Sunday, September 02, 2007

A little more weather flying - NEXRAD isn't all it is cracked up to be.

Craig field was IFR when we departed this morning bound for Crystal River (KCGC) on a 1 hour IFR flight plan. I was cleared to depart runway 32 and instructed to fly heading 280 on climbout. I entered the clouds at 500 feet and didn't break through them until about 2500 feet. Craig tower quickly handed me off to Jacksonville Departure Control who offered to give me a direct clearance to Crystal River which I eagerly accepted. The controller cleared me direct upon reaching 2,100 feet, but when I was only through 1800, he gave me direct. I found myself turning and climbing through the clouds - a great experience and most IFR training is simulated and most of my actual IFR experience has been either in stable descents, climbs or level flight - not much turning. Since I had never done any instrument training on the Garmin G1000, this instrument time enhanced my experience and increased my confidence. We periodically found ourselves popping in and out of clouds throughout the flight which we made at 5000 feet MSL.

Nearing Crystal River, I was instructed to descend to 2000' which put me solidly in IMC for a while. Even when I was level at 2000 feet, the overcast layer had a bottom that ranged from about 2100' to 1800', so I was in and out of the soup until I was only about 5 miles from our destination.

The conditions at Crystal River were reasonably clear and I found four other aircraft on the Traffic Information System in the vicinity of the airport. I reported to ATC that I had the airport in sight and I closed my IFR flight plan while still in the air. I overflew the airport while descending to pattern altitude and entered the left base for 270. The landing was smooth and we were quickly parked and unloaded. The flight took only 55 minutes wheels up to shut down.

I had hoped to leave Crystal River around 4pm, but the weather had other plans. I checked the RADAR images on my blackberry and saw developing storms all along our path back to Craig. I did not want to subject my passenger to the turbulence that the radar suggested as I knew that her stomach couldn't take it, so I endured nasty looks and an "I told you so" attitude for several hours until I was convinced that we could safely fly home to Craig.

After my usual thorough preflight, I started the engine and set up the radios. I tried to raise Jacksonville Departure so I could get my clearance before I took off, but I could not hear their replies, if there were any. I departed VFR on runway 9 and tried to contact departure twice on the climbout without success. The second try produced a garbled response, so I waited until I had passed through 2000 feet before trying again. This time I was successful and I informed the controller that I had left Crystal River five minutes earlier and asked for my IFR clearance to CRG. The controller cleared me direct to CRG and assigned 4000 feet as my altitude.

I continued my climb and passed through a few clouds, but nothing significant. The NEXRAD showed a band of moderate rain across our path near Ocala that was about 10 miles thick and 50 miles wide. I constantly watched the skies and the NEXRAD display, but we never found rain. We were right in the middle of what NEXRAD was calling moderate rain, but we were below the overcast ceiling and in clear air. This was remarkably smooth flying compared to what I had expected. I finally entered clouds about 30 minutes in to the flight. The sun was setting behind us and we found the clouds all around us before we even saw them in front of us. I held the plane steady as we trudged along. It is precisely this sort of IMC that causes problems for VFR-only pilots. I could not see the clouds in my path and I was deep in them before I could do much of anything. Fortunately, I'm instrument rated, was on an instrument flight plan and simply kept my eyes on the instruments making sure I stuck to my course, altitude and kept the wings level. We were making good speed along the ground - about 127 knots ground speed and over 140 knots when ATC descended me to 2,100 feet.

I used the auto pilot to maintain altitude and heading while I set up for the approach to Craig. I pressed the OBS button on the G1000 and specified a 050 heading in to Craig. This would plot a straight line from the CRG VOR at a 050 heading and that would line me right up with runway 050. ATC handed me off to the tower and I was instructed to fly straight in to runway 050.

By now the sun had set and picking CRG out of the field of lights was a challenge, however, I quickly spotted the runway dead ahead. As I crossed the tower farm with its 1100 feet towers only 5 miles from the end of runway 050, I slowed the engine to 2100 RPM and began a steady descent. I was still carrying a little too much altitude when the tower cleared me to land, so I pulled power to idle and progressively extended flaps while descending at a fairly steep rate - about 1300 fpm. Once the PAPI lights showed I was on the glideslope, I steadied my descent by pulling up the nose and stabilized the engine at 1700 RPM. I kept the plane lined up with the runway and pointed the nose at the numbers. I flared the plane as I crossed the threshold and made an incredibly smooth landing touching down on both mains then lowering the nose gently. This was one of my best night landings ever.

The NEXRAD was showing weather that was much worse than it turned out to be. We hardly encountered a single bump and never got any rain. As we left the airport, I could tell that there would soon be some ground fog developing, so we timed our arrival pretty well.

Except for my passenger's discontent, this was a very enjoyable day of flying and a great day with my dad and step-mom. I logged a total of 2.4 hours of cross country flight, 30 minutes of night, an hour of actual instrument and had two very smooth landings.

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