A stationary front had settled over New England with low ceilings, fog, and rain. I had just finished a safety presentation to the Flying Physician Association’s Annual meeting in Hanover, New Hampshire. We discussed some of the safety aspects of medical reform (most of the docs are in favor) and loss of control (most of the docs are against it).
My summertime strategy is always to be airborne early to beat the inevitable summertime convection. Got to the aircraft well ahead of schedule (about 10:00 a.m.—that’s not early but business got in the way) and, glory be, received a cleared-as-filed clearance. But just as soon as it was loaded into the GPS, the amendment clarified what Boston Center really wanted had more waypoints and fixes than ants on a Tennessee anthill. Fine—another few minutes of button pushing and I taxied out.
Non-radar environments mean one airplane in and one out, or more often, three or four in and outbound traffic can just relax. It got so “relaxed” the tower apologetically suggested I shut down and call back in a bit. Finally, airborne 40 minutes later with 30 knots on the nose—but just clouds and rain—made for a good ride.
Down the line in Pennsylvania, however, datalink weather was showing that I was late to the party as the atmosphere was beginning to go vertical. Two hours earlier this would have been a non-issue. The showers and a few cells were well-scattered, but once Mother Nature starts to boil the ride can be uncomfortable (or worse) even when there is no precipitation nearby.
The other data point is that the stuff can build from nothing to nasty in a short time (minutes), and the latency of datalink pictures doesn’t always serve us well. Just about the time you’re fairly sure what’s going on, it’s changed significantly (see the Air Safety Institute’s Accident Case Study: Time Lapse video).
At 8,000 feet there were short glimpses of towering cumulus clouds followed by bouncy periods of blinding white inside. Above 14,000 the view would have been a lot better, but that’s a stretch for my normally-exasperated aircraft and there was no O2 on board. Ten degrees left, then 15 degrees right, coordinate with ATC, and avoid the big ugly ones.
Altitude hold on autopilots can put significant stress on the airframe where hand flying provides a softer touch in these circumstances. Get a block altitude from ATC if unable to maintain plus or minus 150 feet. In retractables, the landing gear will stabilize the machine and act as a speed brake in descents. No flaps allowed—they lower the G tolerance of the airframe. The goal is to stay well below maneuvering speed by at least 20 to 30 knots as adjusted for the actual weight. Much easier on the airframe and the passengers although the natural inclination is to get out of there!!! Slow and easy does it.
The fuel stop at Hagerstown, Maryland, was a pleasant respite, and a long look at the FBO’s radar (see image at top) showed there was no realistic strategic avoidance through Virginia or North Carolina to my destination in South Carolina. Secure the beast and get a hotel. Widely scattered aluminum will not be in tonight’s forecast.
On the bright side, it’s an adventure. Met some local color in the bar—Ernest Hemingway spent much time in such establishments, and look at the literature he produced (but there’s no danger of that here!!).
Well before bedtime, moderate to heavy rain cascaded over the parking lot with periodic peals of thunder. It was a good call to stay put. Glad I put a plastic bag over the copilot seat: door seal leaks! What we tolerate from our pricey machines is a lot more in some respects than from the cheapest automobile.
Next morning it was Déjà Vu all over again: rain, fog, low ceilings—but no ATC delays. The early morning strategy made all the difference as the convection started to build in from the west over Raleigh. This time, however, a 20-degree heading change to go down the east side missed the whole mess. That’s where datalink really shines. Landed at 11:00 a.m. and by early afternoon it’s Groundhog Day (the movie) in the Southeast—no easy diversions.
This also illustrates a reality in flying light aircraft. We operate in weather windows, and life has to accommodate that or you may not be happy with the results. Anyone with a good convection story and timing of the flight?
As we get into thunderstorm season proper, remember that whatever it’s doing now, in ten minutes it will be different (often worse). We know that thunderstorms and airplanes don’t mix, so avoid these violent storms by checking out the tools at your disposal in the Air Safety Institute’s Thunderstorm Avoidance Safety Spotlight.