5 key flying lessons – some things that had to be learned the hard way

You can’t say “been there, done that” until you have actually been there and done that. Then you should be able to add “and learned that.” The alternative is for someone else to check the “Gotcha” box for you. In my experience, all this is especially pertinent in light (under 6,000 pounds) airplane flying.

In the beginning there are many unknowns up ahead. When we fly up on something that we have never seen before, or experienced, there is a big challenge at hand. We might have theoretical knowledge, or have had a bout with it in a simulator, but when the chips are down only the real thing matters. The grade comes on how well the challenge is met and what lessons are learned along the way.

I think that most lessons to be learned relate to weather, especially for a pilot who uses an airplane for transportation. There are other challenges, for sure, but fortunately they are relatively rare. Engines do quit and systems fail and avionics sizzle and fade, but weather is out there to challenge a pilot on far more flights than those other misadventures.

Unfortunately some pilots grade themselves on weather with the thought that, “I made it so I must have done okay.” Then they give it no further thought. Those who wish to keep on “making it” delve more deeply into the subject. In fact, I don’t think a pilot can ever really say “been there, done that and learned that” in relation to many things in flying, especially weather, because nothing is a stationary target.

I consider my weather education to have lasted for 57 years. Actually maybe longer because, since I hung up my headset in 2008, I have continued to vicariously fly trips whenever the weather is bad.

Let’s look at some logbook lessons that helped greatly in subsequent encounters with the elements.

Thunderstorms

thunderstorm cloud
Thunderstorms can look benign from the trailing side, but the leading edge has plenty of power.

There is enough to say about thunderstorms and airplanes that I wrote a whole book with that title. Here I’ll tell you about my introduction to the big T and a few key things I learned since.

In the late 1950s, there was little radar coverage either by weather or air traffic control radar. The only way you could tell for sure there was a thunderstorm was when one was reported by a weather station. Those were few and far between with no reports along my Fort Smith to Little Rock, Arkansas, route.

Forecasters would use information from upper air soundings, plotted on a Skew-T Log-P chart, to alert pilots to the possibility of thunderstorm development. Guesses, in other words.

At this point, my experience with storms was limited. I flew IFR a lot in my Piper Pacer, but when storms were about I would go VFR or not at all. When I worked at a USAF contract flight school, I heard some of the instructors talk about flying into storms intentionally in the T-6Gs used at the school. Likewise, when I was in the Army and pilots there were just beginning to sample instrument flying, I heard talk of intentional thunderstorm penetrations in L-23s (Twin Bonanzas).

Whether all this was bar talk or straight scoop, I knew not but there was general agreement that thunderstorms did not disappoint.

My flight was eastbound, in a Twin Bonanza, one of the most robust general aviation airplanes ever built. The sky ahead became dark, the rain started, and the turbulence set in. At first I thought it wasn’t so bad. Then the sky got darker, the rain heavier and the turbulence more enthusiastic. I don’t remember seeing any lightning while in the clouds, but I did smell the ozone, a nice odor anywhere but in an airplane.

After the flight I decided that while the turbulence was manageable, the whole package was pretty bad. The noise and view of the extremely heavy rain hitting the windshield was distracting as all get out. So was the screeching in the radios. The rain water dripping on my left leg was an annoyance. Most of all, the thought that I had no clue about whether it would continue to get worse was particularly unsettling. In short, it was a mind game. All I knew for sure was that I had to keep the airplane under control.

Paint was knocked off the leading edges, I think the fine man I worked for had some misgivings (and some Jack Daniel’s to help deal with them) and I was convinced that it was not something I ever wanted to do again.

ADS-B radar
Modern datalink radar does help a lot, but it’s not a miracle cure.

I had never thought about the fact that a storm would look more benign from the trailing side or that it would get worse as you flew from the back to the front of the storm. That was a lesson learned and one I contemplated many times in the future.

In subsequent years, I flew a lot in tornado country and had excellent views of some fearsome storms. I even saw and photographed two developing tornadoes, one of which developed fully and blew a small town to smithereens. I was doing weather photography so was actually looking for bad stuff.

I’ll give you some ideas that I developed along the way.

If severe weather is forecast, or if the actual weather looks severe, it is best to stay out of all clouds associated with the severe weather. The guidelines for staying so many miles away from precipitation just don’t work here. All clouds associated with severe weather are terrible places to be, especially in light airplanes.

Beware wispy clouds in the vicinity of thunderstorms, even well away from precipitation. These can be signs of greatly disturbed air. This is also true in frontal zones where the disturbances are milder but still enthusiastic.

Learn to visualize the flow into and out of thunderstorms. This can help avoid wind shear encounters.

If you come upon a broken line of garden-variety thunderstorms, don’t expect a smooth ride through even well clear of any precipitation. The disturbance that is causing the broken line to develop will be present to some extent all along the line even though storms don’t come to maturity all along the line.

Toward the conclusion of my flying, I always looked in wonder at all the weather information on my instrument panel. Between Nexrad and the latest and greatest vertical profile radar from Bendix/King, I no longer flew along in clouds wondering if the next bump was going to a really big one.

Even with all that good equipment, though, I never forgot the basics which had served me for many years. With or without the equipment I never flew through another thunderstorm. I did fly around them and under them many times and had plenty of wet and bumpy rides caused by factors other than storms, but I had learned a lesson from that first encounter. I had been there, done that, and learned that I didn’t want to do it again.

Fog

My first real encounter with fog was while flying a Piper Apache at night in the late 1950s. Fog was not forecast until later but the controller mentioned when I was an hour away that my destination was fogged in.

There were two of us, each flying an Apache with three passengers, bringing a group home from a meeting. I was trailing the other airplane which was flown by a far more experienced pilot. I thought my work would be simple. Just follow him and do what he did.

Fog on runway
The problem with fog is you don’t realize how bad it is until you’re on the runway.

Even though the weather was virtually zero-zero, he landed. Like an obedient servant, I followed.

The Apache did not have a glideslope and I flew the localizer. At the middle marker I was just at the tops of the fog and I set up a gentle descent and was determined to be steady and let the airplane continue tracking the localizer until I saw something. I had enough sense not to turn on the landing lights and when I picked up a couple of runway lights to my left I landed the Apache. Taxiing in was difficult in the low visibility.

It wasn’t until later that I thought about the fact that the runway lights I saw to my left could have easily been ones on the right side of the runway in which case I would have landed in the weeds.

It didn’t take long or much sense to realize what a dumb thing I had done. The other pilot was an old aviator who often told us young pups that he had more time sitting in crack-ups waiting for help than we had total time. Instead of admiring his bravado, I should have questioned why he had so many crack-ups. In retrospect, I thought I knew and later he had his last one.

The only time I ever did a similar thing was years later, in a British Airways Boeing 757 simulator. I hand flew a low visibility landing in that, it looked a lot like it did in the Apache, and I must say that the head-up display made it easier but not by much.

I never messed with real fog again. If the weather was reported as below minimums, I might take a look and I might not. But I had learned never to go below a published minimum altitude until I had the proper things in sight.

Ice

Ice has always been a hot topic among instrument pilots and vast fortunes have been spent on ice-protection gear. When it became available, I bought it for my P210 and flew with it for 28 years, perhaps because I had had two notable encounters in unprotected airplanes. One should have been enough.

The first bad ice was in a Piper Comanche. The weather briefer had said there should be an ice-free altitude, but I couldn’t find it and I flew along for a bit too long before deciding that I had best get this popsicle on the ground.

P210 boots with ice
Boots are nice, but you should avoid ice whether you have de-ice equipment or not.

This was in the early ‘60s so I hadn’t been flying for too long but I had heard all the stories and the one I remembered about ice was to fly fast on the approach and leave the flaps up. I did, I used a lot of the long runway, and, with my family, spent New Year’s Eve in one of the first (if not the first) Holiday Inns near Memphis airport. We were glad to be there.

There was a developing low pressure system south of the route and that is a classic setup for ice in that part of the country. The low brings moisture up from the Gulf, there is lifting, and presto, when that mixes with the cold air north of the low all Hell freezes over. The wings, too.

I have told the story of the next one, in my Cardinal RG, many times. Simply put, I again got suckered in by the possibility of an ice-free altitude and a weather map that should have warned me off. There were several weak lows shown and where I did know that several weak lows usually turn into one strong low, I didn’t know when this would happen until it did, just south of my route as I flew along in the dark sky. I got to fly another one of those fast approaches with the flaps up and use a lot of a long runway. Of the two airplanes, the Comanche did best with the high speed touchdown. It was smooth where the little tires of the Cardinal RG shook and rattled but at least they rolled.

Another lesson from the Cardinal encounter was that you can’t see the worst of the ice in that airplane because it is atop the wing, back a bit from the leading edge. You have to judge the effect by the sluggishness of the airplane.

I flew my P210 with approved ice protection for those 28 years and almost 9,000 hours. I flew with it as if in an unprotected airplane, always trying to minimize ice accumulation. I did use the ice gear many times but can honestly say that it never enabled the completion of a flight that would not have been possible without the equipment. It did lower the pucker factor enough to justify the cost, though.

Wind

I suppose there are guidelines to use on wind and most flight schools prescribe wind limits, especially for student solo. I have always read these when they were posted or otherwise available and the way some were written implied that if you had an instructor along, there was no limitation on wind. There is.

Surface wind forecasts seldom call for gusts of over 35 knots in anything other than a storm situation. The wind that we deal with before and after the passage of a typical front is usually forecast at a maximum of 35 knots and that is not above the practical wind limit of most light airplanes so long as the pilot is proficient at dealing with wind.

Windsock
The pilot is usually the limiting factor in high winds, not the airplane.

Most airplane handbooks give a maximum demonstrated crosswind which is not a limitation. The real crosswind limitation is based on the airplane and the proficiency level of the pilot. The airplane reaches its limit when there is not enough control authority to manage the crosswind. The pilot reaches his limit when he realizes that he isn’t sure of what he is doing.

I flew tailwheel airplanes in most normal wind conditions and never had a problem. After watching ground personnel wing walk a Cessna 182 to the ramp after a windy landing one day in Dallas, I did leave my Piper Pacer in the hangar until the wind subsided.

When I got to Olathe, Kansas, one windy day in my Skyhawk, the gusts were over 40. The taxiing was a challenge and a couple of times I had to just let the airplane turn into the wind and wait for a lull. I was visiting King Radio that day and when I got to their hangar they had the door open for me to taxi in. I was relieved.

In my P210 I saw what I thought was close to a limit one day in Tulsa, to the east of a strong low and front. Reported gusts were to 48 knots. There was strong wind shear on final and taxiing was a challenge but not a problem. At the ramp the airplane was seemingly dancing around and the line crew didn’t want to pump gas into it but when I said I would do it, they did it.

Wind shear has been a bigger problem for heavy airplanes than for light airplanes but it can still have an effect on how our airplane behaves.

We most often see wind shear when changing altitude and encountering a different wind at a different level. It is also present where the wind is shifting, as in a frontal zone, or flowing into and out of a thunderstorm.

Basically, if you have an increasing headwind or decreasing tailwind, the airplane will perform better until it adjusts to the new wind. A decreasing headwind or increasing tailwind will do the opposite.

Back in the good old days we had to visualize and imagine how wind shear would affect, for example, an instrument approach. GPS changed all that. All a pilot has to do is look at the existing wind before starting down on approach and compare that with the surface wind and the amount and type of wind shear is obvious.

Crosswind landing
Sometimes you have to wave the white flag.

Nobody knows the exact altitude range over which the wind will change on an approach but in my experience, with shear of 20 knots or less, I have found that the wind usually starts to adjust at about 500 feet a.g.l. and finishes at about 200 feet.

Wind makes turbulence and putting a limit on this is related to comfort. If anybody, pilot or passenger, is truly uncomfortable in anything more than light to moderate turbulence, a light airplane can become an unpleasant place to be.

In rough terrain, visualizing the flow of wind over the terrain can help keep things on a more even keel. Asheville, North Carolina, is in the roughest terrain in the eastern U.S. I flew there often for a long time and could slip in and out on the windiest of days with an acceptable rough ride and no problems from downdrafts because, well, I knew from experience where the bumps are and followed a route that minimized them.

One day I was headed for Asheville with the strongest imaginable motivation to get there and came upon a dilemma. Given the strength of the gusts in a developing storm system, and the wind direction, and the pouring rain, I simply could not formulate a good arrival plan. In over 50 years that was the only time I missed AVL because of wind. Low weather sent me to an alternate a few times but not many.

I would hasten to add that I knew my Asheville experience wouldn’t be valid at any other mountainous airport. You have to learn about each the hard way.

The wind lesson? Pick the battles carefully and keep a white flag handy.

Charts, Forecasts and Reports

The proper use of what we used to see on paper and now see on screens is definitely an important part of flying technique and there are many lessons to learn. The key is in separating fact from potential fiction.

The facts in weather information are found in the reports, the current surface charts, and the picture on the weather radar.

Surface chart
The weather “big picture” is the critical first step in planning a flight.

To me the most important scoop has always come from the weather map. For a trip, I wanted to know both where I was going and what sort of sky I would be flying in. The only way to get any idea about the latter was by knowing the location of the highs, lows and fronts in relation to your flight path.

The most important lesson I learned about weather is that what you see and feel is what you get. The reports are for one spot at one location. The radar is for a few minutes ago and the forecasts are guesses. The actual conditions encountered are real.

Years ago, in the publication Aviation Weather, the FAA and what was then called the Weather Bureau, included words on the accuracy of aviation weather forecasts. Apparently this was embarrassing to some because, to my knowledge, it was included in only one edition of the publication. I guess they thought it was dirty linen, not to be aired.

Over the years I have taken great pleasure in airing this dirty linen for them because I think pilots have a right to know. Certainly if you were going to do something adventuresome like have a heart transplant, you would want to know the odds.

I’ll summarize, with the caveat that this was what they found to be true 40 years ago. Forecasting has (hopefully) become better but Mother Nature hasn’t changed.

A forecast of good weather is more likely to be correct than a forecast of bad weather for a period 12 hours in the future.

Three or four hours in advance, a forecast of below VFR conditions is likely accurate about 80-percent of the time.

Forecasts of specific ceiling/visibility values are not likely accurate beyond the first two or three hours of the forecast period.

Forecasts of poor flying conditions are more likely accurate when there is an active weather system in play though the weather associated with a fast moving cold front of squall line is difficult to forecast accurately.

Surface visibility is more difficult to forecast than ceiling height and snow makes visibility forecasting “rather wild guesswork.”

Forecasts of the time rain or snow will begin within plus or minus five hours are accurate 75-percent of the time.

Things that are most difficult to forecast include heavy icing, severe or extreme turbulence, and ceilings of 100 feet or zero before they exist.

Those are some of the high spots. And I think that this reinforces my thought that the best weather flying lesson that I learned over many years is the one about what you see and feel being what you get. Do have a Plan B (and C and D) if what you see and feel doesn’t satisfy.

Remember that, and y’all be careful out there while you learn your lessons.

13 Comments

  • The only time I have waved off due to wind (admittedly I have not been flying nearly as long as Mr. Collins) was going into Truckee, CA. I was flying a relatively new-to-me airplane, an RV8, in which I had about thirty or forty hours. The winds were forty knots gusting to fifty. Truckee has two runways perpendicular to one another and using the smaller of the two gave me a straight headwind, but there’s a cliff or dropoff of sorts off the approach end. I made one high approach to test the waters, but imagining how the wind came down off that little cliff thingy made me think of Sedona and downdrafts. I had had a hard enough time just getting to Truckee, with downdrafts of two thousand feet a minute (yes) close to the first ridge of the Sierras west of Reno. After my second approach I decided enough was enough and headed back west. I wanted to visit my relatives, not die.

  • Mr. Collins, I wanted to thank you for another great article. As a 700 hour pilot, flying my wife and 3 young kids frequently from Cullman AL over the Appalachians to the Tidewater area of Virginia and to the panhandle of Florida in a 210L, the information gained through your books and articles has been invaluable to me. Thank you sir, you are a mentor to me.

    • Dear Stephan: Thanks for the comment. It is always good to hear from you. As for the Jack, my knowledge comes from careful study of the label.

      • So what I hear you saying Richard is that you’re consistent in applying your analysis to all your passions…thanks for all the insight in the article.

  • Have you ever noticed that as the urgency for a flight increases, the chances for a blown forecast also increase?

    As a learning exercise, pick a future date for a virtual flight and track the forecasts up to the planned departure time. At departure time, decide if the flight is a go or no-go. Now fly the virtual flight and see how good a job you did using using NEXRAD, pireps, and METARS along your virtual flight path. Did you make a good decision? Did you miss a critical piece of information? How good was the forecast? With your results in mind, consider what to add or change that will help you make a better decision when the next flight is for real.

  • Mr. Collins is a walking encyclopedia of general aviation knowledge and we are blessed beyond measure for his willingness to share. I’m sure that he would be surprised to see how many of us aviation enthusiasts made the right decisions and avoided death or disability because of his wisdoms shared.

  • The thing about weather and flying, the people who fly cross-country a lot tend to learn by doing the wrong thing. It’s virtually inevitable. The reason is that most people don’t really understand weather or what it can do to a light aircraft until they’ve experienced it first hand. Fog, wind, ice, clouds, rain, turbulence, whatever. All can do you in quite easily.

    Ideally, a pilot will get fairly well scared a few times, enough so as to learn to not put oneself in harm’s way unnecessarily. It’s important, however, to not learn the wrong lesson, i.e., that one concludes (incorrectly) that one can handle what one just (barely) survived.

    Not so ideally, a pilot will just get lucky until one day he/she is no longer lucky, and then that’s it. Or, the pilot concludes that he/she is really a better pilot than they are, until one day they prove the limits of their flying skills when tested by weather.

    Those who fly cross country a lot tend to crack up more often due to weather, as the insurance stats clearly demonstrate. Cross-country flyers tend to fly into and through a lot of variation in weather, over time and distance (meaning, they’re more likely to encounter risky weather fairly frequently). Cross-country flyers, or “transportation flyers”, also tend to suffer from “get-there-itis” which rapidly erodes whatever natural good judgment we may have developed.

    Purely recreational flyers, those who hang out in or near the traffic pattern, and don’t have to be somewhere by time certain, are (statistically speaking) less likely to get in trouble with weather, though they still are not free of risk.

    I knew two of the most experienced, senior flight instructors I ever met, grizzled old veterans and both with professional aviation careers with many tens of thousands of hours in each of their respective logbooks … both of whom died in separate loss of control accidents due to gusty winds, in very light aircraft, in or near the traffic pattern. Both of these fellows would have been wiser to stay on the ground in winds not favorable to maintaining control of their lightweight aircraft.

    So sometimes, even knowing better, and even with limited weather risks to manage, doesn’t mean one will always make the right decision when faced with less than favorable weather. If in doubt – stay on the ground.

  • Thank you so much for checking those boxes for me, Mr. Collins and continuing to write about flying. You always have a new way to inject a fresh angle to the material and every one of your articles both informs and entertains me. You are by far my favortie aviation author because I like to read about HOW TO DO IT!

    Without question, you have taught me most of what I know about instrument flying. I wish you would have been in the cockpit with me to teach the rest.

    In a way, of course, you were.

    I often hear your words, and have most notably burned into my lizard brain:

    Wings Level
    THINK!
    Throttle Off, Gear Down if control in question

    No way I could ever thank you enough.

  • What a phenomenal article. I had a nasty run in with wind back in March and it freaked me out so bad, I literally did not even go close to the airport for almost 2 months. The problem is that I have so many friends in my flying club, they all thought something was wrong. I’m back in the air and better than ever (I’m a pretty low time pilot so that’s not saying much), and articles such as this re-enforce not only my love of aviation but my desire to continuously learn and become the best, safest pilot I can. I’m really glad I stumbled upon this site.

    • Live and learn Dave. We all experience similar scares.

      I doubt that there are many pilots with more than a couple hundred hours of logged time who haven’t had some sort of weather related scare, especially if they fly for transportation and not just local airport flying. The difference between pilots is whether or not they learn from their experiences.

      It’s important that you recognize what it was, weather wise, that got you in trouble, and recognize how in your own mind you overlooked, under-appreciated, or basically ignored the warning signs and the probabilities. Then knowing that, you’ll be better prepared to exercise your own better judgment going forward.

      The most important thing to know about weather risks is that weather doesn’t just “happen” to you or to your airplane. Weather is the real world, and your own ability to understand, predict, and contend with the real world outside your cockpit is the key to managing weather risks. Even though you are not in control of the weather, you are in total control of managing the risk that you willing to face on every flight.

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