Down the rabbit hole – scud running through Central Oregon

The skies from Wenatchee, Washington, to Hemet, California, were unexpectedly blue for a thousand miles north to south. It was early March. I was tired of winter in Wenatchee (in central Washington), and fired up my vintage Long-EZ and headed south, VFR at 11,500. Aided by a 20-knot tailwind, I was on the ground at Hemet, east of Los Angeles, in six hours, with only a brief comfort stop east of Reno. Other than some exciting turbulence descending through Cajon Pass into the Los Angeles Basin, due to the strong north winds funneling through the pass, it was a smooth and enjoyable flight.

After ten days visiting, I decided to try to head north and return home. During my visit, winter returned to the northern half of my route. A procession of fronts marched in, obliterating any VFR return possibilities. Then, I saw on the forecasts that a brief window north might be opening on the following day. I left Lancaster early, taking a route going up central California, then east of Mt. Shasta and up the east side of the Cascades since it looked most likely to succeed. I told my relatives I might be back five hours later, if I couldn’t get out of northern California around Mt. Shasta. AIRMETs for mountain obscuration bordered my route, but didn’t appear to block it. The area and terminal forecasts were VFR all the way.

EZ over mountains
A fun way to travel, but only when Mother Nature cooperates.

A reasonably straight road, US Highway 97, tracks between Klamath Falls and Bend, Oregon, through a broad, flat valley. I knew from previous bad experience that this part of the route could be obscured in winter even though conditions north and south were still VFR. There is high terrain both east and west of the route between Chemult and Sunriver which can suck snow and obscuration into the flight path while points north and south on the route are fine. Yamsay Mountain, Bald Mountain, and Paulina Peak can lurk hidden in scud to the east of the road. And that’s exactly what I found this time.

My first leg from Lancaster (Fox Field) to Klamath Falls went smoothly. As I came up the Sacramento Valley at 8500 MSL, Mount Shasta was visible up to about the 12,000 foot MSL level. Around Mt Shasta, turbulence was light. Klamath Falls was 4500 AGL broken to overcast, with higher overcast layers. Conditions seemed promising for continuing from Klamath Falls to Wenatchee, given the morning forecast, and what I could see ahead. McMinnville Radio told me that my route north looked good on the satellite, and Bend, ahead, was even more open than Klamath Falls. I was pumped to continue, knowing that the eastward march of Pacific cold fronts would be closing the door north in a few hours.

So I started out again. I could see that a 7200 foot peak just to the northeast of Klamath Falls was slightly in the broken 9000 MSL overcast (5000 AGL). On a clear day, the direct route to Bend and then on to Wenatchee would go very near to that peak and continue in higher terrain. So rather than going direct, through some probably obscured high terrain, I chose to follow the US Highway 97 route, which is nearly flat for the 129 miles from Klamath Falls to Bend, not far west of the direct route, and about 4500 MSL all the way. I chose an initial altitude of 6500 (2000 AGL). I could clearly see the road; visibility was generally at least 10 miles, except for a few spots of patchy scud. I could watch my track on my moving map (with terrain) as well as look out the canopy. I now had a nice tailwind, and was doing about 180 knots over the ground, and had lots of gas.

scud running
Who cares about the satellite picture? What you see is what you get.

Then, mile by mile (at three miles a minute), zooming north, visibility started coming down, in an unpredictable, patchy fashion accompanied by almost translucent snow virga and general frosty-looking air. It was about 25 F (and no heater in the Long-EZ). Still seeing lots of pale blue sky overhead, and patches of obscuration by small scud clouds of the road below, I then made a really bad decision. I climbed quickly to 8500, dodging scud patches here and there with minor course changes. Visibility worsened further over the next five minutes or so, dropping to 1-3 miles, with 50% ground contact, but hazy blue sky above. At this point in the flight, everything being reported seemed way too optimistic. I turned on the carb heat, and rechecked the mixture. The road was no longer in sight. I could “see” it on the moving map, and knew where to look for it, at least.

I called Seattle Flight Watch. No response. I wanted them to reconfirm their weather reports and predictions. I climbed further to 10,500 for better forward visibility (5-10 miles, with 50% ground contact). At 10,500, Flight Watch answered my call for a weather update. They had the same rosy report on the route and the next reporting airport, now about 50 miles ahead.

After a couple minutes, the road came clearly back into view. I zoomed back down to 6500 MSL, and followed the road from there closely to Bend. I did not go any lower than about 2000 AGL. Forward visibility was as low as 1-2 miles at times, though, as I neared the weather choke point between the Cascades to the west and Paulina Peak to the east. Once past that area, the visibility slowly improved. At Bend, visibility was still worse than relayed from Flight Watch, but by Madras it was, finally, good VFR that matched the reports. I called Flight Service with a pilot report, and relaxed for the last hour into Wenatchee in unrestricted visibility at 6500 MSL.

In hindsight, I went pretty far down the accident chain rabbit hole when I climbed to 10,500. I could have avoided all in-flight stress by waiting for spring. Once en route, by breaking visual contact with the road, I lost my VFR retreat route to Klamath Falls, when I climbed over clouds that obscured the road. Before I climbed, I probably could have retraced my route 50 miles or so to Klamath Falls. Once I climbed, and overflew the now obscured road, I could not have just descended to 6500, reversed course, and followed the road through the obscured section back to Klamath Falls. Perhaps I could have stayed in the clear at 10,500 or so to Bend, if it were truly open, but going back to Klamath Falls where the ceiling was at 9000 would not have worked. I wasn’t at all sure that Bend was clear at 10,500, given the trends I was seeing.

FSS briefers
Don’t let Flight Service talk you into something you don’t feel comfortable doing.

I thoroughly preplanned this flight. On paper, finishing the route appeared doable, if not certain. Once at Klamath Falls, I tried to ignore that stopping would have been for several days (if not weeks) to wait for the next VFR weather opening. It just didn’t seem necessary to stop given the weather reports, and what I could see out the FBO’s window

I let the repeated assurances from Flight Service and Flight Watch that the weather would go suck me into this flying epic. I was too slow recognizing in flight that it wasn’t going. It really was a very marginal VFR route that was reporting only good VFR at both ends.   The statement that “the satellite looks good” was deceptively reassuring, but I should have rejected that as soon as the view out the canopy overruled it. I should have reversed course thirty miles north of Klamath Falls when I found scud at my chosen altitude following the road, and I didn’t. Climbing and leaving the road potentially made regaining it impossible.

I have, over the years, had other scud running adventures. None of them was fun. In hindsight, they were always avoidable, and stupid. I have very slowly and painfully learned not to think of completing a flight as a competition against the elements.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes in your future flying!

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

5 Comments

  • Maybe I’m too optimistic, but a brief loss of visual to the ground doesn’t seem to be an issue as long as you do have visual and know where you are. Should an emergency develope I would think FSS could support a likely route of escape. After all, emergencies can happen in the best of conditions. Knowing where you are and where you have access to resolve the issue is important under any condition. With fuel and altitude, moving from worsening conditions to favorable by knowing your position dramatically reduces the risk. I’m sure there are instances where one can really lower the odds of a successful outcome, but there is risk in about any form of transportation. I like my odds in a well equipped light aircraft, especially when the critical ends of flight are favorable or improving.

  • Michael, I get his point, and try and abide by the idea, no preplanned flight is ever going to be perfect, thus we need to make sure and leave options on the table to stay away from that “accident chain.” Another point I think you might have missed was him not being able to initially reach Seattle Flight Watch. Not a nice feeling to have no contact when in terrain like that, with those weather conditions.
    I do know, from talking to different controllers, they have no illusions about beng perfect. After all, they are usually in an enclosed building, on the ground, usually with no contact to outside weather conditions, save the ones they drove through to get to their duty station. The only exception to this is the contact with pilots actually experiencing that weather, and the electronic equipment that is also subject to human failures. You can help in this latter situation by filing a PIREP every time you fly in weather that is not ideal.

  • And this scenario would be the reason I’m going to pursue an IFR rating. While I have no intention of flying hard IFR, it’s another tool in the kit.

  • Doyle Frost, your points are well taken. A PIREP is a good idea when having flown any significant distance in marginal weather. Also, flight following where available certainly makes sense. I really wasn’t being critical of his take on his actions, just felt he is harder on himself than he need be. Anytime you can eliminate a link in the accident chain makes sense, including having had instruction on all facets of flying the plane when faced with uncertainties. Altitude can offer opportunities to get ATC involved.

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