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Decision Training for Pilots - Solo Cross Country

Pilots should practice cross country planning -- even on days when it does not look like a flight is possible due to weather. Call and get a weather briefing anyway. Get the wind and temperatures aloft so that you can still calculate the groundspeed and fuel requirements. Instructors, have your students practice making the Go/No Go decision. As an instructor I always go behind the student and get my own weather briefing.

Pilots should practice cross country planning -- even on days when it does not look like a flight is possible due to weather. Call and get a weather briefing anyway. Get the wind and temperatures aloft so that you can still calculate the groundspeed and fuel requirements. Instructors, have your students practice making the Go/No Go decision. As an instructor I always go behind the student and get my own weather briefing. I secretly make the decision as to whether or not I want the student pilot going on a solo cross country, but I keep my decision to myself. I wait for the student to get the weather and report his or her decision. Most of the time, our decisions will match. If they do not, we'll start a discussion about decision-making.

Scenario: A student pilot is returning home on the last leg of a solo cross-country. The weather has been perfect. The student's first checkpoint is a powerline and a road, but when the time to be over the checkpoint runs out, the checkpoint is nowhere in sight. The student descends to get a better look. The student had been using a VOR station as a cross check, but now it seems to have gone off the air. The student presses on, but nothing looks familiar and soon the student is completely lost. What should the student do?

Strategy: First, the student could have selected a better checkpoint than a powerline and a road! Many powerlines and roads are not on the chart, so singling out a specific pair would be tough. Use an interstate highway, river, town, or anything that really stands out. Should the pilot have descended? Probably not. The "off the air" VOR could have been nothing more than terrain blocking the signal. In this case, a climb would likely turn it on again. Should the pilot complete a VOR cross check to find his or her location? Should the pilot call ATC or FSS? Should the pilot circle in that area hoping to recognize something?

Strategy: The pilot should address these decisions before they become airborne dilemmas. Think these things through on the ground.

In the Past: The instructor would say, "Do you have your chart? Do you have your weather? Let me sign off your logbook, and you should get going."

The Private Pilot PTS will test the student pilot on lost procedures and altering the original plan-

C. TASK: DIVERSION
REFERENCES: AC 61-21, AC 61-23.
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to diversion.
  2. Selects an appropriate alternate airport and route.
  3. Diverts promptly toward the alternate airport.
  4. Makes an accurate estimate of heading, groundspeed, arrival time, and fuel consumption to the alternate airport.
  5. Maintains the appropriate altitude, ±200 feet (60 meters) and established heading, ±15º.

D. TASK: LOST PROCEDURES
REFERENCES: AC 61-21, AC 61-23.
Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  1. Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to lost procedures.
  2. Selects the best course of action when given a lost situation.
  3. Maintains the original or an appropriate heading and climbs, if necessary.
  4. Identifies the nearest concentration of prominent landmarks.
  5. Uses navigation systems/facilities and/or contacts an ATC facility for assistance, as appropriate.
  6. Plans a precautionary landing if deteriorating weather and/or fuel exhaustion is imminent.

In an age of in-cockpit Moving Map GPS equipment, are all these skills needed? Do you really know what to do if you get lost? Do you still work an alternate airport into your flight plans? Go ask your Flight Instructor if you should -- I already know what he or she will say!

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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