I was about to leave work on Thursday, 16 January when the squadron chief of scheduling stopped me and asked me a question. “Would you like to bring one of the jets up to Belgium tomorrow morning to drop it off at the depot?” I didn’t have to think about the answer for long. Of course I wanted to fly from Italy to Belgium in an F-16. Never mind it was going to be a Friday and I would have the opportunity to stay there for a couple nights and see the country.
I’m relatively new to flying in Europe, and the rules and regulations here differ significantly from the U.S. airspace I learned to fly in. To be honest, the last time I had flown a true cross country was in a Skyhawk this past summer from Mansfield to Katama Airpark on the Vineyard and back. On a normal training day, our flight profiles consist of some variation of taking off, flying a standard departure out to the MOA, restricted area, or range, using as much gas as we can spare in that airspace to get training, and then recovering via standard routing. It’s demanding, but these sorties require a different sort of mission planning than an international cross-country.
Fortunately, we have software that helps with most of the mission planning. While primarily a tool to aid in tactical planning, the joint mission planning software we use can also create a route via ICAO points and calculate fuels based on input climb profile, desired flight level, winds aloft, and drag index. I was able to get an AF Form 70 print-out that showed each turn point with coordinates, gas at each point, as well as heading and time to the next point. I was planning on flying airways the whole way out.
Due to the complications of getting diplomatic clearances to bring a fighter aircraft into foreign airspace, the flight was planned to take off from Aviano Air Base, head west past Milan, then basically head due north along the eastern boarder of France into Belgium. We have standing agreements with those countries so as long as you reference said agreement on your flight plan, you’ll be approved the routing. The math said I would arrive with a 1600lb fuel pad, which I was comfortable with.
After all that was taken care of, I got the maps and approach books I would need and started going through them. I highlighted the route on the map, as well as circled my two primary diverts, and circled all airfields along the route of flight that were usable pieces of concrete in case of an in flight emergency. In an F-16, runways with an arresting system are preferred but as long as the runway length was sufficient, I marked it down. I put tabs in the approach books for the field I was filed to and reviewed the planned approach, and did the same for the primary diverts. I also needed to bring a conversion chart for millibars to inches of mercury because that’s how the local altimeter setting is reported on ATIS in Belgium. After that was taken care of, I filled out an official Piano de Volo (Italian flight plan), dropped it off at base ops, and talked to the weather shop about my route of flight so I could get a standard weather briefing from them in the morning.
Once that was taken care of, I took the mission materials home and studied them for a while. My technique for cross countries (in the F-16 as well as a C-172) is to make my own line-up card from scratch that includes all the frequencies I plan on using, as well as hand drawn airfield diagrams for the intended base of landing, as well as primary diverts that includes all applicable frequencies etc. More than just a tool in the cockpit, I’ve found this a good way to go through the data and extract the most likely applicable information for the flight.
When I went to work the next morning, my first stop was at Base Operations. I confirmed my flight plan was filed, and stopped by the weather shop to receive the briefing. They were calling for isolated thunderstorms in western Italy and southern France. It appeared as though I would be in the clear at FL280, and would be able to see and avoid any convective activity ahead. Good news. They reported the weather as Charleroi to be broken at 1000 feet. Again, good news considering it had been near or below minimums earlier in the week. Time to get ready to fly.
When I got to the squadron, I organized all my publications and went out to the jet. I had brought a duffel bag to hand carry my equipment back in, and it fit with a little push into the travel pod hanging on the wing. The start-up was uneventful, I had more than enough gas, and all the tanks were properly feeding. Because of the fact that I would be leaving the jet at the depot facility, I was not able to bring a data cartridge pre-loaded to the jet. Not a big deal, but it took a little while to input all the lat/longs for the steer points along the route of flight into the system. I taxied out, got a final look from the arming crew, and got ready for take off.
On take off, I accelerated in afterburner to 350KIAS then climbed at that airspeed to my final cruising altitude of 28,000 feet. Because the F-16 only has a rudimentary auto-pilot (heading/steering select and altitude/attitude hold) we are non-RVSM and can only legally flight plan up to FL280. Fortunately that kept me in the clear the majority of the time. Once leveled off, I selected the maximum range feature of the avionics. When selected, the jet calculates your max range airspeed based on current weight and drag index, and puts a carat on the airspeed tape in the HUD. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
Passing Milan, I looked ahead for the forecast thunderstorms but nothing appeared to be in the way of a good flight. I was able to lock up airliners at range with the radar to keep good situational awareness on potential traffic conflicts, but the air traffic controllers seemed to have that handled so it was more for entertainment than anything. Once I turned north into France, it took a bit of adjustment to get used to the different accents but the controllers were patient and spoke English rather well. When I was handed off to Paris center, I was unable to make contact on the stated frequency. I tried UHF on the second radio, but again, no luck. Fortunately I had written down an alternate frequency on my line-up card, and was able to make contact with them there.
When I was about 10 minutes out from Charleroi, I called up the ATIS and set up my avionics for the approach. I’m a big fan of the WHOLDS check (weather, holding, obtain clearance, let-down plate review, descent check, speed calculations) because it covers all the basic items required to perform before being ready for the approach. It has been a technique that has always worked for me because no matter where you’re going to land, those are all good things to at least consider before beginning the approach. It was a good thing that I had set up my avionics sufficiently ahead of time, because they gave me a pretty aggressive descent and turn to intercept final. Again, the weather was much better than forecast. There was a scattered to broken layer at about 8000, and a scattered deck at 800 feet. Once I rolled out on final, I could see the field was definitely VFR. I had beat the fuel calculations by nearly 2000lbs, so I’d have gas for some VFR patterns. Could it get any better? I asked the tower controller for right closed traffic, and she relayed that the pattern was mine for the next 5 minutes. After a few closed patterns to low approaches, I landed and delivered the jet to the depot facility. It had certainly been a good day. That night I met my friend out in Brussels to experience what Belgium had to offer. I’d certainly recommend the city if you’re in Belgium.
I took away a few really good lessons from this trip. First of all, solid mission planning sets the foundation for success. Having that extra frequency proved to be extremely valuable when I was given one I couldn’t make contact on. Second, when you have the opportunity, talk to someone who has flown the flight you are planning. My friend was able to pass me the information about the ATIS in millibars, which I may not have initially considered without his advice. Third, going back to the basics sometimes is the best route. When we come back to Aviano from a tactical sortie, I don’t mentally run through a WHOLDS check because it happens naturally from habit patterns. But away from homeplate flying a cross country, those types of techniques will ensure you take care of all the important details in preparation for arrival. Fourth, aviation is amazing. Whether you’re flying an F-16 across Europe or a Grumman Tiger for a $100 hamburger, flying gives you the opportunity to see and experience things others would only dream of. Take advantage of it.
-Fly Safe and Check Six, MWetherbeeUSAF
Editor’s Note: There are so many valuable concepts (i.e.- proper preflight planning) that are directly relatable from military and/or commercial aviation to general aviation flying! It’s always amazing to see how these concepts maintain relevance across a wide dichotomy of types of flying. Further, it is also important to see that a good pilot of any type must be well versed at good, fundamental aeronautical decision making!