More Lies My AWOS Told Me

A funny thing happened this morning on the way to the traffic pattern. Actually that’s an untruth; it wasn’t very amusing. In a few years I might look lightheartedly back upon this, because the fact of the matter is, I had to consciously stop hyperventilating.

My plan was to do something I hadn’t done in many months, which was to actually file a VFR flight plan. I’d better explain that one a bit. Being based inside the Air Defense Identification Zone as I am, one doesn’t just file a VFR flight plan and take off. Even for VFR-only pilot who wanted to fly out to a pancake breakfast would still have to file one, just to get clear of the ADIZ. No, I’m the opposite of the VFR-only pilot: I’m usually an IFR-only pilot. Even when it’s severe clear, I file IFR. I just like the crisp professionalism, and I absolutely prefer being a mike click away from help if I need it. And not the least of it is that airspace traversal is a whole lot easier. Anyway, all I wanted to do that morning was pattern work. I hadn’t flown the Cherokee since last December, and I thought this would be a good way to get reacquainted.

This was another sultry summer morning outside the Washington beltway in suburban Maryland. I’d gotten a standard VFR briefing less than an hour earlier, and the briefer had noted some areas of low-lying fog. Gaithersburg sits somewhere about halfway between Dulles and BWI, and the latter had clear skies while Dulles had a few scattered clouds at 200 feet. Temperature-dew point spreads were either nil or one single Centigrade degree all over the region, so I knew there might be trouble. But the briefer had said that the fog was forecast to burn off by 10 AM, so theoretically at least, at worst I’d have to sit it out for an hour. All these thoughts occurred to me during my cell phone call to (in this particular case) the regional flight service station in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

As I approached the airport, I could see the haze had gotten thicker. When I got to the airport, the AWOS was reporting light easterly winds, no clouds below ‘one two thousand’ and three miles visibility. Oh, great, I thought, so it’s going to be one of those days where the visibility doesn’t get much greater than being able to just make out the downwind-to-base corner from the crosswind-to-downwind corner of the pattern. And as soon as I reached pattern altitude and throttled back, I was planning to add full carburetor heat, just to play it safe, and I also fired up all the lights for good measure. I advanced the throttle smoothly to full power, and before I was even over the departure end of the 4200 foot runway, I could see low clouds covering the entire approach path to the runway from the other direction. Up went red flag number one. As I gained altitude I could see that it wasn’t an overcast layer, but they were more broken than scattered. As I turned onto the crosswind leg and looked downwind however, I could see that the other approach path had a similar appearance. If you’re guessing that I felt like a sucker up there, you would be right. I was quite probably the first aircraft taking off that morning, and from pattern altitude, it was abundantly clear that the entire airport was under one big sucker hole.

At this point, I wasn’t hyperventilating; I was weighing my options. In the back seat, within reach but not conveniently folded back and bookmarked, were all my IFR charts and approach plates. A fat lot of good the approach plates would probably do me, I recall thinking. The minimum descent altitude for Gaithersburg is about twice the height of the tops of these clouds. And I can recall more than one VFR morning in years past when I had flown up to our nearest larger airport, Frederick, Maryland (home of AOPA, and which has an ILS) only to find a blanket of low fog. (In fact, I called later that morning and that’s exactly what they’d had: low clouds and fog-and not only that but the AWOS wasn’t working).

I decided one thing right then and there: once I get down, I’m done flying for the day. Now Potomac approach knew I was up there, ostensibly doing pattern work. When I’d called clearance delivery they’d given me the usual 128.7 frequency for departure, but when I’d told the controller I’d be remaining in the pattern they’d amended that and told me that I should switch over and remain on the local frequency for the pattern at GAI. As I mulled over whether I should call them and open up an IFR flight plan to Frederick (and which I suspected might not work out), and then the possibility that after that, I’d have my own private pilgrimage and spotlight from Potomac Approach as I sought better weather, I decided first to give the runway a shot. I set up a steep approach from pattern altitude, one mile out, dropped full flaps, and throttled back. By the time I got over and past the clouds however, I was at 200 feet with one third of the runway behind me. Ah, perhaps I should have tried a forward slip to lose enough altitude for a roll-out that wouldn’t involve my buying a new set of tires. Nope. The little man with the wave-off paddle came up on my right shoulder, and up I went. Now, this time as I recall, I was hyperventilating.

Like I said, it wasn’t an overcast layer, and the winds weren’t calm, and the clouds were slowly moving. I had five hours of fuel (ah, the luxury…) and doing nothing is always a good first step when assessing your options in a situation where everything else is otherwise under control. So that’s what I did. I flew around the pattern for a few minutes, and as I did so, I saw the clouds moving away from the other end of the runway. I flew out, did a teardrop from my upwind leg, and I could see that I wouldn’t need a lawn dart approach to make it back in this time. The landing was, as they say, uneventful.

So what did I learn from this? For one thing, an AWOS looks straight up, from one location on the ground. I’d known that, of course. But because of the haze (and incidentally a layer of high cirrus above), the boundaries of the low clouds weren’t visible and obvious from the ground, even though they were from a few hundred feet up, and I didn’t see how close in they were until I was too high up to land safely on the remaining runway. I should have had my feelers out about that though, especially in light of the high humidity and the confirmed proximity of low clouds. So I called clearance delivery to cancel my VFR flight plan, taxied back in to the roost, called flight service back with a PIREP from the ground about what I’d seen, buttoned up the airplane, drove home, and on my way, I bought my wife a dozen roses.