Wx Watch: A Bad Day in November

A stationary front's unfortunate consequences

February 1, 1995

One of the advantages of working in the same building as the AOPA Air Safety Foundation is having almost immediate access to the ASF's accident database. Every weekday, the National Transportation Safety Board sends its latest accident synopses to the ASF. It's very important to remember that these "dailies" are shorthand accounts; They are not complete reports. It can take the NTSB up to two years to reach an official determination of any accident causes or contributing factors. Even so, the preliminary information can be valuable. For someone like me who follows the weather every day, these daily summaries can provide an almost-real time survey of weather's impact on aviation safety. If one day I notice a significant aviation weather feature, I'll be sure to check the database the following morning.

Last November 27, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, was a bad day in the southeast United States. A stationary front, associated with a strong low in Kansas, was draped over central Alabama and southern Georgia. North of the front, surface winds were out of the north and east. This wind field dragged plenty of Atlantic moisture deep into the continental interior.

Send oceanic air on a northeasterly wind, let it flow over rising terrain, and let it happen in November. That's a recipe for low clouds and precipitation, and that's exactly what covered Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina on that Sunday.

It may have taken a few pilots by surprise. A cold front had blown through on the previous day, bringing dry skies, excellent visibilities, and high ceilings. During the night, however, the Kansas low became more organized; the cold front stalled and then turned into a lazy warm front. Sunday morning dawned IFR.

Charlotte, North Carolina, reported an overcast of stratus clouds varying between 1,000 and 2,000 feet, and a visibility of two miles. The temperature at 7 a.m. was 42 degrees Fahrenheit; the dew point was 40; and a continuous, moderate rainfall was in progress. Ceilings and visibilities would deteriorate during the day. It was pretty much the same story in Augusta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. This was to be the first of four days' worth of rainfall and bad weather in the area.

About 10 a.m., the trouble started. The first fatal accident of the day occurred when a Glasair pilot on an instrument flight plan was cleared for an instrument approach into the Florence, South Carolina, airport. The weather was reported as a measured 300 feet overcast, two- and-a-half- miles visibility in fog, with a temperature and dew point of 49 and 48, respectively, and surface winds out of 100 degrees at eight knots.

According to the preliminary accident report, the pilot was being vectored for the ILS Runway 9 approach when he reported that he had "lost his gyro." After that, the Glasair crashed west of the airport. Both he and his passenger were killed.

Later in the afternoon the pilot of a Beech Baron, flying on an IFR flight plan out of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, found the weather too low to land at his destination airport in Covington, Georgia. He decided to divert to Atlanta's Fulton County Airport-Brown Field, some 38 miles west. The accident report doesn't specifically describe Fulton County's weather at the time (about 6 p.m.). It simply says that it was IFR. Earlier in the day, however, the weather at nearby William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport went as low as a 150-foot overcast and one-and-a- half-miles visibility in fog.

According to the preliminary report, the Baron pilot reported that he had just 15 minutes' worth of fuel aboard. It's not clear when he made that report, but it is known that he shot three instrument approaches into Fulton County. Each one ended in a missed approach. After the last approach, the report states that the Baron ran out of fuel and crashed one mile northeast of the airport. The pilot — the sole occupant of the airplane — was killed.

A half-hour later, the pilot of a Cessna 182 tried two ILS approaches into the Greenville, South Carolina, Downtown Airport. Both wound up as missed approaches. He was also on an IFR flight plan, from Gainesville, Florida, to Asheville, North Carolina.

After the last missed approach, the Skylane pilot was issued vectors for the ILS Runway 3 approach to the nearby Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in Greer, South Carolina. The weather there: Sky partially obscured, measured 300 overcast, visibility one-half mile in drizzle and light fog, temperature 41, dew point 40, and a runway visual range of more than 6,000-plus feet. Fog was reported as covering five-tenths of the sky.

According to the report, the Skylane crashed during this approach. The airplane ended up between a half-mile and a mile from the end of the runway, and the pilot escaped with minor injuries. He reportedly walked to a guard shack at a nearby carpet mill to report that he was okay.

That's three weather-related accidents — two of them fatal — all occurring in the same region and within eight hours of each other. The NTSB's final accident analyses won't be completed for a long time, but we can still learn some useful lessons based on the available information.

You may think of some others, but these accidents underscore five rules for flying in instrument weather. (I'm assuming instrument proficiency, currency of experience, and a knowledge of your limitations as givens.)

One is not to attempt flying in IFR weather without redundant power sources for the airplane's vacuum- or pressure-powered gyro instruments. A redundant set of gyro instruments is also a good idea.

Another rule is to make sure there's enough fuel aboard. It's just not safe to fly an airplane at its range limit into widespread areas of low IFR weather. If you're facing an approach to minimums, you need to be able to safely fly toward airports with significantly better weather — and that may mean going a hundred or more miles farther away. This, in turn, means that you may have to carry much more fuel than suggested by regulations. Many times, low IFR conditions (ceilings below 500 feet, and/or visibilities below one mile) are indicators of large, sluggish air masses. In this case, the stationary front and ocean moisture were the culprits. IFR weather covered the better part of three whole states in the Southeast on that November day.

Also, history shows that multiple instrument approaches don't make sense. If the weather's so bad that you miss the first approach, there's a very good chance that any subsequent attempts will be repeat performances. In a stagnant-air scenario such as the one we've been examining, ceilings and visibilities aren't going to rise very much in the course of a few hours, let alone a few minutes.

Remember, too, that a missed approach can be a frightening experience. After the miss, tension and stress rise sharply. Performing missed approach procedures can add to the post-miss confusion. Trying the approach all over again heightens the tension even more. Heighten it so much that performance is compromised and each approach becomes sloppier than the last. It's happened many times before.

One more rule has to do with get-home-itis. It's interesting that these accidents took place at the end of the traditional Thanksgiving vacation period. The following day — Monday — usually means back to work as usual. It would be pure speculation to link these accidents with the pilots' urges to return from their trips, but I'm sure the thought will cross the investigators' minds.

In any event, it's always sound advice to call off any trip that makes you uncomfortable. Rare is the time when you absolutely must fly. No one will question you if you cancel a flight because of widespread low ceilings and visibilities, or any other adverse weather. Rather, your willingness to say no will be recognized as a demonstration of good judgment and wise risk management.

Finally, this little case study gives us a lesson in weather- watching. Pay special attention to slow-moving air masses working in tandem with strong low pressure systems. Conditions probably won't improve soon, and may well become worse. This rule applies in spades to the areas east of the Mississippi — areas fed by air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Airports in low-lying environments near rivers, lakes, or in coastal areas are particularly susceptible to dense fog and low cloud layers.