Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Low Level By Columbia

When is it necessary to ad lib, and when is it just plain dumb?

The northern segment of the route was forecast for intermittent freezing conditions from the surface to 20,000 feet, but I reasoned that wouldn't be the case at low level out over the water.

Bangor was still good VFR, however, well north of all the meteorological misery. When I awoke on the 15th, I called weather for an update, then opted to take a look. The plan was to fly over the Atlantic abeam Portland, Maine, and track down the coast to Atlantic City, refuel, and reconsider my options. Ceilings over the water figured to allow a reasonable margin.

Granted that I probably could, the next question was whether I should. I'm certainly not the smartest chimp in the sky, but one reason I've survived 35 years of international delivery flying is that I try never to push the weather. True, I do sometimes get paid to deliver airplanes to the opposite side of the world, and clients expect their airplanes to arrive on time, but I have no reluctance to wait it out if the weather is marginal or downright unflyable. Explaining a delay from a warm hotel room is far preferable to struggling with a load of ice in the hinterlands of Canada.

In this case, the forecast for conditions below the weather wasn't all that bad, so I elected to go. I've spent my share of hours cruising above the ocean at heights between 500 and 2,000 feet to stay out of the ice or away from thunderstorms. At certain times of year, there's little choice but to give it your best shot unless you're willing to get an apartment and wait for summer.

On the long legs over the Pacific, for example, nasty weather occasionally forces me down to low level, sometimes 1,000 feet or less, but there's no choice. Halfway out on a 2,000 nm leg, you have only two choices: continue to your destination or return to your point of departure.

I launched from Bangor, headed southwest, and zigged off the coast north of Portland. Sure enough, the OAT was +1 degree C a few miles off the coast, headwinds were only moderate (about 15-20 knots), and precip was easily manageable, consistently wet at 2,000 feet. Visibility was easily five miles, and the airplane's Garmin G1000 system made tracking down the coast simple, avoiding the prohibited area at Kennebunkport, Maine, and all the restricted airspace around Boston and New York City.

The ceiling varied from about 1,500 to 2,000 feet, and visibility remained decent as I flew south, watching the OAT increase to +2 degrees, then +4 degrees, and finally +6 degrees C south of New York City. I'd rather have been cruising in blue skies at 12,000 feet, but my low-level route was a viable alternative (is there any other kind?) to get the job done. Groundspeed hovered around 150 knots, nothing like the airplane's normal 180 knots at two-mile heights, but adequate for my purposes.

As I drifted south, guiding the Columbia outside the Class B and C airspace (remember when special-use airspace was labeled, more telegraphically, TCA and ARSA?), making certain I wasn't irritating the feds or anyone else. The NEXRAD showed the yellow and orange weather depictions blotting out the map over Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, then abruptly dissipating as I passed south of the New York City area.


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