Tiptoeing ‘round the Boomers

May 21, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg
Boomers Fig 1

                    Figure 1

Last week the Weather Channel was predicting Meteorological Apocalypse as they almost always do whenever a strong cold front hits the Midwest. A 25-degree temperature spread across the air masses often makes for a few tornadoes and copious thunderstorm activity.

A business meeting in Kansas City offered the chance to fly from the East coast with a friend in his Cessna 441. We launched early afternoon for the 3.5-hour ride. At 30,000 feet the view was impressive, and it was obvious from several hundred miles away that “direct” was no longer in the cards. We climbed to FL340 for a better view. Not many 32-year-old turboprops can do that.

In Figure 1, you’ll note a significant northwest deviation as we worked around the end of the first line. Datalink radar told the story as did ATC. Visually, however, it looked better down to the southwest. That’s because the line was trailing away from us and was hidden by the closer storms. Got to watch those illusions or get taken for a ride!

Boomers Fig 2

                    Figure 2

Arrival into MKC required onboard radar because the flight was in and out of lower clouds and much closer to the cells. Timing is everything. FlightAware’s snapshot at 2:50 pm is a midflight picture—not actually what was happening when we arrived. It shows us going through a cell, which we did not (Figure 2).You may notice a “buttonhook” sort of turn as we got onto the downwind. Tracon asked if we’d like a scenic detour since heavy rain was moving across the final approach course. It’s bad karma to be on final in heavy precip, so a 5-minute delay allowed a much less exciting arrival.

The return trip two days later was equally interesting but in a completely different chariot—another friend’s Cessna Caravan. Since many of us don’t routinely fly the flight levels, it’s fun to compare the differences. It was VFR, low and slow, to St. Louis for a three-hour business stop.


Boomers Fig 3

                    Figure 3

The mid-afternoon launch had us into the backside of the front, which had meandered into the Ohio Valley (Figure 3). Again, the image shows the mid-trip picture, so the cells are not exactly as they appear at the time of our passing.

The first part of the trip, being in the cold sector, precluded cruising at the odd 5,000 feet altitude due to icing—4,000 worked well until the temperatures warmed eastbound.

Late afternoon is about the worst time to tackle something that requires heat as an engine, but there we were. In convective weather one should never rely on just one source of information. We had five: visual (much of the time), datalink, onboard radar, lightning detection, and ATC (the ARTCC duplicates datalink, but most tracons have real time weather). Each has its strength and weakness, but collectively they provide a good picture of where not to go. The whole trick is not to get painted into a corner, and a wide yellow stripe down your back doesn’t hurt either!

One point about deviations: On the return trip, even though there appear to be significant deviations (and there were), the mileage didn’t change much—699 nm direct, 757 nm as filed, 761 nm as flown. Those were quality miles, and despite all the vertical clouds light turbulence was all we encountered and not enough rain to wash the bugs off.

Join the Air Safety Institute during Storm Week, June 8-14. Each day during Storm Week look for ASI’s convective-weather related safety products, including a  new “Flying the Weather” video, and register now for our “Datalink: Cockpit Weather Do’s and Don’ts” webinar to be held on June 11, 2014, at 7:00 p.m. ET, as we discuss important safety considerations when flying with cockpit weather.

Learn how to keep thunderstorms at bay with ASI’s “Weather Wise: Thunderstorms and ATC” course, which explains the finer nuances of how to effectively communicate with ATC, how controllers describe precipitation, and what radar services they can offer.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • http://AOPA Jim Borger

    I have FIS-B (weather uplinked through the ADS-B system) displayed on my Garmin, an EFB with XMWX,ADF, and a Strikefinder. I know ADF has fallen out of favor but everything I fly at work still has them and I have one in both of my planes. The Strikefinder shows electrical activity but I’ve flown through areas I can see through that show strong returns on the display and gotten kicked around pretty good in areas showing no activity. Radar and satellite show that something is there, maybe rain, maybe wet clouds. The ADF tells me if I have lightning. If there are just a few crackles I can continue on but if there is so much crashing static that I can’t hear the ADF audio then I know I don’t want to punch through the red lines. I first started flying IFR in 1966 and almost all my time is in the south, South Vietnam, South America, and the southern United States so I have been dealing with thunderstorms from the beginning of my flying career. Unless you have a lot of experience dealing with them it’s best to avoid them by a wide margin. ATC can help but they can only see their radar which might not reflect actual conditions. If you don’t like what you see out your window sometimes it’s better to tell them that you are unable to comply with their vectoring.