When Mom Told You The Stove Was Hot

January 23, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

Mountain FlyingLast week the NTSB announced their Top Ten Most Wanted List to provide a clear path and set priorities for the coming year. It’s great the Board narrowed the focus from general aviation as a whole to a much narrower scope delineating GA and weather. Mark Twain properly noted that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” So, what could we do?

A few questions:

  • Have you ever been told “VFR not recommended” only to find that the ceiling, visibility, or the timing of that prediction were not quite right?
  • How about an airmet for icing?
  • What about an airmet for moderate turbulence below 10,000 feet?
  • How about the converse of all the above—nothing was forecast and whammo—the flight became a lot more complicated or even dangerous?
  • Do you think that some pilots build up a tolerance to imperfect forecasts based on past successes?

In the cautious words of the folks who sell financial products, past performance is no predictor of future success. And so it is with busted forecasts. Note to self: The weather is what is seen out the windshield—not what was forecast—and this is no place for wishful thinking. When your posterior, and those of your passengers, is hanging in the balance, it’s a really good time to assess risk versus reward.

At this writing, the GA community is averaging about two to three fatal weather accidents a month. It’s not an epidemic when considered against a hundred thousand flights, but it’s certainly not good for business or the health of the accident participants by anyone’s metric. So what to do?

I’ll throw out a starter suggestion and you can chime in anytime. Putting out accurate and timely forecasts/updates when the weather gods are in a different mood than the forecasters would help tremendously. When Mom told you the stove was hot it only took once to learn. But weather isn’t like that. As Yogi Berra famously said, “You can observe a lot just by looking.” Our communication system is what’s lacking. If you saw the Air Safety Institute’s “Accident Case Study—Delayed Reaction,” this is an example of where more accurate and timely information might have helped. We’ll have more to say on this in April’s issue of AOPA Pilot.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Daniel Lee

    I fly a helicopter in the Los Angeles basin and find ATIS and AWOS/ASOS reports to be very incomplete with regards to visibility. This last year we seem to have a lot of fog coming in from the ocean and haze. The weather stations are reporting 10 miles of vis and I get up there and have to turn around because the haze is so bad I can’t see landmarks towards my destination. Sometimes haze is mentioned in the report but it seems usually not. With the fog the stations again report unlimited vis but then I get up there and yes unlimited to the east but there is IFR stratus along the coast that wasn’t mentioned. Nothing beats an actual look, and I would like to see cameras mounted on high structures looking in each direction and connected to the Internet, so a pilot could call up that webpage and actuall see what the area he is moving into looks like.

  • Daniel Lee

    Whenever I feel visibility is deteriorating I simply turn the helicopter around and go back the way I came. Two weeks ago I had an incident where it wasn’t that simple. I had flown over a mountain pass at night, and then about three hours later crossed it again in the other direction. To my astonishment and dismay there was stratus and fog in front of me from the coast to downtown Los Angeles which is about 10 miles. I didn’t want to turn back because I was concerned fog would be forming in the dark mountain pass so it was forward. I was able to skirt the huge cloud and was looking at lighted parks in case an immediate landing was needed, and about half way to my destination visibility dropped to the point where I didn’t feel safe and fortunately there was an airport within a mile I was able to land at and wait until visiblity improved. I learned a big lesson in how fast visibility can decrease, how dangerous night flying is with less than 5 miles vis, and now understand how the two to three fatal weather related GA accidents happen every month. While waiting on the ground at my alternate airport for vis to increase I called a weather briefer and he reported VFR all along my route, so it was reinforced to me there is no substitution to looking out the bubble and seeing what is in front of me.

  • http://tailspinstales.blogspot.com Tom Harnish

    When the forecast for possible thunderstorms over the mountains, far away, turned to lowering viz and lightning right where I was, I was not happy. A quick 180 revealed the same conditions behind me and I knew I was in trouble. In a 1929 open cockpit biplane (or anything else, for that matter) there was no way I was going to continue flying into IFR conditions, much less thunderstorms. A landing on a dirt road through a tobacco field got us down in one piece, but we were drenched by he time we got the ol’ bird tied down. A small price to pay, considering the alternative.

    On another occasion I was flying a TriPacer IFR late at night, and encountered icing that wasn’t supposed to be there. Single engine instrument flying at night isn’t my idea of fun, but it got worse when I lost radio communication. With full throttle and still slowly descending, that was the least of my worries. Squawking 7600, and before long 7700, I broke out of the overcast and into warmer air for a NORDO approach to Pittsburgh International. Safely on the ground I found the VHF antennae had broken off, thanks to the ice.

    So yes, I’ve found myself in un-forecast conditions that could have been (were) dangerous.

    But, to me, the more dangerous situation is when forecast conditions don’t materialize, and you find yourself flying “through footless halls” and “sun-split clouds” in perfect serenity.

    Like the frog in the saucepan, it’s easy to snuggle a little closer to a thunderhead next time, and when nothing disastrous happens, skirt the next storm a little closer yet. And then one day a lightning strike in the runway creates a divot deep enough to collapse the nose gear on your Mooney. That wasn’t me, it was the unfortunate pilot who’d landed ahead of me on another runway. But both of us were frogs in hot water.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Nicely said

  • sam sibells

    One just needs to use good judgement. My most interesting VFR not recommended scenario was on a clear blue day from Burlington, Vermont to somewhere in Massachusetts. There was one enroute station in New Hampshire along a river that was 1/4 mile in fog, apparently coming off the river in the morning.