In early April 2003, I flew a Cessna 182 from Omaha to Nashville, a trip I had made several dozen times before. Prior to departure, I had gleaned from The Weather Channel that rain or snow was expected to move across my route in a few days. I realized I might have to extend my stay in Nashville to avoid returning through potential icing in the clouds. After departing Omaha, I headed southeast in a high-pressure system that kept the skies free of clouds with visibility only partially hazy along the entire route.
When it was time to head back to Omaha, a strong low-pressure system had moved across the Great Plains, dumping up to a foot of snow over much of Nebraska, Iowa, and northern Missouri. The blizzardlike conditions in Omaha kept me on the ground in Nashville, while the system was heading directly my way.
By the following day, the weather had cleared in Omaha, but Nashville and most of my route were now IFR. I had flown the trip IFR in warmer weather, but now I was alarmed by an airmet for icing that affected most of my route. In Nashville, the temperatures aloft were above freezing at the altitudes I planned to fly, but about 100 nautical miles northwest of Nashville conditions were colder. During several briefings that morning, the flight service specialist told me the cloud tops were forecast to be at 7,000 feet msl or lower. There were only two applicable pireps, and they both indicated tops at around 6,000 feet.
Conditions seemed passable. I could depart Nashville, climb through warm temperatures to 8,000 feet, and fly above the clouds across Missouri and into clear skies in southwest Iowa. I talked to the pilot of a Beechcraft King Air at the FBO about my plan. He suggested that as a more experienced IFR pilot, he would make the trip, even in a 182 with no deicing equipment. I, however, was not as confident. I chose not to go.
The next day, weather conditions were similar, as the low-pressure system remained stationary and centered over Tennessee and Kentucky. Knowing I was missing work, the urge to return to Omaha grew stronger. I visited the flight service station located at the airport, and received a weather briefing in person. I learned that the colder temperatures had now reached Nashville, and there were two temperature inversions and three freezing levels from the surface to about 6,500 feet at Nashville. Again, the cloud tops were forecast at 7,000 feet or lower along the route, and Omaha had clear skies. Except for one location, Doppler radar showed several cloud layers with tops at around 7,000 feet, and a pilot in the Nashville area reported cloud tops at 7,500.
Bolstered by my conversation with the King Air pilot, and pressured by my desire to get back to work, I chose to depart. I knew there was potential for a small amount of ice buildup during climbout, but the lack of pireps reporting icing in the Nashville area, and the presence of the two temperature inversions, gave me confidence that I could climb to 8,000 feet, get above the cloud layers, and get back to Omaha. Additionally, the ceiling in Nashville was 900 feet broken, and in case I had to return to Nashville I felt comfortable flying an ILS approach in those conditions.
After the engine runup, I applied carburetor heat and turned on the pitot heat. I listened to the arrival ATIS and noted the instrument approaches that were in use at Nashville. I found the chart for the approach I would most likely be cleared for if I had to return and placed it in the right seat. Prepared, I departed Nashville.
To be sure, I was a bit nervous. I noticed an occasional trace of rime ice accumulating below 7,000 feet, but by the time I got to my cruising altitude the airplane was clear of ice. I could hear other pilots on the Nashville Approach frequency reporting tops between 6,500 and 7,500, but at 8,000 feet I was still in the soup so I requested and was given 10,000 feet for a new cruising altitude.
One minute later, as the airplane climbed through 9,000 feet, the air traffic controller informed me that his radar was painting Level 2 precipitation 20 miles ahead. While I counted my blessings that the aircraft hadn't picked up more than a trace of ice so far, the picture suddenly looked a lot worse: The outside temperature was 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I was still flying in the clouds, and Level 2 precipitation was indicated ahead. Worried about freezing rain, I immediately informed Nashville Approach that I was turning around. Just as I turned the aircraft to head back to Nashville, I could see a bright blue sky a thousand feet above me through a hole in the clouds. But I ignored the temptation and instead returned to known conditions.
During the descent, the airplane picked up a trace of rime ice at about 5,000 feet, but it was gone by the time I got to 3,000 feet. My choice of approach charts had been correct, and I flew a successful ILS approach.
After landing, I returned to the flight service station to see how the weather had developed. During my earlier briefing, Doppler radar had shown cloud tops at around 7,000 feet, except for one radar station in Paducah, Kentucky, almost 15 miles south of my route. When I sat down with the flight service specialist, we could clearly see that convective activity had pushed the tops in that area to above 20,000 feet and rain was falling. Had I continued to Omaha I would have headed right into an area of buildups.
My urge to get back to work had clouded my judgment. Subconsciously I had lessened the importance of higher cloud tops near my route so I could return home. Had the temperatures been higher, those clouds would have given me a bumpy, but manageable ride. But the freezing temperatures presented an entirely different situation, and a potentially deadly one. Given the conditions, I shouldn't have departed Nashville at all that day. This flight taught me the importance of considering all the weather data, and of making an intellectual and not an emotional go/no-go decision. Armed with my lesson, I ended up staying a few more days and finally returned to Omaha under cloudless skies.
Jason Gunderson, AOPA 4368296, is a private pilot with single-engine land and instrument ratings. He has more than 1,000 hours of flight time.
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