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

This graphic from FlightAware shows both the weather and writer Joe Shelton's actual flight path. Shelton turned north in the middle of Kentucky just after encountering what turned into a thunderstorm and avoided the most intense weather by staying north of it.
6 Knowing the MEA, MOCA, MRA, etc. can be very useful when planning your routing. After all, you want to continue to be able to communicate with ATC, to remain clear of "cumulogranite" and to be able to navigate. It's easy to get suckered lower and lower when the ceilings are dropping. Specifying a hard deck altitude that you won't descend below can save your life.

7 Always be willing to ask ATC for assistance. That's what they're there for, and sometimes when the world closes in and your options seem limited, ATC can provide a lifeline. They've seen it all before and will do anything they can to help you.

8 Probably the most important thing is to have a backup strategy planned and in mind. Like chess, if you plan many moves ahead (e.g., plans B, C and D) and have hardwired triggers that make you switch to the next plan (like diverting), the rest of the flight is much less stressful. The not-all-inclusive list of options are things like turn around to safer weather behind; deviate, descend or climb; change to an alternate; or divert to the nearest airport.

It's a normal human trait to hope for and expect that things will work out. What I've learned over the years are two things beyond "always fly the airplane" that have helped me fly safely: First, if something looks questionable, it probably is. Go somewhere else or do something else. Second, and in the same vein, if you have a niggling feeling that something isn't right, trust your instincts and find a golden safe haven to reconsider your plan.

After an hour and change of intense concentration, we arrived in Erie comfortably and safely, and the weather at the time of our arrival was a 7,000-foot ceiling with greater than 10 miles visibility and practically no wind.


On our trip, we heard many aircraft of all sizes, including Air Force One, asking for deviations. That made me wonder if, from ATC's standpoint, there were any "tricks" to asking for or receiving deviations. That question warranted a call to a couple of ATC facilities. Bill Klein, of Albuquerque's ARTCC, summed it up succinctly, "There is no magic to requesting or receiving a deviation. All you need to provide is the desired direction, number of degrees course change, and the estimated time you expect to be on that heading. We then have to determine if your request causes traffic or other conflicts before we can issue the clearance."

That "other conflict" thing is typically an airspace issue. For example, when we were arriving in the Washington, D.C., area some days later, we heard a pilot requesting a deviation left of course. The controller said that he could approve that, but because of the permanent airspace restrictions around the Capitol, if the pilot needed additional deviation, ATC wouldn't be able to approve it. The pilot made the conservative choice and asked for a deviation in the other direction.

Once you've been given a deviation clearance, just as with all clearances, you're expected to fly it. If you need additional deviation, ask for it. But most importantly, don't wait until the last second to request it. Remember, ATC has to verify that your request doesn't conflict with other aircraft or airspace. Give ATC a break and allow time for them to do their planning.

If you realize that you're about to punch into something you'd rather not, then ask immediately and make certain that you specify that a prompt clearance is necessary. Finally, as PIC, safety is your responsibility, so deviate immediately if you must, and tell ATC what you're doing and why.


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