Go or No Go: fall cold front

The fall colors are beautiful right now, but as a pilot that means your mind is focused on in-flight icing. As you stare at your iPad in the pilots’ lounge at Rochester, New York, you find yourself wishing for the warm days of summer. Your plan tonight is to fly from your business meeting in Rochester (ROC) to your home outside Columbus, Ohio (OSU). Will the weather cooperate?

You airplane tonight is a 2003 Cirrus SR22 you share with two partners, an airplane you now have 200 hours in. It is well equipped with moving map, WAAS GPSs and a good autopilot, but there is no de-ice system on the airplane. You are instrument rated and current, with 600 hours total time–70 of those in the last six months.

Look at the weather briefing below, then decide if you are going or staying. Departure time is 2330Z.

Overview

The flight will take you southwest out of New York, across the northwestern tip of Pennsylvania and into Ohio. Your time en route is just under two hours in your speedy Cirrus.

AFG route

The surface analysis shows why your iPad screen is covered with green: a cold front is moving into Ohio, with the associated low in southern Ontario.

AFG surface analysis

The 12-hour prognostic chart shows the front slowly moving across your route, with the expected rain showers.

AFG 12 hour

The 24-hour prog chart shows the front beginning to stall just a bit, with some leftover rain developing behind the low.

AFG 24 hour

Radar

There is plenty of green on the map, from departure to destination, but very little looks to be convective. You look at the official NEXRAD image for more detail.

AFGradar

Satellite

A look at the infrared satellite picture confirms the overall picture, and reinforces why you got that instrument rating.

AFG satellite

AIRMETs

There are no SIGMETs for your route of flight, but there are AIRMETs for both icing and turbulence. The turbulence warnings look to be all in the flight levels, far above your cruising altitude.

AFG turb airmet

Ice is a bigger concern today–those gray clouds and colder surface temperatures have your attention, so it’s not surprising to see an AIRMET for icing.

AFG ice airmet

Icing and PIREPs

Given the AIRMET for icing, it’s time to dive deeper into the possibility of ice. First up is a look at the CIP product, a graphical look at current icing conditions–in this case, the probability of ice.

AFG ice forecast

That looks ugly, but you remind yourself that it’s for all altitudes. At your lower cruising altitudes, it might not be as bad, so it’s off to the PIREPs for a look at what’s happening. As forecast, all the icing reports are up high (so far).

AFG icing pireps

While you’re looking at PIREPs, you glance at the ride reports, which seem to be decent so far.

AFG turbulence pireps

Finally, you read the general weather PIREPs for a look at tops and other information. Not much here, other than reports of tops in the mid-teens–probably higher than you want to go tonight.

AFG wx pireps

It’s beginning to look like lower is better for ice, so you review the freezing level graphic. It shows that level between 7000 and 9000 feet for most of the trip–hence the AIRMET for ice above 8000.

AFG freezing level

Using ForeFlight’s Profile tool, you look at an altitude of 6000 ft. In terms of terrain and obstacles, it looks clear.

AFG profile

Text weather

With that overview in mind, it’s time to review METARs and TAFs for the flight. A look at the METARs map along your route shows ceilings around 4000 to 5000 feet ahead of the front, and more like 2500 feet behind the front.

AFG ceiling map

At your departure, the weather is pretty good, with a relatively high ceiling and good visibility. The forecast is for things to get worse as the front moves closer, although the low IFR conditions don’t show up until tomorrow.

AFG ROC text

En route, Chautauqua County is reporting a 4200 foot ceiling and good visibility.

AFG en route metar

Further down the road, Wayne County shows a lower ceiling at 3800 broken, with light rain.

AFG en route 2

At your destination in Columbus, light rain is falling under a scattered layer at 2500 feet. Conditions are forecast to get worse, especially overnight.

AFG OSU text

You decide

It’s time to make the call–blast off for home or ask the FBO to book you a hotel room? While the weather is forecast to get worse, current conditions at both your departure and destination are VFR. There is ice up there tonight, but it looks like you might be below it at 6000 or even 4000. Is the lack of PIREPs a sign of good weather down low or an indication that no one else is flying in this muck?

What would you do?

24 Comments

  • As long as you’re comfortable with single pilot night IFR, go … this is why you got the instrument rating, for weather like this. If there is any personal hesitancy about flying single pilot night IFR, however, get a room in Rochester. The risk level of night IFR is much higher than for daytime IFR (the fatal accident rate is about three times higher).

    The icing levels are relatively high up, allowing significant room above terrain to descend to shed any ice if encountered. If need be, you can make a VFR landing at an alternate airport along the route if the Wx turns out to be worse than forecast (not improbable with a frontal passage). You have to be mentally prepared to change your plans mid-flight given that any frontal passage can go faster or slower than forecast.

    During the flight at cruise altitude, monitor OAT and any icing accumulation, and be prepared to react immediately.

    You don’t provide the approach plates for KOSU here, but the terminal forecast shows that the Wx is likely to be well above RNAV or ILS minima for the expected arrival time.

  • I’d want more temperature information and to look at the temps aloft forecast on each side of that cold front. Showing only 9 degrees at Chautauqua, cruising 6,000 might be a poor decision.

  • Why go at 6? Do the flight at 4000′ feet and you’ll be below the freezing level( above freezing temperture) . The lowest level in ohio is above 5000. This is really the only thing you need to check. You can get ice above below the freezing level.
    You could also try higher and if the ice picks up go back down to 4000′.
    Go.

  • I fly out of KROC and this front, and the one that came through this past weekend, forced me to cancel a trip. Newly rated IFR pilot and my cajones are not big enough to warrant flying though something that

  • This is a very common fall weather situations up in the northeast. It’s early enough in the fall that the temps are reasonably warm down low, so there are lots of outs regarding ice As others have mentioned, doing the flight at 4,000ft instead of 6,000 may keep you out of the clouds and more likely out of the ice.

    A few things in planning:
    – Instead of looking at the total icing forecast from the surface to 30K feet, I like to display the forecast icing at the altitudes that I’ll be likely operating in. The ADDS Icing app is good a that.
    – Pull the forecasts for other airports along the way and some to south of the intended course. That would provide a better picture of what the other outs are along the way.

    On this flight, getting going sooner rather than later will get you further out ahead of the front. With a reasonably capable airplane like the Cirrus and with a qualified and current pilot, this is a very doable flight.

  • If you cancel and don’t go then you live for sure. If you risk it, now matter the options etc. things can go wrong and you die. It happens all the time in small GA. Not worth the risk to me no how and no way. There are old pilots and bold pilots but no old bold pilots. I’ve been flying since I was 14 and I am now 52 with almost 1,800 hours, still here. Although I will admit I have been lucky sometimes and at the end of those flights when you are laying in bed you really wonder why you risked it at all. Maybe I’m getting old and conservative but I have lost enough friends in this “hobby” in my time.

  • No go. I’ve picked up ice well below predicted freezing levels before. I don’t trust those predictions. I don’t go through any kind of precipitation or clouds in the cooler months.

  • So. How would being in a known icing single effect the go-no go decision of those who are waiting out the front passage? For those who made the evening flight would you feel much better FIKI??

    • Great question. To me, FIKI isn’t magic but it would make his an easy go. You have so many outs, if the ice was lower than forecast, a TKS system would probably give you the time to divert.

  • This seems to me to be a trap. Relatively low-time pilot, IFR current, but how much experience (if any) in hard, single-pilot, night IFR? Ice just above you (assuming you go at 6000′ or even 4000′), and with the approaching front, temps and ceilings are dropping. Lack of pireps down low, so you don’t know for sure that it won’t be icy and/or bumpy. A possible case of “get-home-itis” could make matters even worse.

    Safety margins are way too slim for me, but then I’m a big scaredy-cat!

  • Okay, if this is my tenth trip over this route; if I’m not at all tired at 23:30 (never going to happen for me); if my IFR experience is all hard, single pilot and mostly night, and finally I want a Skyhawk or Skylane. They carry ice like a truck and I’m still amazed at how fast ice can build.

  • I would go I think I would fly to the west of the front and come in from the north or fly east of the front which every is better Weather.

  • Regarding what to do if ice is encountered at whatever altitude the pilot is assigned by ATC, there is an interesting real pilot story posted on AOPA.org this week about a pilot who encountered icing and declined to declare an emergency to ATC.

    The pilot (obviously) survived the encounter, but only just barely (he had about an inch and a half accumulation on the windscreen of his C-182). He would have been much better off had he declared an emergency to ATC and landed at the first available airport after he started to pick up ice. The pilot was also worried that he didn’t have approach plates for the unintended nearest airport immediately at hand, so he kept on going toward his planned destination.

    The bottom line lesson learned, as provided in the AOPA video, is that any time a pilot of a non-FIKI aircraft picks up any ice at all in an IFR flight, he should immediately declare an emergency.

    Declaring an emergency provides immediate pilot authority to do whatever makes most sense – be it make a 180, descend, climb, or make a precautionary landing at the first available airport. ATC will clear out all the other traffic in the area and altitude. In moderate to severe icing conditions, you may have only a few minutes in which to put the airplane into a safe condition. Waiting around for ATC (without declaring an emergency) to give you a change in altitude or direction may eat up your entire margin of safety.

    Repeat – if you encounter icing in a non-FIKI aircraft in IFR flight, immediately declare an emergency to ATC.

    If you don’t have approach plates immediately at hand for an unplanned alternate airport, don’t worry – as long as there is radar coverage, ATC can provide radar vectors to any airport with an approved instrument approach.

  • Considering Ice condition night flying rain single engine plane and possible weather conditions getting worse my decision will be no go and leave flight for next day regardless I could may have to leave late afternoon.

  • Unless I missed it, no mention was made of night currency which needs to include more than just night landings. Our hero needs to be well versed with enroute diversions, quickly finding pilot controlled lighting frequencies at appropriate alternate airports while flying an IAP in black night conditions while possibly dealing with any aircraft malfunctions that might occur. Doesn’t sound like fun to me. This 46 year pilot with over 17,000 hours wouldn’t try it at night in a non-fiki single engine airplane. As my wife would say,”it’s not if we can do it, it’s if we should do it”.

  • Call me a “fair weather pilot”, I would not go on a night flight, in a non-FIKI aircraft into possible icing conditions.
    I am reminded of the rule for go/no go decision making, my CFI imparted to me back in 1969,
    “You never HAVE TO FLY, if you HAVE to be be somewhere at an absolute time, take an airliner!

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