Safety Pilot: Weather flying (again)

Worth reading the sequel

October 1, 2013

bruce landsbergOne of the best books ever written for pilots is entering its fifth edition, which for an aviation text is nearly unheard of. Robert N. Buck, a real aviation pioneer, originally published Weather Flying in 1970. Capt. Buck learned to fly in his early teens and grew into the airlines by his early 20s, starting with the DC-2 and ending a storied airline career with TWA in 1970 in the Boeing 747. He saw it all. Capt. Buck was a wonderful mentor and I had the great honor to fly with him in his sailplane when he was in his 80s. His hand and eye was better than many of us half his age. He passed away a few years ago in his 90s but what a legacy he’s left us!

When I became a private pilot at the ripe old ignorant age of 21 my father, a meteorologist, gave me a copy of Buck’s book and the good advice to read it. I’d already speed-read a bunch of weather texts and had passed the FAA’s written test for private and was working on the commercial. What was another weather book to someone who knew almost everything? But this one was different. The writing was simple, practical, and, unlike many weather books, it all made sense laced with real life stories and examples.

Rob Buck, Bob’s son and a retired airline captain himself, set upon the formidable task of updating his father’s book. Sequels are always tough to pull off but he did it well. Let me dispel the notion that the Bucks write from just the high and mighty perspective of flight levels and turbine-powered behemoths. Both father and son were, and are, avid GA pilots, owning both sailplanes and light single engine aircraft.

A timeless bit of advice Capt. Buck passed along was that, despite all the advances in avionics and airframes, pilots essentially do the same things as in the day of round engines: we fly from A to B and shoot an approach. And we should be prepared to go to a rather basic skill level to accomplish that. There have been too many accidents recently where high-tech aircraft crashed unnecessarily because pilots forgot, or never learned, those fundamentals.

So what about the book? A few highlights from the table of contents: Pilots need to understand dew point. If you don’t, you could find yourself in a really foggy place. How does one go about checking weather and verifying if the forecast is any good? Check upstream of your route or destination. If the forecast says a front is supposed to arrive at 14:00 look a hundred miles to the west (in our hemisphere) and see if it’s behaving as predicted.

Clouds can tell us so much, and yet in the rush to get through private and IFR training we often only memorize the rote things needed on the tests. How much more they can tell us to not only stay safe but to keep the trip comfortable? What of the convective layer on a sunny day? What does stratocumulus tell us about icing?

How should I learn to fly thunderstorms? Very carefully—we’ve used much of the Bucks’ wisdom in some of the Air Safety Institute weather courses. Capt. Buck did some of the earliest thunderstorm and ice research in World War II, but gained much practical experience in the DC-2 and DC-3. Those aircraft were similar in performance to some of today’s high performance singles.

Capt. Rob brings us into the twenty-first century with a discussion on Nexrad, briefing by computer, and glass cockpits. He and I had a long discussion regarding how pilots should start flying and, not surprisingly, came to the same conclusion that glass can wait until a pilot masters the basic skills of VFR and the more mundane IFR flying.

There’s a simple paragraph on circling to land from an instrument approach—a recent accident in New Haven, Connecticut, sure looks like it might have been a circle. If you can avoid it, do so. If not, set your own minimums, which might be 1,000 feet and better than a mile. It’s an instrument procedure with occasional looks outside to see how you’re doing. Can’t see the runway on one of the cross-checks out the window? We’re going to the alternate.

There is a great chapter on learning to fly weather, something that we don’t usually get much exposure to in primary training—either VFR or instrument. The idea is to ease into it, but stretching yourself as you would before strenuous exercise. Remember we’re playing for all the marbles so a little conservatism is smart. It all seems so logical and easy when you have a good guide. Captains Bob and Rob provide that in so many ways. Highly recommended for your aviation bookshelf and periodic review!