Ex 18-The Cross Country – I just don’t know where to start!

Overhead, from the circuit, from a start point (exit point) where do you start a cross country from?

Many years ago when Pontius was a pilot and every school had a fleet of Tiger Moths all students started their cross countries from overhead the airfield.

At Birmingham, or Elmdon, as it was known in the 50s, students set course from the overhead with their non radio Tiger Moths but amazingly had to land back at Coventry and get telephone permission to enter the zone before then flying on to Birmingham!

37 years ago I was CFI at Birmingham and things even then had drastically changed and no overhead joins were allowed.

Times have certainly changed but it seems quite a lot of instructor attitudes have not and PPL flying instruction seems to me to be stuck in a time warp with many instructors still teaching 50s Tiger Moth methods and standards to their students (unfortunately apart from sideslipping which seems to confuse and frighten some instructors).

The overhead start for the cross country also still seems to be a favourite with many instructors and I believe the reason maybe that the two books still used on instructor courses are dated and were written by Tiger Moth instructors! In fact the Campbell and Cole books are nearly 50 years old, so I rest my case! To be fair though they still have some very useful information and I do reference them myself from time to time.

I can remember replacing all the Birch & Bramson ‘Flight Briefing For Pilots’ books in my flying school in 1980 with Ron Campbell’s Flying Manuals and one day Neville Birch (who could be very pompous) walked in and said “Why arn’t my books on sale any more”! I am not sure how I responded but I know I didn’t have the heart to tell him the real truth that his books were based on wartime practices and were out of date!

But anyway, why is it that instructors still teach outdated methods from over 60 years ago, I just don’t get it? For instance it always makes me smile when I see young instructors getting the weather on an Ipad and then teaching students to plan cross countries using Dalton Circular Slide Rule Computers!

I was recently invited to a flying school for a navigation evening where the young head of training proudly pronounced that he was going to unlock the mystery of the Dalton Computer and show everyone how to use it? Why? It’s 2017, the best place for a Dalton Computer is for sale on Ebay. In fact the school in question had two of their pilots illegally penetrate local controlled airspace (along with a string of other incidents), so maybe some instruction in route planning and dealing with controlled airspace might be more appropriate!

I am digressing here but Sky Demon (or similar) is one of the best tools to use to plan a cross country and the time you would have spent sharpening your pencil and scratching around with a first world war navigational device can be better spent closely inspecting the IAIP, the area of the route, weather and notams, areas that most amateur pilots need to spend much more time on.

By the way, no need to use Chinagraph pens anymore either (another Tiger Moth relic from the past). A decent tipped permanent marker leaves a line that doesn’t rub off, so you can also throw your pencil sharpener away with your goggles and helmet! To remove the line just go over it with a whiteboard marker and it will then wipe straight off! (Don’t you just love modern technology!)

The Guild of Air Pilot & Navigators has this to say about pre flight planning (GAPAN Navigation Version B – OCT 2012)

To plan with the degree of accuracy required by the PPL (A) Navigation Theory examination paper requires the use of a flight computer of some sort. However, for practical navigation the results obtained using Mental Dead Reckoning are perfectly adequate and instruction in MDR techniques as the PRIMARY means of flight planning is highly recommended. If the student normally uses MDR for his flight planning on the ground, then when the in flight diversion needs to be calculated he will be perfectly comfortable with this technique.

So that’s the view from the experts, oh and I should add I go a stage further than that in that I teach at least one cross country that I call my, ‘Mystery Cross Country’. The student has to start the planning in the air at the start point as he doesn’t know the route until airborne. The best navigators are pilots who can cope with the situation when it all goes wrong, not when it’s all going right!

Back now to the cross country start point and some points to consider;

If the cloud base is 1800 feet agl or below you will start from the overhead will you? Sometimes just the application of some common sense will allow you to make the safest sensible decision!

The O/H start is a waste of fuel and time and usually completely unnecessary. Best practice is to always put a student where he is safest and that generally is not overhead an airfield especially within a busy ATZ. I just do not understand the poor duty of care shown by some instructors who seem to never ever consider what is safest and what is easiest for the student.

My message to students on instructor courses is to try to forget instructor mythology spread by people who have never done a day’s professional flying in their lives and have little idea of what ‘ professional’ even means.

At many airfields an O/H start will not be possible due to IFR traffic, VRP’s, local procedures or controlled airspace. At Coventry the  teaching by non home based instructors of just climbing to 2000 feet within the Coventry ATZ has been responsible for loads of penetrations of Birmingham controlled airspace including one pilot recently from HG! This another reason to teach students to read and COMPLY with the textual data in the IAIP for each airfield that they intend to operate from.

There are many more airfields now where O/H starts are not possible since the Cole & Campbell books were first written. I do appreciate that some instructors haven’t got a wide experience of many different airfields but you should still realise that the method the student should be comfortable with and familiar with is the one he can use at ALL airfields.

The most up to date modern flying instructor’s manual around at the moment is written by former RAF Phantom Pilot & Instructor Graham Cownie (Pad Pilot) this excellent Ibook also gives no credence to the out of date Overhead Airfield start and directs the student to route directly to a start point.

Below is from an interview and highlights Graham’s considerable experience.

I gained my private pilot licence (PPL) in 1974, at the tender age of 17½ years. I then joined the RAF in 1979. After training, I flew the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom operationally at RAF Leuchars, intercepting Russians!

In 1987 I became a qualified flying instructor teaching on, and then commanding, a number of basic flying training squadrons. I was also on the three-man team that brought the RAF Embraer Tucano into service. It was my first taste of developing syllabi and courseware and I enjoyed it immensely. So much so that I ‘freelanced’, writing training manuals for export versions of the Hawk trainer. On leaving the RAF in 1997, I obtained my air transport pilot licence (ATPL) and took on various consultancy roles, shortly thereafter forming my first company to develop digital training systems for ATPL theory students.

Below is what Graham has to say about Start Points.

Ask the student to rehearse the departure sequence out loud. For example which runway is being used, which direction he needs to turn after take off, what large feature he may see when he turns towards the start point and at what point precisely should he start timing.

The transit to the start point is a much neglected element of navigation (OMG, you can say that again Graham!). The worst possible way to start a navigation exercise is from a misidentified start point. If the start point is not located at or very close to the departure airfield, a mini leg should be drawn on the map showing heading track altitude and time.

EN-route to the start point – climb to the planned altitude for the first leg

Start point procedure

Identify the start point using at least two confirming features backed by elapsed time.

When you have positively identified the start point orientate the aircraft to arrive over it on the first leg heading. If possible use a distinctive feature down track to help with orientation. Ideally you should aim to arrive at the start point already established on the first heading-on speed and on height.

I would recommend every flying instructor to consider the above very carefully as apart from start points there are some very good teaching points that I know most instructors never cover.

The Guild of Air Pilots & Navigators Guide To PPL Navigation also teaches going directly to a start point.


The paragraph below is taken from the above GAPAN navigation document

Prior to take off, having completed all checks, the initial stage of the flight should be reviewed, including circuit departure, visual references, speeds, altitudes etc. After take off and initial climb the instructor should take control and teach how to correctly identify the start point, reading from map to ground, and carry out the pre – WHAT checks–checking the weather ahead, then Heading, Altitude and Time from the plog.

Neither of these publications (written by real experts) mentions the Over Head start and that might be because it went out of favour with hand swinging props!

If you’re hiring an aircraft as a PPL do you really want to pay for another 5 minutes unnecessary flying?

Ask yourself where is the area between take off and landing you are most likely to come into contact with another aircraft, if you then work out how to minimise time in that area you will probably not want to climb into the airfield overhead. In fact take that a stage further and you may want to consider avoiding flying at the most popular PPL height of 2000 feet, directly over navigational beacons, directly over enroute active or disused airfields also, when it is not necessary.

The threat is aerial collision and the error and undesired state can be unnecessary flight into an area where other aircraft are most likely to be. If you are struggling with that ask yourself how many aerial collisions there have been in the Scottish Highlands.

Or have a glance at this


Here is a final gem for you;

A few months ago I flew with two CAA staff flight examiners and they both opted to start their cross countries from Tatenhill to Market Drayton from a ‘START POINT’ at Blithfield Reservoir, not from overhead the airfield. (Although they both rejoined to the overhead).

If you are going on to train for a professional licence you will also need to learn to start the cross country flight from a start point.

Safe flying everyone and remember the reason you are probably reading this on the internet is because an old idea was replaced by a new one.