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Beyond the $100 Hamburger

Flying Vacation Preparedness

by James Williams
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

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 a lot.



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 website, 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 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 for trouble.

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.

Supplemental Oxygen


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).

Density Altitude

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 MarchApril2007.pdf.


Survival Gear

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 JanFeb2007.pdf), 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.

Route Overview

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 changing conditions.

Mountain Flying

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 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. FAA Aviations News 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 route.

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 the pass.


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 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 your passengers.

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.

Leg One

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 consider.

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.

Leg Two

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 when possible.

Leg Three

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 roadway.

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. 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 flight.

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 ultimate goal.


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