Adventure Flying Guide – The Pilot

Adventure Flying Guide – The Pilot

Despite what some people will say, you don’t need to have thousands of hours experience and training behind you to set off on a flying adventure. My first long trip was from Florida to California and back in 2007, renting a Cessna 172 and throwing camping gear in the back, setting off towards the west coast. I had about 150 hours in my logbook, although about 50 of those were in the US, so flying there was not a new experience. I had no experience of mountain flying or high density altitudes; most importantly, though, I knew of them, and that I’d need to be very cautious, and I knew roughly what I could expect.

“Know what you don’t know”

Have a proper understanding of your own capabilities, and be very aware of what you don’t know. Gaps in your knowledge are OK, as you can work to fill them or work around them, but not realising that there are things you don’t know can lead you into trouble.

An example would be the effect of density altitude. We all learn about it in pilot training, but many pilots then live their lives near sea level and never fly above a few thousand feet. Until I flew my first adventure, across the US, I’d never flown outside of Florida or the UK, and had no first hand experience of high density altitudes or flying in the mountains. I did however know about the phenomenon, so I was able to read up about it, get a bit of advice from pilots who knew about it, and play everything very safe.

Add picture: Addis Ababa, density altitude example.

In this guide, I am not going to cover all of these things in detail. The knowledge gaps will be different for every pilot, and much more experienced educators than me have already written about these to much greater effect than I can. Examples of this kind of thing include, but are by no means limited to:

Density altitude and its effect on take-off performance

Mountain flying

New classes of airspace, such as Class B, and the rules associated

Crossing international borders

Long water crossings

Using message relays for communication

How to do proper position reporting and generate/pass estimates

Operations from grass, dirt, gravel, or other surfaces

Add pictures: runway types.

Operating around snow and ice

There are many places you can go to educate yourself further on these and other topics. Pilot stores will often carry books on some of these subjects. One of the best approaches is to ask pilots who you know are already experienced in the topic, and an instructor can often point you to the right person. Asking on an online pilot forum or discussion group will almost always get you good results and contacts, and links to a few can be found on the “links” page of this website.

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Learn from others, but trust yourself too

Before planning any adventure, try and talk to more experienced pilots who have done similar trips, and get an understanding of what to expect. This can take the shape of speaking to people who have done similar full adventures, or of speaking to local pilots from various locations along your planned route. Ideally, a combination of both! You’ll pick up invaluable tips such as local procedures, preferred routes, how to deal with ATC, file flight plans, get fuel, and much more.

Facebook pilot groups, and online pilot forums, are great ways of getting in contact with people. For some reason, most of the more “hardcore” adventure flyers don’t seem very interested in talking with others and sharing knowledge about their trips; but there are still a few out there who are happy to help, and forums and Facebook groups are always a huge source of information (often, more than you bargain for – be ready to separate the wheat from the chaff, and identify who actually knows what they’re talking about!)

Don’t be discouraged by naysayers; there are always plenty of them. Before I flew the Maule to Egypt, the two rather more elderly and experienced UK pilots who were going to fly it back got in touch with me and let me know that they were pulling out, as they’d determined it just wasn’t feasible. They strongly advised me to pull out too. Despite being older and having flown for longer, I don’t think they’d ever really flown more than 100 miles from their home before. I simply decided to fly both there and back myself, instead. It was satisfying to be able to send them a photograph of the Giza pyramids from overhead and let them know they’d missed on a great opportunity. Always listen to criticism or warnings because sometimes they’ll be valid, but don’t be scared off by them. If you have confidence in the research and assessment that you’ve done, then don’t let others put you off.

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Plan your flight around your qualifications

A common question is “Do I need to have my instrument rating to do this kind of flight?” The short answer is “No, but it helps”.

My first flights, around the US, were undertaken before I had my instrument rating. Somewhere like the US this worked out fine; there is always an airport close by if you need to divert, and we planned our trips with plenty of flexibility so that we could work around the weather. On a camping style adventure around the US you can arrange your trip so there’s very little temptation to press on in poor conditions; with a tent on board, you can land at any little airport you find and set it up under the wing if it comes to it! When VFR, it’s best to not have a fixed schedule or much in the way of advanced reservations, and just plan your route as you go, looking a day or so ahead. You can then decide whether to change your direction, or sit tight and wait for conditions to improve.

Once you start to go further afield, the value of the instrument rating begins to rise. Outside of the more usual GA regions, VFR flight is uncommon; it’s hard to find out about how the procedures work or to get charts. Generally, all traffic is treated as if it’s IFR. This doesn’t mean that you can’t fly there as a VFR pilot; just get familiar with how IFR procedures work and how to read IFR charts and approach plates. You can file your flight plans VFR, so you don’t need to worry about the legality, but you’ll be treated as if you’re IFR.

Of course, if you can fly true IFR then it greatly increases your flexibility. You can keep more closely to a schedule if you’re IFR, which helps a lot given that flight permits are usually only valid for 1 – 3 days, and then you need to apply again.

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Obtain relevant training and aircraft knowledge

The more training and knowledge that you can obtain before you set out, the better. As your experience and familiarity with this kind of flying grows, you’ll be able to take on more adventurous trips. The following headings cover what I consider to be some of the most important skills and techniques for adventurous flying.

How to lean properly

The nature of adventure flying is such that fuel can often be a major factor in your planning, and the routes that are possible. Therefore it’s important to be able to make the most of every drop of fuel that you carry on board. Practice leaning your engine and understand what fuel burn and performance to expect at each altitude; even a small reduction in fuel burn can really add up on a 10 hour flight! A full engine monitor with CHT and EGT probes for each cylinder can really help here, as can an accurate fuel flow meter.

Add photo: engine monitor in lean mode.

Climbing and cooling

Climbing and cooling are closely linked. Adventure flying can introduce two factors that cause difficulty in these areas of aircraft performance; higher than normal gross weights, and operation in hotter than usual environments. Some aircraft will react to this better than others; the diesel-powered C182 that we used to fly through Africa had particular issues with cooling. If engine temperatures exceed their usual limits, it will reduce the life of the engine and can also break down the oil much more quickly than usual. Not ideal!

There are several ways that we can mitigate these issues. Flying at a higher speed in the climb than usual, a “cruise climb”, will give better airflow through the engine and therefore better cooling. Using a richer mixture than normal, as long as it doesn’t hurt engine operation too much, will put more fuel through the cylinders and help to carry heat away. Finally, you can choose the time of day that you fly, to take advantage of lower outside temperatures; when departing heavy in the Middle East, Gavin and I would plan our take-off time to be a little before sunrise, the time of day with the lowest temperatures.

Fueling, early in the morning in Al Ain

Best cruise performance

The reasons for holding a thorough understanding of your aircraft’s cruise performance are very similar to the reasons given above for leaning. It’s also important to understand the effect of winds aloft on preferred cruise speed; in general, with a tailwind you can extend your range by flying a little slower than the usual best range speed, and the opposite is true when flying into a headwind.

Approach speeds and short/soft field landings

When adventure flying, as with more run-of-the-mill flying, some of the most interesting fields to visit are ones that are on the shorter, softer, or rougher side. You never know when you might run into someone who invites you into one of these, as James and I did in Alaska in 2018 when we met Jonathan and were invited back to spend the night at his Kako camp.

Kako strip

If you want to take advantage of these opportunities, make sure you can nail your short and soft field landings every time. This is also a useful skill should you ever need to land off-field in an emergency!

Training courses

There are a number of courses available to develop your skills as a pilot after gaining the PPL or CPL, generally targeted at more niche areas of flying. Two of the main areas that I have found to be useful are bush flying, and mountain flying.

There are various providers of these courses. I have only experienced one of these; the Bush and Mountain flying training course offered by CC Pocock. At the time I took this course, he was operating out of Barberton Airport in South Africa; he has now moved to the USA. You can take this course in your own aircraft, or in one of CC’s, and he will teach you to fly the aircraft to its absolute limits, safely. As well as the flying itself he’ll teach you about the theory of bush and mountain flying. A lot of emphasis is placed upon safely flying the aircraft at low speeds. The course was fantastic, and I highly recommend his or a similar one.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Staying safe on your flight is all about having sufficient mental capacity while you’re in the cockpit. On a true adventure flight you’ll encounter a lot of situations which are going to take you out of your comfort zone, and anything you’re worrying about in flight is something that distracts you from the task of flying the aircraft.

Rather than worrying in flight about the proper procedure for de-insecting the aircraft prior to arrival in Australia, for example, it’s much better if you’ve thoroughly reviewed it on the ground days before the flight, and even noted down a few simple reminders on your kneeboard!

You’ll also find that the better and earlier you can prepare things like permits, handling (where required), planned maintenance stops and the like, the more relaxed you’ll be for the trip itself. You’ll also be better rested, as you’ll have more time to relax (and see some of the destinations) rather than being stuck on your phone and computer at every stop trying to figure out the next legs.

Don’t over-do it though. Leave some slack in your schedule to allow for weather delays and other unforeseen circumstances!

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