March was in like a Lion and out like a Rhinoceros this year. The winds were fierce and contributed to several accidents, as they always do. The airlines had several incidents with passengers and flight attendants injured, and tractor trailers were blown off the road.
Had a flight from the southland up to the Washington, D. C. area at the end of March. The day before departure a stationary front dumped a lot of rain in the Carolinas leaving behind low visibilities, but it looked reasonable to fly through the IMC remnants of the front albeit into a tight wind gradient on the north end.
There were some airmets for turbulence, standard fare in March, but I missed two subtle clues. First, the top for moderate turbulence extended up to 15,000 feet—more than the usual 10,000 feet. Second, the winds aloft at 7,000 were booming out of the west at 45 to 50 knots as opposed to the standard 30 knots or so. There were no pireps of anyone complaining about anything at low altitude, so I expected nothing more than a few jolts on descent.
Airborne at the crack of 0930—for the first two hours there wasn’t a bump, but a 15-degree crab angle confirmed a ripping 90-degree crosswind. The Appalachian mountains inconveniently interfere with the northern part of the route rising to about 4,000 feet—paltry by western standards but enough to be a potent weather maker. Clouds are the signposts and the fair weather cumulus had that shredded look, which telegraphs turbulence.
The autopilot gave the first indication that it might get lively. While it perfectly maintained 7,000 feet, indicated airspeed dropped from 145 knots to 115 knots. Mountain wave. While still 100 miles from the hills, ATC granted my request for 9,000. Should’ve asked sooner. Despite a light load and full power, the best the Bonanza could manage was about 200 feet per minute, when it was climbing at all. After several minutes of trying to go up the down escalator and watching engine temperatures climb I advised ATC that 9,000 might not be in the cards today. A block of 8,000 to 9,000 was granted.
Now the bumps started in earnest and could conservatively be described as “enthusiastic.” I filed a pirep. ATC acknowledged there was a lot of that going around and handed us off to the next sector to start the descent.
The perversity of weather never fails to disappoint, because now we were in the up part of the wave. Powered back gradually to the bottom of the green arc on manifold pressure and deployed speed brakes—the landing gear. Maneuvering speed should be considered the upper limit of how fast to go in moderate turbulence, and slower is better. We settled at about 110 knots—comfortably into the white arc on airspeed—and were coming down at a leisurely 200 feet per minute, mostly, with periodic sucker punches to liven things up. Once more, I advised ATC that it would be awhile before we could get to the assigned altitude, and I filed my second pirep about 50 miles from where the saga had begun.
The controller again acknowledged there was a lot of that going around and in a true act of charity cleared us direct to destination, which shifted the route away from the terrain. That was closer to arrival and departures at Washington Dulles International Airport, but we’d gotten low enough to not be a major disruption. Many thanks!
A nice story, but I’ll gratuitously use this as more than just a hangar tale. Pireps are a potential lifeline and the ATC guidance for controllers recognizes that as well. Their manual (FAA Air Traffic Control Handbook Order 7110-65) requires that controllers solicit pireps whenever an airmet is in effect. Some do, and some don’t. The system for getting these critical reports to the Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City—which issues and modifies pireps—is cumbersome, at best.
In this scenario had there been pireps of strong wave action with up and downdrafts, I either would have delayed the flight until the following day or, more likely, shifted my route a hundred miles east to avoid the worst of the wave and rotor action. ATC, within the sectors, knew the flight conditions but that info was not widely known elsewhere.
We don’t lose many aircraft to turbulence, but about 1.5 fatal accidents per month occur due to VFR into IMC and roughly 6 accidents per year each from ice and convective encounters. Airmets are, by necessity, a crude method to warn pilots—and they often over warn of conditions because the forecast models just aren’t that accurate. Many pilots come to ignore them and go out to “take a look.” With timely airborne observations (pireps), forecasts, flight experiences, and flight completions can be improved significantly. In a dozen or so cases a year, it’s my belief that lives can be saved as well. Here are two AOPA Air Safety Institute accident case studies on icing alone where timely pireps could have made all the difference: Accident Case Study: Delayed Reaction and Accident Case Study: Airframe Icing.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is concluding a special investigation on the role of pireps and will be holding a public forum in Washington, D.C., (June 21st and 22nd) to make recommendations on how to improve our weather forecasting and reporting system. I’ll plan to be there and perhaps you will, too. In any case—please—if you see something, say something. It may or may not get into the system but it may save someone from a rough ride or a really bad day.
Please comment below on your experiences where a pirep made or would have made a difference. We’ll submit comments to the NTSB for the forum.
This isn’t about complaining—it’s about fixing the system, improving utility so that more trips can be safely completed, and helping pilots to make good decisions about when or when not to fly. Ultimately, the best solution will be a Waze-type application where we can submit a quick pirep using our electronic flight bags via UAT ADS-B datalink. That may take some technology but in the interim—speak up, pro or con, and we’ll submit comments to the NTSB.