 80 miles long and 15 miles wide, that runs
from just south of Yellowstone National Park down
to the Snake River at Munger Mountain, south of
the town of Jackson. The airport is located 8 miles
north of Jackson putting it in the heart of the
Jackson Hole valley. This means that a ceiling of
2,000 feet at the airport would mean VFR traffic
could not get in or out of this valley. So we must
pay special attention to the ceilings in terms of
what kind of clearance we might need to get through
Another weather concern is the common occurrence
of updrafts and down drafts. As air moves from one
place to another it runs into the mountains we are
flying around. With nowhere else to go, the air
climbs up one side and flows down the other. For
pilots, this means that on the upwind side of the
mountain during periods of high winds you can expect
strong up drafts and strong down drafts on the downwind
side. These up and down drafts could easily exceed
your aircraft’s ability to climb away from the rapidly
approaching ground in the case of some down drafts.
So if you experience strong up drafts while approaching
a mountain remember: What goes up must come down.
These characteristics also create a lot of turbulence
which can sometimes be severe. This can be especially
true in passes. By the nature of a pass, you will
be surrounded by high ground—a natural funnel of
air. At times the only solution to the weather challenges
could be to schedule your flights at time periods
when the weather is usually more cooperative.
Special attention must be paid when crossing
or flying into the mountains, so if you plan to
fly in the mountains you owe it to yourself to do
some homework. Or better yet get some training.
Many organizations offer mountain flying clinics
and seminars that for a small cost can provide you
with valuable information. One such organization
is the Colorado Pilots Association at <http://www.coloradopilots.org>.
But once you take precautions, flying in the mountains
can offer you some of the most fun flying and incredible
views in the world. The spectacular experience is
well worth the time and effort. So please take the
time to do your research, if you plan to do mountain
flying in the future. You owe that to yourself and
National Security Issues
It’s important to remember that a large portion
of the western United States, because it’s rugged
and sparsely populated, is basically a giant training
ground for the armed forces. A quick scan of the
sectional will show many large Military Operations
Areas (MOA) and restricted areas along our route.
The primary difference between a restricted area
and an MOA is that you can enter a MOA at anytime.
While this is legally correct, you must ask yourself
if it is really that wise. Restricted areas, when
they are active, you are not allowed to enter. If
there are any restricted areas or MOAs that are
particularly close to your route of flight, you
may want to ask Flight Service about their status
when you call for your briefing. Also be aware of
National Security Areas. These areas are depicted
with thick dashed magenta lines and have a notice
stating something like: For reasons of national
security pilots are requested to avoid flight at
or below 8,000 feet MSL. They also generally request
that you do not loiter around the areas. So if you
desire to avoid unwanted Federal attention you would
be wise to comply with that request.
Now back to the task at hand. This article assumes
you have basic skills of calculating headings, times,
distances, speeds, and selecting check points, so
for each leg I will highlight other challenges to
On the Tucson to Grand Canyon National Park leg,
our first challenge is the Phoenix area Class B
airspace. Not having flown out in that area I’m
not sure how willing the Phoenix controllers would
be to let you transition the airspace, so you will
have to either go under and around it or over it.
Over it seems logical since you will be flying at
those 10,000 foot plus altitudes on this trip, so
now would be a great time to find out if the airplane
will make it. Flying Warriors, I know that some
days it would fly right up to 10,000 feet and beyond,
and other days I couldn’t get it up to 10,000 feet
no matter what I did. You also will want to try
to avoid major incoming and outgoing airline flight
paths. The local Flights Standards District Office
or FAASTeam members might be able to help you with
this. Beyond Phoenix the terrain starts to rise.
You will also have to deal with high temperatures
in many cases. As I mentioned earlier in this article,
high temperature is a big factor in density altitude.
Arriving at Grand Canyon we will have to be on
our toes since there are a lot of air tour operators
in the area and we don’t want to cause problems.
Also, there are restrictions on VFR operations around
the Grand Canyon National Park, so check with Flight
Service and in your Airport/Facility Directory (under
Special Notices, Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules
Area) to be sure you can comply. This would affect
your second leg more directly as it requires you
to cross the Canyon, but you should be familiar
with the restrictions before even getting near there.
This also brings up the point that you are requested
to fly at 2,000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) or
better over most parks and conservation or wilderness
areas. If nothing else, this is a simple courtesy
to park visitors that I’m sure you would like extended
to you if you were in the park.
From Grand Canyon National Park to Ogden Hinckley,
our first challenge will be the takeoff. With a
field elevation of 6,609 feet, density altitude
will almost certainly be a factor. Immediately after
that we have the airspace around the Canyon which
will be full of air tour aircraft, many of them
helicopters. To avoid problems, it would be wise
to climb up to or near cruise altitude before attempting
to cross, especially considering the plateau north
of the Canyon is about 9,000 feet MSL. As we move
north we have some peaks to look out for and some
fairly empty terrain to cross. Our next event will
be flying over Salt Lake City. As with Phoenix we
can deal with this however we feel best works for
us. One thing to keep in mind is that while it is
perfectly legal to fly over the Class B airspace
at say 10,500 feet; that only puts you 500 feet
above the airspace and remember that’s right where
all the airliners are trying to climb through. So
it would probably be best to avoid over flights
On the final leg, from Ogden Hinckley to Jackson
Hole, the challenge is high peaks. Heading north
northwest allows us to fly over the Great Salt Lake
and gain altitude before heading into higher terrain.
Heading in the direction of the KREBS intersection
would quickly put us back on course. You may ask
why I’m using an IFR intersection in a VFR example.
The answer is that it is a fixed and recorded point
that can be readily identified by at least two sources
of information. The first, and probably most likely,
is that you could enter that intersection into your
GPS and fly to it that way. If that option is not
available for some reason, you could then revert
to identification by VOR. Either way, you have a
fixed point from which to start your trek north.
From Malad City you could press on direct to Jackson
Hole, but I would advise the other route. That route
would take you over Arimo, McCammon, Inkum, and
Pocatello in Idaho. This route would require some
real VFR navigation, but as Interstate 15 follows
that route it should provide a definitive path to
follow. The old joke about “I fly roads” may be
calling you to be brave and choose a rugged or more
testing route forward. But we should be looking
for ways to make our flight as safe as possible,
instead of removing safe guards in a misguided attempt
to prove our abilities as a pilot. In most cases
there’s a reason why roads are where they are. They
are usually situated on low, or lower, and relatively
flat ground. They also provide an excellent emergency
land strip. In reviewing accident reports a very
large number of these reports concern forced landings
due to loss of engine power. By landing on or near
the roadway you can improve your chances of a speedy
rescue and recovery by being close to such a major
After passing through the valley from Pocatello
to St. Anthony we turn west toward Driggs. Driggs
would be the last possible stopping point before
attempting the Teton Pass. The airport has a long
runway (over 7,000 feet) and about 5 miles clearance
from high terrain all around. If you are unsure
about trying to find the Teton Pass, you may want
to land and arrange for a short flight with a local
flight instructor to familiarize yourself with the
local area. This is no substitute for preparing
for mountain flying before you start, but a local
guide might give you some reassurance with a minimal
delay. Of course, you should call ahead to make
arrangements before you leave to insure the FBO
on the field would be able to accommodate your request.
The biggest challenge of this leg is the Teton
Pass. Being a flatlander, the term mountain pass
conjures up images of broad openings between two
peaks with relatively flat ground in the middle.
Wrong! Looking at the Salt Lake City sectional,
the pass looks manageable enough: Teton Pass-8,431
feet. A bit high, but definitely something I can
get over. Bounded on the north by over 10,000 foot
peaks and more loosely bounded on the south by about
10,000 foot peaks, this is the place to cross. Looking
at satellite photos of the pass quickly dispelled
my naivety. I thought, “This isn’t a pass; these
are mountains.” They may be shorter, but these are
mountains. My point is that just because it’s labeled
a pass on the chart doesn’t mean it would be a place
to let down our guard. This also highlights the
concept of using satellite images to prepare for
your flight. If you are unsure about a certain section,
you might decide to scan the satellite photos to
give yourself some extra information about what
to look for. Duat.com has a new option which allows
you to pull up a giant sectional chart of the United
States. With this chart you can switch between sectional,
map, and aerial photo modes. This allows you to
scan your route for potential challenges. This function
is new and may change, but at present this represents
a powerful tool for VFR navigation.
Simple preparation can pay huge dividends. By
spending an hour or two before the flight to familiarize
ourselves with the factors discussed in the proposed
trips, and others important to your particular flight,
we can have the best possible outcome regardless
of circumstances. Knowing what you’re about to get
yourself into could force you to alter your plans
in order to maintain the safety of the flight. Being
almost completely a flatlander pilot, the concept
of minimum altitudes well above the capabilities
of the aircraft was a foreign concept to me. My
previous solution to mountains had always been “just
go higher.” But when the mountain peaks are higher
than your service ceiling and the mountains can
rise faster than your aircraft can climb, there
isn’t much you can do. By taking advantage of the
resources available to us, we can improve our situations
not just in an emergency, but also during the normal
In the end, it all comes down to how prepared
you should be for your trip. Obviously the shorter
the trip, the greater the chances are of completing
it without complications. But as trips stretch beyond
the simple hop over to the next town, we need to
increase our preparations as well. Remember, the
cockpit is the last place you want to be fumbling
with airport books and charts trying to make an
important decision. Or worse yet, you try to push
on into something you shouldn’t because you don’t
know what your options are, when emergencies or
weather issues force us to deviate. A safe and enjoyable
trip, no matter what its length, should be your