Flight Planning Realities

It’s more than just drawing a straight line.

Every week I get at least one weird helicopter flight request. Yesterday’s was for a flight from Scottsdale to Four Corners and back.

Four Corners

Four Corners, on a map. (Wikipedia image.)

When I say Four Corners, I’m talking about the place on the map where Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico meet. In drawing their rather arbitrary state lines years ago, the mapmakers created this manmade point of interest: the only place in the United State where four state boundaries meet at one point. There’s a monument there that supposedly marks the exact point where the states meet. Tourists like to drive in and get down on all fours for photos with one limb in each state.

These days, the monument is managed by the Navajo Nation, which has land on three of the four states. The Colorado section is on Ute Indian land. I’m pretty sure there’s a fee to get in, but I could be wrong. I’ve driven past the point and flown over it, but have never stopped there.

So the passengers wanted to land at Four Corners, which is on Navajo land. That means I need permission from the Navajo Nation to land there. That’s the first hurdle the booking agent has to jump. (I won’t get permits for my passengers; I’ve wasted enough time trying for flights that didn’t happen.)

The booking agent evidently uses some kind of flight planning tool to estimate flight time. He estimated 2-1/2 hours each way. But the booking agent didn’t take into account the realities of endurance, refueling locations, weather, and FAA reserve fuel requirements.

I used SkyVector — highly recommended! — to come up with a basic flight plan — something I could use to estimate the cost of the flight. Its built-in aeronautical charts make it easy to identify places to stop for fuel if needed.

I learned that a direct flight from Scottsdale to Four Corners would take approximately 2-1/2 hours — just as he’d estimated. But this didn’t take into consideration the possibility of headwinds and my aircraft’s endurance. I roughly estimate 3 hours endurance on full tanks of fuel. But could I fill the tanks? I had no idea what the passengers weighed yet. And with my 20 minutes of required reserve fuel, planning a direct flight was not a good idea.

But what made it a really bad idea is that there is no fuel available between Winslow, AZ and Four Corners — a distance of 143 NM or 1-1/2 hour of flight time. Indeed, the closest fuel to Four Corners is 42 NM to the east — not on our way back — at Farmington.

My Flight Plan

SkyVector makes preliminary flight planning very quick and easy.

That meant I needed to plan three fuel stops: Winslow (INW) on the way up and Farmington (FMN) plus Winslow (INW) or Payson (PAN) on the way back. The resulting flight path is a narrow triangle totaling 549 NM and at least 5-1/2 hours of flight time. To be on the safe side, I’d estimate 6 hours.

This is what kills me about some of these booking agents. This particular one is based in Atlanta, GA. I can pretty much guarantee he’s never spent any time in an aircraft over the Navajo Reservation — which is where at least half this flight would be conducted. He has no concept of the vast distances and empty terrain a route like this would cover. He — and likely his passengers — can’t conceive of the utter boredom of six hours flying over this area. Sure, there are scenic parts, but not six hours worth. They’d be paying me close to $3,000 for this one-day adventure.

And all for what? A photo opportunity at a manmade “monument” in the middle of nowhere? Heck, look at it on GoogleMaps! There’s nothing there or anywhere near it!

Yet the booking agent will sell it to them if he can. And I’ll provide the service if it’s paid for.

I think the booking agent could do them a better service by selling them a Sedona tour or a trip up to the Grand Canyon. Or even Lake Powell, for Pete’s sake! Closer, cheaper to visit, and far more interesting.

Of course the weird requests of uninformed passengers or booking agents isn’t really my point.

My point is this: There’s a lot more to flight planning than simply measuring the distance between two points. The preliminary flight plan I cooked up here is just the first part of a lengthy planning process I have to go through if I get this job.

I have to admit that I find it a bit annoying when a booking agent oversimplifies the requirements of a flight — especially if he fails to inform his clients about what they’re getting into. In this case, it’s a long and expensive flight over the high desert of Arizona with very little of interest to see along the way.

5 thoughts on “Flight Planning Realities

  1. We were driving back to Minnesota from Arizona after a wonderful visit to your area and intended to stop at four corners. But when we got there, the sign said “closed for construction.” We kept driving.

  2. Bah, I drove 8 hrs out of my way once just so I could cross the arctic circle. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

    So Maria, how much time do you figure you spend on planning per hour of flight for something like this? During my PPL, I think I put it at 2 hrs planning to every 1 hr of flying. I’ve gotten better and quicker. Take the other day though. I was riding shotgun with a friend in his airplane, and still spent 2+ hours looking at the route and the weather (it was MVFR all around our destination) for what turned out to be a 45-minute flight.

    • Chris: That’s a good question. It really depends on whether I’ve flown the route before and what the mission is. I don’t think there’s a specific ratio of planning to flight time for me. But rather than go into details in comments here, I’ll likely do it in a new blog post. It’s a good topic. Surprised I haven’t covered it in the past.

What do you think?