The clock stands at 68 hours of flight time. Stage 2 is complete! There’s one last category of hours to build before my checkride: the “Solo Cross Country”, or Solo XC.
Defined as travel with a landing 50 nautical miles or more from a student’s home field, a solo XC is where all the training comes together. Weather, navigation planning, radio operations need to come into play in addition to all the “fly and take care of the airplane” stuff that’s normal anytime the prop is spinning.
The requirements are: 5 total hours of solo cross-country time, with a very specific set of additional requirements: one flight needs to be 150 nautical miles, with landings at 3 different airports, one leg being at least 50 nautical miles straight-line distance.
Choosing the Routes: Have Backups
I spent a fair bit of time researching routes that would hit those specific 150 nm rules from my home field of Boeing (KBFI). Because these are straight-line distances, Foreflight made it fairly easy, putting each potential airport into the nav plan and counting up the distance.
Have Options in All Directions
Overall I came up with just shy of a dozen options all of which were > 150 nm with a 50 nm leg.
- KBFI KBLI KFHR KBFI (168nm NW)
- KBFI KBLI KORS KBFI (167nm NW)
- KBFI KBVS KORS KBFI (156nm NW)
- KBFI KPAE KORS KBFI (152nm NW)
- KBFI KBLI KBVS KBFI (153nm N)
- KBFI KBLI KAWO KBFI (156nm N)
- KBFI KCLM KAWO KBFI (152nm WNW)
- KBFI KCLM KSHN KBFI (154nm W)
- KBFI KHQM KOLM KBFI (159nm SW)
- KBFI KHQM KSHN KBFI (150nm SW)
- KBFI KSHN KTDO KBFI (153nm SSW)
I aimed to have several options that varied by cardinal direction, as this gave me the best chance to not get grounded by weather patterns that were local to one direction. If it was a bad day up north, I could go south.
Plan to do Two 150NM Flights
Based on my dual cross-countries of similar length, I felt confident that 150 nm would get me close to 2.5 hours of flight time all up, especially if these were full-stop landings with taxi and shutdown.
This meant that I’d hit my 5 hours by doing any two of these routes. Overall Galvin doesn’t want students trying to get all 5 hours in a single flight, and I’m in agreement - a student managing everything needed in a solo-pilot cross country flight can only go so long before suffering fatigue, and it’s likely to happen far before the 5-hour mark.
Scheduling: Give Yourself Calendar and Clock Time
As the Pilot in Command (PIC), even as a student, managing the interactions between your plan and the real world are up to you. You will schedule your flights and have to make a call each scheduled day whether or not conditions are good enough for you to go. Your instructors are the final authority - they need to write you a specific endorsement day-of for the specific set of airports that you will fly to - but you’re in the drivers seat to get to that point.
Book A Lot: Weather Kills Flights
I may have only needed two flights, but I scheduled about six. Why? Weather. Galvin’s regulations (and other flight schools’, I’d wager) are more stringent about Solo XCs than almost any other category of student or renter flight.
For solo XCs, weather has to be unquestionably VFR and with considerable margins of safety for cloud cover, visibility and wind, and a minimum of any “interesting” components like convection, low-level wind shear, or icing.
Because these were highly selective conditions - during a very dynamic spring weather season in Seattle - it was likely that more than 50% of my scheduled XCs would be canceled on account of bad weather. In my case I figured I’d lose two out of three. (Spoiler: I wasn’t far off.)
Book Long: You’ll Use it All
To make things even harder, the scheduled blocks have to be very long. A safe minimum is 6 hours block time from when you get the plane to when you have to return it. You need time to thoroughly preflight, plus taxi, run-up and takeoff from each location, as well as downtime at your “in between” airports. The Reason: Refueling of the airplane - and rest for the body and mind. XCs are stressful; fatigue can set in fast, and as a student pilot, you don’t know those personal limits yet.
Breaking down the six hours:
- Expect an hour of flight time per leg (3)
- An hour of downtime each at the two enroute airports (2)
- 15 minutes for taxi + takeoff at each airport (0.75)
- 15 minutes safety margin. (0.25)
Therefore - be looking to book anywhere between 6 to 8 six-hour spans over the course of a couple of weeks to give yourself the best chance to hit a good day.
Then, you just need a nav plan. Ideally - a few.
Nav Planning: Fly The Safer Course
The day of your cross-country, you’ll be expected to present a fully developed VFR navigation plan that covers outbound and return travel, properly corrected for weather. I’ve found these take about 60-90 minutes to fully develop with a weather briefing.
Go Lightweight First
You’ll want to develop a lighter-weight version of three or four likely routes from your overall list using Foreflight first, then only go into developing the full nav log for a preferred one the morning-of.
Picking Waypoints: Trade Time for Safety
Building these nav plans - even the basic ones - aren’t a matter of straight-line distances anymore. You need to build a path along the actual visual waypoints that describe your intended ground track from airport to airport. How you choose the waypoints (and altitudes you intend to cross at) is a matter of applying your own aeronautical decision making (ADM). Here are factors that I applied to choose my waypoints:
- Keep them less than 20 miles apart (Galvin likes less than 15), to minimize how long you’ll go without correcting any course drift.
- Stay over land, preferably low MSL and flat. Give yourself good places to land in an emergency.
- Go around (not over) tightly-controlled airspaces such as C and D. Don’t assume you’ll have the cloud height to go above.
- Similarly, go around high terrain features and obstructions, even if they’re lit. You can still see them and use them for reference, but leaving them off your course line reduces the risk of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).
- If your waypoints include airports that you aren’t landing at, try to leave them to one side or other rather than going over top of them - this ensures you can see them better. Exception is if you’re traveling at low altitude; you want to stay out of common approach paths, and in that case it may be safest to travel over the airport at a 90 degree angle to the runway, at mid-field.
- Do what you can to reasonably avoid parachute jump areas (PJAs), glider operations, and military operations areas (MOAs).
In most cases decisions like the above may put another 2 to 4 nautical miles each on your course length - at a 120kt ground speed that’s a minute or two added to your total time; think of it as trading away time for safety.
The safety you get in some cases is obvious - such as avoiding CFIT - but in other cases, it’s merely minimizing the number of decisions or reworks to your course you need to make in the moment when you’re up there. Task saturation is going to happen to you as a cross-country student. Reducing the number of variables you have to juggle by smart course planning means better concentration and less fatigue when you’re up there - which reduces mistakes, any one of which could put you in real danger.
Picking Altitudes: Find the Sweet Spot
In choosing your planned altitudes along the route, the answer is to my mind a bit simpler than picking waypoints, my rubric goes like this:
- You want a standard VFR cruising altitude MSL for your planned magnetic course -
- That is HIGH ENOUGH AGL to give you glide distance to airports or safe terrain along your route -
- But LOW ENOUGH AGL for maintaining visual ground reference as required in student XCs -
- And only go lower as required by landing operations or airspace restrictions.
These rules take a lot into account: MSL vs AGL, airport distances, phases of flight, and airspace. But the priority is fairly clear - keep high up - and should resolve into one or two “sweet spot” cruising altitudes that make sense for your trip.
For my trip planning in the lowland Puget Sound area, that resolved into 4,500 MSL when going westbound, and 5,500 when going eastbound. I could have picked higher, but knowing the conditions prevalent in my area it was likely that cloud bottoms wouldn’t be that high, and even if there was a hole to punch through, over-the-top flight is not allowed in student XCs. In my mind the safety factor is to have at least one reasonably safe standard altitude below the one I’ve picked as a backup (so, if I had to, I could go down to 2,500 MSL west and 3,500 MSL east and still safely continue).
Day-Of-Weather: Wide Input, Focused Decision
When the day finally arrives for your first scheduled XC, you’ll be expected to finish your nav log with wind corrections, estimated times and fuel burns, a finalized weight & balance and possibly performance calculations showing that you can make safe takeoff and landing distances for each of your airports given the conditions.
And - you will be expected to request, receive, interpret, understand and be able to succinctly explain a full and comprehensive weather brief for your trip that day, including making and explaining your own decision about whether conditions that day permit a safe flight (go), or prohibit it (no-go).
This is Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) in action - and it’s what your instructors and future examiners are looking for. This is your unique and valuable combination of all you’ve learned so far, turned into the application of good judgment on a dynamic problem.
Do you go? Or do you call it off?
Whole articles are written about this - and you should read as many as you can - but in working a few of these problems already here are the less-obvious internal rules I’ve followed so far:
- Take in as much data as you can, and look for what differs. Do not rely on one source. Use it all. 1800wxbrief, AviationWeather.gov, National Weather Service reports, your daily news, the Apple Weather on your iPhone - intake it all. Keep the funnel wide, and look for where there are disagreements that might suggest unknowns. Pay specific attention to the Aviation Forecast Discussions for your area. This is expert human interpretation of conditions that day.
- Step outside. It’s the day of your flight and unless you’re commuting a LONG way to the airfield, you’re in the air mass you’ll be flying through at least part of your trip. What does it feel like? Is it stable? Are there strong winds? Unexplained chills? Forbidding clouds? Low decks? Towering cumulus? Precipitation? Are your ears popping? Does it feel right, or wrong?
- Get PIREPs. Get on Foreflight or whereever you can get pilot reports, and scour for what others are seeing up in the air along your route. Those are observations, and they’re worth much more than forecasts.
- Do not rely on timing of forecasts. If you’re looking at forecasted weather, realize that trying to tightly time your way into VFR is unlikely to work. Clearing often happens later than forecast, and deterioration of conditions can happen suddenly. You want “good” that’s good now or very shortly from now, that stays good for hours after you’re back on the ground. Anything else and you may have to leave later or come home earlier than you expect.
- TAFs are nowhere near the whole picture. Weather briefings have a lot of METAR and TAF data - as they should, it’s where you’re putting your aircraft down - but resist the temptation to interpret the sum of TAFs along your route as the whole picture. TAFs only cover the space of 5nm around each airfield, and this isn’t a pattern solo you’re doing, it’s cross-country. That means the TAF data leaves huge gaps of physical space they don’t cover, and you’ll be flying through it. Use the rest of your tools, like Aviation Weather’s GFA tool - to get a fuller picture of the air you’ll be flying in throughout your whole route.
- Fronts and troughs mean trouble. Typically your best flying days are going to be in stable air masses not under the crush of a front or trough. Having a high pressure center sitting right over top that came in yesterday and isn’t leaving until tomorrow is pretty ideal, though even a weak low might be good enough if winds are calm, stratus is high enough and precip is minimal. What you don’t want is to be ahead of an oncoming front, even if it’s not forecast to hit until a few hours after your flight. The compression being driven miles ahead of the front can degrade conditions and ruin your flight even before the front has “officially” arrived, more so for cold fronts than warm ones, but let’s be honest, as a student pilot, all fronts (and to a lesser extent troughs) spell some kind of trouble.
Most of the above lessons are about looking for and weighing particular inputs to your thinking. Here are two last rules I follow when it comes to making my decision with all this data (the “output”):
- Some “bads” are a no-go right away. Known convective activity, known icing, reported low-level wind shear along your path should be a no-go for a student XC, end of story. Don’t risk it. You have another day. You don’t have another you.
- Lesser “bads” still stack. Even if you don’t have any of the instant no-go conditions above, consider how many compounding less-than-ideal conditions you see in your weather brief and what they may mean to your plan - just low cigs might be okay, but low cigs plus precipitation (lowered vis)? Low cigs plus precipitation plus crosswinds? Each compounding factor is going to reduce your concentration on aviating, navigating, and communicating, and increase your risk. How many before you call it off? Realistically, no more than two. If you’ve got observed or forecast MVFR conditions plus crosswinds, you’re already in the yellow zone trending red.
When explaining your thinking - as your instructors will ask you to do - you will undoubtedly come up with your own rules; the ability to construct, revise and apply good decision making rules to the situations that come up in a deliberate and systematic way in order to determine the best course of action is the heart of aeronautical decision making.
You’ll do it during your planning, and in the air - and good decisions made in the former go a long way to reducing the amount of re-work you’ll need to do during the latter.
The next article will cover how my cross-countries went, and some of the decisions I needed to make during each trip.