Posts Tagged ‘thunderstorms’

Learn the local weather, wherever you are

Monday, April 13th, 2015

weatherOne of the most important variables in the day-to-day life of a pilot—if not the most important—is weather.

It’s easy to fixate on learning weather patterns in your hometown. After all, it’s where you live, so it just makes sense. But as you expand your horizons, you will learn that weather is called a “variable” for a reason: No two places are the same.

I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, and there’s a definite annual pattern to the weather. The summers are either hazy, hot, and humid or absolutely gorgeous. There isn’t a lot of in-between, unless you count the torrential rain storms. Lines of thunderstorms can be hit or miss as well, because the Appalachians will affect the extent of continued development before they hit my front door. Falls are brisk; winters are damp and miserable; and spring is the season in which Mother Nature can’t make a decision. Fog is rare, but we had it.

Move forward to my move to Florida, both in college and at my first airline job. There are two seasons in Central Florida, and thus two weather forecasts: pop-up thunderstorms in the summer—as opposed to the fast-moving lines of fury that I’d grown up with—and morning fog in the spring and fall. This was as predictable as Charlie Brown missing the football. And the fog was often so thick you could cut it with a spoon. Carrying extra fuel for holding patterns on morning arrivals was a necessity, as the fog could burn off as quickly as it formed.

In the Midwest, I learned to deal with the same lines of summer storms I’d grown up with, only this time I had to deal with them when they were at maximum strength and fury as they would move across the flat central portion of the country with tremendous speed, unimpeded by terrain, with tops that often exceeded the service ceiling of nearly all jets. I learned firsthand what severe and extreme turbulence feels like, and I don’t need to experience either ever again.

The Midwest also gave me my first exposure to deicing operations, especially with hoar frost, which is extremely common as temperatures begin to fall, even if the precipitation doesn’t. The winters can produce pretty thick fog. This is a major issue in some mountain valleys, especially in the evenings and early mornings. Our late-night flights to Tri-Cities, Tennessee, frequently had to race time to beat the fog that would roll in. Ashville, North Carolina, had similar issues.

Nowadays, my flying takes me around the Pacific. In the winters, the weather is virtually non-existent, and what little there is lends itself to easy visual deviations. In the summers, the storms are much more extensive, but the convective energy is much less concentrated than that in the storms over land. They simply don’t have the heating source. That said, they are to be taken seriously, yet at the same time we are much quicker to pull the trigger on diverting because airports—the islands—are so far apart, and we can only carry so much extra fuel. It’s not unheard of for the weather over or near one of the islands to be just sketchy enough that a crew won’t even attempt an approach. The fuel wasted is better saved for a possible missed approach at the alternate.

Weather and its patterns are unique, and while I don’t profess to have the most intimate understanding that others do, I have stored enough information away in my memory bank that I can put together a plan in fairly short order. Understanding what to expect based on local geography and terrain is a key component to that. In my case, more learning shall occur. I will eventually transfer back to domestic flying, and I have relatively little flying experience west of the Rockies. I’ll be relying on what I’ve read to get by, but not as much as the wisdom of those I’m flying with along with my own eyes.

Wherever your experience takes you, pay attention. It’s information you’ll need later.—Chip Wright

The Valley of Blue

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

I’ve written before about the fact that I am a warm weather guy—my wife and I very nearly moved our family to the Virgin Islands several years ago—but I prefer to deal with many of the inconveniences of winter flying versus one minute of dealing with a thunderstorm.

That conviction was reinforced in spades in July, when I was scheduled to fly a CVG-GSO turn. This happened during the stretch of 90- to 100-degree days when a front decided to assume a stationary stance along the I-70 corridor.

Our normal route of flight on this city pair takes about 50 to 55 minutes, and essentially is a direct line from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International to Piedmont/Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C. I’ve done it enough times that I could do it with my eyes closed.

On this day, however, little was going right. We were running late because the airplane was late getting to us for our first leg in DTW. We had some passenger connection issues as well as some other run-of-the-mill airline stuff go wrong that put us about 15 minutes behind all day. Had we been on time, we just might have made it out of the CVG area in time to punch the line and fly the normal route to GSO.
Instead, we were forced to take a journeyman’s route, flying from CVG due east until we were past Pittsburgh, and then finding a spot to turn south and race the weather. I held off on the controller’s request to start south until we were well clear of the eastern band of weather that was on our route, and as a result, we got a nice smooth ride into GSO.

The return flight, however, was not going to be any easier. Our dispatcher loaded us down with a truckload of extra Jet A and wished us luck. He confirmed to me on the phone that the weather would not be a factor in CVG, though the forecast would require an alternate. In reality, the worst of it was west and south of the field. The radar on my phone seemed to confirm that.

Getting home required almost a reversal of our route down, but with one major constraint: We were filed for FL300, but we could not get past FL220 because of traffic saturation. We could see it on our TCAS, and when we checked in with Washington Center, we could hear it on the radio. More than once, the congestion was so bad that our initial transmission was a press of the Ident button on the transponder—we simply could not get a word in edgewise.

We, along with (it seemed) every airplane on the East Coast, were stuck in a “Valley of Blue.” The sky above us was clear, and it wasn’t too bad going north either. East didn’t look great, but even if it had, it didn’t do us any good, and we could not find a clear hole to the west—not one that both of us could agree to try. When I liked one, the first officer didn’t, and vice versa. We kept going onward, again sneaking in the Pennsylvania area. The controller occasionally would ask us when we planned to turn. We never had a good answer. We tried to get a higher altitude, because in several places, it looked as though even a few thousand feet would get us over the weather. No dice. It was one of the few times that I heard a controller announce, “[a]ll aircraft cleared to deviate as necessary.”


Finally, when I began to think that we might need to announce to the RCMP that we were coming to Canada, eh, we found a hole to our left and floored it. Three or four minutes later, we were firmly established on a heading that again paralleled the weather, going west. We had to argue with several more controllers as we worked around a sizeable cell, and we had to contact the dispatcher about the 8,000-foot difference in our altitude and the effect on our fuel burn, but the farther west we went, the better the ride got. A normal flight of an hour took 90 minutes. Two hours later, we were on the ground in Baltimore for the overnight.

I hate thunderstorms…but I so want to move to a tropical island and fly VFR for the rest of my days.—Chip Wright

Diverting in the real world

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

A week or so ago, I recorded a video that goes along with a feature coming your way in the July issue of Flight Training. The topic is diverting. That is to say, the topic is about diverting to a different airport. If you get the digital edition, you’ll see me describe a long-ago diversion I made when I couldn’t find the airport. (True story.)

So we all know how art imitates life, or is it vice versa? Last week I pointed my Cherokee 140 west, intending to land in Arkansas. I was headed to Gaston’s fly-in resort (3M0) to research this beautiful fishing destination for another article, which you’ll read in the September issue. I wound up diverting more than once because of weather–thunderstorms, the bane of summertime flying.

I tend to plan routes so that I cross over airports. Sometimes it adds time to my flight–a half-hour at most. But it pays dividends in terms of peace of mind. Airports make good, easy-to-find checkpoints. They also serve as reminders to switch fuel tanks on the Cherokee (which I try to do when overflying an airport). This strategy proved particularly helpful on the way west, because I simply diverted to an airport already on my route. (Hello, Clark Regional in southern Indiana!)

Headed back to Maryland a few days later, I had such a great tailwind that I chose a more direct route, hoping to make some good time. And it worked–for a while. Then a line of storms marched toward me. (Hello, Morgantown Municipal in West Virginia!)

If I’d flown the airport-to-airport route, I’d have spared myself some sweaty palms trying to pick out a suitable place to hang out for a bit. So the next time I plan a long, long cross-country, I’m sticking to what works.  Have you diverted? Tell us about it.

–Jill Tallman