Coast-to-Coast in a 172 by Jeff Mitchell


The following is a journal of a transcontinental trip that I took in a Cessna 172L (150 HP), N7262Q, from June 30 to July 12, 1995. I am a 500 hour commercial pilot with an instrument rating and fly purely for recreation. Questions or comments are welcome.

Preflight Planning:

Early ’95 – Started telling my partners I would like the airplane for 2 weeks this summer.

April – decided on the first 2 weeks of July

May – Started getting serious about planning. Discovered flight planning is difficult and expensive. The recenly released NOAA IFR/VFR Low Altitude Planning Chart is practically useless. It charts all the airways but without enough resolution and information (such as MEA’s) to do any planning without the Enroute charts. It has no geographical information at all, except state borders. I plan to file IFR for most legs, but in a 172 you cannot ignore geography, especially in the mountainous West. Not wanting to flight plan at the resolution of a sectional, I decided to use WAC charts.

It looks like I will be flying for about 50 hours. I’m excited about how much better and more experienced a pilot I will be when I return. I currently have almost 500 hours over about 6 years of active flying but 17 years of calendar time (I took a brief 11 year hiatus from flying after I bought my first house). I plan to go mostly IFR even though I would like to sightsee and don’t plan to push the weather. I figure that I’m going slow enough that I won’t miss anything on the ground and I want more experience “in the system”. Also all my experience is out west where the weather is either clear or so bad and icy that you just stay home. I’d like some experience in what I expect will be more rapidly changing weather conditions and thunderstorm activity. Not that I plan to look at thunderstorms too closely, but how else do you gain experience if you don’t even put your toe in the water? Going IFR will give more options than VFR, and of course I can still stop and wait on the ground if things start getting uncomfortable.

May 22 – Ordered supplies from Sporty’s. A complete set of WAC charts covering the US, all the Low Altitude Enroute charts that I expected to need, a two man survival kit, and the latest and greatest in portable navigation equipment, a Garmin GPS 90.

May 23 – Received the maps. The GPS and survival pack are on back order. Today I took a first cut at my routing. For the trip out, I will go across the southern part of the US. This is a fairly direct path to Georgia, takes me south of the Rocky Mountains, and I can make overnight stops in Phoenix AZ and Austin TX, where I can stay with friends. I will pick up my parents in Georgia and then fly on to Pennsylvania where my brother and his family live.

I’m planning 3 hour legs between stops. I carry 4 1/2 hours of fuel and 3 hours is about as far as I like to go before fueling. I am starting to realize that if I am going to get to Pennsylvania by way of Georgia in 4 days that these are going to be long days. Without wind I am looking at about 26 hours of flying time. The shortest day is 6 hours and the longest day is 8 1/2.

The longest I’ve ever flown in one day has been 8 hours, Hayward to Santa Barbara to Montgomery Field (San Diego) to Las Vegas. I remember being very tired when I arrived in Vegas. I am now wondering what 4 days of this in a row is going to be like, and if I’m up to it. I figure I will try it, and if I can’t keep up the pace I’ll fly less and take longer. I’ll miss fourth of July with my family but I’ve mentally made that a very soft deadline, just in case I run into weather or have mechanical problems. I don’t plan to allow myself to feel any pressure to be somewhere by a particular time. This is a vacation, after all.

June 3 – Came back from a week long business trip and found my GPS waiting for me. I play with it for a couple of hours in simulator mode.

June 4 – I took my GPS out and flew about a 400 mile cross country. What a great piece of equipment! The biggest benefit to me is that I now know exactly how far I am from airports and VOR’s. Our 172 is well equipped, but it doesn’t have a DME. Now I (almost) have one. I can see how it would be easy to get spoiled and use only the GPS for navigation. I don’t plan to succomb to the temptation. Let’s see what I’m doing when I return from my trip. The worst thing about it is that I spend a lot of time head down in the cockpit working all the neat functions and programming it for the next waypoint. I need to get more comfortable with it and decide what subset of features that I will use most and make sure that can operate those functions easily. The GPS only finds landmarks on the ground, it can’t help me find other airplanes.

June 5 – Sporty’s completes my order. I receive the survival pack. I hope I won’t ever need it.

June 6 – Today I’ve completed the major planning for the outbound part of the journey. I decided to shorten the leg length from 3 hours to 2 hours. 3 hours is OK for VFR trips in familiar territory, but I’ve decided on 2 hours for several reasons. 1) I think it will be less tiring. Even though I’ll spend about an hour more on the ground making one more stop per day, the shorter legs will break things up more and give me more frequent breaks. 2) If there is a significant headwind, a 3 hour leg might stretch uncomfortably toward 4 hours. This way I have plenty of margin for winds. 3) If the weather is truly IFR, 2 hours is about the max leg length in order to leave enough fuel for diverting to an alternate. 4) If there are tailwinds or perfect conditions, I can always skip a stop and press on. Not that I am married to the trip planning I am doing now, but I don’t expect to have alot of time to be planning alternate routes during the trip. Shorter hops will be more likely to complete as planned. There are more things that can change (especially the weather) during longer hops.

My outbound plan is Hayward-Bakersfield-Twentynine Palms-Phoenix Deer Valley the first day, Deer Valley-Douglas-El Paso-Midland-Austin the second day, Austin-Lake Charles-Gulfport-Marianna-Brunswick the third day, and Brunswick-Myrtle Beach-Newport News-New Garden PA the fourth day. Airport selections for fuel stops were more or less at random, looking up airports in AOPA’s Aviation USA.

June 8 – I’ve completed the return path. I don’t want to go back the way I came, but I don’t have time to circumnavigate the US, so I’m going to return on a little more northward path through Arkansas, Colorado, and northern Utah.

The return plan is Brusnwick-Columbus-Jackson-Little Rock the first day, Little Rock-Tulsa-Dodge City-Pueblo the second day, Pueblo-Grand Junction-Salt Lake City the third day, and Salt Lake-Battle Mountain-Reno-Hayward the fourth day. I can probably fit the SLC-Hayward leg into the third day if the weather is good, but this is very mountainous terrain and I want to give myself an extra day if flying conditions deteriorate in the afternoon.

Now that I know what cities and airports I am stopping at, I need to do the detailed planning. I need to get copies if the TERPS for the areas I’m going to, and then do the detailed planning down to the airways. I also want to make sure all the airports have reasonable IFR approaches, i.e. not MDA’s of 2000 AGL.

June 18 – Spent all day doing detailed planning. I now have all the legs planned, computed and printed except for the over-the-rockies leg on the way back. I don’t like my plan from Pueblo to SLC – the MEAs are too high for IFR and there’s too much wilderness (i.e. no major road to follow) for VFR. I think I should go further north to Laramie and then across, following the freeway.

June 19 – I sent an email to a flight instructor friend telling her that I would like to discuss my plans with her. I am especially interested in what advice she can give me regarding thunderstorms.

June 21 – I replan my Rockies leg to go from Laramie to SLC via I-80. I may also go IFR although the last leg into SLC is an MEA of 12000 and not over the freeway, so I might just cancel and follow the freeway VFR.

I am starting to get stressed that I may never complete my planning. This is a big job, and I have to still coalesce all this information into some sort of binder or something where I can keep it organized.

June 22 – I change my SLC stop to Wendover. A friend at work tells me that this is right on the Nevada border and quite a few casinos have sprung up. I might as well stay there and have some fun, since that should be a short flying day anyway.

June 23 – For flight planning, each leg will be two pages: One will contain all the weather information and the other will contain the planned route and ATC communications. I will have these on facing pages in a 3 ring binder. Today I made up the format of the pages. Without a computer, I probably would have had it done in an hour. It took me about 6 hours.

June 24 – Talked to my flight instructor today for 2 hours. Some about routing and stage lengths, but mostly about the weather. Thunderstorm weather is new to me, having flown almost exclusively on the west coast. I understand the basic meteorlogical concepts, but dont have any real experience. She helped me with practical suggestions about when to fly, what to look out for and how to ferret out weather information in this day and age of few FSSs. She told me that my goal of getting all the way to Georgia in 3 days is probably unrealistic unless I have very good luck with the weather. I now plan to start earlier each morning and go longer and harder while I can, and then just expect to take the afternoons off.

Shopped for food. I dont plan to stop during the day to eat, so I got lots of things to snack on in the plane. Planning is now complete and I’m ready to roll!

Day 1 – June 30:

Hayward CA (HWD) to Bakersfield CA (BFL): [2:40/0:02] Took off about 7 AM. Climbed through the usual bay area summer marine layer overcast at 1600 feet. Tops were about 2800. 2 minutes of actual. Flew down the California central valley. Smooth and clear with unlimited visibility all the way. No surprises – a good way to start a long trip.

Bakersfield to Thermal, CA (TRM) [2:07/0:00]: Had to get up to 11000 feet – took me 25 mins, but Im about 300 pounds under gross. Nice and smooth until Palmdale, which is about halfway, then it got increasingly rough as it got hotter out in the desert. There were significant thermal up and downdrafts even at my altitude. Bumpy on down to Thermal, which was given that name for good reason – it was 107F at 1:00 in the afternoon.

Thermal to Phoenix Deer Valley, AZ (DVT) [1:58/0:00]: Went across the desert at 9000 feet. The bad news is that it was warm and bumpy. The good news is that I had a hellacious tailwind. The GPS groundspeed read 130, then 135 … 140… 145… 148… 154!! The 154k didnt last long, but not bad for a TAS of about 115. Takeoff to touchdown airspeed averaged 139K. Landing at DVT the half-hour old ATIS was reporting the wind to be 210 at 15 for runway 25, but it was more like 160 – a direct 90 degrees. I ran out of rudder in a full flap landing but the tough Cessna gear took the abuse of a sideways touchdown without a whimper (just a screech).

Day 1 totals: total time 6:45, actual IFR 0:02, tach time 6.4, fuel 49.3 gal

Day 2 – July 1:

Deer Valley to El Paso, TX (ELP) [3:13/0:00]: Took off from Phoenix at 5:10 AM, just before the sun came over the horizon. A typically beautiful clear Phoenix morning. I left VFR so that I could use the VFR corridor across Sky Harbor airport (PHX) and not take the chance of getting vectored the long way around the Class B airspace. El Paso was a bit of a stretch for a single leg and I wanted to use all my fuel for getting to my destination. I picked up my IFR clearance south of Phoenix from Albuquerque Center after PHX approach just ignored me and cut me loose from flight following when I asked who I should get my clearance from. The rest of the flight was beautiful, smooth and clear into El Paso at 11000 feet. The GPS saved me from the embarrassment of identifying Biggs AAF as El Paso international, which I almost certainly would have, and as I heard someone else on frequency do when I was departing.

El Paso to San Angelo, TX (SJT) [2:56/0:00]: I filed to Midland, TX as my next stop. When I picked up my clearance from ELP ground, it was N7262Q is cleared to Midland Airport as filed, fly runway heading, maintain 11000, departure 119.7, squawk 0726. I was a bit stunned for a minute, having never gotten a simple cleared as filed clearance before. I told the ground controller that this was a first for me, and he asked if I was from around there. I said no, California. He said Well, there you go. So there I went and climbed on out. I was tired of pushing on the rudder all the way up to 11000 feet, so I asked for and got 9000. Everything was going fine and I was making good time, so I decided to push on past Midland. The next major airport on the way was San Angelo, so halfway between Pecos and Midland VORs, I got an amended clearance to direct San Angelo. This was at 12:46 PM, with the controller giving me a vector and direct SJT when able. Of course, with my GPS I was able to steer a nice straight path. Then the GPS decided to give me a lesson, just as I was really starting to depend upon it. At 1:00 PM. it crapped out with the message Turn unit off and re-initialize. I had no idea what that meant. I didnt remember seeing that in the manual. I turned it off, then on. It said it saw satellites, but wouldnt start tracking any of them. Finally, I put it in autolocate mode and it came back. Any thoughts I had of ever using it to help out on any critical IFR situation were immediately put to rest. The rest of the leg was uneventful and I landed about an hour later in SJT.

San Angelo to Beaumont/Port Arthur (BPT) [3:24/0:06]: My original plan was to go from Midland to Austin and stay the night, but I had already gone 100 miles past Midland on the previous leg so I decided to press on and get as far as I could. Besides, my friend in Austin wasn’t in town so I would have to stay in a hotel anyway. I filed to Conroe Montgomery County (CXO) because there is an FSS on the field and I was expecting to run into weather the next day. Again I am cleared as filed from San Angelo. I am quite impressed with ATC in Texas, at least with clearances. However, they were going to disappoint me later on this leg. As I approach Austin, I see that I am going to have no problem reaching CXO and change my destination to Lake Charles, LA (LCH). I dont think I can reach it comfortably, but I needed to do something before they started to cleared me onto a STAR around Houston to get to CXO that would take me about 30 miles out of my way. By heading off to LCH, I got routed straight past Houston. After perusing the map and AOPAs Aviation USA, I decided on BPT. On my descent through the building cumulus, I called ATC several times to request deviations. They just ignored my calls, so I deviated anyway and tried to stay within 4 NM of the airway centerline. They never complained about my wiggly path, so I guess thats they way they want to handle C172 class iron. I know it may sound paranoid, but I get much better treatment from ATC when I fly a T210 that I rent occasionally. I got a little actual IFR on my descent, and I count every minute since I have such a meager total.

Day 2 totals: total time 9:33, actual IFR 0:07, tach time 9.5, fuel 74.3 gal

Day 3 – July 2:

Beaumont to Meridian, MS (MEI) [3:09/0:09]: I had planned to fly along the gulf coast, but there was thunderstorm activity along with a Sigmet all along the coast northward to where a front was lying along an E/W line about 50 miles north of the coast. I decided to fly due north to get behind the front, then proceed eastbound. This was the first major change to the route that I had planned, so I had a lot more work to do that morning than usual. I filed for a route that took me about 60 miles north of the coast which appeared to be at the edge of the thunderstorm activity from the weather reports. After about an hour enroute, it was clear from looking out the window that I would not clear the weather, so I changed my routing to take me further north, to Key Field in Meridian. At this time they were reporting 1000 overcast, 1 1/2 miles in fog. This was a localized fog condition and it was clear underneath me. As I got closer, the fog started forming underneath me, and MEI went down to 300 overcast 3 miles in fog. No worry, MEI had an ILS. It was also about this time that my GPS gave me another Turn off and re-initialize message with the same symptoms as yesterday. I now no longer have any confidence in GPS. When I got handed off to approach control, MEI was reporting 500 overcast, so it was improving from earlier and well above the ILS minimums. Imagine my shock when approach told me to expect the VOR A approach. When I asked about the ILS, approach (in a why didnt you know this already tone) informed me that the ILS was Notamed out of service until September. I hadnt planned to go to this airport when I took off, so I hadnt checked Notams, and worse, the VOR approach minimum was 600 feet. Still, the clouds were starting to break up and I could see through them to another airport about 20 miles west of MEI, so I had somewhere to go if I couldnt get into MEI. The approach turned out uneventful with the ceiling about 700 feet broken.

Meridian to Saint Simons Island, GA (SSI) [3:21/0:04]: Again I had to do impromptu flight planning for this leg. Being conservative with fuel, I filed for Tift Meyers airport (TMA), about 90 miles short of my final destination, SSI. The weather called for broken ceilings of 3-6000 along my route. At 9000 feet, it was smooth with occasional scattered stratus that Id pop in and out of. The lower cloud layer was breaking up and the cumulous was building as the day started to warm up. After an hour and a half, the GPS went out again. This time it had a different message – Bad Satellite Coverage. It could see 7 satellites but could not track them, so I turned it off for a while. After I turned it back on in 30 mins it acquired and tracked OK. As I approached TMA, it was clear that the cloud bases were high enough between there and SSI that I could drop down and stay VFR if I wanted. This gave me enough fuel flexibility to press on to SSI without stopping. I had been dodging the cumulous buildups, but about 60 miles out the tops of even the small ones were pushing up to my altitude, so I dropped down to 3000 feet underneath the bases. It was bumpy and hot, but I didnt have far to go and the rest of the leg was uneventful.

Day 3 totals: total time 6:30, actual IFR 0:13, tach time 6.5, fuel 51.9 gal

Eastbound transcontinental totals: total time 22:48, fuel 175.5 gal

Day 4 – July 3:

Saint Simons Island to Kinston, NC (ISO) [3:16/0:03]: SSI is uncontrolled, so I picked up my clearance from Jacksonville Center after takeoff. It was a beautiful clear day at our departure point and at our eventual destination in Pennsylvania, but we would have to cross a front lying across the Carolinas. I say we now because I picked up my parents at SSI. I filed for my usual 9000 feet, and even though I offloaded some of my baggage at SSI, the extra 2 people really hurt the 172s climb performance. I wanted to get high to make sure my passengers got a smooth ride, but my right leg was sure tired by the time we leveled off at 9000. There was fog at our fuel stop, with ISO reporting 2/12 mile visibility. Their ILS was operational however, and we went right in.

Kinston to Toughkenamon, NJ – New Garden Airport (N57) [3:09/0:00]: The fog had turned into scattered clouds by the time we left ISO, and this time I only climbed up to 7000 and had my passenger push on the rudder some of the time. Our route of flight took us up the coast on Victor 1. I hadnt paid close enough attention to the map and didnt notice that between Norfolk and Cape Charles along V1 that the mouth of the Chesapeake bay is about 20 miles wide. At 7000 feet, we were going to get wet if we had any problems at the halfway point over the bay. Thankfully there were no problems, and except for dodging a few buildups along the coast there was absolutely no weather. Descending into N57 ATC said they had IFR traffic waiting for release. I canceled IFR so they could go, but I asked ATC to stay with me to help me find the airport. It was pretty hazy out. According to the GPS and ATC, the airport was dead ahead at 10 miles…7 miles…5 miles…3 miles, and I just couldnt find it. Finally, at 3000 feet and 2 miles, I saw it. It is located on a ridge and there is a row of trees on the south side which completely hides the runway and all buildings when you approach it from the south. I did a 360 to descend and lost the airport again but trusted the GPS and knew that I would find it when I got close, Sure enough, it appeared again when it was time to turn downwind. What a neat airport! It is crammed into a tiny area in a small gorge but was the busiest airport of anywhere I stopped. Very friendly people with lots of airplanes and gliders coming and going.

Day 4 totals: total time 6:25, actual IFR 0:03, tach time 6.1, fuel 50.8 gal

Jeff Mitchell