Weather and Flight Experience
Always have a Back-up Plan
I was scheduled to fly an non-IFR equipped C152 from Santa Rosa, CA (STS) to the Nut Tree airport for some routine maintenance for a local FBO. I checked STS ATIS and also got a weather briefing (there were no Pireps available). Ceiling was at 3500', vis. was 10+ miles and this was expected to improve. Most of the flight would be over hilly terrain with some peaks up to 2800'. But with 3500' ceilings, it didn't concern me.
Take off was normal and I started my climb to clear the first set of hills. As I reached approximately 3000', I was already tickling the bottom of the cloud layer, but since conditions were expected to improve and I could always fly through the valleys, I continued on.
I landed at Nut Tree and waited less than an hour for the repairs to be made. On my return climb out, I noticed that the ceiling was even less than it had been before and that the 2800' peak was no longer visible. I decided to do a little scud-running by following the contours of the terrain, but I also had a back-up plan: I could return to Nut Tree, fly south down the valley all the way to the San Francisco bay, turn west following the bay, then turn back north to come up the valley where STS is located. It would be a long way around but I was fat on fuel. With my back-up plan at the ready, I continued into the hills and valleys.
The ceiling and visibility were rapidly deteriorating, although the latest STS ATIS was stating 10+ miles vis. and a 3000' ceiling. As I wound my way around the peaks, and eventually the smaller hills, the visibility got to be less than 1 mile and I had to stay at the lowest possible altitude. I had lowered my flaps so that I could reduce my speed in such poor visibility, and because of all of the meandering that I had to do, I was also unsure of my position. Because of my minimum altitude, I couldn't get a steady signal from the STS VOR. All of this seemed to have taken place in an instant.
I finally decided I had two options:
- I could try to climb on top, but I rejected this because the plane was not IFR equipped, I didn't know where the peaks were, and I had no idea if there were any "holes" around so that I could get back down;
- Go to my back-up plan and hope that I could get out of these hills.
I decided on the latter.
I was about halfway through my 180-degree turn when something caught my eye. It was the Santa Rosa water tower just east of the Santa Rosa airport. I know knew exactly where I was and also new that there was nothing between the airport and me. I quickly converted my 180-degree turn to a 360 and continued onward. About 1 minute later over the city of Santa Rosa, the visibility cleared to the 10+ miles and high ceilings that the ATIS advertised. My landing was welcome but uneventful.
This experience has taught me a few very useful lessons:
- Never count on the weather being as well as projected.
- Always have a back-up plan.
- Don't wait until the last minute to institute the back-up plan.
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