Low Level Cross Country:
Training for the Real Thing

Budd Davisson, as appeared in Flight Training Magazine

Don't wait for lowering ceilings to trap you: practice the skills you'll need to survive them

We’ve all been there: we’re trundling along headed for grandma’s house and things start getting gray and ugly. The clouds are forcing us lower and visibility is going south along with everything else. The only thing getting higher is the pucker factor and we can feel that damp spot growing in the palm of our hands. Panic is nibbling at the edges of our self-control and it’s time to make some hard decisions.

The problem with this kind of scenario is that although we practice like crazy for the nasty crosswind we know lays somewhere in our future and we’re always on the watch out for stall-spin situations, we really don’t do much training for getting caught under the klag. Even though the majority of enroute accidents are weather related, we really don’t do simulations in which we practice being forced to fly under weather and how to find our way out.

Of course, the real solution to all of this is to keep out of marginal weather situations in the first place—when it looks as if you’re getting forced down, backtrack to the nearest friendly airport and wait it out. That’s why a laptop and/or good book should always be part of your flight gear, so you’ll have something to do while waiting.

Sometimes, however, brown stuff just happens: for reasons so numerous they could be the subject of a book, we find ourselves down there at 500-800 ft AGL wishing we were some place else. For that reason, let’s construct some training scenarios that are meant to build experience so, should we find ourselves where we don’t want to be, we’ll at least be able to cope with it, rather than having to invent techniques as we go along.

A major danger in being forced to fly below our comfort zone is that we’ll become incredibly stupid as the result of panic turning our brain to mush. The way we avoid that is by training for this eventuality and the best training is to fly a few short cross countries at altitudes much lower than we’d normally fly.

“Low” is defined by a combination of your personal comfort zone, the local topography (700 feet AGL in Nebraska is a lot different than 700 AGL feet in parts of Colorado) and the presence of cities, towers and other things you’d just as soon not bump into. The definition of “low” can also be altered by the visibility: 700 feet with ten miles vis is an entirely different situation than 700 feet with 3 miles visibility.  One is an inconvenience requiring some navigation skills and the other can be flat spooky.

Your conduct when under low clouds is critical: you have to monitor cloud trends. If you even suspect things are going down hill, set yourself a minimum long before you get low, while at the same time keeping track of the weather behind you. It’s a real bummer to think you can 180 out of a situation to find that it has closed down behind you.

Keep talking on the radio and find out what’s happening at local airports ahead and behind. Flight Service Stations can give you info about where they are located but getting enroute info via Unicom and local pireps is actually more accurate. When you see the altimeter coming down to your pre-set minimum, immediately divert either to the airport you just passed that was clear, or to an alternate that you have already determined is clear. Make the decision early and give yourself lots and lots of margin. It’s far better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground.

When discussing low level cross country training, we’re going to define “low” as being an altitude that is at the very bottom of your comfort zone but consistent with safe operations in the area in which you’ll be flying. We’re definitely not advocating getting down and playing with trees and telephone poles.

One of the first things you’ll notice, when you get low, is that your view across the ground is drastically different than from only a thousand feet higher. As the angle-of-view flattens out, not only does the radius of vision get much smaller, so you can’t see nearly as far around you, but everything looks different. One of the old bush pilot training axioms is that every route you fly regularly, maybe your favorite hamburger runs, should be flown a number of times at minimum altitude just so you see how much different even familiar landmarks look at that altitude. The difference is shocking.

Because of the limited visibility, navigation, especially pilotage (flying by land marks), becomes much more difficult. Of course, someone is going to say, “Yeah, but we can always tune in a VOR.” That is definitely not true and is one of the problems with being forced low: the lower you get, the shorter the VOR range becomes until that mode of navigation becomes totally useless. This is where the GPS is both a monstrous help and a monstrous danger.

The specter of getting lost when under the clouds is very real and it used to be one of the major deterrents that kept us from pushing into marginal weather: if you aren’t exactly sure where you are, you will be very conservative with your weather-related decisions. Since the GPS always locates us exactly, it eliminates that one fear factor and sings a little siren song in our ear, tempting us to fly deeper into weather we know is not healthy for us. “Come on,” it says. “The airport is right over there, barely ten miles away. Yeah, you’re really low, but the clouds probably won’t get much lower. Go for it.”

Remember those personal minimums we mentioned earlier? This is when you have to override your gethereitis and tell yourself that even though you know the airport is close, you’re already at your minimums and it’s time to go to Plan B.

There’s also the little problem of GPS reliability. It would not be a lot of fun to push into the gray stuff only to find that it’s masking one of those areas where GPS’s don’t work worth a damn. Or worse yet, you’re down there picking your way between the trees and the GPS batteries decide to die. Or a meteor hits that satellite. Or a sun storm drives all navigation hardware batty. Look at it this way—if you are totally dependent on a mechanical device to tell you where you are and have no viable fall back solution, what will happen to you if it fails? Not a pretty picture.

The training scenario we’re going to construct simulates being unexpectedly pushed down by weather and having to navigate our way to an alternate airport. One of the keys to this is that you won’t be told what that alternate destination is until you’re in the air on the way to some place else.  So, you have to do all of the cross country planning on-the-fly, so to speak. Take a buddy with you so you have two sets of eyes and an extra brain that can make up for the amount of thinking power yours is going to give up while trying to solve your dilemma. Have him pick a destination that is at least an hour away and is obscure enough that you won’t have a clue where it is. It doesn’t have to be an airport. In fact, something like a teeny-weeny town no one has ever heard of is ideal.

Okay, so you’re driving along toward one of your favorite burger joints at the lowest altitude at which you’re comfortable and which local topographical conditions say is safe. Your buddy looks over and says, “Okay, let’s go to Minco.”  He sticks the chart in front of your nose with a circle around a landmark you didn’t even know existed and you’re on your own.

First, you have to recognize that a couple of things have to happen fairly quickly because you’re moving across the ground at about two miles a minute. So, the longer it takes to do your navigating, the less accurate it will be because your starting point will change. To reduce that effect, take a look at the approximate direction to your destination indicated on the map and take up a new compass heading that points you in that general direction while carefully noting on the map where you made that turn with a pencil mark.

Immediately take the sectional and pinch it between your fingers at both your current position and the destination, then pull the map across your thigh. That will put a crease between the two points and that becomes your course line. You can tighten the crease by running your finger nails over it. Then take your pencil (you do fly with a pencil in your pocket don’t you?) and rub it along the crease, which produces an honest to goodness course line. This assumes that, like most people, you don’t fly with a plotter on board, which could also be pointed out as being a bad practice.

So, now you have a course line but don’t know what its exact magnetic heading is. Don’t worry about that, just lay your pencil on the map parallel to your course and roll it until it lays across a VOR rose. That will give the course corrected for local variation and all you have to do is apply the few degrees difference that is indicated on the correction card under your compass to get an exact compass heading that, as yet, has no wind correction in it. Make a guess how much wind there is, and from which direction, and crank a few degrees in that direction.

The foregoing shouldn’t take more than 90 seconds, start to finish, so you now have a course line and the compass heading that’s needed to fly that course line. Of course, we’re low, so we can’t see very far down the course line, plus, we’re assuming we’re in lousy weather, so we may not be able to see more than a couple miles ahead and can’t fly from check point to check visually. Plus, the destination is so small we could easily drive right past it and never know that it’s there. We need some ETA’s so we know when to start looking.

The moment we turned on course, we should have written that time right on the sectional where we started. In a couple of minutes we’re bound to see some sort of land mark that we can identify on the sectional and we write the time next to that land mark. With a little mental math manipulation, we now know how long it took to fly that distance. We don’t know exactly what that distance is but (and this is important) it’s not important that we know what that distance is.

We’re not interested in our speed. The only thing of importance is that we predict a time at which we should be arriving at our destination and at any intermediate checkpoints that we want to identify. We can figure that out using the time it took us to fly from our turn point to our first landmark.

Let’s say it took 4.5 minutes to fly that distance. We lay our pencil on the course line with the tip of the pencil at the new landmark/checkpoint and put our thumbnail on the pencil where our turn point was (our starting point). So, that length of pencil represents 4.5 minutes of flying time. We put the pencil on the course line with our thumbnail on the  new landmark where we took our time and make a mark with the pencil tip on the course line ahead of us. Then move our pencil, with our thumb on it, up to that mark and make another mark. We segment the rest of the course into pieces with pencil marks that we know are 4.5 minutes apart. By counting those segments and multiplying, we know how many minutes it’s going to take to get to our destination. Eight segments, for instance, is eight times 4.5 or thirty-six minutes.

If we want to get fancy, we can mark the progressive ETA’s at each of the pencil marks on the course line ahead of us, which will give us ETA’s to the more recognizable landmarks ahead, which will then allow us to check our progress.  Ideally, because of the limited visibility, we’ll find checkpoints as close together as possible, but don’t pick subtle things on the sectional that you will have trouble identifying. That confuses the issue too much. Also, scan the course line ahead on the sectional for obstacles (mountains, towers, etc.) and draw bold circles around them so you know exactly where they are.

From that point on, it is basic dead reckoning but, because of the limited visibility, we’re going to be much more critical of our flying because we don’t have much margin for error. First, we’re going to hold our compass heading as exact as we can—when you’re plowing through the haze, even one degree off is too much. When we hit a check point, we want to hit it dead center, if we’re off one way or the other, and we’ve been holding a steady compass heading, then the logical assumption is that our wind correction wasn’t quite right and we increase or decrease it one degree and then see how that works out on the next check point.

The name of this game is to develop an understanding of how important it is to be exact in both your navigating and your flying, as well as being more observant of landmarks when you’re low. At even 1000 feet AGL, we can be off by a couple of miles and still see our destination, but that margin rapidly disappears as you come down in altitude.

So, the next time you’re making a hamburger run, make it a lower-than-normal cross country and let your flying buddy pick the place. You’ll both learn something along the way. BD

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