Friday’s lesson: Don’t make your weather decision without looking at the sky

I nearly didn’t make the flight up to Toronto for the Pilot Blogger weekend. There wasn’t anything on the radar, and the TAF (Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts) were talking about a 40 percent probability of isolated thunderstorms, which is pretty normal for this time of the year. But at decision time, the METAR (current conditions) at Rochester were:

KROC 131554Z 25011G17KT 10SM BKN037TCU BKN070 22/12 A2993 RMK AO2 SLP132 TCU SE CB DSNT N T02110111

Now, I’m not great at reading all the “RMK” (remark) part of the METAR, and that’s where the scary stuff was. All I know is that “TCU” means “Towering Cumulus” and “CB” means “thunderstorms”. And I went to the decoded report on DUATs, and it said that the “TCU”s were in all quadrants. So I thought I’d be flying IFR, dealing with the extreme turbulence of TCUs while out over the lake, and thought that wasn’t a good situation to be in. So I told people I’d be driving instead.

And then I walked outside. One odd thing about Rochester is that the airport is south of the I490 highway, and there is frequently a real difference in the lake-affected weather up north of I490 and the mainland-affected weather south of it. So I walked outside and looked up and north to see scattered clouds and bright sunshine, and then looked south towards to airport to see some of the TCUs the forecast was talking about, but mostly to the south of the airport. And suddenly realized that if I were to depart VFR, I could dodge the TCUs until I was in the lake-effected weather, and have no problems following the lakeshore around to Toronto.

I haven’t done a VFR flight into Canada in a while, so I had to dust off those old memories. But I managed to get all the appropriate paperwork all done, and didn’t cause any international incidents. (Not so on the flight home – as I type this I realize I forgot to close my flight plan, so I’m calling right now. Can I just mention for the record that I wish US controllers would open and close flight plans the way Canadian ones do?)

When I took off, as soon as I got turned over to departure control, there was a gigantic rain shaft about 5 miles in front of me, and I was about to tell him I was going to turn north because of it when he pointed it out to me and gave me a vector. But 5 miles later I was at 3,000 feet in sunshine, mostly smooth air, and I could see across the lake.

The lakeshore is a lovely flight, and Toronto gives me flight following around, but requires me to stay out of their airspace, which means descending into mild turbulence and staying lower than I’d really like to. But the flight was fun and I’m really glad I got to fly.