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.
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.”
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.
A Garmin G1000 screenshot of the final part of the original route to Erie. Each of the red and white squares are individual cells with an arrow showing their direction of movement. Joe Shelton turned north to stay on the upwind side of this gauntlet.
It may sound like we departed on a wing and a prayer. But, I had a simple plan. Remain on top in VMC conditions as long as possible and since the ceilings were forecast to be high enough to fly safely underneath, stay on top until it became necessary to descend below the ceiling to complete the trip. I had a set of guiding criteria. First, the ceilings had to remain high enough for continued safe flight through to the destination. Second, we’d remain predominantly VMC on top until that became difficult. Third, a descent through anything more than light icing conditions was unacceptable. Fourth, there had to be a golden escape alternative at all times. We departed with about six hours of fuel on board, so, if nothing else, we could do a 180 and easily return to a clear airport behind us.
With those criteria firmly in mind, we continued northeast. The scattered-to-broken undercast eventually became solid, and the tall and sometimes ominous lines of buildups to both our right and left became more imposing. The severity of the two lines was confirmed on the weather page on my Garmin G1000’s MFD.
I comfortably punched through a few benign-looking clouds and asked for deviations around a couple of more ominous buildups. But unlike some days where you can watch the cumulus rise, on this day, the clouds we were passing didn’t seem to have much instability.
At one point, I was looking at a buildup directly ahead and decided that while it looked benign, it probably warranted deviating. When I asked for a deviation, Center wondered why because their radar wasn’t showing anything. An “aha” moment: Always ask for and use Center’s radar eye and experience; they’re there for you. But don’t ever believe that they know more than your eyes tell you. It takes water droplets for radar to show anything, and this about-to-be thunderstorm wasn’t mature enough yet. We received clearance for a deviation and skirted the buildup, but there was enough instability that we could feel turbulence even though we were miles upwind of it.
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t rely on satellite weather for tactical guidance. Nothing I’ve seen disputes that fact, especially with fast-moving weather. But there are a lot of different types of weather information available, so when the weather is questionable, be sure to continually review everything that satellite weather offers. It’s very useful for understanding the big picture and tracking weather patterns. I kept my eye on the Erie area weather throughout the trip, and periodically checked the current METAR, after verifying the reporting time, so I’d have a sense of whether we could make our destination.
I periodically turned on Cloud Tops and then Echo Tops to look ahead, so I’d have a sense of how long I could expect to stay at my cruise altitude. Technology aside, I knew it was going to be my Mark I Eyeball that provided the final weather navigation.
As we continued toward Erie, I continued to cycle through almost all of the weather information available through the G1000. My challenge was how to track the surface weather while continuing to monitor the rest of the weather picture. The G1000 has a feature on the weather page called METAR that displays a flag by each airport icon indicating whether that airport’s last transmitted METAR was VFR, LVFR, IFR or LIFR. By turning on the METAR display and checking the actual reported weather at selected airports, I kept a running situational awareness on the weather below the overcast. I also kept Flight Watch active in the background, so I’d hear any information germane to my routing. In such a case, I listen for what the specialist tells others, but also listen for PIREPs for things like ice, turbulence, etc. (On a prior flight, I had once heard that my destination had gone below minimums over an hour before I’d have been in range to hear the ATIS, so I had plenty of time and fuel to plan a diversion.)
About this time, ATC offered that it looked like our clear route was beginning to close, and they recommended that we accept a deviation to the left to avoid the significant weather. That was an acceptable option because it would keep us out of the dual thunderstorm-line weather gauntlet and to the west of the more intense weather. It would also keep us upwind of all of the current cells. If you have the choice, always try to remain upwind of significant weather because the weather could move faster than planned or than SatWeather shows.
At this point, Erie was covered by rain but I assumed correctly, that the weather would be better by the time we arrived.
Eventually, wandering at 15,000 feet through beautiful white peaks and valleys would have required climbing to remain mostly VMC. One excursion through what looked like a benign buildup but lifted the iPad in my lap up to about chest level was encouragement to descend to VMC conditions below. I informed the controller of my request, and we negotiated a stepped descent while he coordinated with the next sector.
At the start of this tale, I said that it wouldn’t be my IFR skills that shepherded us safely to our destination. Once below the overcast, we had a whole new ball game, and this was to be the most challenging hour of our entire trip. I considered canceling IFR so I’d have free reign to avoid the virga and heavy rain shafts that were scattered around us. But I wanted ATC’s attention and assistance, so I elected to remain IFR. From this point on, the challenge was to remain in VMC conditions and studiously avoid anything that looked remotely dangerous.
The hour-plus that it took to finish the flight to Erie illuminated a number of lessons to keep in mind if you try to navigate in VMC under an overcast with limited visibility and scattered thunderstorms, turbulence, virga and the like.
1 If the forecast is for convective activity, your best bet to avoid cumulus activity is usually to fly early in the mornings. The earlier, the better. Evenings might work, as well.
2 Flying VMC below an overcast, especially with occasional or continual low visibilities, requires constantly being heads up. You’re watching for weather, clearest routing, indications of turbulence or other weather, and for other aircraft. The point is, you should be looking outside and not surprisingly, while avoiding obvious weather, I found that I was sometimes substantially off my desired course. The moving map was my salvation, and if you don’t have a moving map, consistent and accurate navigation is critical. Even if you know the area, it’s very easy to get confused and lost when the visibilities are low and weather is an issue.
3 It’s obvious when you think about it, but sometimes not so obvious when you’re flying, but if possible, always deviate upwind of convective activity, cells, virga and the like. Two reasons: First, if you’re upwind of the weather, it won’t be moving in your direction, so you’re usually safer. Second, there’s typically less turbulence on the upwind side. Sometimes, especially with strong winds, you can be miles downwind from a thunderstorm and still feel the effects.
4 There’s one very basic tenet I learned while flying with my father from Vero Beach, Fla., to Phoenix, Ariz., when I was only 16. If you plan to file and fly IFR in convective conditions, especially with widespread IMC and embedded cells, always remain VMC. My father and I learned, oh did we learn, to stay away from IMC conditions when there are embedded cells.
5 If you’re having trouble holding altitude and/or require continually changing heading to avoid the uglies, request “block altitudes” (especially at higher altitudes) and request a broad maneuvering diversion clearance. You won’t always be able to get them, but you absolutely won’t get them if you don’t ask.
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.