Cross-Country Weather Decisions

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March 2012

 

Walking into the hangar with my bags for a December departure, Bill, our ever-eager-to-go 182, greeted me with, “Hey, Charles, where are we going?”

“Well, Bill, our destination is Long Beach, Calif., and the trip is going to offer some weather challenges. I promise to work with you in order to reach our destination safely.”

 

 Weather Options

East-west trips across half the United States will cross weather systems. The challenge is how to plan for this to increase your chances of completing the trip within personal and equipment limitations. Your chances to deviate are high, so, I follow these simple rules:

 

1.  Avoid thunderstorms and icing conditions and always have exit plan.

 

2.  Flying a great circle route to the destination is not a requirement.

3.  If you can’t follow rule 1, then depart earlier, later, or cancel the trip.

 

Always have at least two information sources for weather. This starts on the ground with Flight Service Station briefings, NOAA weather, DUATs, or an Electronic Flight Bag application such as ForeFlight. In the air, your eyes, Flight Watch (EFAS), outside temperatures, Stormscope, and NEXRAD satellite downlink weather are sources for weather decisions.

 

Westbound to Long Beach

My December trip to Long Beach is an example of how all these resources helped us to reach our destination safely and on time. As we have done before, we stopped at Ingram’s Flying Service in Dalhart, Texas, as we are always impressed with their small-town hospitality.

The morning forecast was for below-freezing temperatures with scattered snow showers. An unheated hangar with an electrical outlet for the Tanis engine heaters would keep the engine warm.

The next morning, local weather in Dalhart was scattered snow showers, and northern New Mexico had snow and icing conditions. We had a good breakfast at the Airport Cafe  and still did not know when we would depart Dalhart. (The café was also mentioned in a hundred-dollar hamburger article in our March 2005 issue. —Ed.) A southeasterly flow off the Gulf toward the Rocky Mountains was driving moist air against the Rocky Mountain Front Range, creating the weather system and an upslope condition along the Front Range.

My original idea was to circumvent the weather by flying south to El Paso to stay out of the White Sands Missile Range restricted area that extends from El Paso to south of Albuquerque. The logic being that further south was warmer… right?

The call to Flight Service squashed Plan A to go south to El Paso and then west. The briefer described the upslope condition as drifting south and causing freezing rain east of El Paso. He did mention that Pueblo, Colo. (KPUB) was VFR and the mountain passes and further west was clear.

So with forecast icing in the clouds but a reasonable high ceiling and only widely scatted snow showers, I filed a VFR flight plan for Pueblo.

The widely scattered snow showers were easy to circumnavigate and the high plains below and the foothills of the Rockies were a sight to behold. Ninety miles north of Dalhart near Tobe VOR, breaks in the overcast started to appear. Finally, very large openings showed that the tops were not high. This was the opportunity to start westbound to Farmington, N.M. after calling Flight Service to change my flight plan route.

What about a way out in case the scattered clouds closed in underneath me? Upslope conditions are generally low thin stratus layers or fog that flow up the slope until the clouds reach the summit and then dissipate. Pueblo was VFR, so my exit strategy was to fly north, VFR on top, to Pueblo. If necessary, I would air file IFR for an approach into Pueblo.

As expected, the cloud tops climbed as we flew toward higher terrain. The thin broken undercast revealed the snow-covered ridges below as we leveled at 12,500 feet. It was time for supplemental oxygen. A previous summer trip to Jackson Hole in Wyoming—where the turbulence at 12,500 and below made the flight uncomfortable and tiring—had convinced me to order an Aerox portable oxygen tank with two high-duration cannulas with flow meters.

Clear skies above and the Aerox portable oxygen system on board made the climb to 14,500 feet to stay VFR an easy decision. Clearing the ridgeline at 15,000 feet in VFR conditions was no problem with Bill’s O-470 U 252 hp John Jewell engine mod. This inexpensive STC gives Bill the muscle to climb to altitude plus higher cruise speeds for the same fuel burn as the older O-470 R with an increased 2,000 hour TBO.

Theoretically, the trip from Farmington to Long Beach is 3 hours, 50 minutes. The problem is that this is also Bill’s max endurance with a one-hour fuel reserve. Flying into the L.A. Basin in marginal VFR with one-hour fuel reserve did not seem like a good idea. AirNav.com showed excellent fuel prices at Desert Skies Executive Terminal at Lake Havasu City (KHII), we could get in and out of the area with no delays.

The route to Lake Havasu crossed northern Arizona. The first landmark is Shiprock, which juts up over 1,000 feet above the desert floor, near Four Corners. Farther on, you can see Monument Valley to the north. Later, passing south of Grand Canyon and north of Flagstaff, 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak stands out in the clear atmosphere 70-plus miles away.

The Long Beach (KLGB) Kayoh–Hector Arrival is over the Big Bear area just west of San Gorgonino with 11,000 feet minimum altitude, then it’s a slam dunk down into the L.A. Basin smaze to 4,000 feet with multiple step-down altitudes to keep you busy.

Technically, the weather was VFR. However, the Traffic Information System showed numerous targets within one to three miles that I never saw. Then SoCal Approach threw me a curveball: “831CB, proceed direct to Paradise, and then Paradise 270 radial to intercept Victor 363 southbound.” It was time to reduce the automation, stop using the GPS-loaded arrival, and revert to VOR navigation. Sheesh.

This sort of unexpected change in routing is exactly why I advocate an autopilot for single pilot operations. I now have a much greater appreciation for John Ruley’s columns about flying in and out of Southern California where he and Kate, who also a pilot, share the cockpit workload.

Unfortunately, during this particular flight, I did not know the Garmin “Direct To, Direct To” technique to intercept the Victor 363 airway. It’s a process John Ruley described in a October 2010 Cessna Flyer column. I now know this procedure is a great time-saver and reduces the workload.

 

Return Trip to Kansas

On the last day of the meeting, the Monday morning weather forecast was marginal. In addition, the original Tuesday Kansas arrival forecast called for heavy snow accumulation from a snowstorm moving across Colorado. Northern New Mexico again forecast icing in clouds with low ceilings, so this meant departing Long Beach Sunday and spending the night in El Paso.

The route to the Williams, Ariz. fuel stop was VFR. Generous tailwinds produced 175 to 190 knot ground speeds all the way. Departing the Phoenix area to the east, both north and south routes traverse areas with high terrain and few intermediate fuel stops. This is a reason to plan your flight through this area to El Paso or Albuquerque with more than your normal fuel reserve. En route to El Paso has a 13,000 minimum en route altitude to stay on top of the rocks. Once again, the Aerox oxygen system helped make this leg comfortable and safe, and we traveled at 190 knot ground speed.

The next morning there was no need to rush to Cutter Aviation at the airport before daylight. There would be weather challenges better handled in daylight conditions. The planned route was El Paso to Borger, Texas for lunch at a great barbecue cafe near the airport. The destination weather required an approach, but at that time the weather did not seem too challenging.

An hour out of El Paso cruising at 9,000 feet, an undercast appeared that was ground fog. When I checked in with Amarillo Approach, they mentioned that aircraft reported light rime ice on the approach to Amarillo with a 1,500-feet-plus ceiling.

Amarillo, with its airline connections and rental car facilities, seemed like a better fuel stop that proceeding on to further north to Borger. Once I started my descent into the clouds, I was committed and did not want to climb back in to the icing conditions. The high ceiling gave me confidence that I could land at Amarillo. My other out, since I had adequate fuel, was to return south to El Paso and wait.

As I pulled into TAC Air, I knew the restaurant next door was a good one. The military aircraft from the Army, Navy and Air Force were on the ramp for lunch. After a great meal, I checked with Flight Service for the final leg to Lake Waltanna. The ceilings were high, and forecast ice in the clouds above made the choice to file VFR direct to Lake Waltanna an easy decision.

Traveling the last two hours with my finger tracing our track on sectional maps across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas made the view out the cockpit fascinating. This challenging and enjoyable trip came to a nice ending with Bill in the hangar before the snowstorms arrived in Kansas the next day.

 

Conclusions

The fastest and safest way for a long cross-country is not necessarily a straight line. There are many resources to help us make our decisions. However, it is up to us to take advantage of this information, as well as to ask second- and third-level questions.

I am impressed with the insights and information that the new mega Flight Service Station specialists offer if you ask for options and suggestions for routing. Careful planning and analysis will make every trip go smoother and safer. I hope you enjoy the trip as much as we do.

 

Charles Lloyd has logged 10,000 hours since his first flying lesson in 1954. He worked for Cessna Aircraft for 16 years. Lloyd retired as captain of a Citation Encore Plus for a major fractional aircraft ownership company. He flies a tricked-out 1966 Cessna 182—also known as Bill—that is a great business tool for his real estate investment company. Send questions or comments to .

 

Resources

           

Aerox

206 Osippee Trail

PO Box 533

Limington, ME 04049

(800) 237-6902

www.Aerox.com

 

John Jewell Aircraft

Holly Springs-Marshall County Airport (M41)

171 A. Q. Greer Dr.

PO Box 399

Holly Springs, MS 38635

(866) 553-9355

www.johnjewellaircraft.com

 

Tanis Aircraft Products

18781 County Rd 22

Glenwood, MN 56334

(800) 443-2134

www.tanisaircraft.com

 

 

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