Go or No Go: marginal VFR?

You’re headed to Minneapolis today to pick up your daughter from college and bring her home to Milwaukee for a family wedding. Since winter is starting to recede, it looks like a good chance to dust off your 1978 Cessna 172 and make the 2 1/2 hour flight from KMWC to KFCM. You’ll spend the night in Minneapolis, then fly home tomorrow morning. You’re working on your instrument rating, but you don’t have it yet, so this will be a strictly VFR flight. You are current in the airplane and have over 200 hours in it since buying it 4 years ago.

Read the weather briefing below, then decide if you’re making the trip or not. Your proposed departure time is 2130Z.

Overview

Your route will take you northwest from the Milwaukee area, across central Wisconsin and into Minnesota.

WI route

The current surface analysis shows a weak low pressure system off to the southwest.

WI surf

The 12-hour prog chart doesn’t show much action with that front.

WI 12 hour

The 24-hour forecast chart is a little more worrying, although the valid time is for tomorrow afternoon.

WI 24 hour

Radar

The radar is pretty clear across your entire route of flight, with the only significant precipitation well south of your route.

WI radar

Satellite

The satellite image tells the real story here, with some areas of fairly thick cloud cover. This is worth investigating more.

WI satellite

Ceilings

It looks like clouds are your main worry today, so you start with a look at Weather.aero’s new ceiling and visibility tool.

WI ceilings and vis

Text Weather

That overview picture looks pretty benign, which is encouraging. But there are a few green METAR circles in western Wisconsin, so it’s smart to dive into the METARs and TAFs for all the details. Here are the current weather reports for your departure, five en route airports and your destination:

KMWC 142045Z 23008KT 10SM OVC050 01/M06 A3016
KUNU 142115Z AUTO 22005KT 10SM OVC049 00/M07 A3018 RMK AO2
KDLL 142115Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM OVC055 01/M04 A3015 RMK AO2
KVOK 142055Z 01003KT 10SM BKN023 OVC030 02/M03 A3014 RMK AO2A SLP220 55013
KCMY 142115Z AUTO 17004KT 10SM BKN023 02/M02 A3012 RMK AO2
KRGK 142115Z AUTO 16004KT 10SM CLR 03/M03 A3010 RMK AO2
KFCM 142053Z 28003KT 10SM CLR 04/M04 A3009 RMK AO2 PRESRR SLP201 T00391039 55003

Your departure and destination look pretty good, and even the winds look light. But a few of those en route stations are reporting lower ceilings. Now let’s look at the forecasts for your departure area and destination:

KMKE 142057Z 1421/1524 21009KT P6SM BKN060
FM150100 25007KT P6SM SCT060
FM151000 24006KT P6SM BKN120
FM151700 04005KT 3SM -RA OVC025
FM152100 05011KT 3SM -RA OVC025

KMSP 142054Z 1421/1524 VRB03KT P6SM SCT200 OVC250
FM150000 22004KT P6SM SCT050 BKN150
FM150900 VRB02KT 4SM -FZRASN BR SCT009 BKN020 OVC035
FM151300 02008KT 4SM -SN BR SCT009 BKN015 OVC050
FM151700 06008KT 5SM -SN BR OVC020
FM152100 06006KT 2SM -SN BR OVC015

You Decide

Are you going or calling the airline? The weather at your departure and destination are both pretty good, winds are light and there’s plenty of daylight left. But are the 2300 ft. ceilings in western Wisconsin enough to scrap the flight? Even with good visibility? And what about the return trip?

Add your comments below.

37 Comments

  • The return flight could be IFR. Unless you can afford to spend a few days at your destination to wait for better weather, better hop in the car and make the trip.

  • Going I see no problem. The return trip is the problem. The freezing rain may be over replaced by light snow at the time of departure the next morning. I’d reevaluate then and might consider flying west over Madison and then IFR (I follow the river) up to Flying Cloud.

  • If there are stations reporting low ceilings en route then this is not a guaranteed VFR flight. What is the proposed cruise altitude- above the ceilings ( requiring a descent below clouds at some point ) or below the ceiling ( requiring marginal cloud clearance)??
    Since pilot is not IFR capable and aircraft is not “known ice” capable, then it is time to use those air- miles you’ve accumulated.

    • I think Shaps is right. As there are stations reporting low ceilings en return route it is not a simple VFR flight. The freezing rain may be replaced by light snow at the time of departure the next morning. The pilot is not instrument rated

    • Scott, thanks for the detailed analysis. Since most of us are not former NWS meteorologists we lack the ability to confidently predict that the proposed flight can be accomplished in VFR conditions. For the majority of us caution would be a better choice than relying on our inadequate meteorological predictions.

      • The data/forecasts that I presented in my analysis isn’t much more than what EVERY pilot is expected to understand in primary training (AIRMETs,FA,METARs). This is basic stuff. I know that some pilots lack skills in this area. The only data presented that was a bit beyond those basics was the color-enhanced IR satellite image. Being cautious is fine, but it’s no substitute for expanding your situational awareness with a little education. Unfortunately, some pilots just don’t take that time to learn.

        • I don’t think that there’s any ambiguity about the plan to leave on the 14th and return sometime on the 15th, presumably in the AM.
          I appreciate what our resident meteorologist brings to the table here.
          However, I don’t understand what he means about updating us on the return trip (again?)
          And thanks, Scott, for saving us the cost of the airline tickets, assuming that there is such an airline.

          • Lawrence,

            For the time issue, I thought it would have been “out of the gate” a bit more clear to have said up front, “The proposed departure is on March 14th at 2130Z with a return flight the following day during the morning.” I had to dig through the charts/maps to discover this.

            This was posted as a round-robin flight from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. I only had three hours of time this morning to research and write up my analysis for the initial leg (to Minneapolis). If I get some time later on, I’ll add an update to my analysis to discuss the weather issues on the second leg (back to Milwaukee) on the next day.

          • I take issue with Scott’s claim that his forecast taking “three hours of time” (by an ex NWS meteorologist no less! – to analyze and present his conclusion for the outbound leg alone and utilizing several weather texts and images that were NOT presented in the original post) “isn’t much more than what EVERY pilot is expected to understand in primary training (AIRMETs,FA,METARs). This is basic stuff”.

            If the weather data (that were available as presented in the original post required the depth of research for the outbound leg alone and we still need to await further analyses (if there is time ) for the return trip- then no this is NOT “basic stuff” that makes a certain prediction of VFR conditions for a pilot and aircraft whose capabilities are limited ( as per the original post). Maybe Mr Dennstead would take a chance (after perhaps 6 hours of research and analysis?) but I wouldn’t gamble with the safety of me and my family in that way..

  • I await possible further exposition. Perhaps you can explain how you were able to pull up the color coded IR sat. view of the 14th. When I tried the dates available were only of the present and into the future.
    Past dates did not seem to be available.

    • Lawrence,

      Yes, websites like ADDS don’t provide much in the way of historical data. This is one of the reasons that I launched my own website back in 2009. I wanted to provide tools to my members that have a much better temporal and spacial resolution. As part of this, I archive many of these images to include the color-enhanced IR satellite image. When one of my members has an interesting weather situation, I usually get an e-mail or call asking me to help them understand what they might have done wrong. This archive allows me to go back in time and pull out most of the weather reports and forecasts which usually illustrates what they might have missed. Makes for a great training opportunity. Also, allows me to build great scenarios for my live workshops.

    • Maybe I’m basically a coward, but If the weather is questionable and there are a lot of “maybes” in the forecast, I choose the more conservative option of alternate transportation. Guess I wouldn’t make a good “freight dog,” but since I never wanted to be one anyway, that doesn’t bother me. There is the old saw about “old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.” My white hair tells one quickly which category I am in. 🙂

      • John,

        Agreed. In some flights where there are a lot of variables that must all come together, it’s wise to be a little cautious. For this proposed flight (to Minneapolis), there’s wasn’t such a situation. No en route advisories for IFR conditions and an improving weather situation including clear skies along a more southerly route.

  • Schaps,

    You are missing the point. This is the risk one takes to get on a public forum trying to add value to the discussion…you get side-tracked from the original intent of the post. I knew the answer in about 15 minutes of time. The rest of the time was being *careful* to post my analysis in a way that’s understandable and somewhat complete. Anyone who knows me, understands that I have an incredible consideration for details. I also had to retrieve the data from the archives and spend some time organizing the information. Several of the charts in my normal archives were corrupt, so I had to spend some time looking those up. I apologize for being careful and complete. But that’s just me. Some folks think that’s refreshing, but it appears that not all folks do. I guess you can’t please everyone.

    Yes, I pulled more data than was presented in the original post. I presume that ANY pilot that makes this flight would have had access to this data prior to the flight (certainly mostly of it would have been presented on a standard briefing from FSS or via DUATs). The author did not provide enough of the basic weather guidance to make an informed decision…so I added value by providing a more complete picture making it more realistic. Again, I apologize for trying to add value.

    • Scott,

      Thanks for your contribution here–your perspective is a great addition.

      Part of the “game” we like to play with these scenarios is to present only the basic weather info and see what details might be hidden. This flight is an example. To a new pilot, you could easily look at those METARs and say “I’m staying home.”

      But you and I both agree that this is a very doable trip–especially if you’re willing to think about not going direct. I hope one thing pilots can learn from these articles is to ask the right questions.

      • John,

        Thanks. There is a lot to learn. In my job, I get to talk to a fair number of pilots that really struggle with these decisions. Most of them “chicken out” many of their proposed flights, not because of bad weather, but because they don’t understand how to integrate all the weather reports and forecasts to make an informed decision. That’s scary. It’s that same ignorance that will lead them to eventually launch into a weather they never saw coming. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  • 1. Scott clearly states in his defence that ,
    “The author did not provide enough of the basic weather guidance to make an informed decision”. Given this admission that it required a meteorologist with the savvy and experience to access further information in order to provide ” a more complete picture making it more realistic.”, I suggest that Mr Zimmerman restate the rules of his “game” so that we ( his audience ) may be allowed to elaborate upon both the minimal data provided and make assumptions beyond that provided ( as here – both a VFR only pilot and a minimally capable aircraft. ).
    2. The original post clearly shows a direct route. I assumed ( given the data as presented) that we were being asked to make a decision based upon that routing and with the limitations of both air-man and air-craft.
    If in fact I can now choose any route and assume capabilities above and beyond that presented in the scenario, then certainly I would be able to make the trip in my high speed all weather jet aircraft in under an hour ( cruising at 330 kts true ) and be back the same evening.
    That assumption obviously defeats the purpose of this exercise and reduces it to entertainment value alone.
    Ultimately, it should not ( and for me does not )require the depth of knowledge of a NWS meteorologist to make a “go” or “no-go” decision when planning a flight. Those of you who rely upon your aircraft for business and/or employment may need to avail yourselves of meteorological expertise and additional workshops ( as advertised here by Scott), but I do not..

    • I’m not assuming any other aircraft or pilot abilities here. I would go with only the information presented. Scott points out there is obviously more data to look at. Even better, but I don’t think it’s required.

      The route piece of this is interesting though. The mission is Milwaukee to Minneapolis, and so many of us quickly get locked into direct. That narrows the options. Taking a less direct route is ALWAYS an option.

    • To me it seems like you are being defensive about your decision.

      I for one was also locked into going direct and made use of only the data presented. In real life I make use of a number of weather products, but as I said, I was locked into going direct.

      The presentation of an alternate route was a good thought exercise and hopefully one I will think through in future flights, when going direct does not look to be the “best” option.

      Thanks for the many thought exercises this forum is providing for us VFR pilots.

  • This isn’t a game…it’s an educational discussion. Part of the challenge I have as an instructor is to determine what my students are missing. That has to be part of this exercise as John stated clearly. He’s posing realistic situations and pilots tend to miss the obvious sometimes. It’s not an attempt to jam down your throat, “you are going direct.” Think outside of the box. That’s what good pilots do.

    Yes, I have training in meteorology. That’s my current full time job. I’m a CFI and expert in aviation weather. So, yes, I have archives saved on my server that I can access. Who cares? This is the information that EVERY pilot would have access to if they were making such as decision with a simple briefing from FSS prior to this flight. I hope no pilot would ever make such a decision with the limited data posted by the author. Pilots should have asked questions like, “what did the area forecast look like?” Or “were there any AIRMETs issued?” “How about pilot reports?” That’s where the discussion should have went. I simply filled in some of those blanks. Perhaps this was more of an exercise of “what’s missing.”

  • FYI there is now ( 22:26 Z ) an airmet for icing ( surface to 8000 msl) throughout the entire route proposed in the original post .

    • Should have been more clear: date is 3/14. Airmet for ice that day over a sliver of the route, but starting at 6000 ft.

      It’s interesting–as we’ve done these scenarios, we’ve had complaints that we present both too much and too little info. Some people want a radar picture only; others aren’t happy unless we have 20 Skew-t diagrams. Just shows how different pilots approach the same task differently.

      • John,

        Of course, the FAA rules mandate that we consider ALL of the available weather reports and forecasts before attempting any cross country flight. Pilot weather reports and forecasts such as AIRMETs and the area forecast should always be part of that data.

        When I present these kinds of scenarios in my live workshops, I try to present the basic FSS briefing elements as a basis for discussion. Even with this information, pilots tend to miss certain key elements due to the nature and limitations of the weather reports and forecasts they are using. I then bring in ancillary guidance (such as Skew-Ts) that really help to paint a more complete picture. There are lots of these other products that can provide guidance with a higher temporal and spatial resolution than the basic stuff from a standard briefing. And it doesn’t take a meteorologist to learn how to use these tools. It just takes some training.

      • John,

        Ignore the populous and keep up the good work. I enjoy this. I do a lot of what if planning, maybe to the point of being a nutcase, but I am always willing to learn.

        Keep posing what if’s for us!

  • Sorry, I only got as far as the criticism and ‘discussion’ of such it that followed.

    Scott, I for one appreciate your efforts and I very well imagine most others do also … at the very least you’re making us think about weather & forecasts & various weather sources, the in itself adds value.

  • (I fly this corridor regularly VFR)

    I’d be on the fence: my personal minimum is 3000′ ceiling, and a few hours delay will put us into that nasty weather that’s coming. I expect the weather at the marginal airports to turn worse over time, and know the TAFs at the big airports don’t necessarily cover the weather for the airports in between.

    If I were going up and back today, I might try it solo, since I’d just be inconveniencing myself if I had to stop along the way.

    Since I’d be taking my daughter, I’d be inclined to go commercial: heavy snow is no fun at a remote airport.

    Since the return is scheduled for tomorrow, and since it looks like the heavy snow will move in between midnight and noon tomorrow, I don’t expect the weather to be VFR any time the morning of the 15th.

    You -might- get there, but that’s definitely not a fun way to travel.

    • Sean, I know that the return flight the following morning had a few more issues, but I think the initial leg would have definitely met your minimums. In fact, a good portion of the flight would have been made in clear skies.

  • The trip would be a no go for me because of the return leg the next morning.

    The first leg I would do given that I would be by myself (I’m comfortable with the ceilings enroute, but from experience I know that many passengers aren’t, and I wouldn’t want the additional distraction/worry of uncomfortable passengers).

    My main concern on the return leg is the forecast for FZRA, relatively low ceilings and visibility, and the later transition to BR (which may result in airframe icing at the lower temps aloft, or if the forecast is worse than expected. There’s little margin for error, and icing is a definite no go for me. Not to mention the other pressures of having family on board, potentially disappointing family and the get-there-itis (wedding).

  • I’d get in the car and drive… The weather looks marginal at best, and there are far too many chances for “get-there-itis” to kick in. Get the instrument rating, and a 182 with di-icing… then I might give it a go. 2+ hours of scud running doesn’t sound like a good idea to me…

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