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How To Pick The Best VFR Cross-Country Checkpoints

Have you ever chosen VFR checkpoint that you can't spot from the air? Picking bad points on your sectional is one of the most common checkride failures. Use this guide and never make the same mistake again!

Cross-Country Time! Where Should You Look For Checkpoints?

As you plan your route, use your sectional to search for easily identifiable points along your route. Avoid picking points that are more than 5 miles laterally away from your route. Towards the beginning of your route, each checkpoint should be about 5-10 miles apart. As you reach cruise flight, you can begin extending the distances between checkpoints, up to 20 miles per checkpoint.

Generally speaking, the smaller the point, the closer it needs to be for you to spot it. If you're using a large town, wide body of water, or busy airport, 5 miles or more may work. As for smaller points like railroads, local airports, small towns, or lakes, they should be roughly 1-3 miles away.

The higher you fly, the easier it will be to spot large objects that are further away. Keep in mind, the higher you fly, the harder it will be to spot things like lakes, railroads, or intersections. It goes without saying, but avoid picking points that are right below you!

Flight visibility is a factor too. If haze, rain, or low clouds are in the forecast, you should plan points closer to your route.

Picking The Best Checkpoints

Finding a good VFR checkpoint is a matter of location, size, and distance. Large objects that contrast well with the surrounding environment are the best choice. Here's a list of some of the easiest points to spot from the air:

  • Airports with Paved Runways: The taxiways and runways of nearby airports are easy to spot due to large clearings. They also contrast with the grass around them.
  • Railroads: Railroads are relatively easy to spot due to large clearings made for tracks.
  • Highways: Multi-lane highways are easy to spot from the air.
  • Major Road Intersections: Major road and highway intersections with multiple cloverleaf turnoffs are easily spotted.
  • Large Rivers: Looks for rivers that are drawn with some level of open-water width. Small streams are simple lines, while rivers are drawn wider.
  • Large Lakes with Definable Shapes: If a lake has an easily definable shape, it'll be easy to spot from the air.
  • Towns with Prominent Features: Does the town you're looking for have a major road, railway, or water tower?
  • Wind Farms: Wind farms situated in open clearings are a no-brainer.
  • Open-Pit Mines: If you get lucky enough to find an open-pit mine along the way, use it as a checkpoint!
  • VOR Equipment: When flying near a VOR, look for a clearing with a large white tower. New VORs may be harder to spot, with smaller white "pods" arranged in a circle. You can use a VOR's radial and distance to verify your location too.
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If you're flying at night, finding checkpoints is all about lighting. Airport beacons, towns, highways, wind farms, and lit towers are good choices.

Some points on sectional maps are flagged as "VFR Checkpoints." They are identified with a flag icon, along with the name of the checkpoint underlined. These checkpoints are prominent buildings or landmarks that can be visually easy to identify from the air. However, use caution, because many flagged points require some local area knowledge for identification.

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As you plan your route, you can use satellite imagery from ForeFlight or Google Earth to verify the point you've picked is realistically visible from the air.

There Are Bad Checkpoints Too...

If you don't want to get lost, avoid using these checkpoints for your route:

  • Powerlines: Even large powerlines with towers are tough to spot from the air. At altitude, wires are extremely tough to spot.
  • Private Airports: Private airports, even those with paved runways, are usually small and often tucked away near trees.
  • Grass Runways: Don't even think about it. Spotting a grass runway from the air is not easy.
  • Small Streams: While a stream or small river might be marked on a sectional, that doesn't mean it'll be easy to spot, especially with trees covering much of it.
  • Small Lakes: Small lakes aren't a good choice either. They usually don't have well-defined shapes for positive identification.
  • Dry Rivers, Lakes, and Streams: Be careful not to pick lakes, rivers, or streams that have dried up.
  • Small Towns: Just because a town is marked on a map doesn't mean it's a good waypoint. It may be a cluster of just a few buildings. You'll need to find one with other identifiable features.
  • Individual Mountains: Unless you're extremely familiar with a mountain range, from the air, mountains blend together. Using a single mountain as a waypoint is tough.
  • Towers: Like powerlines, towers have a tendency to blend into nearby terrain and vegitation.
  • Road Intersections: Unless you're looking at a major highway, avoid using common road intersections.
  • Areas of Unique Vegetation: Have you ever seen marshland marked on a map? Identifying unique vegetation is a challenge from the air.

Need Some Help Reading Charts?

Whether you're preparing for a checkride, or trying to knock the rust off before you fly to new airports, reading charts and understanding NOTAMs is challenging.

We created this training course so you can easily learn everything you need to know: VFR Charts and Publications Online Course

What do you use for checkpoints? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. In addition to multi-engine and instrument ratings, he holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525). He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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