Once you have passed your final exam and got your Private Pilot’s License or PPL, you will probably start thinking of how you can use it. You are likely to want to fly to other airports or even other destinations where you don’t need an airport in order to land. But this can be quite complicated. So let’s take a look at all that is involved in doing this.
Reasons For Flying to Other Airports and Destinations
At first, soon after getting your PPL, you may want to simply gain more experience by flying to new destinations. This is a good idea.
Every airport is different, with a different layout of its runways and approaches and with other regulations which you may not be used to. Some airports might be by the ocean or in the mountains, necessitating procedures and specialized knowledge which may be new to you. So it could be a good idea to simply spend some time flying to different destinations in order to learn, rather than considering anything else.
Pleasure Trips and Day Trips
After doing the above for a while, you will most likely feel ready to ‘spread your wings a bit,’ as it were. But, at least in the beginning, you may want to fly to somewhere which isn’t too far away. So you need to have a look at your sectional aviation chart – known colloquially as a ‘sectional’ – and see where you might go.
In most areas, there will be airports within an hour or so of your home airfield, and it would probably be a good idea to start with these. Don’t be too ambitious until you have more experience. It is perhaps not such a good idea to try to fly from coast to coast across the US as a very new pilot! A short flight, followed by a drink or a meal, and then a flight back – perhaps by a different route – will probably be enough for now.
As you gain more experience, you might want to go further afield. You may turn a pleasure flight into a full-day trip to a place of interest, spending a few hours at your destination.
You might, by this time, want to take family and friends with you. This is a bit different from short trips, as you will need to check things like the weather at your destination for a longer period. And of course, if you are hiring an aircraft, you will need to ensure that you are allowed to have it for all the time you need.
Going to Fly-ins and Other Events
Another fun way to spend a day flying is to visit a fly-in or other organized aviation event. In most places, there are a number of these, usually during the summer.
Some are likely to be quite small local events, good for the less experienced, while others are very large and well known, such as those organized by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), and huge events such as the ‘Sun ‘n Fun’ flying festival.
Flying Holidays and Longer Trips
As you get more used to flying, you will probably want to do more than just go somewhere for a day. At this point, you might start to think about longer trips, perhaps holidays by plane, either in one place or involving touring.
You can do this in your own country, of course, but you might even want to go overseas, depending on where you live. I’m based in the UK, and I have flown aircraft to France several times and also to other destinations in Europe. It was great fun, and I also learned a great deal from doing it.
There is a lot more to think about when you start to make trips like this. Obviously, if you are hiring a plane from a flying school, they will have to be willing to let you have it for more than a day, perhaps for several days. I have done this, borrowing an aircraft from a flying school for Monday to Friday, taking it back so that they have it for both weekends when they were particularly busy. So it’s not impossible, but it will depend on the individual flying school.
At this stage, many people start to think about the possibility of owning their own plane or having a share in a group-owned aircraft. Doing this means it is a lot easier to make long-term plans.
Finally, it is perfectly possible to fly yourself for business trips, with only a PPL. Whether or not you can do this will, of course, depend on the type of work you do. You will also almost definitely need your own plane for these sorts of trips. But it is worth bearing in mind that these things are possible, in the future if not right now.
Is The Destination Suitable: Being Aware of Difficulties
Before you start thinking of visiting other airports, you need to decide if your proposed destination is suitable for both you and your aircraft. Here are some of the points you need to consider.
All Airports Are Not the Same
As has been briefly touched on above, all airports are different. For example, some are in controlled airspace, and others have no airspace limitations.
Some allow all types of traffic; others may prohibit helicopters, for instance. In some cases, you need to notify the airport in advance that you plan to visit; in other instances, this will not be necessary.
Then you have to consider the airport’s location: is it at altitude, close to the sea, surrounded by obstacles? All of these factors might make a difference as to whether your plan to visit is practical.
Being Aware of Your Limitations
Moving on from my last point, you always need to be aware of your own abilities and limitations. A PPL is often said to be a license to learn’, and a newly qualified PPL may struggle to land at an airport surrounded by obstacles with unpredictable coastal winds, for example.
Before going anywhere, you need to check what will be involved. Does the airfield have very short runways, and if so, are you familiar with the short field technique, for example? If not, either get some extra training or go somewhere else. Remember, safety always comes first.
Checking You Can Land There
The fact that an airport exists does not mean that you are allowed to go there. Some airfields are privately owned and have restrictions on the types and numbers of aircraft which can visit. Some airfields close on certain days and times. You always need to check these types of things in advance. It is not a good idea to just turn up and then find that you are not allowed to land.
What sort of Aircraft are you Flying?
Not all airports are suitable for all types of aircraft. Again, if you are considering a short field, check if your aircraft is capable of that sort of landing in the space available.
If you are flying to an aircraft in the mountains, check your aircraft’s capabilities at altitude in the weather conditions at the time, and pay particular attention to your weight and balance calculations. You may find that visiting will be very difficult, or even impossible.
Preparation For Visiting New Airports
Moving on from the last section, it should be clear by now that a great deal of preparation is necessary before visiting a new destination. It is really not a good idea to just have a quick look at the sectional and then take off. There are a number of things you need to do first.
Always, always, ALWAYS get a weather forecast, and check the current conditions at the airport you plan to visit. Check the likely conditions at your home base on your return too. If you are not familiar with aviation weather reports such as TAFs and METARs, revise them in detail before you go. It is not enough to just look at the sky and hope for the best.
It is really important to always check NOTAMs, or Notices to Airmen. These will tell you of any reasons why you should not fly to your proposed destination or any possible difficulties on your route.
Many pilots tend to forget to do this, and you can often get away with that. But one day you are likely to find that there are real problems with your planned route, and it is a good idea to know about this in advance.
Using a Map as well as a GPS
These days, many of us tend to dispense with an aviation chart if we are going somewhere nearby and on a familiar route, particularly if we are navigating using GPS. But please make sure you have a chart in the plane, for emergencies if nothing else.
The GPS signal is not 100% reliable, and if you plan to navigate using ground features, bad weather could make this impossible.
I remember leaving Long Beach, in the Los Angeles area, and planning to navigate using freeways and the coast, as we all did in that area. Then the fog came down, and this was impossible. So it was back to basics – map and compass, taking a suitable heading, and making sure there was no controlled airspace on my route. Always have a backup plan like this.
Planning Routes and Diversions
Following on from that, always make sure you have a planned route, with suitable headings, and also planned diversions should it be necessary.
You never know when you may need to divert. On that same trip out of Long Beach, I was following the coast north, heading for Santa Barbara, when I was told the airspace was closed. Had I checked NOTAMs? Actually, I can’t remember!
Anyway, I had to either divert out to sea or go several miles inland. I’m not sure if I could have known this in advance, but I really wished I had. It would have been much easier than orbiting and planning a diversion on the spot. Perhaps remember the old military adage – ‘Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance’.
Safety Comes First
Always remember this. You may be looking forward to a nice day out, but make sure you consider safety before anything else. That is what all the above tips have basically been saying of course.
Recommended Places to Visit
So where should you go? As explained, you may want to look at your local area first, then go to places which are easy for you in terms of navigation and landing, particularly if you are fairly new to flying. But after this…what then?
It would be possible to recommend literally hundreds of places for various reasons. But I have simply picked out a dozen, six in the US and six in other countries. I am recommending all of them for specific reasons, either because the airport itself is interesting, or because you might want to visit a place of interest in the surrounding area. I have visited a number of them myself, but not quite all.
1) First Flight Airport, North Carolina
Ever heard of this airport? The name should be a clue. This is the site where the Wright Brothers undertook their first flight, way back in 1903. There is a Wright Brothers Monument here, right next to the landing strip. So if you can, do go and visit the place where it all started. It’s something every pilot should do.
2) Grand Canyon West Airport, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is one of the seven great natural wonders of the world and is somewhere you should really visit at least once in your life. And flying over it is definitely something not to be missed for any pilot. Unfortunately, there is a $100 fee to land at this airport, but it really is worth doing so anyway. The whole experience is truly awe-inspiring.
3) Catalina Airport, California
This is one I have visited, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. Located on a 1,600-foot high mountain top at the center of Catalina Island, Catalina Airport is known as the ‘Airport in the Sky’. The approach is not easy, and neither is the landing, at altitude and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But if your flying is good enough, do go for it. If not, then consider taking an instructor with you, but go anyway. You will really enjoy it.
4) Big Bear Airport, California
This is another airport I have visited and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend, but only for the experienced pilots among you. Big Bear sits in the San Bernardino mountain range, at 6,752 feet above sea level. It is the premier airport for those flying into the resorts of Big Bear Lake, Snow Summit, Bear Mountain, and other destinations.
The scenery is quite spectacular, as are the far-reaching views. But do calculate carefully before flying there – remember all your training concerning density altitude, because it is very relevant here. Again, if you are in any doubt about your abilities, take an instructor with you; you will learn a lot.
5) Block Island State Airport, Rhode Island
This airport is not well known, but it is definitely worth a visit. It is located twelve miles off the coast of Rhode Island, on Block Island, and serves one of the most beautiful places on the East Coast.
Block Island is a great destination for pilots who want to explore an area with few tourists, but with white sand beaches, ocean vistas, endless hiking trails, imposing coastal cliffs, interesting history, and exciting nightlife.
6) Skagway Airport, Alaska
Flying in Alaska, wow! You will need experience of landing on windy runways, but landing between the snow-capped mountains at the ex-gold rush town of Skagway is something you will never forget.
The area also offers adventure, history, and a lively downtown that any pilot is sure to enjoy. But before coming here, it would be wise to talk with an experienced pilot in order to understand the hazards here. And again, if in doubt, take an instructor with you.
Rest of the World
Here are a few airports outside the USA which I would especially recommend if you have the opportunity to visit them. I have visited all of them and enjoyed it a great deal.
1) Barra Airport, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Barra is the smallest and most southerly of the Outer Hebrides chain of islands, off the west coast of Scotland. It is famous for being the only licensed airport in the world that uses a beach as the runway.
Yes, you did hear correctly; aircraft land on the beach! The airport is only open at certain times, depending on the tides, although scheduled flights do arrive regularly. Landing there is not as difficult as it sounds, although when I visited, we did request to follow the scheduled flight in so that we could see just how it was done.
2) Victoria Falls Airport, Zimbabwe
I visited this airport many years ago, but despite what you may hear, I gather it is still a safe place to go to. The airport’s main reason for existence is the tourism connected with the spectacular falls, which are most certainly worth visiting.
It is a large international airport with a lot of commercial traffic, but flying in here can be most enjoyable. And of course, it is the perfect base for visiting the falls
3) Le Touquet Airport, France
Le Touquet Airport in Northern France is perhaps best known as being the destination for many British pilots arriving from across the English Channel, either for day trips or to begin a touring holiday in Europe.
Consequently, nearly everyone there speaks English, which is not always true when flying in France, even at large airports. The airport is well used for traveling pilots.
The town of Le Touquet is only a short distance away, and the airport staff will help with taxis, booking hotels, and so on if you wish to stay in the area. The town itself is attractive, interesting, and full of good restaurants and cafes, so a most pleasant place to visit.
4) Carcassonne Airport, France
Carcassonne is a beautiful town of great historic interest, and the airport is located very close to the town itself. It is a most enjoyable place to visit, with lots to see and do in the immediate area.
5) Inisheer Airport, Aran Islands, Ireland
Inisheer Airport is located on the small island of Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland. It is a most interesting – if rather hair-raising – place to land, with a runway which stretches literally from shore to shore across the island. With the short runway and difficult wind conditions it is not an easy place to visit, but if you are up to it, it is definitely a unique experience.
6) Manchester Airport, England
Finally, at the other extreme from the last airport, why not try flying into Manchester International Airport in the north of England. You will be mixing with a huge amount of scheduled airline traffic, and the forest of taxiways you are presented with on landing may give you cause for alarm if you are not experienced at flying into this sort of airport. But don’t worry; the ground controllers are happy to give you ‘ progressive taxi instructions’ if asked.
Here are a few more points you may wish to consider when flying to new airports.
If Not Completely Confident, Take an Instructor With You
I have mentioned this a few times but it’s worth emphasizing. It is always worth taking an instructor with you if a destination or landing looks as though it is beyond your capabilities. You will learn a lot, enjoy it more, and it will be far safer than simply blundering through.
Hire an Aircraft Nearer Your Destination
Obviously, some of these destinations may be too far away from your home base. But it is usually possible to hire an aircraft somewhere closer to where you want to fly, or even at the destination itself. If flying outside the US, check as to the status of your license in that country, but you will often find that it will be accepted. If not, again, take an instructor with you.
Weight and Balance: Keep Personal Items to a Minimum on Longer Trips
if you are flying in a small aircraft, on a long trip, it is often impossible to fit in a suitcase as well as all the aviation paraphernalia you need. So learn to travel light, and keep personal items to a minimum. It is far safer to do this than to exceed the aircraft’s weight and balance limitations.
Finally, make sure you have all the emergency equipment you might need. Don’t assume that all airports will have things such as aircraft tie-downs; some won’t so take your own. Carry an emergency handheld radio in case the one in the aircraft suddenly dies, and have all the charts you could possibly need. In an emergency, even a minor one, you’ll be glad that you did.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Can you fly anywhere you like to any airport?
Answer: Yes…and no. You will need to check regulations, both local, international, and specific airport ones. And of course, you will need to bear in mind your own limitations. But beyond that, you can fly pretty much anywhere you wish.
Question: Can you land at places other than airports?
Answer: If there is space and it is legal and safe, then you can. Some fly-ins take place in large fields. Many people have landed on beaches, or even on friends’ properties. But it does depend on many factors, and safety must always come first.
Question: Do you always need to file a flight plan?
Answer: Not always. Check local regulations to find out if it is compulsory. But it is always the safest option, and it can never be wrong to do so.
Question: Should you tell someone where you’re going?
Answer: This is always a good idea, particularly if you are alone and you have not filed a flight plan.
Question: Should you take passengers?
Answer: Taking passengers is a great deal of fun. But it also adds greatly to your workload. So if you are a relatively inexperienced pilot, you might want to wait a while before you take all the friends and relatives with you.
Question: What about when you arrive?
Answer: Airports differ as to what they provide in the way of parking, backup, and so on. It is always a good idea to find out in advance what is on offer, and what you will need to do for yourself. Remember – you will have no car with you, and you may need to hire a taxi or find some other means of onward travel.
Question: I’m very new to flying; where should I go?
Answer: As mentioned above, start with visiting somewhere local, where it is easy to fly and to land. Then gradually extend yourself. Make haste slowly; there is nothing to be gained by trying to push yourself too hard.
Now you have most of the information you need to start visiting new destinations and airports. So I suggest your start as soon as possible – decide where to go, book your aircraft, and do some prior planning.
Your PPL has opened up the world for you, so now start to make the most of it. Don’t become one of those pilots who only fly around their local airfield every week, and rapidly become bored with the whole thing. Go further afield, stretch yourself, and see what the world has to offer. You will never regret it.