Before I get into the advice end of this, I probably need to convince you that this really is the best way to travel for fun. Consider the alternatives:
- Drive your car, camp out.
- Drive your car, stay in motels.
- Drive an RV, stay on campgrounds.
- Fly commercial, rent car, stay in motels.
The second option is probably cheaper than the others, but has numerous drawbacks. The travel time is much longer than by air (commercial or private) and driving is exceedingly tedious. You do have your own transportation for getting around locally, but after boring a hole in the driver seat with your butt for 2 days getting here, more driving is just what you want, isn't it? Also, you are on your own making motel reservations, finding the best places to eat, etc. If you have car trouble, you are at the mercy of the local mechanics and their reputation isn't anything to brag about.
The third option has all the drawbacks of the second option, in spades. Even longer driving times, horsing a monster around locally while seeing the sights and the ever present specter of unexpected maintenance.
The last option is the least stressful, discounting airport security procedures and lines. But it is also, the most expensive and least flexible. You must be at the airport at a time certain. Extending your stay an extra day will cost you a ton, etc..
Now, why own your own plane for travel? The reasons are many, and we feel very valid.
- The fixed cost is comparable to owning an RV, and the maintenance is also comparable.
- The operating cost is marginally higher than an RV per mile, but the travel time is much less. On a long trip, you may save several days over driving, along with the attendant meal and lodging expense.
- Motel charges are higher than campgrounds, and you do have the added expense of a rental car, but the convenience and flexibility is much better.
- Flying commercial is very inflexible unless you only wish to go to large places with many airline choices. Try setting up commercial for a trip to visit Little Big Horn.
Those are the hard pragmatic considerations. Now for the intangibles. After a few hours of driving, the scenery along the interstate all becomes the same. The tailgates of all eighteen wheelers look alike. The driver has little time to look at anything other than that tailgate. In the air, even the most empty of areas has new things to see every minute. The pilot, even without auto-pilot, has plenty of time to look at things other than the road and the panel.
I remember driving to Denver in 1962. Although I was doing 80 on the open road, I watched the mountains slowly get closer in the windshield for 4 hours. Flying from Rapid City to Sheridan, I only watched the mountains get larger for an hour. In other words, you still see it all, but it doesn't take as long. And you see a lot more of it.
Instead of seeing a gully cross the road with maybe a quick glimpse of the creek that built it, you can see the entire system from where the first washout begins to the gully with all its tributaries and it becoming a water course, creek and river. You can see a lake in its entirety, not just the parts visible from the highway. You can see the watershed feeding it and the river that empties it. You can see the resort or summer homes, marinas, sailboats, etc. and have time to take it all in. Not just a fleeting glimpse through the trees.
You can see how empty most of this country is away from the major roads. Across western Nebraska and Wyoming, there are miles and miles with the only sign of human effect being an occasional dirt road, ranch complex or stock tank. In western Kansas, the major landmarks are the grain elevators that mark every community and the scenery consists of center pivot irrigation farms.
When you arrive at your lunch stop, there is a friendly staff and a clean rest room. There is a car to drive into town for lunch and the staff will suggest a good place to eat and give directions. In small towns, the staff doesn't mind if you drive around a little bit on your way back to the airport. You never have to worry about the things you leave in the airplane, it will be just like it was when you got out.
Even on fields with self serve gas, the attendant will usually help you get to the pump and put in the gas. They will put your water bottle in the fridge while you eat lunch so that it will be cool when you leave. (Just don't forget it!)
For your overnight stops, if you call ahead no later than that morning, the FBO will normally arrange your rental car and motel reservations. We have had them bring the car to meet us as we taxi in. If you only stay overnight and don't need a car, they will call the motel for transportation when you enter the pattern, so that their shuttle will arrive by the time you can unload and hit the bathroom. If you are overnight on a weekday at small towns, the FBO will often let you keep their courtesy car overnight.
Has this sold you on travel by private plane? If so, now we get into the considerations and pitfalls of travel by private plane.
How to do it.
First you have to get the plane. If you can rent one with the time flexibility you will need, fine. But if you are serious about travel, owning your own or at least a large share of a partnership is the only way to go.
If you are looking for a plane to travel in, there are numerous factors to consider. In no particular order; speed, range, reliability, comfort, useful load and performance.
What you need
To travel, the plane must be reliable first. You can give up some on the other qualifications to achieve this. A leather interior or fancy GPS will do you little good if you are stuck at Podunk Municipal waiting on a part unique to your plane to be manufactured from unobtainium. This argument can be extended ad nauseum, but make your own judgement.
The useful load must be enough for your normal bodies load, baggage for your intended time away from the home drome, and enough fuel for at least 2-3 hour legs with reserve. Remember also that if you travel in the summer, density altitude will get you if these considerations put you near maximum gross weight.
Speed is nice, but only meaningful for this purpose if you need to make many miles per day. If you and your partner have no need to be at work day after tomorrow, anything in the 100+ knot range will fill the bill. So what if someone in their Speedburner can cover the 250nm leg 15 minutes faster than you? Getting there is a large part of the fun in this mode of travel.
If you intend to spend 4-6 hours in the cabin on some travel days, be sure that it is comfortable. It needs to be large enough that the only parts of you touching something or each other are the parts you wish to have in constant contact. You don't want to spend that long rubbing shoulders and knees with someone in a warm to hot cockpit. It doesn't matter what kind of friends you are, three hours of that will give you a heat rash.
Getting it ready
Ask yourself over and over, "Is the plane ready? Are there any maintenance squawks or quibbles that should be taken care of before we leave?". Assuming that we are talking about your plane, you should know very well the answers. Do all the things you have been putting off before you leave.
If the trip will be around 15 flying hours, don't leave with an oil change due in 10. Change it before you leave. Be sure to take a couple of quarts with you. We change oil and filter in the 30-40 hour range. I wouldn't leave without a fresh oil change if the trip as planned would put us past 35.
Wash and wax it before you leave. The wax will make it easier to wipe off the worst of the bugs at stops along the way. Besides, you do want your bird to look as nice as possible, don't you?
Clean out the interior. Trash all the old nav logs and kneeboard charts. Hoe out all the partially eaten packages of crackers, etc. Remove all the old pamphlets and brochures from your last trip that you didn't take home for inclusion in your scrapbook. You don't need the clutter on this trip when you are looking for the next sectional.
Check your on board junk box. Two quarts of oil, plastic bags, clean rags, roll of paper towels, enough Pledge to keep the windscreen clean, fuel tester. Also, a small first aid kit. A small selection of band aids and a tube of Bacitracin or Neosporin will do.
Consider carefully the advisability of taking tools other than something like a Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife. If you have a problem at nearly any airport, someone there will help you with all the advice and tools you may need. The only scenario where you will have no other access to tools is an off airport landing on the backside of nowhere. If you only need a crescent wrench and pliers, the nearest farmer will gladly help you fix the problem. If you need to remove and tear down the engine, you cannot carry enough tools for that.
Making the plans
This complex task is best solved like eating pizza; one bite at a time. What is the primary destination? What other places of interest are nearby, relative to the distance to the primary? What other places are near the route?
List every place you wish to stop and then put them in some nearly geographical order. (we go here, then here, then here, etc.) Now, determine which will need a day or more to visit and which you can do in an afternoon. Consider that the best flying time is in the morning, especially in the summer. You can cover 200+ miles between breakfast and lunch, leaving you the afternoon to visit the sites.
This may entail some rearrangement of the order, but that is why you are planning in advance. There will also be places that you can do everything you wish to do on a long lunch hour and go another 200 miles before supper and overnight. At this point, you may determine that a zig zag route will make the most effective use of time, allowing you to hit more sites more efficiently than a more direct point to point route.
Now, get the sectionals for all the area you intend to cover. From a site like Airnav or Landings, you can get distances, courses and fuel stops worked out. Use the comments on Airnav and the services listed to determine fuel and lunch stops. It is better to pay a little more for gas and have a courtesy car or restaurant on field than to stop on the backside of nowhere for cheap gas and be forced to eat vending machine food. Now build your nav logs. I build one for each leg on a spreadsheet template. Then I print it out with the kneeboard format or taxi diagram from AOPA of the destination airport on the back. Add any pertinent info to the sheet for that destination, reservation confirmation numbers, name of contact at FBO, etc..
Put all the sheets in a folder in the order you will use them. Then do not forget to put them in your flight bag immediately after getting your weather briefing before initial departure.
Packing for the trip
Since you are probably travelling in summer or at least warm weather, weight is a serious consideration. Fuel and bodies are a fixed weight, so the amount of clothing becomes the biggest weight factor you can control.
Carry comfortable, casual clothes and shoes. You can go into virtually any restaurant in jeans and jogging shoes and not be too underdressed, so do not take your best bib and tuckers. Girls, leave the dressy dresses, panty hose and heels at home.
We find that we can easily pack clothing for 4 days inside 30 pounds. This gives us a five day trip counting the clothes we wear for leg one. For longer trips, pack 3 days of clothing and plan on doing laundry on that third day. But don't forget to take an extra set of underwear and shirt or blouse. You can always wear a pair of jeans or slacks a second day while you look for the Laundromat.
Little tip; I got in the habit of wearing a different pair of shoes every day while I was in Uncle Sam's Flying Club some 40 years ago. Your feet feel better, the shoes don't smell as bad and last much longer. Consequently, I take one pair of shoes in the duffle bag and the pair on my feet when we leave. But only the one extra pair. Girls, try to limit the number of shoes you take.
Another idea is to buy T-shirts etc at some of the places you visit and on day three, do laundry and send extra clothes along with collected souvenirs, pamphlets and brochures home by mail. This will keep you close to your original weight for baggage.
What goes where?
We usually leave with a duffle bag, a tote bag and a mesh bag. Clean clothes in the duffle, shoes in the mesh and stuff in the tote. By the second day, the mesh has dirty clothes and the shoes are in the end compartments of the duffle. The plastic bags you get with your souvenirs or stuff from Wal-mart also serve well to carry shoes, dirty clothes and not quite dry swim suits from last night's visit to the hot tub.
The tote contains hard items that didn't go in a pocket of the duffle. Consider all the "stuff" that must go on any multi-day trip:
All medications taken regularly. Enough for the trip plus two days. Also, take other medical items as determined by practice. We carry a small container holding a few band aids and a tube of Bacitracin. Take a small supply of general purpose pain relief, Tylenol or Advil. Be sure you have a chapstick.
Milady's makeup and minimal haircare paraphernalia. Try to keep this to a minimum. After all, Milady is not going to a fancy dress ball. What she wears to the market will be sufficient. Most motel rooms have hair dryers now, so leave yours at home unless you can't go out in public until you blow dry your tresses.
Charger(s) for the cell phone and camera batteries. The cell phone charger is a dire necessity. Also, be sure you have a lot of roaming and long distance minutes. You will be calling day 2 destination from day 1 stop, etc. as well as calling home to check with the house/pet sitter.
Miscellaneous items to make daily life easier. These get a little more subjective. A book to read while sitting in the FBO waiting for the morning fog to burn off can be a necessity. We also carry a handful of creamer packets, having learned that the stuff with the motel coffee pot usually has enough for 1 cup.
What's in your flight bag?
Do not plan to live out of your flight bag. It is intended for the necessities of flying, not an overnight case. These are the minima:
- The nav logs and kneeboard printouts. In a folder by probable order of use.
- All the required sectionals. But only the required ones. If you are going to the Gulf Coast from Dallas, why do you need the Kansas City sectional?
- AFD or Flight Guide.
- Big flashlight and small flashlight.
- Spare batteries for all above as required.
- Several pens
Now for some subjective items. I carry a Flight Guide with some blank pages in it. These pages are used for log times and notes. I also carry a small bag with some Advil, a chapstick, wetnaps and creamer packets. (I like some creamer in my coffee, and don't want to be without it).
Some things others carry in their flight bags, we usually leave in the airplane; headsets and clipboard. Don't leave the flight bag in the plane overnight. This is not a security matter, it is a convenience. Every time I have left it in the plane, I have wished I had it several times before the next morning. There have been times when I didn't need it, but.....
Motels and rental cars
The first recommendation here is to give the FBO a chance. They know the best motel deals in their area and quite often have deals with one or more of the local ones. Even in the smallest towns we have overnighted in, the FBO reservations have been more than acceptable. Quite often, they will be local owned places rather than the national chains.
When you call the FBO, you should be ready for them to tell you are on your own. This is rare, it has only happened to us once. Normally, they will want to know rental car size, queen, king or double, smoking or non and the credit card number to hold the reservation. They may also ask about location preferences (Near airport or near attractions) and motel class (Motel 6 or Sheraton Inn or something in between).
We have noticed that there is a wide variety of amenities provided, even within the major chains. We have stayed in only one that I remember which had everything: Buffet breakfast, hot tub, guest laundry, refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, hair dryer, ironing board, and it was far from the most expensive place we have stayed. All of them had some combination of these, but few have all.
The variations on the "continental" breakfast can range from a selection of bagels, pastries and a waffle maker to just coffee and donuts. If your room has a fridge and microwave, your options just expanded. Give the breakfast area a once over during check in to determine the extent of the offering. If the breakfast is of questionable sufficiency, you can hit a local supermarket for a pint of milk, some fruit and a couple of microwaveable sausage and biscuits.
Seeing the sights
In your initial planning, you had a specific purpose for each stop. If that purpose was a local attraction, also look for additional attractions nearby. From these, you can determine the time required to see what there is to see at this stop.
When you arrive, pick up all the pamphlets in the rack at the FBO that interest you. If it is an afternoon stop, that is the only chance to learn about the other attractions you will get. If you are staying overnight, hit the rack at the motel on check-in.
Our normal practice is for the Redhead to locate the local Wal-mart while I negotiate the pattern, so we know where to go to get the items we forgot to pack. Then she hits the brochure rack at the FBO. If it is an afternoon stop, we check them at lunch for any place other than the original intention that we might like to see.
For overnights, we check-in to the motel first to "freshen" up some (give Milady a chance to brush out the Dave Clark hairdo). Then go through the brochures and add any places to our original plan. Normally, we by now have a local map (from the FBO and/or the motel) and can plan the order in which we will see the sights.
For the anal retentives reading this, do not plan to the degree of; 10 minutes drive to site A, 15 minutes there, 15 minutes drive to site B, etc.. Drive time in a strange town with strange streets and traffic is highly unpredictable. That plus the scale and detail of tourist maps in no way approaches that of your sectional charts. Then, Site A may not be worth more than a "Hmm, that's neat. Drive on.". Site B may be closed on Monday, and so on.
En route considerations
Pay attention here gang, we are going to cover a lot of ground.
Do not plan your trip to the tune of: Takeoff from home drome: Day 1, 9:43:30AM, Arrival lunch stop: Day 1, 11:52:35, etc.. If you do, you will be doomed to spend the entire trip behind the curve. This is supposed to be fun, isn't it?
Do not commit to arrival times more than hours in advance. After Day 1, you will be operating from new airports with no familiarity of their operations. You may have to wait 45 minutes while the line crew gets your plane from the hangar or long term parking and fuels it. Or walk 200 yards to preflight it and sometimes schlep your bags that far. Or taxi halfway to your destination for takeoff.
So, your takeoff time will be highly variable. You can estimate that variability by being observant on arrival.
- How diligent is the line crew? Did they meet you on arrival? Did they tie down your plane where you parked or will they be moving it to another location for the night?
- How far from the FBO to parking? Will they bring the plane back up to the door for loading? If they let you drive the rental to the plane to unload, they will probably allow you to drive to it to load up.
- Is the gas self serve? If so, where is the pump? Due to the fuel injected engine I fly, I don't try to fuel and then taxi to parking on arrival. It is much less strain to taxi to fuel in the morning and then re-start the cooler engine for takeoff.
- Where will we be when we start up for takeoff relative to the end of the runway? How long a taxi and probable wait times.
Don't get your weather briefing until after everything else is done. Preflight, fueling (unless it is self serve and you will taxi over there and then to takeoff), loading, turning in the car, etc.. This way, you have a good handle on your likely takeoff time. Call the destination FBO at this time and give them your ETA. And don't forget to ask them about the local weather if there is any doubt from the briefing.
Speaking of ETA, let's talk some more about that. You can work with your E6B and the forecast winds aloft to "predict" your airspeed enroute and arrival time if you wish, but you will never make an arrival time of 11:47:32AM. The winds aloft will never be exactly as forecast. You will not make your estimated airspeed enroute +/- 0.5knots. There are too many variables involved. Go with the flow. I plan on 100knots enroute. I add .2 hours for each pattern exit and entry. I add or subtract by guess for the forecast winds aloft. This gives an ETA +/- 15 minutes and I tell the destination the longer time to the next half hour.
More important than when you get there is time en-route. If you are following this advice for traveling, you should have only enough fuel on board for your estimated time enroute plus reserve. For us, reserve is an hour. But, this brings up the question of fueling. Rule one is do not "tanker" fuel. Every pound of unnecessary weight steals climb rate and airspeed. An extra 10 gallons of fuel adds 60 pounds of extra weight. At higher density altitudes, this can mean the difference between a comfortable climb to cruising altitude or a struggle for that last 500'.
All the expensive fuel flow analyzers in the world do you no good unless you can start with full tanks. So you must learn to estimate the fuel quantities on board with a relatively high accuracy. The first step is to deliberately run a tank dry. Then carefully re-fill it noting specific fuel levels at several points in the process.
How much to the bottom of the tab? Now, add enough to reach the amount specified for the bottom of the tab. Why? If bottom of tab is 15 gallons, noting the bottom of the tab tells you that bottom of the tab means how many gallons useable at the tab and the next step tells you where 15 gallons useable really is. If you have an intermediate indicator (we have a slot in the tab which indicates "20" gallons) repeat this. Then fill to within .5 inch of top and note the total. This is your useable fuel. Within reason, both tanks should give the same results. Now you are ready for loading only enough fuel for your flight.
If it is your plane, learn how to read your fuel gauges. Learn how long it takes from a full tank before the level indicated begins to drop. Learn (for each tank) how much fuel is really in the tank when it reads 1/2 and 1/4. If you are really brave, learn exactly where the indicator is when each tank runs dry (Do not do this for both tanks on the same flight!).
Now before someone jumps my case about trusting the fuel gauges, realize that I have told you to learn what the indications mean and how fast a drop is normal. If the fuel gauge has packed it in, you should be able to recognize the difference between previously observed performance and an anomalous reading. For example, you started with a KNOWN full tank and the gauge normally begins dropping after an hour. If it drops sooner, either you are losing fuel or the gauge is wrong. Assume the former and consult your en-route alternates. If it doesn't start dropping, you must assume that the gauge is dead and you must rely on time for calculating usage from that tank. In this event, revert to pessimistic timing and minimum reserve planning.
The next factor is actual time in flight. If you took off with 3 hours fuel for what should have been a 2 hour flight, do not wait until 2 hours have gone by to assess your fuel state. I do not mean that you must note time to each checkpoint and recalculate your ETE 40 times in the 200 miles. Far from that. Know your takeoff time and when you reach a near midway checkpoint, check the time. How close to your calculated or guestimated time are you? Is the difference significant? Enough to take half of your reserve? Hit the next suitable field and get some more gas.
If you are using flight following and your progress seems significantly different from the nav log, ask Center for your ground speed. If that speed is much slower than your estimate, and will put you deep into your reserve, stop for gas. BTW, Center's speed report is possibly better than your GPS readout (if you have one) as it is averaged over several radar interrogations rather than nearly instantaneously.
The next phase of enroute re-planning is weather delays. Remember that you are "on vacation", not making business appointments. If the weather delays your departure, consult with your companion on alternatives. Do you wish to skip the next destination, abbreviate it or spend extra time there adding a full day to your trip? Is the next destination important enough to wait out the weather? If so, for how long? Is there enough there to fill an extra day or half day?
We were delayed 3 hours at Rapid City on Monday morning. Our original plan was to arrive in Sheridan, Wyoming around noon, eat lunch, and head for Little Big Horn for the afternoon, departing Sheridan Tuesday morning. We decided that we would go when the weather allowed, fill what remained of the afternoon with something else and do Little Big Horn on Tuesday morning. This worked out very well. The motel had the full scope of amenities. We found plenty to do Monday afternoon. The trip to Little Big Horn was not rushed and occupied some 6 hours, a couple of which we might not have had on the original schedule and there was enough to do around Sheridan to finish filling Tuesday. The extra day brought many new and good things. Be flexible!
Which brings us to the neatest part of this means of travel. The ability to adjust your schedule to suit the current situation. What we did with the weather delay was one thing, but far more subtle was what we did with the time in Dodge City. We arrived a little after 5:00PM and were in the motel looking at the literature by 6. We learned that Front Street, the principal attraction, was open until 8, so we headed over here. Finding that if we bought a ticket then, it would be valid the following morning to finish up, we started there. We got to see the gunfight and part of the sights before closing time.
The next morning, we had that to finish and several more things to look for. The flight home would be a little over 3 hours, so we set an arbitrary departure time not later than 2. We had seen all we intended to see by 11:30, so we departed at noon with a lunch stop in Chickasha shortly after 1. Try making that kind of adjustment to your itinerary on a commercial airline.
Or to put it simply:
Take only what you need
Don't take anything you won't need. We have a mantra as we pull out of the driveway: "From this point, if we forgot something, we either do without or buy it when we need it.". We have done both. Don't take clothes you won't wear. Don't take tools you won't use. Don't load gas you won't burn on this leg.
Look around you
You can avoid many problems and inconveniences by looking around beforehand. I discussed studying the airport environment on arrival to assess your exit strategy and checking out the motel breakfast area on check-in to assess the extent of the continental breakfast.
Apply this same strategy to the other aspects of your trip. When you arrive at the motel on laundry day, ask if they have a guest laundry. If they don't, they will normally suggest a local Laundromat. If they don't, check the yellow pages when you get to your room. Then keep your eyes open on your sightseeing for alternatives.
The best battle plan in the world only survives the opening salvo. Be ready to alter plans. Try to have plans with an option B. Do not stick to the original plan when it becomes inconvenient or burdensome. And most of all, if it will lead you into danger, abandon it completely.