Planning a flight carefully can help avoid surprises and surprises are something that we really want to avoid in flying. But everything can’t always go exactly according to plan, we all know that. So, if we put a little bit of effort in our flight planning into examining contingencies and alternate plans, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble later on if something goes awry.
It is helpful to review those options before the flight to look at alternate airports — places to land along the way should the need arise. You’ll have to establish some basic criteria as a first step. Some things to consider would be runway length and width, surface conditions and even services available at the airport as a start. Instead of thinking of our flight in terms of a straight line, it’s better to think of it as a 20 or 30 mile wide band. What might terrain or obstruction considerations be if you stray off course? What is the most likely direction for better weather? Don’t forget that best alternate may even be behind you.
We want to have a general understanding of obstructions, terrain, airports, landmarks and any type of airspace restrictions or potential weather hazards located within this band all the way from takeoff to landing. One vital element of contingency planning relates to fuel. The leading cause of engine failures is running out of gas. You should always plan conservatively when it comes to fuel and be sure of the amount of fuel you’re starting with or even the most conservative plan may not be enough. A good rule of thumb is to always plan to land with at least an hour’s worth of fuel in the tank.
Also, when calculating the amount of fuel that will be required to fly the leg, another good rule of thumb is to double the forecast headwind component or halve the tailwind component for the purpose of fuel planning. That way, if the forecast is incorrect, you are less likely to be surprised. Another conservative practice is to always round up when it comes to fuel burn. If you’re making exacting fuel burn calculations down to the tenth of a gallon, consider rounding up to the next highest gallon and consider the leaning technique that was used to arrive at the published fuel burn.
So, plan those flights so that plan “A” is primary, backed up by plan “B”, and plan “C”, and plan “D”, and however many it takes and have the discipline to enact a contingency plan should the need arise. It is fun to vicariously fly a flight, to study the chart, look at the airports, and landmarks along the way. Then, if when you start out on your solo cross-countries, something slightly out of the ordinary happens, you’ll have the confidence and experience to make a good decision.
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