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Flight planning for low and slow

Ensconced in a tiny cozy cabin near the Pacific Coast I have managed to put the time to good use. While my husband was out fishing and hopefully catching salmon for dinner, I brewed a pot of good strong coffee, extended the leaves on a little table and got busy with some nitty gritty route planning. My dog Pitot held down the futon while I reacquainted myself with the art of plotting courses for an airplane with short range, low altitudes, and slow speeds. I realized quite quickly that I have become a bit rusty. For the past several years, any extensive flight planning I’ve done has been for jets. Such flight planning is fairly simple. Typically jet airways, straight lines from point to point are used, or just direct routing from departure airports to the destination. Software and websites make quick work of determining routing, weather, times enroute, fuel burn and filing a flight plan. Doing the flight planning for the trip in the Student Prince from Port Townsend to Moraine, Ohio proved to be much more involved. First and foremost, because the airplane is not capable of flying at jet altitudes, terrain is always a consideration. Following interstate highways through the lowest passes is my plan of action. The highways don’t always track in a straight line, so frequently I plotted several different courses between departure and arrival airports. I certainly don’t want to mistakenly follow the wrong road in the middle of the Rockies! Secondly, the Prince has a markedly short range. Holding only 21 gallons of fuel and burning approximately 7 to 8 gallons per hour while cruising around 85 miles per hour with no wind, makes legs between fuel stops less than 200 miles. With a healthy fuel reserve.

So with terrain and airplane performance (or lack thereof) dictating the routing, I got busy with a good old fashioned plotter, a pencil, and a calculator. There are some electronic flight planning applications available, and I have been utilizing them for big picture planning, but I feel much more comfortable with the tactile experience of snapping course lines on a nice fresh sectional. It was fun getting up close and personal with the details I’ll be looking for from the air. So much more so than flying a jet, when landmarks aren’t as relevant as are identifiers which pass under the airplane symbol on an electronic display in the cockpit, not unlike a video game. In the biplane, I will be looking sharply at the groud for all manner of details. Lakes, rivers, towns, railroad tracks, power lines, airports and mountains. Lots of mountains.

I plotted my route from western Washington through the Cascade mountains following the highway through Stevens Pass. At the the apex of the mountain crossing, the elevation of the highway is 4056 feet. If a pilot can make it over the pass with room to spare, it’s all down hill toward the open, rolling, drier side of the state. Very often the key to making a successful crossing is that the cloud heights in western Washington are high enough to cross. More often than not, once the the pass is crossed, an eastbound pilot will feel like an emerging mole, coming from dark gray skies to blue. Fuel stop number one is planned at Waterville. An airport with an elevation of 2645 feet, it sits on a high bench overlooking a north/ south leg of the mighty Columbia River. From there, an almost due easterly course to Couer D’ Alene, Idaho. The scenery will consist of open country, irrigated farmland, plateaus, the Columbia River and take us just north of Spokane, Washington. During the segment near Spokane, extra vigilance will be required due to the nearby proximity of the Spokane international, Fairchild Air Force Base and Felts Field airports. With a full tank of fuel, we will follow Interstate 90 through the massive Rocky Mountains and over Mullan Pass which is a mile above sea level. And that’s if you’re on the highway! The topographical color gradient of the sectional during this segment goes from a light beige approaching the the mountains and in some valleys to foreboding and threatening light orange indicating very tall peaks. The mountain segment absolutely requires optimal weather conditions.

I got carried away by the romantic, adventure conjuring names of landmarks. Rose Lake, Eagle Peak, Lookout Pass, the Cabinet Mountains, the Bitterroot Range, the Tobacco Mountains. A land that along with the challenging flying conditions due to rugged terrain, thin air and decreased performance, is sure to offer heart stopping scenery. We will be smelling the fresh alpine air from the open cockpit while having a literal Rocky Mountain high.

Missoula, Montana will serve as our third fuel stop after which we will follow I 90 as it wends it’s way east with a few north and south excursions. The color of the peaks on the sectional from Missoula over Bowman and Butte Montana is even denser. A burnt umber, warning pilots that the highest terrain rises to altitudes of 10,000 to 11,000 feet. Twenty miles west of Billings, Three Forks airport sells aviation fuel and will serve as our 4th stop. Still planning on following the interstate, the 5th fuel stop will be Laurel, Montana. From Laurel, although our desired course would be further south, the lack of range and airports with fuel make it necessary for our course to turn slightly north for the duration of our flight over Montana and into North Dakota. We will bid farewell to our faithful asphalt Sacajawea, I 90, just east of Billings, and follow new guides, I 94 and the Yellowstone River over the high open country of Big Sky eastern Montana. Over Miles City, Montana we will take up a more due easterly course as we leave I 94 and put our shadow over highway 12. Nearly on the Montana, North Dakota border, we will land for the last time in Montana while eastbound and fuel at the Baker airport.

With the challenges and hazards of the mountains at our backs, the challenges of the Great Plains will lie ahead. Namely thunderstorms. Ideally, getting most of our flying done early in the day before the heating of the earth starts the lifecycle of thunderstorms should minimize our exposure to them. Additionally, getting thorough weather briefings each day will be of utmost importance. Jerry and I plan on meeting in a few days to complete our planning and review the final details of our trip. We will be prepared and flexible enough to contend with foreseeable contingencies. Even if that means changing our routing or deciding to remain on the ground. A good pilot always leaves themselves options and it’s better to be on the ground worrying about the flight than the other way around!

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2 responses »

  1. Waterville. A nice little all American town. An ex-fiance and I looked around there and toyed with the idea of moving there. Beautiful country with green valleys hiding here and there. The Lewis nand Clark trail went near there.

    Reply
  2. Sounds wonderful! I’ve never been there, but the countryside is lovely. I’ll post some pics for you when we fly over…..

    Reply

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