Rain, Rain, Go Away

I have a hard time trying to think of something good to say about stationary fronts. They not only tend to wear out their welcome, they never have any in the first place. Especially in the eastern United States, a stationary front associated with a low pressure system can drape itself over higher ground, and in the company of adjacent troughs and large areas of moderate rain showers (which are in turn fed by maritime air that drags in plenty of Atlantic or Gulf moisture), you have, aside from a formula for low clouds and wet, sticky weather, a recipe for disaster.

Well, when that stuff happens, trouble often does follow. All it takes is just one weak link in the chain. In fact, there is a significant positive correlation between the number and nature of daily NTSB accident synopses, and persistent rotten weather. If you take a stationary front with widespread low weather, and add in a holiday weekend, even the worry-warts among us need safety armor. In August of 2001, I wrote about a former flight instructor at my home airport, someone highly respected and also a former Aviation Safety Counselor, whose name was all over the news and who along with his family, met a ghastly end all over a Newark street. He’d had (or at least just noticed) a vacuum failure in his Bonanza shortly after takeoff from within a widespread area of low weather just after Thanksgiving in 1999. Granted, the conditions weren’t quite as calamitously awful as the one I conjured up in my histrionic introduction, but the same cautions definitely apply.

Several years ago, a weather system existed across the southeastern US a day after a cold front had rushed in, bringing clear skies and great visibilities. A stationary front formed eastward over Alabama and Georgia from a strong low-pressure system centered over Kansas, and it extended all the way out into the Atlantic. To the north of this front, northeasterly winds brought moist air from the sea deep inland, and widespread low ceilings and rain covered several states, from southern Indiana to the Carolinas and Georgia. It started with overcast stratus clouds, widespread 1000-foot ceilings, one or two miles visibility, continuous moderate rain, and a very small temperature-dew point spread. It went downhill from there, and it stayed that way for four days. Now, we introduce the players.

Pilot Number one is flying a very capable airplane, is on an IFR flight plan, and is cleared to his destination in Georgia, which is reporting 200 overcast and two miles visibility in fog and light rain. The surface winds are out of the East at four knots, the surface temperature is 52, and the dew point is 50. While being vectored for the ILS, he reports that he’s lost vacuum pressure, and crashes during the approach. Both the pilot and the single passenger are killed.

Pilot number two, two hours later, is inbound in a twin on an IFR flight plan from North of the Mason-Dixon line (where the weather was much better). He is informed that his destination in South Carolina is below minimums. He diverts to his alternate, fifty miles to the West. When he gets there, conditions are 100 overcast, and one mile in fog. He is cleared for the ILS, attempts the approach three times, and goes missed three times. A few minutes after reporting that he has only a few minutes of fuel remaining, he runs out of fuel, and crashes just one and a half miles from the airport. The pilot is the only occupant, and the only fatality.

The third. Just an hour later, a Skylane pilot in North Carolina attempts two ILS approaches, and misses both. He is IFR, and unlike the first two pilots, experiences no mechanical or systems difficulties (other than being unable to land). He is given vectors to his alternate, 30 miles away, for which the conditions are given as sky partially obscured, 300 overcast, one-half mile in drizzle and fog, temperature 45 and dew point 44. From here on, the only difference that really matters is in the outcome of the crash. The third pilot lives to fly again (though the aircraft does not).

Inquiring minds want to know
And here, our avid interest in others’ misfortunes will now serve to improve our odds of avoiding the same mistakes. The examples offer some lessons of stationary fronts and widespread areas of lousy weather; we can certainly infer the following…

…rules to LIVE by:

  • Don’t even think about venturing into widespread IMC, let alone any IFR weather, unless you’re proficient at flying by reference to instruments. There’s what’s legal and there’s what’s smart.
  • Even with the most benign IMC, like punching through a baby cloud, ya gotta have that instrument ticket, and be current, in order to be legal.
  • Unless your airplane has been to the Monster Hangar and has two additional electrically powered attitude indicators (in addition to the espresso machine), don’t fly into areas of extensive instrument weather unless you have a backup vacuum system in your aircraft, or unless partial panel flying is something you’re prepared for, darn good at, and actually enjoy.

rules to FLY by:

  • If you commit yourself to a long voyage in the soup, you can’t have “too much fuel“. The airlines might think that way, maybe, but not us. It’s just not smart to fly a hundred or more miles into something that you don’t have enough fuel to do an about-face and get out of, if things don’t work out. Generally when ceilings are 500 feet or less at your destination and your alternate, especially in the East, a stationary front may be behind it, so to speak.
  • If you go missed at your destination and then your alternate, you’d better have either a military airport nearby that likes to provide Precision Approach Radar support to help out general aviation pilots who’ve run out of options. Similarly it may serve you well if you don’t mind the extra attention you might get when you land there If you have neither, you’d better have plenty of fuel to fly a couple of states away.
  • The record shows that encore performances of the same approach, repeated a few minutes later, often don’t end well — especially when you add in a stagnating weather system. I can attest to how nerve-wracking it is. In cases like these, nothing’s going to change anytime soon, except your fuel status, and your proficiency, both of which will go South.

Have enough fuel … have as much as you can carry. Be able to reach airports with significantly improved weather. My advice? If you even think that you might need your alternate, treat the “fly after that for 45 minutes” in CFR Title 14, Part 91.167(a)(3) as a laughable understatement.

Don’t have to go. If you ever face a trip into widespread IMC, and it’s a holiday weekend, tell your boss that you might not make it in on the proverbial Monday. While I’m not saying that one should establish a precedent for absenteeism, we are obligated to point out to our loved ones, colleagues, and anyone else who expects something of us that when it comes to aviation (especially general aviation) is not an absolutely positively on time business. I’m talking “get-home-it is” here, of course. If any trip makes you squirm, pass on it. In five years, who will care?

Learn your weather. Be at least a casual weather watcher. But whenever slow-moving air masses and robust low-pressure systems join forces, especially near the water and low-lying areas, sit up and take notice… or just sit at home.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Frontal assaults come cold, warm, or indifferent. Most come, and then go. Stationary fronts lurk… sometimes interminably. They can be extensive, and persistent. And as with any other added challenge, they inspire us not to add another weak link onto our chains of challenge. Tempting fate with marginal fuel, marginal planning, or marginal thinking is hardly a profound indiscretion; more often, it can simply be tragically stupid. But when other less blatantly obvious circumstances are involved, we should be reminded to do whatever we can to stack the deck in our favor.