March 25, 2013
While flying part-time for an air taxi in Southeast Alaska I was asked by the owner to transport his daughter and daughter-in-law to a strip about 40 miles down the coast. The weather was pretty typical, low clouds, rain and fog, bringing the visibility to less than a mile. I kept an eye on the visibility after it came up to at least a mile, making special VFR possible. I wanted to be able to see the tops of the trees to the South so I could use runway 20, pop over the trees to the beach and use the ocean breakers as a centerline, avoiding the opposite direction traffic. Nobody was flying so Pireps were not available. Once I saw the treetops, I loaded my passengers into the Cessna 185, departing via the planned route. This was a very typical situation for this area. Well, I got to the second river outlet along the beach and encountered lowering visibilities, bottoming-out at about 1/16 mile.
We were very close to the water at this point, breakers barely visible, traveling with a notch of flaps and wondering if the local DC-3 was coming from the opposite direction. It stayed this way for about 15 miles, with the visibility improving to about 1 mile as we approached our destination. After we landed I passed a Pirep to the FSS, stayed there for about 4 hours, ensuring that the weather improved before heading back. I beat myself up pretty badly for putting two very precious people at risk with my poor judgment.
Weather and Seasons
Thunderstorms didn’t get their fearsome reputation just from the extreme conditions a pilot can encounter by stumbling into, or too close to one. The reputation also hints at the speed at which thunderstorms can grow from puffy cumulus clouds into giant, opaque cumulonimbus.
A single thunderstorm can contain almost every weather-related hazard to pilots--high winds, limited visibility, hail, microbursts, and icing just to name a few. The Air Safety Institute just completed Storm Week, its weeklong education campaign to raise awareness of thunderstorms. Now is the perfect time to hold a club safety seminar and utilize the many ASI tools to help understand how ATC and weather briefers can steer you clear of the storms or help pilots make the decision to stay on the ground.
If a VFR pilot’s worst nightmare is to blunder into solid clouds, armed only with basic instrument flying skills, a similarly scary scenario awaits the instrument pilot who bets on sneaking through a stormy sector, and loses.