When Weather Lies

It was a cloudless, hazy morning when the Cessna Skylane pilot preflighted for a hundred-mile business trip. A meticulous mechanic by trade, he performed a quick — but very thorough — inspection of the airplane and engine. The Weather Channel looked good for the trip, there were no areas of green on the map to symbolize rain or storms on his route. The pilot was ready to depart (he’d even filed a flight plan) when his instrument instructor arrived — today’s flight would combine a short business trip with an instrument cross-country in preparation for the rating checkride.

Let me guess,’ prompted the CFII, ‘areas of marginal VFR in haze, an Airmet for mountain obscuration along the ridge, and generally hot, hazy sky, right?’

The pilot/student looked sheepish, but did not delay in his reply: ‘I’m ashamed to say I didn’t ask. I just called up and filed — the briefer seemed rushed, like he had something else to do, so I just filed a flight plan without getting a weather briefing.’ He looked his instructor in the eye and knew what to say next. ‘I’ll call them back and get it now.’

The weather pattern had been stagnant for days, with hot hazy mornings and isolated, hit-and-miss thundershowers each afternoon. A very active recreational pilot, the instrument student usually flew in the local airport area, limiting most of his flights to about an hour. While this kind of flying made him very familiar with the area, he didn’t have much experience in watching weather change and develop the way it quickly could over the distance of a flight. In fact, his experience suggested ‘weather here, weather there’ — his habits trained him to think that conditions at his home field extended a significant distance from the airport. To him, a quick look at the TV weather seemed enough to plan a 100-mile cross-country without even getting a weather briefing. It seemed perfectly reasonable to expect hot, hazy weather for the entire trip.

Instead, not twenty miles from the departure airport, a low undercast began to fill beneath the Skylane. At first, it was just bunches of puffs in the haze, but soon a solid layer of low stratus developed. Nearby, a Cessna 210 pilot in the area reported a thousand-foot overcast on climbout. By the time the pilot and CFII reached their destination, they entered a cloud layer at around 4000 feet and flew an ILS approach, breaking out about 700 feet above the ground.

It’s easy to think that local weather conditions extend forever, our ground-bound and local flying experience says that what we see is what we’ll get all day — or at least for a significant portion of the next 24-hours. Most of the time, when weather is going to change, there’s usually quite a bit of advance warning in the form of clouds or wind. However, what works when we’re standing at one place on the ground, does not hold true when we’re zipping through an airmass at a couple of miles a minute or more. Worse, even calling ahead to your destination airport (or a friend nearby) for an unofficial ‘weather observation’ might not be enough to be sure the weather will be safe for your trip.

If you’re moving from one type of operation to another (local to cross-country flight, day to night operation, visual to instrument flight, slower to faster airplanes, etc.), you need to concentrate on the basics. You’re expanding your personal flight envelope and the experience you already have may not translate well to the new type of operation. In cases like this one, your previous experience may be exactly wrong for the type of flying you’re about to do.

Your only defense is a good offense — get a complete weather briefing. Absence of ‘green’ on a TV forecaster’s map doesn’t mean the weather will be VFR at your destination or even ‘good’ for your route of flight. ‘Green’ maps (or radar) show rain, not clouds. For that matter, even heavy thunderstorms sometimes don’t take cloud ceilings or visibilities below visual limits — what you see on television isn’t usually optimized for aviation.

Before straying from the home ‘drome’s traffic pattern, you must consider:

  • Area weather patterns: You need to know more than what’s happening at just one or two points (your departure and destination airports), you also need to be familiar with weather conditions on a bigger scale — as well as what weather is likely to develop. It may be clear at your destination now, but clouds may be blowing in from just upwind. You should know not only if it’s VMC or IMC, but also if conditions are improving or worsening and what direction you’d need to turn to fly toward better weather. Even instrument pilots need this knowledge in order to properly plan for alternate airports.
  • Winds aloft: This will affect your enroute time and, therefore, your fuel planning. Many an airplane has come up short on fuel before reaching its final destination. The common excuse is that the pilot encountered stronger headwinds than expected.
  • Surface winds: Similarly, a lot of pilots bend metal each year landing in gusts, crosswinds or with a tailwind at the destination airport. Once you’re airborne, you’re committed to landing somewhere. If you know what to expect at your destination before you take off, it’ll be easier to accept a delay, divert to another field, or cancel the flight outright if winds at the destination don’t meet the pattern of available runways or your aircraft’s (or your own) skill sets.
  • PIREPs: Pilot reports, available only through the official briefing outlets, give you the only first-hand knowledge of conditions as they actually existed between weather reporting points or above the bases of the lowest level of clouds.
  • NOTAMs: Notices to Aviators (formerly ‘Airmen,’ but now we include the ladies as well) tell you if a navaid is down … if a runway is shortened or closed … if a particular procedure has been added, changed, eliminated … if an airport is closed … and other vital information such as fuel availability or (I’ve seen this!) a closed airport restaurant. All of that is information you’d certainly like to have before taking off.
  • FARs: Hey, it’s the law — get an ‘official’ weather briefing before you fly!

BOTTOM LINE: There’s no excuse for not getting a weather briefing before every flight. It’s designed to give you one-stop access to everything you need to plan a specific trip. If a weather briefer seems ‘rushed,’ remember his or her job is to provide you with the information you’ve asked for, and to answer any question you might have. For all you new pilots: Don’t let a briefer intimidate you. If you encounter one with an unpleasant attitude, excuse yourself and call back. Remember, you’re the boss and it’s your job to acquire a thorough understanding of what you’re up against (weather) before departing. Don’t let weather come up ‘unexpectedly’ just because you tried to take a shortcut.