Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Weather Flying

How any pilot can fly without a current instrument rating is beyond my comprehension. Prior to getting my rating, there were so many instances where I had to stay on the ground due to weather. I've had it for two years now and many of my cross-country flights would have been canceled without it. This weekend was one of those times.

Every year for the past seven or eight years, I have traveled to Myrtle Beach for a weekend golf tournament with a bunch of guys who are loosely associated with my former employer. A drive from Jacksonville to Myrtle Beach can take as much as six or seven hours depending on traffic and weather. In optimal weather (no wind) the trip should take 2 hours 15 minutes in the Skyhawk. This weekend, we did not have optimal weather.

The trip up produced about 30 minutes of actual instrument time with most of that coming as we approached Myrtle Beach. We flew to the Grand Strand airport since it was closer to our first and last rounds for the weekend. Last year we flew to KMYR and it was so far south of our final round that it took us about an hour just to get to the plane.

The FBO at Grand Strand is a model for all FBOs. My golf partner told me that they made him feel like a rich man with the way we were treated. After landing, the tower cleared us to the ramp and told us to monitor ground. We were greeted by a follow-me cart that showed us exactly where to park. We were then greeted by a helpful gentleman who brought our rental car up to the plane and all we had to do was get in. Great treatment!

Sunday morning took us to the Thistle Golf Course north of Myrtle Beach. Throughout the morning's round, we saw towering cumulous and at one point, we heard lots of thunder, but never saw lightning. After the round, we drove straight to the airport and loaded up. I got my briefing from a weatherman in St. Pete who seemed intent on talking me out of the flight. I had a radar display in front of me and I could see a front that had recently passed the Appalachians and was heading our way. If I waited too long, we could be on the ground for quite a while. The sky was clear at the airport and there were no storms showing until Savannah. I figured if I had to, I could request a direct heading before I reached Savannah to avoid the storms. There were also storms around Brunswick and a group of storms in Central Florida that appeared to be heading towards my destination. I figured I could always put the plane down someplace on the way if necessary.

I filed an IFR flight plan with the FSS and completed my preflight. In the FBO, I asked the locals for the local procedure for getting an instrument clearance since there is no clearance delivery frequency. They told me they call for clearance on the ground frequency and we determined that courtesy calls were the order of the day. The AOPA website has some horror stories about one tower controller who I have now learned is the supervisor for the tower and is named Steve. The locals warned me about him and how he chews up pilots who make errors. I made absolutely certain that my ducks were in a row when I made my initial calls.

"Grand Strand Ground, Skyhawk 1-4-6-3-Foxtrot", I called on 121.8.

"Skyhawk 1463Foxtrot, cleared to Craig as filed, climb 2000 expect 6000 in ten minutes, approach control on 119.2; squawk 4220".

That was quick...no asking me what I want.

I repeated the clearance.

"Skyhawk 6-3-Foxtrot, readback correct, advise when ready to taxi and when you have the numbers." Came his acknowledgement.

"63Foxtrot, has Oscar and is ready to taxi." I replied.

"Taxi to 23" was his immediate response.

We were off. I taxied down the long taxiway to the end and was cleared for departure. There were no problems with this controller at all...must not have been the bad guy.

The Nexrad display was a wonderful aid to this flight. I constantly monitored conditions along the route and frequently checked METARs for airports in my path. The climbout was slow due to the weight of my passenger and all of our luggage as well as the very hot, humid temperatures. We finally reached our cruising altitude of 6000 feet and I slaved the autopilot to the GPS. Near Charleston, I was handed off from Beaufort Marine approach to Jacksonville Center and I immediately requested Direct to Brunswick (SSI). This would enable me to avoid the building storms over Savannah that I could see through the windshield as well as on the NEXRAD. The controller cooperated and I revised my course in the GPS.

As we neared Brunswick, it was clear that we would have to deviate. There were some big red blotches on the NEXRAD, the SAV HIWAS was describing an area of thunderstorms with little movement ahead, and I could see some big, dark clouds that did not look like they wanted me to fly through them. ATC advised me that commercial flights were deviating 20 or 30 miles to the west and then headed direct to JAX. I told the controller that sounded good to me, but he didn't vector me.

I was almost on SSI when I decided it was time for me to tell the controller what I was going to do rather than wait for him to tell me what to do. I called JAX Center and requested a heading of 270 to avoid storms and my request was immediately granted. I flew along confidently for a while noting the very large black cloud ahead and to the left of my path. My course seemed to be taking me too close to a strong return on the NEXRAD, so I altered my course to 280. I slowed the plane to maneuvering speed - 105 knots and shortly afterwards, we entered a large, dark, towering cumulous cloud. It wasn't very bumpy at first, but the calm didn't last long. We started to get moderate rain and then came the turbulence. I was glad that I had used a seatbelt to secure the luggage in the back seat, because anthing that wasn't tied down got jostled around quite a bit. At one point, I lost about 300 feet in about 10 seconds and the engine went from 2300 rpm to nearly redline. I gained about 30 knots of airspeed almost instantly. I reduced the throttle until the rpms came back to something manageable and relied on the autopilot to keep the wings level. We quickly returned to our assigned altitude and things stabilized a bit. After about 10 or 15 minutes of this, we emerged from the cloud and found a huge valley in the sky - no clouds in front of us for quite a while. I chose this opportunity to make my left turn towards Jacksonville and on we went. Craig was reporting calm winds and visual approaches to 32. Since I was coming from the north northwest, I plugged in the VOR14 approach in case the weather turned. At 13 miles out, I reported the airport in sight and ATC handed me over to the tower. The tower controller advised that the winds were calm and I could have runway 23 if I wanted. I accepted the offer and I flew the VOR14 approach with a circle to 23.

On approach, I noticed that the GPS was indicating a 6 knot tailwind when I had turned final for 23. I flew the approach right on the numbers and set the plane down for one of the most gentle landings I've ever had. This one was one heck of a flight. There's no way we would have made it without an instrument rating. The rating gave me the confidence to fly into challenging conditions, but to only do it with as much information as possible - prepared for the worst. Because of headwinds the entire way and our deviation due to weather, this flight took 3.1 hours with .8 of actual instrument.