Go or No Go: VFR under the ice?

Today you’re not the one flying the trip – a friend who is a relatively low time pilot has called and asked for your advice. Your friend is returning from visiting family in Minnesota, and planning a flight from Brainerd Lakes Regional (BRD) to his home airport of Des Moines, Iowa (DSM). The flight will take just under two and a half hours in his 1977 Cessna 182, which has a good autopilot, Garmin 530W and XM Weather. He has 400 hours total time, but with no instrument rating this will have to be done VFR. That may be a problem, because the sky is solid overcast.

You pull out your iPad and review the weather below. Proposed departure is at 2100Z. What’s your advice for your friend – go or no go?

Overview

There is plenty of weather south of the route of flight, with some heavy snow in Missouri, but the first look doesn’t look too bad through Minnesota and Iowa.

GNG route map

The surface weather analysis shows that weather system to the south, and a weak low to the west.

GNG surface

The 12 and 24-hour forecast charts show that big system sliding east, but it shouldn’t directly impact the flight.

GNG 12 hour forecast

GNG 24 hour forecast

Radar and Satellite

Next up is a look at the radar and satellite pictures. Radar shows that snow to the south, but nothing between Brainerd and Des Moines yet.

GNG radar

The visible satellite shows solid clouds all throughout the Upper Midwest.

GNG visible satellite

The infrared satellite image suggests the clouds aren’t that thick, but it doesn’t matter much for your friend, since he’s VFR.

GNG infrared satellite

AIRMETs and PIREPs

The first concern today is ceilings and visibility. There’s a small AIRMET for IFR conditions near your departure that needs more study, but nothing closer toward Des Moines.

GNG vis airmets

PIREPs don’t shed much light on the low level weather.

GNG pirep weather

In-flight icing is always a concern, so you look at the AIRMET for icing. It shows plenty of it to the south, from 4000 ft into the flight levels.

GNG ice airmets

PIREPs back up the threat for icing, but all of them are for 4000 ft. and above. It looks like VFR below the clouds is ice-free.

GNG ice pireps

Turbulence AIRMETs are all for high altitudes, suggesting a low level flight might not be too bumpy.

GNG turbulence airmet

Text Weather

The key today is whether your friend can safely and comfortably stay below the clouds, since there are no holes in the overcast and plenty of ice up there. Is a flight at, say 2500 ft, possible? You look at the METARs and TAFs along the route.

The departure airport doesn’t look great. The ceiling is actually much better than forecast, but visibility is right on the edge.

GNG departure text

It looks like conditions improve rapidly as you fly south. Two en route airports are showing pretty good VFR.

GNG en route text

At the destination, weather is good VFR, as all the clouds are high level.

GNG destination text

Decision Time

You’ve reviewed the weather; now it’s time to share your advice. Weather is marginal at the departure airport, but it’s not bad at the destination. What do you tell your friend? Go or no go? Add a comment below.

19 Comments

  • My advice to the friend is two-part:

    1. Wait a couple hours to see if the visibility at the departure airport improves. With low visibility the risk, in my opinion, is too great to attempt the trip.

    2. If visibility improves at the departure airport, to say 10 SM, and everything is holding steady or improving then fly about half-way to the planned destination by making a stop at one of the enroute airports reporting good weather. At that point reassess the weather conditions on the ground for the final half of the planned trip. If conditions are deteriorating then get a hotel. If conditions are improved the trip may be safe to make.

    The big CAVEAT here is terrain. I’m not familiar with this area and this would be a major item to address if flying low under cloud cover. You need at least a couple thousand feet between you and the nearest terrain, again in my personal opinion.

  • No, I wouldn’t feel comfortable scud running out of BRD, which would be the only option, at VFR minimums with a low time VFR only pilot. – SE/ME IFR Comm Pilot.

  • I’d tell him to wait because:

    1. 3SM in -SN can easily become 1SM in -SN and probably will in spots.

    2. Hard to scud avoid towers when you can’t see.

    If he/she is ballzy, they could try it, but 3SM visibility can be scary for a low-time VFR pilot. 1SM is down right frightening.

    I’d tell him to wait until the snow moves past. If it doesn’t, then tomorrow morning looks like a no-brainer.

  • Giving friends go/no-go advice can be very challenging. I find it easier to do if I know the pilot well, understand their skills and comfort, especially in marginal weather. Has he/she been working on an instrument rating? Do they know their airplane really well? All those factors would go into whether I’d recommend taking off VFR in the somewhat marginal conditions at KBRD.

    So, given that we don’t know more details about the pilot than what’s written …

    – I’d recommend that he first check the weather at KLXL. If it’s good VFR there and it continues to the south, then if he’s OK with the 3sm visibility on takeoff, I think he could go. He’d only be in low visibility for a few minutes.
    – If he’s not comfortable with the 3sm, then he should wait to see if the visibility picks up to what’s forecast.
    – Assuming OK weather at KLXL, I’d also suggest that he alter his route to go over KLXL (avoiding the class D at KRYM). He’d be heading toward better weather and should the visibility not improve or he’s uncomfortable, he’d have an out at KLXL.
    – And after KLXL, depending on how well the weather improved, swing back to KSTC or continue direct to destination from there.

  • For pilots with those credentials wanting to fly that aircraft on that route at that time, my advice would be similar to Mickey Rourke advising his former lawyer (William Hurt) on whether to utilize the bomb he’s building to kill his lover’s husband in the classic movie “Body Heat,” Don’t do it Counselor! There are a hundred things that can go wrong, and if you think of half of them, you’re a genius, and you’re no f#%^*¥ing genius!

    Pilots who crash in bad weather are typically buried three days later in the sunshine! Best to wait for better conditions!

    Gravity always wins!

  • Absolutely not. Hell, I am not sure I would go IFR in these conditions … Stay another day and enjoy what the city has to offer… Live longer that is.

  • Nope. I would advise to cancel. The problem with having him wait for a non-existent improvement is that as time goes by the pressure to depart increases.

  • I’m with the consensus here; I would recommended against the departure at that time. As someone said, 3SM in snow can turn into 1SM in snow, and you won’t even see it coming.

    Also, with the knowledge that fairer weather is just to the south, the overwhelming temptation (for me at least) would be to push on even if the wx immediately after takeoff was worse than forecast.

    3SM, assuming the forecast is accurate is bad enough, but Id say there’s no margin if the forecast is off.

  • Sooooo . . . The WX is better to the South and we probably don’t want to delay because it’s going to be dark after 5:30 CST. If the pilot is flexible, would you guys go along with sending him up for a trip around the pattern at Brainard to see how things are looking? If that looks good, and he has 3-4 miles, he can hopscotch down to St. Cloud. If he gets up and doesn’t have 3 miles, he can land. 400 hours is enough to be able to make that decision.

  • I have a rule that I won’t give other pilots advice whether to go. Period. Even when I was instructing, I didn’t advise my students to go. I would advise them not to go, if I felt it was warranted. But a big chunk of being PIC is making decisions, and if they are hard to make on the ground, they are even harder to make in the air. With marginal weather to begin with, if it becomes worse, the pilot will have to make the decision–he can’t call me or anyone else and ask, “should I?” So the best advice that I can give a pilot who asks me, “should I go?” is “if you are unsure enough that you need my advice, then today is not a good day for you to be PIC.”

    Cary

  • Cary, the ink is still wet on my ppl. Several times im training I asked my instructor go or no go For weather. he pretty much gave me the same attitude. Didnt realize what he was doing until I read your post.

    My instructor also took me up one day when the vis and ceilings we vfr min. Very good experience, I learned I don’t ever need to fly anywhere that bad.

    I say no go, wait for better weather.

  • I believe that there is a very high probabilty that this trip can be completed safely with the given parameters. His plane is well equipped and he is moving toward improving conditions over a route that is not particulary mountainous. The ceilings should allow him a safe margin over obstacles along his route though it may not be as much margin as he might prefer. I do like the idea noted above that he take a few circuits around the pattern to see how he feels about the visibility situation. With 400 flight hours and assuming that he understands his plane well he is not a rookie pilot and should be able to make a reasonable decision. Now if his 400 hours have been mostly non-cross country and only on the most pretty of days, and if he has not been a good student of the craft of being a pilot, then maybe we have a different situation… but assuming that not to be the case this trip seems reasonable. He should definitely check a few more reporting stations along the way to verify current and expected conditions along the route and should have a diversion plan should things become worse than expected. If he is going to go he should depart in the next 60-90 minutes to ensure arrival before nightfall just to remove that element of risk. I would also highly recommend that he utilize flight following to further minimize the risk.
    Its one of those things where yes you can stay home and live to fly another day…. but if you make those decisions every time its not perfect conditions then you never grow as a pilot. Ultimately he is going to have to make that call, not me. He also ought to thing about spending the money to obtain his IFR rating… He is going to get a heck of a lot more utility out of his 182 once he gets that done and if he can afford a 182 with a 530 Garmin and XM weather then he can afford a few thousand to become instrument rated.

    • I CONCUR. ALL 400 HR PILOTS ARE NOT THE SAME. 400 HRS OF CLEAR DAY HAMBURGER HOPS VS. 300 HR LONG CROSS COUNTRY TIME IN VARIOUS CONDITIONS, SOME PREDICTED AND UNPREDICTED CAN STRETCH YOUR YOUR PILOTING SKILLS. I HAVE ABOUT THIS MUCH TIME AND AM VFR. I HAVE THE LATTER EXPERIENCE AND WOULD ATTEMPT THIS WITHOUT PASSENGERS. I WOULD START OUT WITH A TRIP AROUND THE PATTERN, A LIST OF ATIS/AWOS FREQUENCIES ALONG THE ROUTE, AND HAVE FLIGHT FOLLOWING. I WOULD LAYOUT MY ROUTE TO AVOID ALL HARD TO SEE OBSTACLES LIKE TOWERS AND OVER AS MANY AIRPORTS AS POSSIBLE TO GIVE ME THE MOST OPTIONS. IF VISIBLILITY IS LESS THAN 3 AT ANYTIME I AM LANDING.

  • As retired pilot from DSM area. The pilot said he was not familiar

    with flight area. Between Ames and south to Des Moines their several

    antenna towers some reaching 2,000 ft. AGL. A no-go for certain.

  • Firstly, as others wrote, I would never give advice to another pilot to “go”, though I emphatically would advise “no go” if there was any question at all. So I’ll treat this as my own personal go/no go decision.

    Secondly, I like the advice of some commenters above, to watch and wait awhile to see if and how the visibility trends at the departure airport and a couple others nearby along the route. If the trend is positive (say 4 mi and increasing), it should not be a problem to go, given the good Wx along most of the route including the destination. If vis stays at three, which is too marginal given the cloud deck altitude, the pilot should wait for another day.

    If the pilot is both legal (the post didn’t say if passengers are along) and comfortable with night flight, and if the Garmin 530W has a current obstacles database to steer around any high towers along the route, and if the vis trend is improving, I would be inclined to go given all the other info made available. Since the destination is the pilot’s home airport he’s obviously very familiar with it which is important for an arrival after dark … flying VFR at night to an unfamiliar destination airport would be a very different matter.

  • Reviewing the Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) altitudes on the sectional for that area of the country, there is not much margin for error scud running at 2500 feet in marginal vis just to the west of your intended flight path. However, that may not be necessary. With the weather much better at ST Cloud, just to the south, a decent plan would be a departure too the SE until the vis improves. This flight can be conducted safely, but it depends on the pilot flying the airplane. If the friend was a sharp pilot with good instrument flying skills (just in case the snow got worse), I wouldn’t discourage him from going. Of course a sharp pilot probably wouldn’t have needed to call me for advice. — Don W.

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