Not all that comfortable with a long flight over strange territory? Jim Davis, founder of the Live Cowards’ Club, has some tips that will turn this potentially scary flight into one that is not only safe, but also a whole lot of fun.
My first serious cross-country was from Wonderboom Airport, just north of Pretoria, to Windhoek in South West Africa. It was via Kuruman and Keetmanshoop, two little towns hidden in the vast desert wilderness, and my mount was a Super Cub with no DI and no radios.
I was 25-years-old and had a total of 135 hours, so 1000 across the desert in a rag and string aeroplane held no terrors for me. I simply drew lines across the maps and blasted off into the boonies. My only concessions to the possible dangers of such a flight consisted of wearing my wife’s straw hat, because the aircraft had a Perspex roof, and putting a gallon can of water in the back.
Had the God who looks after little children and low-hour pilots swatted me from the air like a fly she would have been quite justified. But at that time, although my experience basket was empty, my luck basket was brimming. That same God is not always so benign. She can be moody and peevish and may develop a twitch in her swatting hand. So here are some pointers to help you to avoid her occasional bitchy swipes.
What ifs and back doors
Imagine you have set off for the horizon. The last place you recognised was a railway line you crossed about mid-afternoon.
The ETA for your night-stop has come and gone. The sparse countryside refuses to tally with the map. It is strewn with rocks that cast long shadows in the evening light. The fuel gauges are close to zero. Your passengers are becoming infected by your sweat - they too can read gauges.
It’s decision time. Will you tear the aircraft apart on the rocks below, while you can still see them? Or will you do nothing and fly into the night until the tanks are as dry as your mouth?
Getting into this situation is voluntary. It only happens if you ignore things called ‘what ifs’ and ‘back doors’. It’s about planning - asking “what if?” and then planning a back door.
You start a few days before take-off with the most important what if - what if I have strong headwinds - will I run out of daylight or fuel? Where is my back door? Can I use that farm strip on the map? Do they have fuel there? Can I carry more fuel in the tanks? Does it depend on the weight of my pax and luggage? What if they turn up with too much clobber? Back door - call them now and tell them the maximum they can bring.
What if there’s a massive wind blowing slap across that narrow dirt runway? Can I land somewhere nearby that has two runways and won’t be muddy or covered in sheep? What if this alternate has no fuel? What if? What if?
What if I can take extra weight? Chuck another can of water or a bag of oranges in the back with the rest of the survival kit. Oranges can be a life-saving back door in the desert.
There are thousands of what ifs, but they mostly fall into three categories: fuel, airfields, and navigation. Let’s have a look at them. I will just touch on the what ifs of weather – that needs a whole separate article.
If fuel were unlimited then most of your problems would disappear. Dodgy airfields could be overflown, crappy weather avoided, and nav would be no sweat – you just keep flying until you find yourself. But that isn’t the case. Fuel is always limited and the less you have the greater the other problems become. So let’s have a hard look at the fuel story.
First, be sure you understand your fuel system. If you are flying a Cherokee it makes sense to run one tank for half an hour, then the other for an hour, and back to the first for an hour, and so on. If you get two hours and 40 minutes out of the left, then the right will give you pretty much the same - allowing a bit for the climb.
Try this on a 100 series Cessna and you will be dry long before you expect it. The tanks are joined by a vent pipe which is not meant to cross-feed – but does. So if you fill up in the evening and park with one wing down, or even with a soft tyre, by the next morning an hour’s fuel can have cross-fed, overflowed and disappeared into the grass or sand. It also happens in the air, particularly if the ball is not bang in the middle.
Some fuel-injected aircraft have systems that deliver too much fuel to the engine and return the surplus to one of the tanks. This means that you can be flying on the right main and pumping fuel into the left main which quietly overflows into the slipstream.
If you don’t understand your Tripacer’s fuel system you can run out of gas while there is still an hour in the auxiliary - you just can’t get at it!
What happens if a bug makes a nest in one of your fuel vents? Maybe nothing. Perhaps the engine will stop while you still have plenty of fuel. Perhaps a bladder-tank will collapse and scrunch itself into a little prune-like ball. Then you will run dry on the next leg because your 25 gallon tank now holds only seven gallons when it’s full to the brim.
Don’t just think you understand your fuel system – it is something you need to be very sure about.
How about running a tank dry? It is both a good idea and bad one. I would do it if I thought I would be landing with very little fuel. I don’t want to be in the circuit with all the gauges knocking zero and not knowing which tank holds the last few litres. Run dodgy tanks dry while you have altitude. Then you know that all the fuel on board is in the tank you are using near the ground.
One of the reasons for not running a tank dry is that with some engines you can ‘de-tune’ the counterweights on the crankshaft by having sudden surges of power and no power. There is also the chance of getting air into the fuel system. It should clear after a while - but it makes you squirm.
The POH for the Arrow, for instance, says it takes 10 seconds to restore power after running a tank dry. Maybe it does, but it seems like 10 minutes. There is a very real danger that you get fed up waiting and switch back to an empty tank.
If you are going to run a tank dry, first tell your passengers. Then put on the pump and watch the fuel-pressure or fuel-flow gauge like a hawk. At the first flicker, throttle smoothly back, change tanks then only open the throttle when the pressure or flow has steadied again. Running a tank dry is a back door procedure. Only use it as a last resort.
Finally, because proper fuel management is so important to bush flying, dig into the books and understand the leaning procedures and fuel-flow figures for your aircraft. Also, revise range and endurance flying - both can be excellent back doors.
When the fuel runs low you will need an airfield with three things: a suitable runway to land on, a suitable runway for take-off (not necessarily the same thing), and the correct grade of fuel and a means of getting it into your aircraft.
Suitable for landing means it must be long enough, the approach and overshoot must be clear, it must be flattish, smoothish and strong enough. It must have no ditch across it, the rain must not have eroded its surface, and you must be able to see all this by doing a fly-past – long grass may be hiding these imperfections. Bush strips are often heavily cambered to prevent standing water. The camber must not be too steep for you to handle. It plays hell with directional control.
If it is black soil, make sure it’s not too wet, because it gets soft and boggy. If it’s slightly wet it sticks to your wheels and rips the spats off. And if it’s really dry it develops cracks that can swallow your nose-wheel. The problem is that black soil absorbs water so readily that it’s difficult to see how wet it is. Check for dust on nearby roads.
If the earth is red, look out for greener patches that can hide mud or water. Claypans, which are brilliant landing areas when dry, become ice rinks when wet. Saltpans can be like after-dinner mints – hard on the outside and soft underneath. Be very careful.
Didn’t know you were allowed to land on pans? Actually you can land pretty well anywhere that conforms to two requirements. First, you must have permission from the owner or caretaker of the ground, and second, you must establish that it’s safe for landing and take-off.
You can do this from the air. But obviously if anything goes wrong this means that you didn’t inspect it properly so you contravened the law. Also, check that your insurance covers unlicensed fields.
The narrowness of bush strips often makes them look longer than they are. If in doubt, fly over it at 100kts into wind, and time it (about 50m per sec). 10 seconds will give you the equivalent of 500m - it will only be an actual 500m if there is no wind. Be sure you understand the implications.
Doing it into wind, the runway will be shorter than you measure, but it should be okay for landing because of the headwind. However you may find yourself wanting to take off on it tomorrow with no wind - and full tanks.
Bush strips are sometimes built for the owner’s STOL aircraft and are not designed for city-based road-runners. They may have only one direction because of wires or other obstructions. They are often near the homestead – and a radio mast. They tend to harbour bits of barbed-wire, animal-holes, and soft or slippery patches.
Windsocks blow away. Windmills don’t always point into wind - some are rusted and some have the tail pulled round. There are seldom tie-downs - take your own. Some strips double as roads and may be corrugated or have traffic.
A grass surface can hide obstructions, and cause miserable braking when wet or frosty. Long grass can double the length of your take-off run.
Also, the seeds can block your air intakes as well as pitot, static and breather vents. If the grass is long and dry you can set fire to it with your exhaust.
If in doubt, walk the area before taxiing on it - there is nothing more stupid than landing successfully, and then taxiing into a hole and bending the prop. In soft sand let plenty of air out of your tyres for taxiing and take-off - it makes a massive difference.
Talking of sand - never, ever fly low over sand or dunes – their height is unbelievably deceptive. It’s easy to fly smack into one when you think you are well above them.
Buy either the Country Airstrip Guides to cover your route, or AOPA’s Airfields Directory which covers the whole of Australia. Both publications tell you all about the bush-strips and unlicensed fields that are not in the ERSA. Both tell you about bush-strips and unlicensed fields that may be lifesavers.
And a warning - country folk like to be visited. When you phone to ask about their strip, they will lie to you and tell you it’s fine. Don’t believe them. Ask about the length, the surface, the approaches, the wetness and all the other good things.
Ask what was the last aircraft to land there, and when this was.
I once phoned a country police station to ask about the weather.
“It’s fine - couldn’t be better,” the cop said. When I asked if he could see any clouds he replied, “Yes everywhere. We haven’t had rain like this for years.”
Beware of dust storms that lurk in or near thunderstorms and are seldom forecast. Fortunately, they move quickly. It’s often best to come back to your endurance power-setting and hang around - another reason for carrying plenty of fuel.
In summer beware of whirlwinds and dust-devils or cockeyed-bobs, or whatever you call them. They are very hard to spot if the ground is damp.
Now let me show you how to make navigation easier, more accurate and a whole lot more fun than the way you were likely taught.
In the early 1960s I was a charter pilot based in Kimberley in South Africa. I had a brand new license and no idea where anywhere was. The boss would phone me and say, “Davis, get the aircraft out of the hangar, you are taking three people to Kakamus. They will be there in 10 minutes.”
It would take me more than 10 minutes to find Kakamus on the map, let alone draw lines, measure angles, look for checkpoints, and fill in a flight log. So I devised a cunning plan. With my protractor centred on Kimbreley and the N pointer on magnetic north, I drew 10º radials out in all directions. I then drew 20 mile circles so that my map looked like a dart-board with Kimberley as the bullseye.
This meant that once I had found Kakamas, or wherever, I had a ready drawn-in track-line, the magnetic heading and the distance all sorted out. In other words, as soon as I knew where I was going all my flight planning was done. Each 20 mile mark would take eight minutes at the 235 Cherokee’s cruise speed of 150mph. Kakamas is 12.5 marks from Kimberley, which means 250 miles. It’s also 12.5 x eight mins = 100mins, or one hour and 40mins. And it sits on the 290º radial.
What more do you want? You have got the line drawn, your magnetic track, the distance and the time all there right in front of you without touching pencil or paper. Actually, you’ve got much more. You have an automatic wind correction machine on your lap. If the 20 mile marks start taking nine minutes instead of eight – then you have a headwind.
It doesn’t matter how many knots it is – you simply know that your ETA will be one minute late for each marker. 10º drift lines are also right in front of you. You can also guestimate, within a minute or two, the time to any point along your route or to any diversion within 40 or 50 miles of track.
Then you have the peace of mind that comes from seeing it all laid out in front of you. There are no creeping doubts about whether you subtracted the variation instead of adding it, or whether you tied yourself up converting statute to nautics.
And you won’t do anything goofy like trying to steer the TAS – which happens if you have a cockpit full of figures. The cockpit is clean – no bits of paper and silly numbers. You just look outside and see where you are going, like God intended it.
Of course, you won’t want the whole dartboard, all you need is a good bold track and the 20 mile markers. Anyhow, that’s how I do it. But whichever way you navigate, here are some golden rules for getting it right over featureless country.
Navigate all the time
You can’t be lost if you know where you were two minutes ago. If you are not sure where you were two minutes ago then you couldn’t have known your position two minutes before that. And so on. Look at it another way – the point at which you stop navigating is your last known position.
Keep the map on your lap with a big, solid track-line pointing to the front of the aircraft. This puts everything on the map where it is on the ground. Move your finger along it as you go, and write the time on it whenever you pass a recognised feature like an airfield, riverbed, railway line, etc. You really can’t get lost if you do this. Also, if you suddenly need that airfield, it can be very handy to know it’s eight minutes behind you.
Treat your 1:1 000 000 badly - use felt-tip pens, write times on it, draw airfield diagrams on it, do your sums in the margins. Why? Because that way it gets messed up and you buy a new one. It is just silly to work with out of date maps.
Dog-leg your flight to keep within gliding distance of roads or railway lines. It makes your navigation easy - and your mind peaceful.
Watch the big picture
When you take off don’t blindly set heading – get your head on a swivel and have a look at the big picture. Are you leaving the coast at about the proper angle? Is that major road, railway-line, power-line etc going off at the correct angle to your track? Does the range of hills look right? Is the sun where you expect it?
This must all look good within the first few minutes otherwise you will find you are steering 230 instead of 320, or setting your gyro to 300 when the compass reads 030. Then keep the big picture going all the time.
Don’t panic if you can’t tie up the exact spot where the secondary road crosses the dried-up riverbed. As long as the railway line is where you expect it, you are still tracking towards the salt-pans, and the power line is going off at the proper angle.
Common-sense Vs knit-picking numbers
When a low-hour pilot gets into the cockpit with an armfull of papers, numbers, whirly-wheels, calculators, graphs and tables, he/she is about to become a confused human being. Your chances of getting lost are in direct proportion to the volume of numbers you use.
I’m not saying don’t use numbers. Do whatever you need to to give you a heading and some ETA’s - just don’t clutter the cockpit with figures. Leave the background work in the background. Only have on your lap what common-sense dictates you will need. This leaves you free to keep your eyes outside to make sure that the scenery conforms to the map.
Experienced bush pilots and military pilots often have all they need written on the map. They use a bold track-line with 20 mile markers and an arrow showing the magnetic track. Solid, basic, common-sense stuff.
Be a detective
Squeeze every bit of information out of each clue on the map. Tiny symbols can represent major landmarks. The minute blue dot on your map that indicates a waterhole is likely to be the centre of radiating animal tracks you can see for miles. Those little brown sandridges on the chart give a wonderful indication of direction. If your track crosses them at 25º you will see exactly that on the ground.
That miniature pick and shovel depicting a mine might be a dump you can spot 50 miles away; but it might also be a hole in the ground that you will never see. Wheat silos can be great landmarks. But be wary of that little black square which hints at a building, homestead or post office. This haven can easily be hiding under a big tree, while you identify it as that bunch of farm buildings 10 miles away.
Be careful when using roads as navigational features - they do change. Railway lines and rivers are less fickle. In the outback, a road might be the right one - but a railway line is the railway line.
Fly high – 8000’ to 10,000’. This gets you above the heat and turbulence, gives excellent VHF range, and you can see for ever.But it also flattens hills so you won’t get much help from those spot-heights and contours. Watch out for birds, even high up, and particularly near inland water. Get your pax involved in playing ‘spot the birdie’. With a late afternoon ETA, err to the west of your destination. You will see it 40 miles away with the sun shining on white walls. And you can miss it by half a kilometre if you are on the other side peering into the sun.
That must be Hotazell
Because something is roughly on track or close to ETA it is easy to say, “that must be Hotazell”. Don’t do it – it’s guaranteed to get you lost. Once you have five supporting features you are permitted a tentative, “that might be Hotazell”.
Don’t trust your feelings
You want to get lost? Follow your feelings. I once tested a student who kept edging off to the left because he has this feeling we were right of track. After half an hour he had turned round – we had gone through an unbelievable 140º. Sound silly? It’s easy to do. The rule is very simple - only alter heading when you have a positive reason.
If you think you are lost – stick to your heading. Don’t circle or wander. Now get the big picture - The mountains are still on your left, you haven’t crossed the railway yet. You can’t have gone more than 100 miles since the river, or less than 70, and you can’t be more than 20º off track - so you must be somewhere in an area the size of a matchbox. That’s not lost. Head for a line-feature if you want – the road, the hills, the railway or the coast. Being ‘lost’ is in your head.
GPS is not a nav system, it’s a back door
If you can’t do without it, then cancel the trip. If you see it as a back door – then you understand the game.
Always let someone know your route, even if you don’t file a flight plan. It can make the difference between getting found and dying in the bush.
Finally, there’s no substitute for local knowledge. Get hold of the local greybeard, buy him a pint and ask him for the special what ifs and back doors for this flight. Then relax and have fun.
Jim Davis has 15,000 hours of immensely varied flying experience,
including 10,000 hours civil and military flying instruction. He is an
established author, his current projects being an instructors’ manual
and a collection of Air Accident analyses, called Choose Not To Crash. Visit Jim's website by clicking here.
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