Weather Strategy 101: Taking the Long Way Home

Well, I got home. It wasn’t easy.

I called for a weather briefing, and the Canadian side of the border was forecasting only nil-light clear ice, while the US side between Watertown and Syracuse was still calling for light to moderate mixed icing in clouds and precipitation between freezing level and 18,000 feet. I also found out that the clouds to the west and north of Ottawa were in several layers, while those to the south were still solid from about 1500 feet up to above the highest altitude I could reach. I hemmed and hawed, and decided to try the northern route, going from Ottawa to Campbellford (spelling approximate – designator YCF) to Toronto to the little maze of Victor Airways that get you from Toronto to Rochester. It looked like it was going to be pure VFR after about YCF.

At first, I couldn’t start the plane. The very helpful guy at Esso Avitat brought out this humungous pre-heater that is made for jet aircraft but he says they mostly use it for getting the trucks going in very cold weather. 10 or 15 minutes of that, and the engine kicked over in one blade. What a difference a little warmth can make.

I took off, and immediately I was having even more of the electrical problems I’d reported on the way out. The autopilot’s indicator lights (that say “HDG”, “NAV”, etc) were all flashing like crazy. As well, that pinging that was coming through the intercom was a full fledged squeal, so I turned off the intercom. One of the radio flip-flops wouldn’t retune – it was set to 132.20 (Montreal Center) and I was attempting to turn the other Montreal Center frequency at 132.05, but it only flicked between 132.20 and 132.15 and wouldn’t budge. But I moved the outer knob to 131, and then I could tune the inner ring to .05, and then move the outer knob to 132. Weird. Toronto Center was having a lot of problems with my transponder, too, asking me to recycle once, then ident, then report various distances from them. As I got closer that cleared up, no idea if it was something wrong with the transponder or just that I was closer to their antenna. The alternator was nearly pegged, and I recycled it once, and it seemed to help some of the problems, but the autopilot never worked at all, and the squeal in the intercom went down to a ping but never went away.

When I entered the clouds on the way up, I went to a fast cruise climb speed, 100 knots or more, because clear ice can build up on the underside of the wing unseen if you have a high angle of attack. By the time I reached my cruise altitude, 8000, I was in a layer where the clouds were widely scattered at my altitude, so I was in and out of them, but I couldn’t see below or above so I was on the guages the whole time. I really really need more practice flying on the guages without an autopilot. On the way up to my altitude I picked up a thin layer of clear ice, about 2-4 mm in depth I’d guess, on the temperature probe, and what looked more a very thin layer of impacted snow on the wings. I couldn’t detect any difference in flying qualities, and I was still making better than 130 knots over the ground so it wasn’t slowing me down any. Because I was in and out of and then totally above the clouds, I wasn’t picking up any more.

By the time I got to YCF, it was severe clear. I’ve never seen the drumlins in that part of the world from the air before. It was quite startling how clear they were. Toronto Center asked me to descend to 4000 feet, which got me below the freezing level and the ice went pretty quickly. They were quite accomodating about my desire not to cross the middle of the lake direct from YCF to Rochester, and bring me in almost to the edge of the Toronto Class C airspace and letting me climb back up to 7000 feet before sending me over. Not only is the lake narrower there than back at Rochester, I believe the rescue helicopter is based at Toronto City Center so any rescue would reach me quicker there. The funny thing about them getting me what I wanted was that I was heading due West with Buffalo directly to my left (South), and he gave me a climbing right turn to 090 (due East), which I thought was kind of weird. But before I completed the turn or got to 7000 feet he had me continue the turn to 190 (just past South), and then I saw a commuter plane go by straight in front of me at about 5000 feet, descending to land at Toronto. So it was just a clever way of making sure I was higher than the commuter plane before I turned to cross his path.

It was a mixture of frustration and fun, and I’m glad to be home.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I’m sitting in the Ottawa Flying Club’s cafe, waiting for the updated weather forecast that comes out in half an hour. They’ve got a wireless access point, although I had to have them reboot the server to get it working. For some stupid reason, they block outgoing SSH connections, which means I have to use Squirrel Mail to read my home email. That kind of sucks.

Mostly I’m wasting time by going through old blog entries and correcting all the internal links that broke when I moved from MovableType to WordPress. I also added a butt-load of new categories. The old categories, “Rant”, “Revelation”, “Route” were alliterative, and indicative of the mood of the post, but not much help if you were looking for posts about flying, or geek stuff, or photography, or whatever. WordPress makes it WAY easier to put articles in multiple categories, so the old categories are retained as well.

Dammit dammit dammit

Ok, I won’t know for sure until the afternoon forecasts come out (usually around 1pm), but it looks like I might have badly misjudged the weather. Not only are the ceilings lower than I thought they’d be, they’re also colder, meaning I might not have the above freezing escape route I thought I did. I’m not sure about that, though. It also appears that the low pressure system is moving much slower than I thought, and I might not have that plan B backstop of VFR weather until Monday evening or Tuesday. Oh well, if I have to wait, I have to wait. Right now it’s just a game of wait for the afternoon forecast and see if things look better. Right now they’re predicting a ceiling just above minimums for Rochester (OVC004 – overcast at 400 feet), and relatively better at Syracuse (OVC020 – overcast at 2,000 feet). Also, Syracuse is predicting rain but Rochester is predicting mixed rain and snow. Also I’ll have to see if I can get a tops report – it would be better if I could fly above or between clouds.

On the plus side, Alyssa and I went out to take some pictures yesterday. The results can be found at my Gallery site. I think we got a few good ones.

Flying up to Ottawa

I flew to Ottawa today. A not particularly great day, but it beats the hell out of driving. The weather was pretty good up until the border, where the clouds starting filling in below me. Not a problem – that’s why I have an instrument rating after all. There had been an AIRMET for occassional moderate turbulence below 8,000 feet, and things were smooth at 9,000 feet. But soon after crossing the border Montreal Center wanted me down at 8,000 feet, and sure enough it was pretty bumpy down there. The clouds were solid with tops around 6,500 feet, and it was windy, so I think I was getting some sort of mechanical turbulance from the clouds. After a while bumping around at 8,000, they had me descent to 6,000 feet, which was in solid cloud. It was a little below freezing, but I was getting liquid water on the windshield, not ice. 10 or 15 minutes of that, and Ottawa terminal sent me down to 4,000 feet, which was below the clouds. I did the visual approach for runway 25. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to log an approach, but relieved I didn’t have to fly the approach for runway 25, which is a localizer back course (LOC BC) and I’ve never flown a back course in my life.
Along the way, I had some annoying little problems. First of all was the autopilot. I was planning to hand-fly the whole way just for the practice, but I snapped the autopilot on quickly while I set up the approach on my radios. It was fine for a while when suddenly the yoke started wobbling back and forth, and then it started turning off course. I moved the heading bug around, and it turned the other direction but went past the heading bug and headed off in the other direction. So I tried NAV mode, and it was worse – even though I was almost exactly centered on the selected radial, but it immediately started turning. I brought it back on course, engaged the NAV mode, and it turned in the other direction. So I guess the autopilot can be trusted for quick radio setups and the like, but not for anything extended. Another problem occured near the end of the flight, when I started getting a very loud sonar-like pinging though my headset. I couldn’t find any radio or navaid making that noise. Turning the intercom off got rid of it, though. The DG seemed to precess a lot as well.

The hardest part of making these weekend trips is trying to be reasonably sure I can get home afterwards. I love the national prog charts on the AOPA web site which go out 120 hours, but they’re available to AOPA members only so I won’t link them here. Almost as good are the ones on the Aviation Weather Center, but they only go out for 48 hours. So around Wednesday, I start looking at the AOPA site to see what my chances are. At first, it looked like the Sunday flight home was going to be VFR. Then it looked like it would be a bit rainy, with the VFR weather on Monday. Now it looks like Sunday and Monday morning are both going to be crappy, with clearing on Monday afternoon. Sunday shows a lot of snow showers along my route. But the temperature forecast is saying surface temperatures in the 40s. That makes me think that I can try in the clouds, and if I get icing, I can descend down to 3,000 feet which is a safe altitude here and the temperature will be above freezing.

Since getting my instrument rating, I haven’t flown much in winter, and so I have no experience judging whether clouds are going to give me icing problems or not. I’m hoping that by skirting around the periphery of icing problems, with a clear out to above freezing temperatures below, I can start to get some experience in that direction. Or maybe I’ll just get lucky and find an altitude between layers and not get any ice.