One of the more exciting aspects of flight training is learning how to plan and fly to an airport outside your local training area. During this time, you’ll learn new skills to help accomplish one of the main reasons you’re probably learning to fly which is taking advantage of a fun means of transportation and seeing new places. There are a lot of steps your instructor will cover with you to help with the planning process, including preflight weather, route planning, dead reckoning and researching the details of the arrival airport.
One of the more challenging events, in my opinion, during this phase of training is the actual arrival and landing at the new airport. There will be new traffic patterns, runway layouts, terrain, taxiways, aircraft parking spots and more. After a few cross-countries to new airports with your instructor you will soon feel more comfortable with the process and things won’t seem like they’re happening as fast. One way to better prepare yourself for the arrival and familiarize yourself with the new airport environment is to use some of the free tools available both online and in mobile apps to help get a virtual tour of the lay of the land. Here are 6 tips to help you better prepare when planning a trip to a new airport.
1. Review the traditional FAA resources — You probably already own a VFR sectional and Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD), and these are the resources I like to start with when looking into the airport details. You can quickly identify the airspace and airport location by looking at the sectional, and then get specifics about the airport from the A/FD.
If you’re flying with an iPad you can get most of the airport and runway details from the airport overview section in an app like ForeFlight, but still make it a point to look at the digital A/FD page in the app. This is often the only place to find out info like the calm wind preferred runway, displaced thresholds, runway slope, night lighting activation procedures and VASI/PAPI approach lighting angles.
2. Satellite imagery and Google Earth — After becoming familiar with all the aviation-specific details, I next like to look at a satellite view of the airport using Google maps in a web browser or iPad app. After launching Google Maps just type in the airport ID (e.g. KLUK) in the search box and you’ll get a birds-eye view of the airport environment with photo-realistic satellite imagery. This is helpful for getting a real-world perspective on the proximity of the airport to nearby cities, lakes or other landmarks that will be useful in identifying the airport during your arrival. ForeFlight offers a similar view with it’s Aerial Map option.
At non-towered fields I’ve also found it useful to zoom in to where the FBO or terminal is located and see what tie-down or ramp parking options are available. If you’re flying into an area with mountainous terrain nearby, take a glance at the 3D features of Google Earth. Here you can pan and zoom around from a profile perspective to see what the nearby terrain looks like around the airport. It even has a flight simulator option that allows you to “fly” the route in a Cirrus SR22 between two airports and view the detailed 3D terrain.
3. Youtube Videos — For the ultimate preview of what it looks like to approach and land at an unfamiliar airport, go to YouTube and do a search for something along the lines of “landing at Santa Monica airport”. You’ll find that many pilots have recorded their trip to that exact airport with a GoPro video camera, and you can see views out the front and sides of the airplane to give you another perspective on what the approach looks like. I’ve also found this useful to preview the approach lighting and any obstacles on the final approach path.
4. Flight Simulator — This option provides you both some hands-on experience and a visual preview of what it’s like to fly into that airport from the comfort of your house. You can start simple here with an iPhone or iPad simulator app like X-Plane for less than $10, or move to a full PC flight simulator that offers better controls and more detailed graphics. And if you’re flying with an iPad with ForeFlight or WingX Pro and have X-Plane installed on your home PC, you can output the GPS data from your computer to your iPad over your local WiFi network to practice flying with the iPad as well. You can do the same thing with Microsoft Flight Simulator using the FSXFlight plug-in.
If your flight school has a Flight Training Device (FTD) or approved simulator with satellite-based visuals, consider spending some time in this with your CFI before making a trip to an unfamiliar airport. The FRASCA Mentor FTD at Sporty’s Academy, for example, offers photo-realistic visuals with large immersive screens that offers students an excellent opportunity to “rehearse” the trip, approach and landing before going out on the real thing. Many FTD systems, including the FRASCA Mentor, offer interactive ATC scenarios that allow you to take the practice flight a step further with real-world ATC communications, system failures and weather diversions.
5. Airport and FBO Comments — This is a resource many may overlook, but it can provide valuable insight on what you can expect once you pull up to the ramp and shut down the engine. The first place I like to go for this info is the AirNav website. After you load the page for a particular airport, scroll down and click on the name of the FBO to view comments about that facility. Here you can find reviews from pilots that have been there before you to shed some light on things like FBO services, ramp fees, fuel discounts, courtesy cars and airport dining.
I also like to look at the same type of content in the ForeFlight mobile app. You’ll find general airport comments using the button at the top right of the Airports section. I’ve found several helpful tips here in the past about the crosswind behavior on short final, nearby obstacles and most importantly, the best food to order at the airport diner. Then click on the FBO button right next to Comments, select one of the FBOs and you’ll find specific comments about that facility. These are especially helpful when deciding which FBO to use when landing at larger airports.
6. Instrument routing — The last tip I have applies only to those who are working on or have an instrument rating and are trying to determine the optimal route between two airports. While ATC will gladly clear you on an IFR flight plan direct between two rural airports with no busy terminal airspace along the route, there are times when you will need to follow ATC’s orders and use VORs, airways or RNAV routes. The most likely time for this in when your trip starts in, goes through or ends in busy Class B or C airspace.
While you could always guess a route between point A and point B, there’s a good chance that the ATC computers will still route you via a path that meets the requirements established for their airspace. So to prevent that experience of receiving an unexpected full route clearance right before departure, there are some preflight steps you can take to beat ATC at their own game. If you’re using ForeFlight, enter your departure and destination airports in the route editor on the Maps page, press the Routes button, and then look for the list of ATC Cleared routes. These were actual clearances issued from ATC to aircraft that flew that exact trip recently. They’re even sorted by altitude, so you can identify the routes most appropriate to the type of flying you’re doing. Just tap the route and it will be entered into your flight plan. And a quick tip here–if you’re flying to or from a rural airport that doesn’t have any routes listed, try looking up a recent route using a nearby busier airport and copy the route from there.
I also like to use the free fltplan.com website for this same task. While ForeFlight is great at basic performance planning and fuel burn estimates, fltplan.com has extremely accurate performance profiles for just about every airplane ever made. It is a very reliable source and normally estimates fuel burn to within a few gallons and trip time to within minutes based on current winds. Once you enter your departure and destination airports, the site will then display a list of the 5 most recent planned routes, along with a longer list of the all the routes recently issued by ATC for that trip. Simply select one of these, set the flight plan to be filed, and there’s a good chance you’ll here “cleared as filed” when picking up your IFR clearance.