VFR CROSS COUNTRY FLYING
Long cross country flights are lots of fun, IFR or VFR. Traveling for pleasure, for business, to visit family, or on a vacation, and using your airplane is what flying is all about. When weather permits, flying VFR can be even more fun. At the lower altitudes that most of us will fly, you can see much more of the country. Flying at thirty thousand feet or more in an airliner does not allow us to see much of the country. Actually, we can get a broader view, but not much detail. The lower altitudes allow us to see the cities, towns, rivers, and much more as we travel. Remember that early VFR pilot training we had, when we needed to plan a cross country flight by reference to ground features? We had to plan a flight and find our way by finding lakes, rivers, roads, cities or other features. That first flight was nerve racking, but after that it got easier and more fun, picking our way across the country by reference to features that we found on a sectional. Remember a Sectional? It still works. Now many of us use an iPad, or other device, with an aviation app such as ForeFlight. That makes cross country navigation so much easier.
To be sure, there is a lot to be said about flying IFR cross country as well. That instrument rating will probably pay you back on a long cross country flight, if you encounter IMC conditions, and are current and competent on instrument flying. Of course, there are some instrument conditions that small airplanes should not fly in at all. An Instrument Rating is no guarantee that you will be able to complete every flight no matter what. Even the airlines cancel flights due to severe weather. If the airlines are canceling flights, that should be a clue for us small airplane drivers that we should not venture there either.
Before getting my instrument rating, I spent many extra nights on the ground waiting for VFR conditions to return, so I could complete my trip. Naturally, I had left several days of extra time in my planning just in case I would run into IFR and have to wait it out. I did not just sit in a motel room watching it rain. I took that time to become acquainted with the community I was in. That just added to the adventure and made using an airplane even more fun. Of course, there are relatives that were expecting me to show up at an airport on time. I had to explain to them that flying a small airplane is not the same as taking a scheduled airliner. Even airliners are not exactly on time for reasons of weather, or traffic delays, or mechanical problems.
I flew back into Tucson after a visit to my son in Ohio last month, on Delta. The flight from Ohio went to Atlanta, and then changed planes to Tucson. Everything was on time. The flight into Tucson actually arrived about 15 minutes early. As we taxi to the gate, we are allowed to use our cell phones. A lady sitting behind me called a family member to report that we had landed and would be getting luggage soon. Her comment “Naturally, we are late again,” caught me by surprise. We were not late, but actually early, but the public just can’t get over constant criticism of the airlines!
When I do carry passengers, on a VFR or IFR flight, I explain to them in advance that we are not an airline, and we may have to delay or divert on that trip. Some people just can’t deal with that, if so I suggest that they find another way to travel.
I know pilots that hate to talk to ATC. I don’t know what it is that bothers them so much. For myself, I ask for flight following on VFR cross country flights. On IFR flights you get the service since that is mandatory. IF you are VFR, ATC can provide traffic advisories “on a workload permitting basis.” So, if you call and ATC says “unable at this time” just keep going and watch out for yourself. Try back in 15 to 30 minutes and you may find that ATC will take you then.
One of the greatest things about VFR cross country flying in this country is that you don’t have to talk to anyone. You can fly from the Pacific to the Atlantic without ever talking to anyone, but there are rules to follow to do this; you cannot fly through restricted areas, Class B or Class C airspace, or land at control towered airports without permission. There are so many non towered airports across this country that you would never need to land at an airport with a control tower if you didn’t want to. There is no other country, this size, on Earth where you have that much freedom to fly. Why not take advantage of it?
If you do ask for “flight following,” ATC will want to know where you are going. Give them the destination airport. You do not have to give them your complete intended route. They will tell you “altitude and route your discretion.” That alone makes VFR flying easier and more fun. If you are on and IFR flight plan with an assigned altitude, and are 300 feet high, or low, ATC will let you know. On those hot summer days crossing New Mexico, staying at an assigned altitude is not an easy task.
While it is fun and wonderful to fly VFR cross country and enjoy this vast and beautiful land, don’t forget to check your gauges from time to time. It would ruin a perfectly good flight to simply run out of fuel because you were not paying attention. Knowing your airplane and your personal limitations will pay you back on these flights.
Chevrolet had a TV commercial in the 60’s: “See the USA in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.” I just changed the words a little: “See the USA in your (Piper, Cessna, or other airplane), America is asking you to call.” I know, it doesn’t rhyme like the commercial, but you get the point. And, if you need a reason to fly somewhere, check out your ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION seminar locations, and fly in and learn something that same day, or check any of the many social locations for breakfast or lunch that you will find in the APA newsletters. Don’t forget to “bring your wingman.”