AOPA Pilot Magazine
August 2001 Volume 44 / Number 8
Thunderstorms, Restricted Airspace, and a Dust Storm
Strange irony: Forget your destination and you just might get there
"The best part was when we flew through the storm!" exclaimed my 8-year-old nephew Iain to his mother when asked about his favorite part of our trip to California.
"That's not quite accurate," I interjected, anticipating my sister's reaction to this news. "We didn't fly through any storm�we flew around some storms." Nobody's safety was put at risk on this trip, but certainly it was the sort of adventure that excites young boys and pilots alike.
With a meeting to attend in Marina del Rey, California, my wife, Jean, had suggested we fly there in our Cessna 182, the Flying Carpet, accompanied by one son and my visiting nephew from the East Coast. Beaches and seafood promised delightful escape from the summertime Phoenix heat.
Besides being a terrific use of a personal airplane, the trip showed once again that with the right attitude on the part of the pilot, we can safely fly long distances even when weather appears to be a deterrent. The trick is to be willing to land short of your original destination or to divert if the situation demands it.
Our trip started out routinely enough, but the return turned interesting. We filed IFR for the flight over because of usual coastal stratus in the Los Angeles Basin, and following the usual vectors around busy airspace, we shot the VOR approach into Santa Monica Airport. A short cab ride took us to surf and sand at Venice Beach, where Iain demonstrated time-honored skills of castle building and excavating to ocean water. The next morning while Jean attended her meeting, the boys and I cycled down the shore and back, with time out for ice cream at the Manhattan Beach pier.
All too soon we were back at Santa Monica Airport, querying flight service about the weather along our route home.
"It's clear through California," said the briefer, "but you'll never make it to Phoenix."
"That's right�severe thunderstorms run from central Arizona all the way into New Mexico."
In cases like this I prefer to proceed as far toward my planned destination as I safely can (tomorrow's weather might obscure what was clear today), so I grilled the briefer until determining that the nasty weather was all well inside Arizona. Flight to the Colorado River appeared to be without risk, plus there were plenty of landing options along the way in case of surprises.
Unpredictable as thunderstorms are, the secret to flying safely on such days is to lighten up on your mission objective. Don't get hung up on the final destination — just make sure you can proceed safely somewhere for landing, from any point where you elect to fly. The moment such options are threatened, it's time to land. Sounds easy enough, but to fly safely, pilot and passengers must be emotionally prepared to land elsewhere besides the desired destination. That's tough.
Accordingly, I gathered my passengers for a bit of explanation.
"Just so you know," I said, "we'll probably have to stay the night at Lake Havasu City."
Then I went back to the fuel desk and ordered the top-off I'd declined a few minutes earlier. When it comes to avoiding hazardous weather, fuel is life insurance — the more reserve you carry, the farther you can deviate and the more landing options are available. Fueled to the gills, our 182 could fly us to Phoenix and back — unlikely we'd ever need that much, but when the weather's bad, fuel not purchased is as useless as runway behind the airplane and altitude above it.
Our first hour after takeoff was smooth and clear, offering spectacular views of the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor, but all too soon cumulus began billowing, near Thermal, California. There were other ominous signs, too.
"What are all those little dots?" called my nephew Iain from the backseat, pointing at the Stormscope.
"Those are lightning strikes from thunderstorms up ahead," I replied.
"And why do you keep pushing that little button?"
"Because I have to clear the lightning detector every time I turn." (Our model Stormscope is not synchronized with the aircraft's heading indicator.)
�learly it was time for a weather update, so I excused myself from Center only to learn from flight watch that the convective weather had dramatically expanded westward — much of Arizona was now covered by a solid mass of thunderstorms.
"Echoes begin at Blythe, on the Colorado River, and continue east and north from there," said the briefer. "And every station in the Phoenix area is reporting thunderstorms right now." Clearly the issue was not when we'd get home, but rather how close we could safely approach before landing.
"That rules out Lake Havasu and Bullhead City�how does it look south, toward Yuma?" I asked, pondering the few cities in western Arizona large enough to offer airports and hotel rooms.
"Looks good in that direction," said the briefer, "but you'll need to depart the airway before Blythe to get there."
Center vectored us around restricted airspace toward Yuma, and while preparing to land at that destination, I also began evaluating the possibility of continuing eastward along the Mexican border.
"The weather has been moving south," said the Yuma Approach controller when we checked in, "but at this time Victor 66 is still passable eastbound; that's where all the traffic's going."
"How does it look beyond that weather? Would we be able to turn toward Phoenix when past it?"
"At this point, yes, based on my radar and reports from other aircraft. But keep in mind that the restricted areas along Victor 66 are all 'hot,' so you won't be able to deviate far off the airway." Southwestern Arizona is consumed by a rat's maze of restricted airspace; eastbound from Yuma we'd have to stay within a 10-mile-wide corridor to keep clear of it.
"Fine," I said, "Victor 66 will be our route, with our alternate being return to Yuma if weather deteriorates."
Our lightning detector was lit up like a scoreboard at halftime by the time we reached Yuma, but fortunately all the activity corresponded to ominous clouds north of our route.
"Don't forget to push the �clear' button, Uncle Greg," reminded Iain as we turned onto Victor 66.
"Thanks, ol' buddy!"
Staying as far south as possible in the narrow corridor to distance ourselves from the threatening weather, we proceeded east, still in the clear but increasingly mystified by bizarrely formed cloud formations materializing ahead.
Again I radioed flight watch.
"How's the weather at Phoenix?" I asked. "And Tucson?"
"All the weather is now concentrated west of Phoenix," came the encouraging reply, "and Tucson is wide open."
If we could just clear the nasty weather moving in from the left before it met restricted airspace on our right, we'd have a clean shot toward home with Tucson as an alternate. And Yuma remained clear behind us, if that wasn't feasible.
"Yuma Approach," radioed a Piper Saratoga as we switched back on frequency, "there's a giant dust storm here; lots of turbulence inside and we're unable to go around it while remaining clear of the restricted area. Requesting return to Yuma."
"Approved, as requested," replied Yuma.
"Is that aircraft ahead of us?" I asked.
"Affirmative," replied the controller. "He's unable to clear the weather, and we cannot allow violation of the restricted area. You have about 10 miles on your present heading before deciding whether to turn around or accept vectors northbound to rejoin the airway."
Even as we spoke, the words of the Saratoga pilot congealed the confusing weather ahead into something I could finally comprehend. As far as the eye could see, a 6,000-foot-tall opaque tongue of rolling, boiling dust now gushed ahead into our path from under an encroaching overcast.
Ten miles in a Skylane doesn't take long, so I quickly considered options. That dust cloud looked like a textbook thunderstorm gust front vacuuming up dirt, and certainly we did not want to enter it. But the lightning detector, to my surprise, indicated that the densely packed returns that had threatened us for so many miles now lay behind us to the left. I looked back at the dust, which vicious as it appeared, was neatly and fully contained in its cloud, suggesting the limits of the turbulent air that carried it.
With permission from Yuma I again radioed flight watch, which confirmed that all echoes now appeared behind our location. But although Phoenix weather continued to improve, flight watch had no pilot reports along our projected route. That was cause for concern, given the ugly roll of dust filling our windshield ahead. You can never have too much information when arm wrestling difficult weather.
I radioed Yuma Approach again. "My Stormscope shows the airway clear from here to Gila Bend — do you have any pilot reports?"
"There are aircraft ahead at 7,000 and 8,000," came the reply, "neither with any complaints." Those altitudes would clear the dust storm by a healthy margin, and still leave us below the overhanging ceiling.
"Requesting IFR clearance at 7,000," I replied, "and we'll take that vector northbound now." We topped the dust roll in visual conditions and then turned north under dark clouds.
"Don't forget to push the �clear' button, Uncle Greg."
"Will do, Iain!"
As so often happens after peering under clouds from sunlight, it wasn't bad under the overcast once we got there. Distant lightning receded behind us to the left, and rain showers were scattered haphazardly about the area. But the ride was smooth, the lightning detector clear ahead, and visibility excellent. I radioed the good news back to Yuma for the benefit of those who might follow.
Soon the lights of Phoenix appeared beneath an orange sliver of sunset trapped on the horizon by distant thunderstorms, their silhouetted rainstorms salted with a dash of lightning. Our awestruck stares were interrupted by a radio call requesting us to monitor the air-to-air frequency.
"Hi there," said a friendly but unfamiliar voice, once I'd switched over. "We're en route to Chandler, and I just wanted to call and say 'thank you.'"
We in the Flying Carpet looked at each other, surprised.
"We've been listening to you all the way from Blythe," said the pilot, "and knew by your radio calls that we could follow your lead. You asked all the right questions, and the answers gave us confidence to continue."
"Well, thanks!" I answered, feeling mighty good at receiving such kudos in front of my family. "Are you the Saratoga who turned back to Yuma?"
"That's us," came the reply, "but thanks to your pilot report we reversed course once again, overflew the dust storm, and will now make it home." Of course I complimented him right back for having the guts to abort his mission with the plan of returning to Yuma and observed how in the absence of weather avoidance equipment or pilot reports it was the only smart thing to do. But the bottom line was that we had unknowingly helped him through, and he was mighty happy about getting home for the evening.
"I helped, too!" interrupted Iain from the backseat, his words garbled by celebratory cookies.
We rewarded Iain with high-fives, said our goodbyes to the folks in the Saratoga, and shortly were handed off to Phoenix Approach. With few airplanes flying because of the weather, the controller cleared us straight through the Class B airspace to our home airport.
There's nothing like ATIS in a familiar voice to warm your heart after a tough flight, or the small pleasure of tucking your airplane into its berth when you never expected to make it home. So despite everyone watching, I patted the Flying Carpet on its spinner before driving away.
Certainly Iain understood my soppy behavior, even if no one else did. Coupled with the wind and waves of sunny Southern California, this was the sort of flight never to be forgotten by an 8-year-old watching from the backseat, nor for that matter, by the much older "kid" lucky enough to be at the controls.
There's strange irony to flying safely on a day with thunderstorms. You must be absolutely prepared to deviate, should safety so dictate. But by not taking your destination too seriously, more often than not you'll get there. That only adds to the richness of completing the mission, having been challenged to the max, yet taking no real risks on a tough flying day like this one.
Greg Brown was the 2000 National Flight Instructor of the Year. He is author of The Savvy Flight Instructor, The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual, and Job Hunting for Pilots, and writes the "Flying Carpet" column for AOPA Flight Training magazine.
Visit the author's Web site (www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com).