Adequate soaring skills form the basis of the pilot’s preparation for cross-country soaring. Until the pilot has flown several flights in excess of 2 hours and can locate and utilize thermals consistently, the pilot should focus on improving those skills before attempting cross-country flights.
Any cross-country flight may end in an off-field landing, so short-field landing skills are essential. These landings should be practiced on local flights by setting up a simulated off-field landing area. Care is needed to avoid interfering with the normal flow of traffic during simulated off-field landings. The first few simulated landings should be done with an instructor, and several should be done without the use of the altimeter.
The landing area can be selected from the ground, but the best training is selecting one from the air. A self-launching glider or other powered aircraft for landing area selection training and simulated approaches to these areas is a good investment, if one is available.
Once soaring skills have been honed, the pilot needs to be able to determine position along a route of flight. A Sectional Aeronautical Chart, or sectional, is a map soaring pilots use during cross-country flights. They are updated every 6 months and contain general information, such as topography, cities, major and minor roads and highways, lakes, and other features that may stand out from the air, such as a ranch in an otherwise featureless prairie. In addition, sectionals show the location of private and public airports, airways, restricted and warning areas, and boundaries and vertical limits of different classes of airspace. Information on airports includes field elevation, orientation and length of all paved runways, runway lighting, and radio frequencies in use. Each sectional features a comprehensive legend. A detailed description of the sectional chart is found in FAA-H-8083- 25, the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. Figure 11-1 shows a sample sectional chart.
The best place to become familiar with sectional charts is on the ground. It is instructive to fly some “virtual” crosscountry flights in various directions from the local soaring site. In addition to studying the terrain (hills, mountains, large lakes) that may affect the soaring along the route, study the various lines and symbols. What airports are available on course? Do any have a control tower? Can all the numbers and symbols for each airport be identified? If not, find them on the legend. Is there Class B, C, or D airspace en route? Are there any restricted areas? Are there airways along the flightpath? Once comfortable with the sectional from ground study, it can be used on some local flights to practice locating features within a few miles of the soaring site.
Any cross-country flight may end with a landing away from the home soaring site, so pilots and crews should be prepared for the occurrence prior to flight. Sometimes an aerotow retrieve can be made if the flight terminates at an airport; however, trailer retrieval is more typical. Both the trailer and tow vehicle need a preflight before departing on the flight. The trailer should be roadworthy and set up for the specific glider. Stowing and towing a glider in an inappropriate trailer can lead to damage. The driver should be familiar with procedures for towing and backing a long trailer. The tow vehicle should be strong and stable enough for towing. Both radio and telephone communication options should be discussed with the retrieval crew.
Before any flight, obtain a standard briefing and a soaring forecast from the Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS). As discussed in Chapter 9, Soaring Weather, the briefer supplies general weather information for the planned route, as well as any NOTAMs, AIRMETs, or SIGMETs, winds aloft, an approaching front, or areas of likely thunderstorm activity. Depending on the weather outlook, beginners may find it useful to discuss options with more experienced cross-country pilots at their soaring site.
Many pilots have specific goals in mind for their next cross-country flight. Several options should be planned ahead based on the area and different weather scenarios. For instance, if the goal is a closed-course 300 nautical mile (NM) flight, several likely out-and-return or triangle courses should be laid out ahead of time, so that on the specific day, the best task can be selected based on the weather outlook. There are numerous final details that need attention on the morning of the flight, so special items should be organized and readied the day before the flight.
Lack of preparation can lead to delays, which may mean not enough of the soaring day is left to accomplish the planned flight. Even worse, poor planning leads to hasty last-minute preparation and a rush to launch, making it easy to miss critical safety items.
Inexperienced and experienced pilots alike should use checklists for various phases of the cross-country preparation in order to organize details. When properly used, checklists can help avoid oversights, such as sectionals left at home, barograph not turned on before takeoff, etc. Checklists also aid in making certain that safety of flight items, such as all assembly items, are checked or accomplished, oxygen turned on, drinking water is in the glider, etc. Examples of checklists include the following:
- Items to take to the gliderport (food, water, battery, charts, barograph).
- Assembly must follow the Glider Flight Manual/ Pilot’s Operating Handbook (GFM/POH) and add items as needed.
- Positive control check.
- Prelaunch (water, food, charts, glide calculator, oxygen on, sunscreen, cell phone).
- Pretakeoff checklist itself.
- Briefing checklist for tow pilot, ground crew, and retrieval crew.
Being better organized before the flight leads to less stress during the flight, enhancing flight safety.