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Online Maps

After Landing

Self-Service Fuel

On the Ground Again


Programming the GPS

Finding the 45

IFR Tricks

Use the Localizer



Further Reading


More Cross-Country Planning

"Are we there yet?"
- every 10-year-old, since the dawn of time

In a basic article, we covered basic planning and navigation for cross-country flight, and in a companion piece, some classic enroute adjustments were described. Now, you've done the work, passed the exam, and your new license says you're a Private Pilot. You can fly your passengers just about anywhere in the world if the weather is good enough.

What do you do when you get there?

Let's review some of the basic planning tools, and expand the list to cover some practical needs that probably weren't included in basic pilot training.


More About Weather

There's more to planning than the basic standard weather briefing, although this is still an important step in getting ready for your trip. Here are some useful sources.

Use the Phone

In the Internet Age, it seems like a throwback, but the telephone can be your best friend. When you've selected an FBO for a destination, call them for more information. They can help you with services like rental cars and hotels (at a discount), and they often have some perks that don't show up on web sites, like courtesy cars. Many times, these services don't show up on web sites or other advertising. Sometimes, you'll find out that a published taboo can be overlooked – or that there are some unpublished conventions that you need to observe. Make the call. It's worth your time.

Online Maps

Click the thumbnail ↓ to see it pop up full-size

Besides its availability behind VFRMAP, Google Maps is useful in its own environment. (Bing is similar.) You can enter FAA or ICAO airport identifiers into the search box. On the Roadmap view, zoom in to the "500 foot" scale and have a look around. As you can see in this example, there's a suitable hotel less than a mile from the transient tiedown area. Hover on the icon and some information will pop up. Click it and more information will show, usually including a phone number or web site. You'll learn that they provide free pickup and drop-off, so you don't even have to walk the short distance. Once you're checked in, you have only a short walk to several eateries and shopping centers. If you ever need a convenient airport for an overnight stop without wasting much time, this one is certainly suitable.

After You Land

At uncontrolled airports, there is usually only one FBO, and its UNICOM frequency is the same as the CTAF. At larger airports, and at all airports with a control tower, this isn't so. 122.95 is a common UNICOM frequency at controlled airports, but many FBOs have a separate frequency. This will be listed in the resources given in the first section here, or you could just call and ask. As a last resort, the ground controller will usually know these frequencies.

Switch to the UNICOM frequency when you're clear of runways and taxiways, in the ramp area. Often, you'll find a helpful person there who will direct you where to park.

At larger airports, you may be met by a "Follow-Me" vehicle. This might be a pickup truck, or even a golf cart, with distinctive markings and a big sign on the back that says "Follow Me." With or without the truck, there might be a lineman to marshal you into a spot. Look for a brightly-clad person with his arms held high. This is a signal for you to taxi so that you'll and up in a spot facing that person. As you get closer, the marshal will use hand signals to help you make fine adjustments to your position. There are several of these in §4-3-25 of the AIM, but you will usually see only three basic signals:

Come straight ahead Turn that way Stop

Show the lineman your keys when you shut down, so he knows the magnetos are off. He will probably be putting chocks on at least one of your wheels, and it reassures him to know that the prop isn't likely to start turning while he's near it.

Self-Service Fuel

Unless you're from New Jersey or Oregon, you're probably used to pumping your own gas into the car. You can service your own airplane, too, even in those two states. Your instructor should have shown you the drill, but many leave it out of the syllabus because it's not on the flight test. Here's how to do it.


Back on the Ground Again

Now it's time to move back into the non-flying world. If it's just a lunch run, your job is to get to the restaurant. If that's in the terminal, you're all set. If it's somewhere else, the logistics aren't too different from any other business you might have on the ground.

If you're expecting a rental car, you might have arranged it with that pre-flight call to the FBO. If so, the desk rep will hand you the keys, you'll sign the papers, and off you go. If you have to deal with an agent, it's not much more complicated. Next stop is your hotel or the restaurant, depending on your mission. Maybe you'll do a bit of touring first.

For short stops, many FBOs can supply a courtesy car, also called a crew car. This could be anything from Tom Joad's jalopy to a brand-new luxury sedan. Often it's a retired Crown Vic that the local sheriff no longer needs. These free loaners usually come with a time limit, and there's always room for you to add some gasoline before you return the car. It's a relatively new (2014) application, but you can find a growing directory of courtesy cars at this site.

If you're just pausing for a rest, you might not even leave the FBO. Many have pilot lounges and snooze rooms. Sleeping facilities run the gamut. You could end up in a reclining chair, a secluded cot, or even a complete bunkhouse. Again, that pre-flight phone call helped you get set up.


This topic is worthy of an article all by itself. Here are three:

Some airports will let you set up camp next to your tiedown or nearby. Some will let you crash on the FBO couch. Others are adjacent or very close to a traditional roadside campground. You'll have to do a bit of research to see if any of these options are available to you. Crawling Google maps as described earlier might be productive. AOPA's airport directory includes notations if the airport allows camping on field, but this information may be dated – it's a good idea to call for confirmation.

There is also some information at the Back Country Pilot and Shortfield web sites. As the names imply, these sites tend to be oriented more toward the more isolated strips, especially those in the Rocky Mountains.

A related topic is survival, which is beyond the scope of this article. Doug Ritter's survival site is a good place to start.

Programming the GPS, or How to Alienate your Passengers

Back before the Dawn of Time, pilots got from Point A to Point B without GPS. They used gadgets like VOR, ADF, or even just a pencil line on the chart. These pilots taxied to the runway, completed a few checklist items, and launched toward the first waypoint. After that, they found their waypoints one by one, until it was time to find an airport and land.

With modern equipment, we have the facility to enter en entire flight plan before taking the runway. This could mean keying in ten, twenty or even more waypoints, so that navigation is all set from takeoff to touchdown. For many pilots, this can take several minutes, and while we're doing this, out passengers are sweating in our little cockpits, wondering if they'll ever get to that cooler air at seven thousand feet.

This is a terrible way to convince your family of the benefits of General Aviation.

If it's an IFR trip, the same pilots complain bitterly about re-routes, because they then have to undo all that careful programming and start over. If this might happen to you, it's a waste of time to program the whole route.

Just program in your first one or two waypoints, and let it go at that. Like the dinosaur who groped along one VOR at a time, you'll have plenty of time before running off the end of your GPS flight plan. And you'll be looking for something to do after you level off in cruise. Why not use that time to complete the flight plan? You get underway quicker, and your passengers will be impressed with your piloting proficiency/efficiency.

Finding the 45

Every pilot learns how to visualize the traffic pattern on the heading indicator. The same technique can be used to find the 45° entry to downwind at an airport, long before that airport is in sight. This trick has always been available at airports with on-field VORs, but those are in the minority. Now that GPS is commonplace, the trick should be more widely known. Suppose you're approaching an airport with a Runway 9, but you don't see the runway yet. You'd like to enter "on the 45" because it's convenient from where your approach begins. This means that you should aim at the center of the airport on a course of 225°. Easy. Just set your GPS to OBS mode and select a course of 225. That would be great, except for the math involved. You need to add (or subtract, for right traffic) 135° to the runway heading, modulo 360° – while navigating and keeping the airplane upright. But take a look at the OBS for this setup. The runway number is in the "bottom left" corner for left traffic. If it's right traffic, just dial the runway number to the "bottom right" corner and you're all set. In the example illustrated here, if you fly heading 270 you'll eventually join that 45° line. It doesn't get much easier than that, and all you need to do is use your GPS's OBS mode.

IFR Tricks for VFR Pilots: ILS and DME

The Chart Supplement includes useful information that is not always taught to the private pilot. At the very end of the airport information we find radio aids to navigation. This is where we have learned to find VORs that will help us find the airport, once we're close. This section also lists instrument landing aids that are specific to one airport.

An ILS localizer is like a VOR with only one radial. For this airport, the signal guides the pilot along the centerline of Runway 7. Another way to look at this, is that the signal could be used to find the entire airport, if you're approaching from the South, Southwest, or West. Just dial it in, fly until the needle centers somewhere on the extended runway centerline, and track a course of 070° until you see the airport. You don't have to land on that runway, just find the airport and enter a landing pattern.

Another useful function, for some of these signals, is that they include DME. Anything you can do with DME at a VOR or VORTAC, you can do with DME on a localizer. Tune your DME to the frequency shown, and you'll have a continuous readout of distance to your destination airport. While we're on the subject, there are a few airports (present or former military bases) that have pure TACAN, which also has a DME signal. In the radio aids ... section, look for an entry like

SUFFOLK CO (T) TACAN Chan 47 FOK (111.0) N40°50.27' W72°37.91' at fld. 50/13W. NOTAM FILE FOK.

Note the equivalent frequency, FOK (111.0). Tune your DME to 111.0, and you know how far you are from the station. Since this one is "at fld," that's your distance from the airport.


Neither of these facilities are shown on the sectional chart. You must find them in the Chart Supplement. They also show up on AirNav and other online sources, but you have to look a bit harder to find them there. Use the Chart Supplement.

skip past skew-T

IFR Tricks for VFR Pilots: Skew-T

VFR over-the-top operations are the subject of many arguments. Why would a pilot want to fly where she can't see the ground? If the engine quits, what are the options? Let's assume that the engine won't quit, just as we do when flying

… you get the idea. With a healthy attitude about mitigation, many pilots feel that over-the-top operations are worth the risk. But it's nice to know where the tops are.

In a standard weather briefing, the tops forecast is given only in the Area Forecast (FA). This is useful, but the forecast areas are large, and the FA is scheduled for elimination. We can get finer granularity from the skew-T Log(P) charts, a NOAA product that looks much more difficult than it really is.

Twice a day, the Weather Service releases balloons at dozens of locations around the country. At several altitudes, these balloons measure temperature, dewpoint, and wind velocity. The data are used to prepare forecasts for these parameters, which we can inspect at NOAA's Soundings Update / Forecast web site. The most useful forecasts are the first two options, Op40 and Bak40. Lower down in the menu, select the time slot and station(s) of interest, and click the button for "Interactive plot." The station doesn't need to be one of the places where the balloons are released; you can choose just about any place that has METAR. The default plot is still too complicated. On the display page, click the button for Simple Plot, and you'll be treated to a display like the one you see by clicking the thumbnail at left. The axes are

… hence the name Skew-T Log(P). The colored lines are forecasts for temperature (red line) and dewpoint (blue line). Where they meet, you can expect clouds. Where they're at least 5°F apart, you should be in the clear. If you were flying under IFR, you'd compare the temperature line to the slanted 0°C freezing level to get an idea about icing.

When you run the mouse over the NOAA-site plot, the display is annotated with the altitude corresponding to local pressure, and with the temperatures for the sample point. In this example, we see that the temperature and dewpoint are well separated at 6312 feet, and for any higher altitude that we're likely to use. That is, we'd expect the cloud tops to be around 6000 feet. (Indeed they were. Here's the view from 10,000 feet for the time and place corresponding to this graph.)

If you'd like to dig deeper into this topic, here's a longer article about the Skew-T.


Flying in Canada is not very different from flying in the United States, but the rules and customs aren't completely identical. Some of the differences are explained in this article, which even includes a few tourist links.

Further Reading

You've probably read several flight training texts by now. Here are some stories about pilots' adventures that tested their training and luck. The first two are about the exploits of freshly minted pilots who do their cross-country trekking all the way across the country.