Waypoints: Simple answer

Making the weather go/no-go decision

October 1, 2012

Tom Haines

When I write about using my Beechcraft Bonanza for transportation, I frequently get questions from members asking how to best plan for weather contingencies when flying a single-engine piston airplane. Good question. I wish there was a single, simple answer.

My first question to myself when considering a trip where weather is a factor is about the capabilities of the airplane and myself. Is this the sort of weather situation that can be handled in a single-engine piston airplane? Let’s face it, while we like to crow about the utility of flying ourselves, there are limits, especially when flying airplanes like mine. Without even turbocharging to get into the flight levels, no ice protection except pitot heat, and no pressurization, my options are limited. No airplane is immune to weather, but with a turboprop, pressurization, and icing protection—and maybe even airborne radar—you can get through more situations than those of us who fly more pedestrian machines.

Putting the gear aside for a moment, how am I doing? Instrument current and confident? Rested, hydrated, and nourished enough and feeling up to a challenge that may be a couple of hours down the airway—after I’ve been sitting at 9,000 or 10,000 feet all that time? And am I really up to the challenge today? I’m usually game for going for a look-see, but there is an occasional day where I simply don’t feel like running the flight planning gauntlet and the hassle that may come from having to stop short of the planned destination. Those are the days I just stay home or buy a ticket and let someone else do the work.

However, making challenging flights is how we grow in our weather experience and decision making. Staying home when the sky darkens is a sure path to not getting much utility out of an airplane. Next step for a lot of people is to sell the airplane, because they aren’t using it enough.

Most important for me is a flexible schedule. As I’ve said before, I don’t plan on traveling by GA anytime I have a hard and fast deadline to meet. If I don’t have the schedule flexibility to leave a day early or later and the forecast is for severe weather along the way, it’s not a trip for an airplane like mine.

If I can take off in visual conditions and face building thunderstorms down the road, but know I can easily turn back to improving weather, that sounds doable. If the weather is isolated enough that I can easily get around it without nudging into fuel reserves—another good possibility. If the weather is at the destination, I’ll want to know how far it is to the nearest airport with visual conditions. A fuel stop may be required.

Once you take off, the plan may go out the window. Maybe that big gap between those storms fills in or the fog that is expected to lift at the destination doesn’t; then what? That’s when you act on the plan you made before takeoff—turn back or go elsewhere, or you dream up another one with the help of the onboard weather gear, Flight Watch, and ATC. This is when it’s great to have a co-pilot aboard who can seek weather information for other airports and routes while you fly the airplane. Did I mention how nice it is to have even a basic autopilot for such trips? Call me spoiled, but I won’t fly in weather anymore without datalink weather. It’s changed the way I fly and the utility I get out of my airplane.

Returning from EAA AirVenture in July, Flight Training Editor Ian Twombly and I left beautiful weather in Appleton, Wisconsin, bound for Maryland. A line of thunderstorms stretched from Cleveland eastward. More storms were developing over West Virginia, but it looked like we had a clear path over Pittsburgh. As we progressed that afternoon (our schedule didn’t permit a morning flight) the two systems began to merge. Climbing to 11,000 feet to stay visual, we maneuvered among cloud tops and had to turn due south toward Parkersburg, West Virginia, to get through the narrowest part of the line. Thanks to the datalink weather, Stormscope, and ATC, we were in clouds less than five minutes and never got wet—despite some impressive thunderstorms east of our course. Once south of the line we turned east and paralleled it all the way home.

Returning from Wichita after flying the Cessna 182 JT-A diesel airplane (“Jet A for Your Skylane,” page 52), AOPA Live Executive Producer Warren Morningstar and I skirted similar weather in about the same place—again at 11,000 feet and with supremely clear skies behind us. We passed through beautiful sunset-lit cloud canyons and dodged to the south as dusk turned to darkness. We could see lightning in the clouds well north and south of us, but we weren’t in IMC more than five minutes during the entire trip. Challenging and satisfying flying, but started only with options available.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow on Twitter: tomhaines29.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.