Acknowledgements: AIR FACTS (Fernando Pacheco)

 (Ed.Note: The following is taken from Fernando’s article, to provide a real-world example of how to approach a solo cross-country ....)

“After a few days of poor weather and unplanned maintenance, I finally took to the skies in our club’s Cessna 182 to visit my nephew and some friends in Tennessee. This was my longest solo cross country adventure which tested my endurance, weather knowledge, aircraft management, and ability to pre-plan and adjust to conditions.


A week ahead I pre-planned primary and alternate routes, the primary being the most direct route between Allentown (PA) and my final destination of Smyrna (TN). This took me over the high terrain of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. My alternate routes were east of the mountains, traveling south through Maryland and Virginia and then southwest at Roanoke (VA) over even higher elevations. The other alternate was west of the primary route into the Zanesville (OH) area and south through Kentucky and on to Tennessee. 

I began reviewing the various long range forecasts along the various routes of travel, which seemed to indicate my best route would be the west route through Ohio. Therefore, as the date came closer I became more detailed on this route for airports, fuel stops, obstacles, and “all information” I could get my hands on.

Departure from Allentown

The evening before, I created a flight plan on my iPad, filed it, performed a self-brief, and reviewed the weather discussions for the Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee , Virginia, and West  Virginia areas. Based on this review, I adjusted my planning back to the most direct routing through West Virginia.

The morning of departure, I reviewed the most current weather discussion and called Flight Service for a Standard Brief. All was a go, knowing there would be isolated and scattered thunderstorms popping up but no Convective SIGMETS. Yet!

Having already completed a thorough pre-flight of the aircraft, my tools  and myself, the only thing left to do was wait for the cloud cover to lift somewhat. As soon as it ascended enough to allow VFR departure I fired up  and obtained my VFR departure clearance.

As the clouds could still become an issue on my climb-out, I requested a climb in the pattern to increase my margins. Departure could not accommodate my request but this did not pose any undue concern as the clouds continued to open up, andI knew I would be able to manoeuvre around cloud coverage to maintain VFR. This was just the beginning of my many deviations to remain VFR around build-ups both outbound and on the return journey.


My Stratux-based ADS-B receiver was indispensable in identifying weather I needed to steer away from en-route, but always looking out the window I also constantly monitored changes in the build-ups, ensuring I continued to identify and update all the manoeuvring required to remain VFR (climbs, left and right course deviations, descents). 

Eventually, I noted that soon I would not be able to climb high enough around the build-ups, and decided to go below the ceilings. I knew this would be a trade-off between better visibility higher, and lower margins closer to the hills. With that said, I maintained a constant vigilance on visibility and terrain avoidance. Little did I realise that the flight to Smyrna was the warm-up. The main event was saved for the return flight.


For my return, I again planned multiple routes and fuel stops, and went through the same pre-flight planning routine noted above. All the routes planned had multiple isolated showers forecast and I would need to contend with this activity; I therefore chose the most direct route for my northbound return home.

Based on the conditions, I selected and planned two alternate airfields when filing my flight plan. The planning paid off as the first fuel stop had a (storm)cell right over the field. I decided to continue as I had an hour of flight time to destination and was working with the indication that the cell would be 20 miles away by the time I arrived. In the meantime, I noted to myself that I would make the divert decision 20 miles from the field.

At 22 miles the field still appeared IFR. ATC informed me there appeared to be one low VFR departure, but I was not about to attempt a low approach into an unfamiliar airfield with hills in the area. I informed ATC I was diverting to my alternate: Powell.  I contacted Flight Service and informed them of the diversion and increased my arrival time by 20 minutes. During planning, I ensured enough fuel would be available to divert from destination and both alternates, and to continue to Lexington (KY) if needed, or even to return to Smyrna if those were unavailable. 

I decided early on for two fuel stops each way to ensure I always had enough fuel to take a longer route than preferred based on conditions. The planning paid off, as build-ups and isolated/scattered showers and storms were along every route possible to get to Honesdale (PA), that afternoon. I repeatedly needed to navigate off course to maintain VFR. I was constantly observing, evaluating, deciding and executing deviations.


I utilised flight following on both flights and found it interesting that not only did I communicate with the expected Class Charlie and TRSA approaches; I was also handed off to Indianapolis Centre and Memphis Centre based on route and ATC coverage of the different areas. I was not expecting those centres to be involved and will have to see how I change my preparation in the future. I did keep an ear out to the handoffs other aircraft were receiving and anticipated those frequencies having them loaded in standby.

I had a great flight and constant vigilance was maintained throughout, helping me stay ahead of the aircraft and the weather. For example, during my leg north to Clarksburg (WV), there was a small area I identified ahead of me – about 20 miles off and about 10 miles wide according to ATC, who also pointed out that the intensity was undetermined.

I deviated approximately 30 degrees to the left, always aware of the “outs” and as I drew closer and was parallel to the area of disturbance, I informed ATC that the area was very intense in what appeared to be valley fog and heavy rain. This area of precipitation threw off cloud layers, reducing the ceilings. However, I always ensured a heading toward clearer skies and airports as much as possible, and the topping off of fuel allowed this increased margin of safety. 

When  asked later if I had felt uncomfortable or that at any point it was too much for me, the answer was simply no. I always had several “outs”. In communications with ATC, they were always looking out for me also. I was comfortable with my capabilities in the aircraft and know the aircraft’s performance. I planned deviations, changes in altitude and fuel requirements. All I had remaining was to execute for any given condition. I did not hesitate: I decided on a course of action and executed. I re-evaluated if needed. I performed a variant of the Plan, Do, Check, Act continuous improvement cycle. The 3P’s were employed: Perceive (a hazard), Process (evaluate the level of risk), Perform (mitigate or eliminate the risk). I used all the tools I had available to constantly make decisions and adjust for any changes in conditions.

I also took the opportunity to practice entering and programming the Garmin with more involved flight plans and practiced loading approaches utilising them to help me identify the airports quicker”.


Tony Birth