The Long Way Home

April 4, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

Last week the discussion was the meteorological mayhem that was Sun ‘n Fun a year ago. This year the weather could not have been nicer. Nobody got blown away, at least as far as the weather was concerned, but with many treks south to “the spring break for pilots” it’s been my experience that there’s never a free weather ride in both directions.

The return trip proved once again that deviations around thunderstorms add quality miles and hours to the logbook. The original plan was to depart Lakeland, fly to Ocala (OCF), over Jacksonville, and then northeast.  One look at the datalink weather clearly showed it was a non-starter. We briefly toyed with the idea of flying between the two lines, which would have entailed moderate rain with some embedded cells near Savannah. It was easily decided that crew and passengers would be much more comfortable doing an end run around both lines. It’s been my experience that working behind active lines of convection often works very well although it usually involves time and distance—not a bad trade.

The magenta waypoint shown in the above image, GEF, is Greenville, Florida—just east of Tallahassee. The revised flight plan took us farther north and west than necessary and as soon as the second line was cleared, a shortcut toward Frederick, Maryland, was negotiated. The original plan required a 15-knot tail wind to manage a legal nonstop flight of about 4.5 hours. Thor quashed that in a hurry with a 150-mile detour that added about an hour. A frontal wind shift clocked from a helpful southwesterly to a largely ambivalent northwesterly—not hurting but not providing the needed push either.

The picture at right shows the southwest end of the line from about 75 miles away at a cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. The radar doesn’t show any precip between the lines but there were some small buildups and, while not dangerous, they can be quite uncomfortable. Remember to always ask ATC for both lateral and vertical deviations if IFR.

Fuel math showed that the reserve at destination would be mostly fictional with about 30 minutes remaining. It was a no-brainer to make a quick-turn fuel/rest stop in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The rest of the trip was uneventful—flown at 11,000 to stay above the post frontal cumulus. Upon arrival at Frederick there was an unforecast cloud deck with bases at 1,600 that required a GPS approach. A nonstop flight would have been both illegal and psychologically uncomfortable. As we’ve discussed too many times—what would be a good excuse to tell the FAA and NTSB? Couldn’t think of one on short notice.

Was this trip flyable without weather datalink? Yes. But it was much easier to see from afar what was happening and plan accordingly. It eliminated a lot of radio discussion to get the weather picture from the ground, and there really wasn’t any second guessing about fuel status. A simple conservative approach made for an easy flight—it should always be so.

Be sure to check out the two online courses: Cockpit Weather and Thunderstorms & ATC. Don’t miss our Storm Week webcast on June 14.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • John Butler

    XM weather is a great tool to use with on board weather radar. It really helps to range out in order to plan your flight path when bad weather lurks ahead.

    I recently had an IFR flight from KISM to KIPJ and was confronted with several lines of heavy rain and thunder storms. We were able to get around all the weather because of the datalink weather. The Garmin G500 overlays the weather on the course map making it very easy to pick a route clear of bad weather.

    I use it on every flight and am very please with it.

  • JOhn Hey

    I have xm and storm scope and am afraid to fly without it. I find it most useful for planning far out, so I can plan deviations well in advance or just to cancel. I have watched my destination airport being covered with cells but just about the time I was planning an alternate 100 miles earlier I could see that it was now clear so I went on without delay or pucker factor. Very nice.

  • Nate

    On Thursday April 5 I faced a similar dilemma. An hour after launching from the Orlando area with my destination of Gatlinburg, TN, it became apparent that the weather was blowing up much faster than I or the briefer anticipated. A look at the strikefinder and a talk with Macon Radio convinced me that I was about to get clobbered- uncomfortable at best, and probably dangerous. I showed the weather my heels and was soon on the ground in Brunswick Georgia, headed for the hotel. My life is certainly worth $89!

    The next morning I made the easy two-hour IFR trip, mostly on top in beautiful sunshine. Glad I waited.