Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

IFR Strategies In Convective Weather

A tactical flight from coast-to-coast in a Columbia 400 from above the weather to underneath the overcast

I just completed a trip from a coastal town in northern California, to Erie, Penn., and back in a Columbia 400. We planned stops for fuel, visiting family and friends, and tourist activities, but because the forecast was for scattered thunderstorms and fronts, it was obvious that my IFR rating was going to be exercised. What wasn't obvious was how it was going to be challenged and that it wasn't IFR skills that would allow my daughter and me to arrive comfortably and safely at our destination.

Departing Watsonville for Santa Fe to refuel, we climbed through the early-morning marine-layer overcast and were soon on top, looking at bright-blue clear skies and visibilities greater than 50 nm, with the snow-topped Sierra Mountains visible far to the east. Not surprisingly as it was late summer, there were buildups over northern Arizona, and the forecast for scattered thunderstorms was accurate. At 15,000 feet, we were above the lower-level turbulence and only had to avoid the taller of the buildups and occasional thunderstorms that were typically directly ahead on our routing.

After refueling in Santa Fe, we arrived in eastern Missouri that afternoon, and continued the next day for Erie. Stopping to have lunch with a relative in Nashville, we then began the interesting leg.

On Top
The clearance was a fairly direct victor airway routing, and the weather, while obviously challenging, looked to cooperate by providing a path between two extended lines of multiple embedded cells that paralleled our route. The weather in Erie before we took off was blustery, with winds in the 20s and gusting. The forecast was for acceptable weather at our ETA so we decided to launch with the option to divert, should the weather not improve. Just as I was ready to start the engine, I got a call from my friend in Erie saying, "You should be careful. The weather here is horrible, and we've heard there are tornados to the south and east."
If something looks questionable, it probably is. Go somewhere else or do something else. Trust your instincts and find a golden safe haven to reconsider your plan.
With that warning, we departed IMC through a scattered-to-broken layer to VMC conditions on top and headed northeast. As we climbed to our cruising altitude of 15,000 feet, I realized how easy it is to head toward questionable weather when the skies are so beautiful on top. The flight was planned for about two and a half hours, and I hoped that we'd be able to slide right along the clear route depicted by satellite weather all the way to Erie.

As we continued northward, the low, white, puffy clouds gradually became taller, and eventually it became obvious that we were going to need deviations to avoid the taller buildups.


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