Over the river and through the wood…

A First-timers Guide to Flying Home for the Holidays

By Floyd Allen

As frost gives way to snow and gentle breezes to howling winds, we all look to the skies with a longing in our hearts and an itching in our palms to get our hands on the controls of our planes. Fortunately, late November and late December offer a great reason to brave the elements and fly—the holidays.

“For the most part, the coming of winter is the time that we often put our planes into hibernation and wait for the spring thaw before we take them out again,” said Jason Wolcott, Vice President of GATTS in Manhattan, Kansas. “The holidays, however, are often the exception to the rule.”

“I know that’s true for me,” John Pichitino, owner of Pitch Perfect Aviation in Nevada City, California, shared. “My wife’s folks only live about an hour away by air, so we most frequently do fly to them for the holidays.”

It’s plain to see that there is, in fact, a propensity for an increase in air traffic in the latter part of the year. In fact, according to Mike Ryan, an FAA air traffic control specialist in Phoenix, Arizona, “The two busiest flight days of the year are the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving. And, the days surrounding Christmas aren’t too far behind.”

Mel Johnson, Contract Site Supervisor for the Western Desert District for Raytheon in Phoenix, interjected, “An important issue that probably needs mentioning here is the fact that many general aviation pilots flying at that time are going to places they’ve never been to before.”

With that much traffic in the air, it is especially important that everyone do their part to ensure the airspace is safe for everyone. Our experts agree that the best way of doing this is to make sure that pilots perform their due diligence before departure. Here are a few of the basics:

  1. Watch the Weather: It’s vital that you constantly monitor weather conditions throughout the course of your trip. Know what the weather is like at the airport you’re leaving and what it’s like at the airport(s) at which you intend to arrive. Precipitation at this time of year can very easily convert into icing conditions.
  2. Preheat your Plane: The cold, in itself, can be an issue when flying during the holidays. While the ideal situation is to store your plane in a heated hangar, more often than not, such “deluxe accommodations” are a luxury many pilots simply can’t afford. Fortunately, good engine pre-heaters are an economical alternative allowing you to get/keep your oil at a temperature where it is more readily and easily circulated.
  3. Inspect and Detect: If your plane is stored outside, it’s especially important to make sure that all intakes are clean and open. Check not only for snow and ice buildup, but for holed up varmints as well. And, while it’s always an important checklist item for any time of the year, verify that your avionics are all functioning properly.
  4. Use Good Judgment: “In addition to making sure that his plane is in tiptop shape for holiday flying, a pilot needs to make sure that he is too,” offered Pichitino. Here, our expert is referring to a pilot’s decision-making process. One “trap” that a pilot might fall into is that, due to the fact he wants to spend as much time with loved ones as possible, he may plan his departure without allowing enough “wiggle room” for postponement due to inclement weather. Feeling the pressure of getting home on time, he may decide to fly in conditions that he normally wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) attempt. It’s imperative that pilots use good judgment at this time of the year, even if it means reporting for work a day late.

Another issue that the pilot must be in control of is making sure that, with the “full load” of family, gifts, and even pets, a proper weight balance is established. This will not only affect the handling of the plane, but its safety as well. Adding to the topic of good vs. bad judgments, Pichitino astutely added: “While I realize this should go without saying, always remember the old adage, ‘Eight hours from bottle to throttle.’”

  1. Communicate: “If I’m flying into a busy airport – as most are during the holidays – I’m especially aware of what the air controller has to say,” said Phil Sanders of Triple S Repair in Kingman, Arizona. Our air controller experts wholeheartedly agree and offer some salient advice of their own:
  • Advise the controller that you’re unfamiliar with the airport if, in fact, that is the case.
  • If possible, arrive at an unfamiliar airport during the day as opposed to at night.
  • Evaluate whether or not your requests are appropriate. A request to perform touch-and-gos at Sky Harbor Airport on the day before Thanksgiving is probably not a reasonable request!
  • Acquire as much data as possible about the airport before you arrive at the airport.
  • “Tie-up” the frequency as little as possible.
  • Try to avoid “black hole” communication situations.

12 Things EVERY Pilot should know about an Unfamiliar Airport

Flying into a new airport can be a challenge, so we asked our experts for their suggestions as to what a pilot should know or do before flying into a new field. They agreed that it is the pilot’s responsibility to find out and know the answers to the following questions:

  1. Are there any new towers and/or runways?
  2. What are the tower’s hours of operation?
  3. Are any of the runways closed or under construction?
  4. What services are available? Is fuel available 24/7?
  5. Is the runway length conducive to the needs of your craft and/or load?
  6. Are there any special activities being conducted at the airport? (e.g. crop dusting, skydiving, and/or flight training)
  7. Have you viewed airport diagrams to get a feel for how it is laid out?
  8. Where are the parking areas and how do you get to them after you land?
  9. Where is the airport in relation to the rest of the town/metropolitan area and how you intend to get from one to the other?
  10. Are there are any speed and/or altitude restrictions?
  11. What are the traffic routes?
  12. Does the airport have any unique idiosyncrasies? For example, are there housing areas to avoid? Or, is altitude density an issue?

“With regard to that last point, when you fly into the Grand Canyon, you come out of a stand of pine which changes the effect of the wind on your plane,” Sanders explained. “Put simply, there are some things that your charts and GPS just don’t tell you.”

That brings up another point—what are some of the local challenges of flying into a new airport? Sanders’ example refers to things like power lines, trees, and even high rise apartments, but other challenges include such things as knowing the airport’s rules regarding crossing runways—even if they aren’t in use. You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with information regarding climb during departure and descent when landing.

8 Simple Tips for Safe Holiday Flying

With this amount of information, you might think we exhausted all of the advice our experts had to share, but such is not the case. The following is a combination of useful tips and sage advice based on years of first-hand holiday flying experience:

  1. Learn about an unfamiliar airport by discussing it with a pilot who has flown there before.
  2. Pack proper clothing and footwear for any and all weather conditions you might encounter.
  3. Pack plenty of water.
  4. Be prepared to protect your plane (as well as yourself) from the weather. While parked it could end up covered with a heavy frost or even two feet of snow!
  5. If flying with passengers at night, make sure you’re current. This necessitates three take off and landings (to a full stop) within the last 90 days—at night!
  6. If you err, always err on the side of safety, and always have a Plan B!
  7. Given the amount of traffic during the holidays, if you’re flying into an area with multiple airports, it’s better to go to one of the “satellite” airports as opposed to the major airport.
  8. Always be prepared for the unexpected.

While most pilots already have their two front teeth, we should alter the lyrics of the 1944 Christmas classic to, “All I want for Christmas is a Safe Flight Home.” You can’t wrap it up and put a bow on it, but it’s guaranteed to be something you can be thankful for all year long!