Pilotage: There is no substitute

September 1, 2008

Mark R. Twombly writes and flies from southwest Florida.

I’ve always believed that there is no substitute for more power in an airplane, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate other no-substitute qualities that have nothing to do with performance. Living in Florida and flying through our stormy summers, I’d say there is no substitute for more weather-avoidance equipment in the panel.

I recently began flying an Aztec for a non-pilot owner, and the airplane is blessed with three weather-detection tools—datalink Nexrad weather radar displayed on a clever new Garmin 496, an older but serviceable Stormscope WX-10 lightning detector, and an aging but surprisingly spry Bendix RDR-150 airborne color weather radar set. It’s like three generations of a hunting family working together—each participant contributes a unique skill to form a combination that is effective at sniffing out the game.

The plan was to depart early for Norfolk, Virginia, with three aboard. It would be a nearly five-hour, one-stop journey up, spend a few hours there on business, and return later that day. All arrived at the airport on time, and at 4:54 a.m. I taxied onto the runway for an early departure.

The early morning trip up was, as expected, absent any weather. Not so the mid-afternoon return. Before leaving the ramp at Norfolk I scrolled out on the little Garmin’s Nexrad page to get the big-picture view, and it confirmed what I had seen earlier in the FBO’s flight planning room—a large area of precipitation just to the south of Norfolk, another area farther south in the Carolinas, and a third area hovering around the eastern Georgia-Florida border. My flight-plan route traversed all three areas.

The first was easily circumnavigated thanks to a cooperative controller and a slight jink to the southwest. The dots on the Stormscope, blotches on the airborne radar, and canvas of color on the 496 slowly rotated counterclockwise on their respective displays as we slid past to the west.

Next up was the Carolina convection, which proved more difficult to negotiate. Based on what I was seeing on all three displays I needed to deviate southwesterly right through the Charlotte terminal area. Not surprisingly, the controllers working outbound and inbound jet traffic had plenty of deviations of their own to deal with and were not in a mood to accommodate a slow-mover bisecting their busy airspace at an inconvenient 10,000 feet.

I was easily disposed of with a clearance direct Barrett’s Mountain VOR, which put me on a westerly heading across the northern edge of the Charlotte Class Bravo airspace. It also put me on a collision course with an angry-looking mass of building clouds. I began complaining to the controller and asking for a deviation to the south, but he wasn’t seeing anything ahead of me on his radar and was highly reluctant to grant me a left turn so I could start mucking up the jet traffic. He got rid of me with a handoff to the next sector controller, who also had his hands full with a ton of traffic.

The dark clouds loomed as I tried, unsuccessfully, to shoehorn in on the non-stop chatter on the frequency. Surprisingly, nothing was showing up on any of my electronic weather eyes to confirm what my own eyes were seeing out the windshield. It was difficult to believe that three independent weather-detection sources could be fooled, but there it was. Apparently, the towering storm was still building and had not yet yielded any precipitation or lightning to excite the electronics. I was glad it was still daylight and I could see the trouble ahead. If it had been pitch black I likely would have continued on and blundered into some serious bumps.

I jogged around the storm and got an early turn south, along with a penalty—descend to 6,000. All of the deviating had added 45 minutes to the trip, which meant that the small airport in South Carolina where I planned to buy inexpensive gas would be closed. We landed in Charlotte instead.

That left one large area of weather to deal with on the home stretch, from just south of Savannah southwest to Gainesville, Florida. I expected the storms to dissipate with the setting sun, but the long-range Nexrad display remained full of bright colors as we made our way south. Also, dots were bleeding onto the Stormscope at its 200-mile range, indicating active thunderstorms in the distance.

Based on this early-warning information I planned a route to avoid the weather ahead, updating my plan with each Nexrad update. A few minutes before I was going to ask for a change in routing I was given one—directly through areas of green and yellow between two stronger storms. I objected, but the controller assured me that all would be fine and that he would help me negotiate any problem areas.

Although skeptical, I followed his advice and, sure enough, as we drew closer the color began to ebb from the Nexrad display and both the Stormscope and the airborne weather radar displays grew quiet. We sliced through an area of Nexrad green without a single drop of precip splattering the airplane.

No substitute for airborne weather radar, Stormscope, and Nexrad? You can add a set of eyes in the cockpit and a good air traffic controller to the list.

E-mail the author at MRTwombly@gmail.com.