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Light-Sport Cross-Country Flying: Let's Go!

By Dr. Kenneth Nolde, Major (USAF-Ret.), EAA 604884

Ken and Nancy
Ken and Nancy Nolde and their Flight Design CTLS

My wife Nancy and I got our Flight Design CTLS in 2008, and since then we’ve made two trips to San Diego, California, and back to our home in Pensacola, Florida, in addition to many other trips around the United States. We don’t view our flights as exceptional events, but as a continuing recreational aviation activity. Light-sport aircraft (LSA) cross-country (XC) flying is yours to do, and this article will discuss how we do it and how you can do the same, as well as urge you to fly to the four corners of beautiful America!

We enjoy our flying excursions and want everyone, most particularly the LSA folks, to join in. However, during trips, we continue to be surprised at the number of people we meet who are unfamiliar with LSA and many who also expressed misgivings about flying a small plastic airplane so far away home. Today there are a growing number of LSA available that will take two people with some baggage on long (hundreds of miles) nonstop trips at 100-plus knots in comfortable cabins and at low fuel cost – overall capabilities unavailable only a few years ago.

To begin, and at the risk of dating myself, I offer my – heretofore secret – magic formula for cross-country flying (and also flight preparation): the 5 P’s which are Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance! (I acknowledge U.S. Air Force cadet input!) Cross-country flights, as I view them, are ones that leave the local area (perhaps 10 to 20 nautical miles) to go and land elsewhere with of course an eventual return. For example, a trip of 120 nautical miles to see my brother in Dothan, Alabama, have lunch, and return to Pensacola fits this definition.

Training and Experience
For many of us, particularly longtime aircraft owners, flying XC is likely a regular activity. However, to those who don’t go cross-country, I say you’re missing wonderful experiences. If you don’t fly cross country, ask yourself, why not? Try a personal assessment to see what training, experience, and knowledge you have to plan the flight and then fly what you plan. Ask yourself “Do I have training and experience to fly cross-country?” Surprisingly, many pilots likely will answer “I don’t know,” “No,” “Not really,” “It’s too complicated/too much trouble,” or something similar. Bah, humbug! I insist most of you are selling yourself short.

Look back to your pilot training when you studied and learned many areas, some of which may have seemed a bit esoteric, such as weather, navigation-map reading, GPS, VOR, instruments, and radio communications, to mention a few. My point is that you, at a fundamental level, acquired a manual skill that allowed you to manipulate the controls of an antigravity machine to facilitate controlled flight. After a lot of practice and when your instructor felt it was time, you soloed! Then the hard work of flight training began as you found out that integrating flight skills was, surprise, XC flying. It brought all the other stuff together in a practical manner. In fact, XC flying became a highlight of your training.

Remember the exhilaration (or relief) at completing your solo cross-country? Yes, you actually used a bunch of acquired skills to navigate to an unfamiliar area, land at a different airport, communicate with air traffic control,(ATC) and return home. Yes, you already know something about cross-country flying and have some practical background experience and training to build on. Now, I want you to do it on a regular basis. My point is that going XC isn’t totally new, and now you – not your instructor – will pick the places to go. The freedom to fly where you want is really what this is all about. I assure you that gaining or regaining cross-country flying proficiency and seeing America from the air is a spectacular experience.

Now that you’re fired up and want to go, you may feel more training or experience is needed because you haven’t exercised these skills for a while. Well, good news, it can be done without an instructor while keeping it close to home and on shorter flights. Some short trips we take regularly are to visit my brother in Alabama or to see the grandchildren in Louisiana. These short trips encompass every skill you need to competently fly XC. They include flight following and flight in controlled airspace; flight along an airway; flight avoiding MOAs (military operating areas), TRSAs (terminal radar service areas, for example,Gulfport, Mississippi), Class B (New Orleans), and restricted areas; using flight following when talking to controllers; and landing at both towered and uncontrolled airports. Building your cross-country flying skills and confidence can begin, simply, close to home and on limited flights. You can ask for flight following every time you depart your home base, and you’ll get more practice speaking to controllers. You also can go to all the fields within a specific radius of home baseand map read for practice, as well as do a touch-and-go at a “strange” airfield before going home. Take your wife or a friend for lunch away from home, navigate to your planned destination, then navigate to a nearby field for practice landing at a strange field, as would be the case on a deviation on a longer cross-country flight. Practice is the key!

CT with grandkids
Visiting the grandkids in Louisiana

Going for It
Okay, you’re hooked and decide to visit relatives 600 miles away. You also note that my suggested first step is to call for flight following. Using the ATC system as much as possible has a myriad of benefits, including allowing you (usually) to go a more direct route; avoid restricted areas; fly in controlled airspace; get traffic advisories; and get immediate help, should you need it. Many controllers are also pilots. Having the experience of flying in an ATC environment and being comfortable talking to controllers is an invaluable trait. As you suspect, I urge everyone, but LSA pilots in particular, to get a thorough checkout in flying in controlled airspace – as they must – before flying solo into controlled airspace.

Now with your ability to fly in controlled airspace, you’ll have all the basic skills and training necessary for successful cross-country flying. So, the training you got during your initial checkout was useful and purposeful. I hope, while flying on your own, you think in terms of broadening and strengthening these flight skills so they remain sharp for your use. I also suggest that flying with other pilots can be a help and in many cases a shortcut to learning, particularly as it’s an easy, no-pressure way to gain insights and experience rapidly. I’m not an instructor. But I have many years of military and GA (general aviation) experience as an air traffic controller, and I flew B-52s and RF-4Cs. Additionally, I’ve flown with a number of pilots to help them learn to better communicate and navigate.

As you become comfortable flying with flight following, you’ll note that ATC not only monitors your position and where you’re going; they also expect you to go as planned or as directed and will request you notify them prior to changing heading or altitude. ATC expects accurate navigation, particularly if you’re going between two VORs, avoiding restricted areas, entering an MOA (military operations area), or flying a route the controller has requested. Today accurate navigation is facilitated with many really good, multifunction, reasonably priced GPS devices. I use a portable Garmin 496 with XM Weather, and I never ever fly without a GPS and sectional or VFR (visual flight rules) terminal charts necessary for the planned flight. I also believe that map reading is an art; I strongly emphasize using it to back things up. For example, one can, with only sectionals, literally fly coast to coast, stay in uncontrolled airspace (a compass is nice but not necessary), never talk to a single controller, and only make radio calls to land at uncontrolled fields. Of course, while this system of navigation is possible, it also is very inefficient, particularly for longer flights. Take heed. Although I’m an old guy who learned navigation long before GPS, I still won’t fly without a functioning GPS.

Ready to go
“Flight Designs CTLS is ready: Let’s go!”

The last step in successfully flying cross-country is planning the flight(s); it ties everything together. Planning starts when you decide to take a trip, as you ask or ponder the questions: “Where are you are going?” “When you are coming back?” and “What airfield are you going to land at?” Planning isn’t difficult, but because facilities and amenities vary widely, some study is needed. Consider the distance of a suitable airport to your actual destination. Does the field have self-serve fuel? Being a cheapskate, I find self-serve fuel is normally less expensive. Can you get a rental car or motel if you have to delay for weather or an aircraft problem? Knowing ahead of time and making an informed decision makes things easier. I advocate calling ahead and asking the fixed base operator (FBO) questions; most FBOs are happy to help you, they want your business, and often they have a website. Data about individual airfields is contained in publications such as Flight Guide (which I carry), AirNav Online (a particular favorite of mine), AOPA Airport Directory, NOTAMs (notices to airmen), and government publications, to name a few. Route planning also includes planning for intermediate refueling stops. We plan three- to four-hour legs. We also like to use smaller fields because they tend to be in business; they like airplanes and the vast majority are run by genuinely nice airplane people.

Planning longer distance flights can be tricky because it’s tough to pick a route without the “larger” view of things: I use WAC (World Aeronautical Charts) and/or IFR (instrument flight rules) charts to determine the most efficient route. Once I rough in a whole route, I go back and plan the various segments as necessary, planning for fuel, overnight stops, side trips for sightseeing, and the return. I use the DUATS (Direct User Access Terminal Service)flight planner to work on and print a no-wind flight plan for reference. I then sit down with sectional and VFR terminal charts to get a good look at the route for “problem” areas such as high terrain, controlled airspace, alternate airfields, restricted areas, MOAs, etc. I also begin to consider weather trends to get as good a picture of the weather that can be expected going and returning.

Weather planning is the major go-no-go factor and should include attention to the return trip. Here I will mention that my CT is equipped for IFR, including an ILS (instrument landing system), and I’m an experienced instrument pilot. I’m now flying under LSA rules, and I consider it the height of folly, if not stupidity, to press the weather. On our recent trip, we pretty much flew our planned route to San Diego, the exception having been headwinds which caused us to add an overnight stop. On the return trip, we made deviations because weather conditions dictated changes from preplanned routes. However, preplanning to include alternates made deviating much easier. Don’t forget that, with legs of 200 to 500 nautical mile ranges, weather is a major consideration – deviate early and avoid the rush and frustration!

The forecast of light snow caused us to deviate 100 miles south of our preplanned route, choose a new destination, stay overnight (enjoying the cool small town of Benson, Arizona), and not make a second flight that day. LSA and most GA aircraft aren’t equipped to cope with cold and moisture together; icing is just too dangerous. Common sense, an understanding of weather trends, and resisting “get homeitus” will occasionally make the trip longer, but it will be safer. Other deviations, mostly unplanned, may also occur; we left Fort Stockton, planning to stop to refuel just short of the Houston Class B and continue through (under) the Houston Class B to Louisiana. However, the airfield we planned to refuel at was unexpectedly closed (no NOTAMs, self-serve pumps locked), so no fuel was there. We had plenty of gas, though, so we simply went to another field.  Never ever outfly your fuel!

Houston Class B
Flying Route I-10 through Houston Class B airspace”

Now that you have the magic formula – the 5 P’s – you can appreciate that LSA cross-country flying is well within your capabilities. As Nancy and I recently took a trip of just over 3,200 nautical miles in three weeks and even flew the legal part of the Colorado River (Grand Canyon) going to Las Vegas from Phoenix, we know exploiting LSA cross-country capabilities will let you meet neat people; see friends, relatives, and the country; and generally open up fresh vistas for you.

Grand Canyon
Ken and Nancy’s view of the Grand Canyon from the CTLS

Because there are a number of things that don’t fit exactly, we also offer a few additional points to ponder:

  1. There’s no set formula of what to take and what to exclude, but we originally overestimated what we needed. You’ll likely do the same the first few times out. Also, ensure that everything is bagged – no loose stuff in the rear.
  2. Packing/loading an LSA requires innovation. We suggest light soft bags with smooth outsides so nothing catches on cargo space openings, and several smaller bags for restricted baggage space works well. We found that a few hang-up articles on flexible wire hangers can be rolled; they’ll fit well and won’t be too wrinkled. I use bungee cords to secure the load from shifting in flight. Just ensure that there’s no loose stuff. Packing isn’t rocket science, but it really can be frustrating if you don’t think about it
  3. Sitting in the airplane for hours at a time can be a bit tedious for the passenger, so you might consider taking something along to pass the time, such as a DVD/CD/MP3, book, crossword puzzles, etc. We also take some water or soft drinks and snacks.
  4. Take a lightweight plane cover and use it at every overnight stop. The cover is needed to protect the windshield from windblown ramp “stuff” and people’s injudicious throttle use. I also carry a small kit with Plexus windshield cleaner; spray wax cleaner; several microfiber cloths; some oil; coolant; Decalin fuel additive; and aLeatherman multi-tool. Windshield protection and keeping the aircraft as clean as possible is good preventive practice. Having some Rotax engine oil, coolant, and fuel additive makes sense as I have yet to see it for sale at any FBO.
  5. Speaking of FBOs, consider taking all the charts and publications you need. Because of the FAA’s new distribution policies, many FBOs don’t stock them anymore.
  6. Don’t hesitate to call an FBO ahead of time to ask questions or get information. Also check websites. Our experience is that a call to an FBO really can pay dividends and make the trip easier. Asking if there’s anything unusual about flying in or out the field can be helpful, particularly if there are terrain factors to consider.
  7. Self-service fuel is decidedly less expensive, but when the temperature is under 50 and the wind is howling, refueling can be a chore. You may want to wait till the next day or eat the additional charge. However, I’ve found that many places will help you out and offer a hangar spot. Having a small composite aircraft makes it more likely that an unused corner of some hangar is available.
  8. Sightseeing isn’t restricted to terrestrial activities. There are amazing sights to see from the air, such as towns, cities, isolated ranches, ruins, rivers, dams, irrigation patterns, farms, valleys, mountains, wind farms, and oil fields. We also take two binoculars and our camera with us – just try to annotate them soon as you can; sometimes it’s difficult to remember where they are.
  9. If your airplane has an autopilot – use it! It really reduces fatigue. Use this time to take a chart out; it’s fascinating to see how much data actually is on a chart if you look for it. Also, on both trips to the West Coast, we lost GPS signals several times. Knowing where you are reduces anxiety.
  10. Lastly, relax and enjoy the trip. America the beautiful, bountiful, and brawny is well worth the effort! If you have any questions, drop us an e-mail at kennolde@cox.net and we’ll try to help you out.
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