Weather and Flight Experience
ATC and IMC
I called the Elkins FSS and received an excellent and complete weather briefing for a proposed afternoon IFR flight in my C-172. Elkins reported cells forming from Martinsburg, WV south, along the mountains to the Richmond, VA area. As a result I filed for a route well north of Martinsburg (MRB) and the Camp David R-4009 area. I filed Indian Head (IHD) V474 PIPER V265 Westminster (EMI) V268 BAL. The afternoon sky around the Oakland airport was hazy with small cumulus clouds forming in the area. Not too atypical for summertime in the mountains in the mid-Atlantic area.
After about a 15-minute hold with the FSS at the Oakland, MD airport, I received my IFR clearance over the telephone: direct to Hagerstown (HGR) V268 Westminster (EMI) radar vectors to BWI. I was suspicious of this clearance because V268 traverses the Camp David R-4009 area, but once after 9/11, I was given that route so I thought that the route was allowed once again.
I departed Oakland, direct to HGR under Cleveland Center control. Cleveland handed me off to Washington Center. The haze is becoming denser and I'm now in IMC. I turn on my storm-scope. Washington Center issues a new route: Direct to MRB VOR, "Westminster Three Arrival". I tell ATC that I don't want to go to MRB because of reported cell activity in that area and I request to go direct to EMI. ATC tells me "negative, unable to approve, proceed direct to MRB". They tell me that they will vector me around any cells at my request. My storm scope shows no activity ahead. Now I'm in light rain at 7,000'. I'm listening to commercial traffic, inbound to DCA and IAD, asking Center for and receiving vectors around cell activity. The rain intensity is increasing and the clouds are darkening. Again, I ask to go direct to EMI. Again, Washington Center replies "negative, continue to MRB. Now I'm in very dark clouds and the rain turns into small hail. I'm in severe turbulence. I cut the power to Va and disconnect the autopilot. I ask for immediate clearance to 5,000' feet and get it. I drop out of the hail at about 6,000'. I report flying into hail at 7,000' to the Washington Center controller. He replies, "roger".
Fortunately, there was no damage to my airplane. I was in actual hail for maybe 20 seconds or so. I finished the flight to BWI at 5,000' in VMC.
The significance of this particular flight is that I received a complete and accurate weather briefing. I filed an IFR flight plan that kept me clear of the cell activity. I received and accepted a clearance from ATC that was closer to the cell activity but still clear of harm's way. I departed in VMC along the route of flight as cleared by ATC. However, when handed off to Washington Center, in IMC, ATC's revised route directed me into known cell activity. I'm assuming that ATC wouldn't clear me direct to EMI because of the Camp David restricted area (even though my original ATC clearance along V268 took me through the Camp David area).
In hindsight I'm still not certain how to have handled the situation with Washington Center other than ask for a 180-degree turn and return to Oakland, MD but, at that time, I was only in light IMC. Another possibility is to have made the turn towards EMI on my own and TOLD ATC what I was doing. But, then again, there were armed fighters patrolling the airspace above me and I didn't want to have an encounter with them.
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