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Avoiding Storms Safely

I flew to Boston this past weekend, for the 4th of July, and planned to return Tuesday morning, July 5, 2005. I had checked the weather the night before and the morning return looked good. No thunderstoms forecast till after 2pm along the route, and I wanted to leave around 9-10am, which'd put me in by noon. No problem.

I was visiting my friends Tom and Sara in Boston. Tom and Sara's 4-year-old, Zachary, tends to be slow getting up in the morning. So there were some delays getting him to daycare, so by the time we got to the airport it was around 10am. I checked the radar just for good measure and noticed a large blob around Ithaca. What the hell, they didn't forecast that!

Change in the Forecast -- or "wow!"

I rechecked the weather and indeed, they had amended the forecasts to include the prediction of the thunderstorms currently over Ithaca, once they had noticed there were thunderstorms over Ithaca. The weather briefer said "wow!" when he looked at the radar. And there was a pretty big line of storms marching eastward. These were big-ass storms going up to 30-40 thousand feet or more, with hail and such. The leading edge of the storm line was a bit beyond Ithaca was long enough that I wouldn't really be able to go around it either to the north or the south. Shit.

I decided I'd need to reevaluate my plans. I told Tom that I'd be around for a while, figure out what I'm going to do, whether I'd press on a bit, or wait for the evening, or go the next day. In any case, he didn't need to wait around for me, and if I was going to stay an extra day, I'd let him know he'd have to pick me up at the end of the day.

The forecast from Flight Service was grim, although they said there was a window in the early afternoon that no storms were forecast in Ithaca. However, they WERE forecast AFTER that. A night trip didn't seem to be promising. I studied the radar and the forecasts more, and saw that the area between Boston and Albany was clear, and that the line of storms were over 2 hours away from Albany, and it was a 1 hour flight. I could safely make it to Albany...and then what. The question was what was behind that line of storms.

Two Hops Worth a Try

The more I looked, the more it looked like there wasn't much. Storms can certainly pop up in the afternoon heat, but they can usually be visually avoided. I decided it was worth a go. I called Flight Service, amended my flight plan to have Albany as the destination. Before leaving the planning center, I did a quick look up on the Albany airport, as well as the Schenectady airport, about 8 miles beyond it. Based on user comments, Albany was fine, but a bit pricey. Schenectady was more modest, but generally friendly people and cheaper. I made a note to myself, but didn't want to refile a flight plan.

Hop One: Albany (or Schenectady)

I left. The flight was pretty uneventful. The weather was good at Hanscom (I didn't fly out of Boston Logan), then some haziness, and some scattered clouds. No big deal. Once I was out of the Boston area talking to an ATC facility that wasn't too busy (Bradley Approach), I requested a change to my clearance, to go to Schenectady, rather than Albany. The controller issued me a revised clearance (cleraed to Albandy then Schedectady...I knew it wouldn't be a bit deal).

Visibility was probably 5-6 miles in haze, and they were reporting that weather was moving in, but it wasn't a problem. I landed, taxiied to the FBO. When I told the lineman I was just there for a few hours, he pointed me to a tie-down spot and told me I could go there. I tied the plane down and went in to the FBO. There were a few other people there, looking like they were waiting. I asked and found there were a few restaurants about a block away. I went back to the plane to grab my rain jacket, and left. I also called Tom to let him know I was OK. At that point, there was thunder and occasional lightning getting closer (he could hear it on the phone).

Waiting Out the Weather

I walked to a plaza with a chinese restaurant, bagel place, etc. and while I was under their overhang, it let loose. Heavy rain, thunder, lightning, etc.

I checked in with someone at work, had lunch, and then headed back. The rain had tapered off to a light rain by then.

The little FBO had a live weather feed and I was watching the storm that had passed. Now, the tail end of the storm was over Schenectady. Behind it, it looked pretty clear to Ithaca. I got another weather briefing and filed another flight plan. While the briefer was not too optimistic, there was nothing currently on the radar and a storm warning that ended at Elmira, which is south and west of Ithaca.

The radar feed shows a loop of the last hour or so. And in the very last frame, I noticed a cell starting to develop in Utica, a little north of my route. I waited a bit longer until the rain stopped and I could see some blue patches to the south west, where I'd be going. After a couple of trips back to the FBO from the plane (forgot my clipboard and flight plan), I started up and taxiied out. The tower had me position and hold on the runway. After 20-30 seconds, she advised me that Albany was holding my release until a plane inbound to Albany passed over. I could see the plane. I don't like sitting on a for very long runway -- it's a vulnerable position, you can't see behind you.

Hop Two: Ithaca (or "keep your speed up")

Anyway, shortly after that we left. I was mostly above the clouds, with some small buildups. Nothing too bad. I think I diverted around one or two clouds. About 40 miles out, Syracuse approach advised me that there were some storms in the Elmira area heading to Ithaca and that if I wanted to make it in before then, they suggested that I should "keep my speed up."

OK...I was running at full throttle, but had the propeller back at 2400 rpm for cruise flight. I boosted it to 2600 (2750 is the max the prop governor will allow) to pick up a little more speed. I had hours of fuel left, so the increased fuel burn wasn't an issue. I had Syracuse report the storm's progress a few times, estimating when they would get to Ithaca compared to when the GPS was saying I would arrive. I might not beat the early rain, but I was comfortable that the heavy stuff and the gust front ahead of it would arrive after me. And there was a small airport in Cortland, 15 miles to the north east of Ithaca as an alternate in case I had to turn tail and run.

About 25 miles out I asked to begin my descent. Normally in the Mooney, you reduce the power to start to descend. Not today. I just pushed forward on the yoke and let it scream downhill. The plane is very aerodynamic and can go fast. That had played into my calculations. The airspeed climbed to around 190 knots or so and that helped.

Syracuse handed me off to Elmira approach, and they told me the wind was shifting and runway 32 was now available. Much more of a straight-in approach. I said that'd be dandy. The storms were 8 miles NW of Ithaca so coming in from the south east sounded like a good idea.

The only trick to the Mooney is slowing it down. I throttled back and pulled the RPMs back and leveled off so I could slow down to the landing gear extension speed. Once it was below 140, I put the gear down, which helps slow things down further. Then it was time to work on the altitude since I was still 2000' above ground level. I could see the airport and runway, and while there was weather off to the west, I could see the entire airport area and a few miles beyond was still OK.

The landing was uneventful, I taxiied in. Refueled the plane and put it in the hangar with the help of a CFI that was there. By the time we had the hangar closed, the rain hit.

I made it to work around 5pm, discovered the ultimate frisbee game had NOT been cancelled, so I headed out get my shoes and water and play. There were thunderstorms that rumbled by nearby, but never right by us. We played, our team won. And I manged to safely avoid two weather systems.

Each time I landed, it was still 10-15 minutes before the weather hit and I had options and outs. This is the first time I broke a trip into two segments in order to wait for weather to pass. It worked. It wasn't "dogding" thunderstorms; it was more like planning to time the travel and the route to best avoid them. While IFR flying provides more options that VFR, the weather requires plans to be flexible.

This page last modified Jun 28, 2009.
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