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Cross Country Flight

written by: Andrew Jones•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 9/18/2010

Cross country (XC) flight is a standard part of Private Pilot training. One must accurately fly long distance routes between multiple airports. This requires all of the skills needed to fly an airplane, including navigation, weather evaluation, fuel management, and use of controlled airspace.

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    Planning is a primary component of any cross country flight, and in some respects is even more important than the actual execution of the flight. Generally speaking, the more effort and detail you put into your planning, the more smoothly your flight will go


    Planning begins with agreeing with your instructor on an appropriate trip. Next, the student and instructor will examining the VFR Sectional map of the region and choosing an exact route. Most flight routes are not straight lines, but instead track a series of way points. A way point can be a visual target, such as a water tower, railroad track or major highway interchange. Alternatively, a way point can be a radio navigation station, and airway intersection, or a lat/long fix located with a GPS device. Typically, instructors try to include a wide variety of types of way points so that the student can understand how each is used.

    All of the planning discussed above can be done days or even weeks before the actual flight. However, fuel and weather planning must be done in the hours leading up to the flight itself. If the weather is conducive of the flight, a cruising altitude must be selected, and wind forecasts must be obtained for the entire route at the selected altitude.

    A handheld flight computer (either electronic or mechanical) will be used to calculate the headings to be flown along each leg to compensate for the wind.

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    Map Reading

    Before you begin making cross country flights, you will be expected to become very adept at reading standard VFR Sectional Charts. These are detailed aeronautical maps published by the National Aeronautical Charting Office.

    These charts are updated every six months, and pilots are required by law to have the current chart for their area with them on every flight. These charts include a wealth of useful information, which includes delineation of the different classes of airspace in the area, information on every airport in the area, ground elevation at regular intervals, man-made obstacles, as well as natural and man-made landmarks to help you verify your position. Detailed information on how to interpret an aeronautical chart is available here.

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    Cross Country Flight

    The actual trip will be quite different from many of your other flights around the airport. You will be expected to diligently hold your planned heading and altitude, and to regularly crosscheck your location. At each way point you will also calculate a new estimated time of arrival at both your next way point, and at your destination. Of course, at the same time you must continue to execute your usual duties as pilot, which include scanning the instrument panel and scanning outside for other airplanes. You also may be asked to use radio and or GPS navigation equipment as a backup to your own calculations.

    Generally, the instructor will accompany you on the first cross country flight, soon afterward you will be expected to complete several such flights on your own as a part of your private pilot training. Each of these flights requires a logbook endorsement from the instructor. You also may be expected to get someone to endorse your logbook at the end of each leg of the flight to prove that you actually were there.