I’m planning a flight to Monterey (KMRY) next weekend. I’ll be taking two student pilots, with one flying each direction. Over this coming week, I’m going to use this real trip to illustrate how I approach analyzing, planning, and flying a longer flight. Now, this is a flight I have done before, but I’ll do my best to approach it from the standpoint of flying to a new destination. This first article will be long, since there really is a lot to talk about…
We’ll be flying in a Cessna 172 to Monterey to pick up a friend and returning the same day. There are a number of interrelated questions that need to be answered as we first look at the flight:
- Can everyone and all their stuff safely fit in the airplane?
- Will we need to plan fuel stops along the way?
- What airport should we fly into?
- What route will we take?
- Is it likely we’ll be able to make the flight?
- What challenges might the flight pose?
Weight & Balance
A Cessna 172 is not normally a 4 real adults, baggage, and full fuel plane. Luckily, the one we’ll be taking has a 180 hp engine and a useful load of almost 1050 lbs. With full fuel, that leaves about 800 lbs for people and luggage. Tallying up the numbers, we find that we all fit within the max gross, but we’ll be very close. Running a full weight and balance shows us in c.g. (center of gravity) limits with any configuration of people, both at takeoff and landing.
However, flying in the summer near max gross means I would be very careful if my flight required high altitude flying. I would probably consider this a no-go if the destination were an airport like Mammoth, Tahoe, or Big Bear. Luckily, both departure and destination are near sea level and as we’ll see, the flight can be accomplished at moderate altitudes.
If I found that we were over gross or out of the c.g. envelope, we’d need to consider the options of flying with less fuel, restricting baggage, leaving someone behind, taking a different plane, or just not flying.
Now, just because we all fit weight-wise, does not mean it will be an easy fit. 4 people in a 172 is a bit cozy, so everyone needs to understand that ahead of time.
Quick Check – Route, Time, Fuel
My experience with this 172 tells me that I should easily be able to make 3 hour flights (even with high power and relatively poor leaning technique) – at 10 gph, that still leaves 1 hour of fuel (my personal planning minimum). Nearly 4 hour flights are possible if flown carefully. I know from experience that I can get down to 8 gph with proper altitude, power, and leaning. This plane has a 4 cylinder EGT/CHT monitor to help in leaning and I have enough experience to know what is realistic. I would be more conservative if this was my first long flight in this particular airplane. I know that 110 kts TAS (true airspeed) is a conservative planning number to use in our calculations.
Plugging our departure, destination, and TAS into a tool like Skyvector, I find that it’s a straight-line distance of 240 nm, which would take a little over 2 hours (with no wind). Now, that straight-line route is not what I will plan or fly, but it tells me that for a VFR flight, I have a lot of latitude in route and winds. I should be able to make the flight there on a single tank of gas. I will need to refuel in KMRY though. This is not a round-trip on a single tank flight, so I will need to look into the logistics and prices for fuel.
[NOTE: it’s true – in real flying, I don’t draw on paper charts and use an E6B, but I will illustrate the use in a later update since pilots must be able to do it; I DO always make mental checks to see that what the tools calculate actually makes sense]
Airports and Alternates
Our preferred destination for convenience is the main Monterey airport, KMRY. A look at the charts shows that is a Class C towered airport. That generally means a busier airport, bigger runway(s), some jet traffic, different procedures (approach control, clearance delivery), more expensive services (fuel, ramp and overnight fees), but more options (often more than one FBO and easy access to transportation/rental cars).
I take a quick look at AirNav to get more information about the airport, which shows two parallel runways, with the longer being over 7000′ long and two different FBOs. The longer runway means I have little to worry about in terms of takeoff and landing performance, at least compared to my home airport. If you are at all familiar with California coastal weather (or Monterey in particular), you’ll notice that KMRY is close to the coast. That really tells me that I need to be more aware of weather and might need an alternate plan or airport.
Once I know the details of my plan, I email the FBOs on field to get an idea of the costs that would be expected for fuel, landing/ramp fees, overnight fees, and any transportation (taxi, rental cars, crew cars, public transportation). I find that the best FBOs have a published customer service email address and are responsive to email. If that fails, I call them up, but I prefer to have an email that shows what I was told (getting a different story/price on arrival is more common than I’d like). Sometimes looking at the FBO reviews on AirNav will be very informative in terms of what to expect, common procedures, and peculiarities of the airport. MRY has two competitive, responsive FBOs.
Now, as I said before, that direct route is not what I’m going to plan or fly, though I could… A quick look shows that I avoid all restricted areas and even would stay out of MOAs (military operations areas), but it would take me right by a 9000′ mountain as we leave LA and would, for large sections of the route, be far from civilization and airports that might be useful in an emergency. I often find that major highway routes form the basis for good flying routes – airports tend to be near them, the roads themselves may be landing options in an emergency, the roads are usually designed to cross mountains at low points and often go near interesting things to see from the air. That’s not always true or even possible, but in this case, US-101 is a pretty good guideline.
Take a look at the route “KEMT RZS KSMX KPRB KKIC KMRY”. This route only adds 20 nm and about 10 minutes to our route, but keeps us close to US-101, alternate airports and will have great views of the coast in many areas. This would take us close to R-2504A/B northwest of Paso Robles (KPRB), so that’s an area we’d need to be aware of. It also takes us over some terrain on approach to KMRY (we might deviate slightly north). The highest terrain we’d fly over would be around 4000′ MSL north of Santa Barbara (KSBA), near the San Marcos (RZS) VOR. We’d be near mountains in other areas, but should be able to stay over more hospitable terrain with small adjustment. This means that as long as clouds don’t change our plans, we could fly westbound safely at 6500 and eastbound at 5500. On this route, I normally fly 8500 westbound and 7500 eastbound, unless clouds or winds suggest otherwise. Those altitudes give lots of options in an emergency, gives us cooler temps in flight and help fuel efficiency. I don’t fly this line exactly, but gives a guide.
As a rough approximation, I can plan for a 2.5 hour flight each way. That means if I want to be able to fly to MRY, do a little sightseeing/have lunch and return to LA by 5PM that I sketch out a 830 departure, arriving around 1100 and then departing again at 2PM for the return trip. I’d expect to use 20-25 gallons of fuel out of a total of 40. I’ll refine these numbers later in the process, but that’s enough to start to make arrangements.
Other little details
I also check to make sure if the dates of my trip coincide with the expiration of any charts or required inspections. Trying to find charts at the last minute or finding out that an annual will expire while you are gone is best dealt with well before departure. I’ve had to arrange for an early annual before and I’ve had to order charts for far flung destinations. The internet and apps do make this easier, but I still prefer to have paper Sectionals and/or Terminal charts for my route.
Pre-planning vs nearer term evaluation
In most cases, I perform all the steps I’ve outlined so far, almost as soon as I’ve decided to make a trip. I need to know if the trip is even possible. Now as I get to a week before my planned trip, I start to look in more detail at what else might impact my trip – is the airplane running well, are we ok on 100 hour inspections or oil changes, what might the weather be. I never know for sure that I can make a trip until I’m at my destination, but I can often see when I need to make other arrangements for a trip well ahead.
Likelihood of flying – Weather, TFRs, NOTAMs
More than about 2 days out, there’s little in the way of aviation specific weather, but a few things are still useful. Just looking at current weather and non-aviation weather may give you some insight into what to expect. First thing this morning, I look at the METAR for MRY and see
KMRY 011345Z 09003KT 1/2SM FG OVC001 13/12 A2983
Well, we wouldn’t be landing in that. Even with IFR, we’d be going someplace else at that time. So immediately I know that morning fog is something to keep an eye on. I’d identified that before, but this makes it clear.
Next, I look at the 10 day forecast for El Monte, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Salinas, and Monterey – these give me some points at departure and destination and near my route.
Right off the bat, we see “AM clouds” for Saturday. That puts me on alert that we may be contending with cloud cover for a morning departure. A VFR pilot needs to consider what his options might be for delaying departure, changing route, or making other arrangements. An IFR pilot needs to confirm currency and consider the impacts on route and fuel of an IFR departure. In both cases, it’s too early to panic or change plans, but we continue to monitor. The fact that it shows for Friday and Saturday, but not Sunday, also says there some ongoing changes that gives me less confidence in the forecast. Monterey shows Sunny on Saturday, improving from AM clouds earlier in the week. Again, a note of caution. The coastal cities all show a similar forecast, but inland shows much warmer – probably at worst, some high clouds and turbulence.
I also took a look at the progression of METARs at KMRY – by 900 local, the skies had already cleared, so even though it was low IFR early, it didn’t stick around long.
One other useful thing to look at is winds aloft forecasts. We can get a picture 4 days out. Right now, I see some light winds forecast out of the northwest. Not enough to be a big impact yet, but I see stronger winds northwest, which is something to keep an eye on
I check TFRs each day. Presidential TFRs are usually posted a few days ahead – they can completely scrub a flight or cause major changes in timing or destination. Fire TFRs can also persist for days and be a major impact on flight. For now, we see only Disneyland (not “temporary”) and Beale Airforce base (very common and up near Sacramento)
I also do a quick check of NOTAMs for both departure and destination. I’ve had plans changed by airports being closed for major projects (new taxiways or runways). The big projects are scheduled and noticed well ahead. I see only that the AWOS at EMT is “un-serviceable” (it’s been flaky) and they are doing some asphalt work at MRY that should finish before we get there
KEMT:06/004 - SVC AWOS U/S. WIE UNTIL UFN. CREATED: 30 JUN 20:32 KMRY:06/032 -APRON TERMINAL APRON EAST TWY G WORK IN PROGRESS JOINT SEAL 1400-2359 DLY. 01 JUL 14:00 2013 UNTIL 05 JUL 23:59 2013. CREATED: 28 JUN 20:57 2013
There are a lot of things to check for a longer flight. As you get more experience, the checks go faster and you learn where to concentrate your effort. Over the next few days, I’ll add an update, showing how I continue to monitor, revise, and prepare for our planned flight.