Last night, I looked at the weather and thought “tomorrow is the day”. It wouldn’t be a perfect day, but it was a good enough day, and it looked like I couldn’t count on a perfect day any time soon. Every day since last Friday, when I made the decision to fly to Barnes Muni (KBAF), the weather map at AOPA showed lousy weather tomorrow, marginal weather the day after, and good weather the day after that. And every day I’d wake up expecting progress, only to find that the next day would be marginal and the good weather would be the day after that. And so on and on.
Last night, the area forecast said that the ceilings would be 4,000 feet or so. The Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts for the stations along the route had some good news and some bad news, ceilings mostly high enough to deal with, but with ocassional low ones. The highest ceilings were at Barnes itself, which is good because there is a line of low hills between it and the Hudson Valley to get over. The worst forecasts were for Rochester itself and Utica. Utica was predicting ceilings around 3,000, and Rochester was predicting two layers, one at 2,500 and one at 3,500. I had every reason to expect that today would have the usual AIRMET ZULU for icing in clouds and precipitation. There was a mention of scattered showers and even snow in the hills.
The IFR Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) for the first part of the route, from BAF (Barnes) to CTR (Chester) to ALB (Albany) was 6,000 feet, which would probably put me in the clouds, and I didn’t want to risk that. My plan was to fly VFR over to the Hudson Valley, up to Albany, and up the Mohawk Valley. That would get me to the flat lands between Syracuse and Rochester, where if I could avoid the rain shafts I could possibly scud run in below that layer at 2,500 feet. But there were risks in that plan, and I knew that I might find myself having to turn and run if the ceilings start coming down or I started picking up ice in a rain shaft. I tossed and turned all night about this plan – I normally fly high and IFR, and here I’d be between possibly dangerous clouds and rising cumulo-granite. But I felt like I had enough “outs”, and I could do this without hurting myself, even if it meant staying overnight along the way.
I brought my laptop and threw a change of underwear and socks in the laptop bag in case I had to remain overnight somewhere. And so early this morning I set out in the rented van that we’d driven home on Sunday. Along the way I stopped for gas – $65 to fill the tank! And I thought flying was expensive! I spent the whole trip looking up at the clouds and trying to guess how high those solid clouds were. They looked low. I was also looking to make sure the valley didn’t get too narrow when it got high, so that if I had to turn around under low ceilings I wouldn’t be trapped, and that appeared to be the case. The good news was there was almost no rain. I kept checking the METARs (current observations) on my “Local Aviation Weather” web page (the page is deliberately simple so that I can read it on a cell phone). Barnes was still reporting ceilings over 5,000 feet, and Utica was still reporting ceilings of 3,000 feet, which was definitely still in the do-able range.
The first thing I did when I got to Barnes (after filling the van again – sheesh, another $20!) was to borrow a local phone to call the weather briefers. And after all my raving earlier about how much better Burlington weather briefers are than Buffalo, the Burlington FSS briefer I got was just a reader, he didn’t offer any advice at all. One interesting thing was that Rochester and Syracuse were reporting better ceilings that predicted. Other than that, it looked like I was going to go ahead with plan A.
So I fired up and took off. I climbed up to 4,800 feet, that left me just below the clouds (a nice and legal 500 feet below the clouds, actually), and 2,000 feet above the hills. The visibility was actually good, but the outside temperature was -6C. There were areas of mist, but even when in them I had 10 miles or more of visibility, and I checked the outside air temperature probe and wings and didn’t seem to be picking up even a trace of ice. Hey, this was going to work! I text-messaged Vicki at every significant waypoint I passed just so she’d know where I was and wouldn’t worry. I kept climbing and descending to keep that 500 feet below the clouds – I still wanted to be as high as I could be because of the higher terrain on each side. I got into the Hudson Valley about 15 miles south of Albany, and I tagged up with them because I was at 4,300 feet and their airspace went up about that high.
The Albany controller seemed very friendly and was very helpful. There was a surprising amount of traffic around, including a number of general aviation planes. Some of them were being cleared up to 10,000 feet on IFR clearances – I hope they had ice protection.
Along the way up the Mohawk Valley. As expected, the ground was rising up, the clouds were coming down, and the valley was getting narrower. Luckily it never got dangerously low, and even at its worst I was a good 1,500 feet over the valley floor, and that was very close to the Utica and Griffis airports and I could see them both perfectly, so I could have aborted to either of them with no trouble. And very soon after Utica, the ceiling started to lift up. And about 20 miles after Syracuse, I started to see blue sky. I tuned into Rochester’s ATIS, and they were reporting an overcast layer at 5,000 feet. So much for the low clouds I was worried about! By the time I got there, it was more like a few clouds at 5,000 feet, and clear above. It was a beautiful VFR day, and I’m sure all the Rochester pilots were wondering what I was so tense about!
The gravatar.com site is not responding, and that was making it damn near impossible to read comments on this blog, so I’ve turned off the plug-in. Hopefully they’ll come back up, because I like the idea of avatars that aren’t tied to a particular blog system.
Every time I fly to Canada, I’m impressed with how helpful the flight service center weather briefers are. They don’t just read you the forecast, they tell you what they think is going to happen that isn’t reflected in the forecast, suggest options, and generally act as a partner in your decision making process.
Yesterday morning, when I was trying to figure out if I had a hope in hell of getting home by plane, I used the hotel phone to call the flight service center weather briefers (and because I was using a land-line, it connected me to the most local one in Burlington – there is one 1-800 number for the country, but it connects to different flight service depending where you are). The guy I was talking too was just like the Canadian ones – he helped me make a good mental picture of the weather, discussed alternate routes and what I’d encounter on that route, etc.
Later on, I called flight service again from the Barnes Airport. But I couldn’t find a land-line phone so I ended up using Vicki’s cell phone, which connected me to Buffalo flight service. And I got what I’m used to from weather briefers – a monotone reading of the SIGMET ZULU (icing advisory) that came out early in the morning and hasn’t been adjusted since. I asked for PIREPs (pilot reports) of ice, and he said they didn’t have any – which is annoying because the DTN weather system in the FBO at Barnes had shown me a couple. I asked for information on where the cloud tops would be, and he read me that day’s area forecast. He didn’t offer any interpretation. He didn’t offer an iota of information that I couldn’t have gotten from DUATs or DTN or the AOPA web site.
All the time I’ve been a pilot, I’ve been dealing with Buffalo flight service. And all this time, I’ve wondered what the point is of having flight service stations in this age of internet. Hell, even a voice response phone system could do the job they’re doing. And so I cheered when the government announced they are outsourcing flight service to LockMart. But now it’s hitting me – maybe it’s just Buffalo that sucks. Maybe every other flight service center in the country is staffed by knowledgeable and helpful people with local knowledge and a feel for what you can and can’t get away with in your type of plane in this type of weather in this type of terrain. If that’s the case, I’m pretty sure that outsourcing and privatizing will make it worse. And that’s too bad.
When I planned this flight, I relied as always on the AOPA “Forecast Graphics” (by Meterologix) to give me my best view of what’s coming up in the coming days. But on Friday, their chart for Sunday showed some showers, and for Monday showed a big clear sky over MA and NY, with a front off shore, and then Wilma off on the other side of that. But now, on Sunday, the chart for today shows a big freaking mess, with a similar mess tomorrow and maybe a clear map on Tuesday or Wednesday. Other non-aviation forecasts still say rain for Tuesday and sun on Wednesday, so I’m not so sure about Tuesday’s clear map.
The Aviation Weather Center shows a big ole AIRMET for icing over my entire route, calling for icing in clouds or precipitation anywhere above the freezing level, and a freezing level of 6,000 feet or lower. Of course, the MEA (minimum enroute altitude) for the first section of the flight is 6,000 feet. That spells ICE. And light general aviation planes do not get along with ice.
The flight briefer at the Burlington Automated Flight Service Station suggested I call back at noon to see if they’ve amended the forecasts any, but right now I’m thinking that we take our rental car, drive home, and I’ll come back on Tuesday or Wednesday to fly the plane home.