Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Top Mistakes In Convective Environments

How to stay safe in bad weather

If you can’t reach Flight Watch on 122 MHz, try the High-Altitude Flight Watch frequency, designed to service pilots flying at FL180 or higher. They’d be happy to help even if you’re weaving your way around the building cumulus at a much lower altitude. Flight Watch is organized by Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), so each center has such a frequency. You can find these frequencies listed in the inside-back cover of the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD).

Know When To Call It Quits
There are times when you just can’t get there from here. When pilots run out of choices, and the weather is closing in, they often make the mistake of pressing on. They’re optimistic that it’s not as bad as it looks. After all, three other aircraft made it in just fine before them. Dealing with a challenging convective situation adds to your workload. Within seconds, you can quickly get behind the airplane, missing items on the checklist, cutting corners and making mistakes in haste. Landing short of your destination is perhaps the easiest solution. Don’t pass up the opportunity to land at a perfectly good airport to make it 20 miles closer: Land and wait it out.

Gust fronts don’t show up on satellite-based weather products, and often precede the line of convection by five or more miles. Pay special attention to radar signatures such as bow echoes, which almost always contain strong straight-line winds with peak winds of 50 knots or greater at times. Winds can shift 180 degrees within a few minutes, even when the actual rain shaft is five or more miles away, forcing a tricky go-around. As you approach your destination, listen to the weather for airports upwind from your destination in the path of the storm. Heed any warnings to land and wait it out.

A convective environment is one that demands a little extra cushion. If possible, come around the backside of the weather—keep in mind that most lines of storms move to the east or southeast, while the individual cells normally move northeast. If you characterized the convection before you departed, you should know the expected movement of the weather.

Finally, pilots tend to also forget how much a deviation around the weather can eat into fuel reserves. In a convective environment, add another 30 minutes beyond your current minimum landing fuel. Once you reach that point and haven’t arrived at your destination, call it quits and find an airport where you can refuel. It’s tempting to press on, but you might find that you need one more deviation before you have a clear shot to your destination. Having more fuel will definitely obviate the need for a forced landing and reduce the pucker factor over worries about running out.


Scott C. Dennstaedt is an active CFI who specializes in aviation weather training. Visit his website at


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