How to fly safely when you’re low and slow

You don’t have to fly IFR at 10,000 feet to travel efficiently by general aviation. I was reminded of this fact after logging 15 enjoyable hours over the past month – all at 500 feet and 100 knots in VFR-only aircraft. Even with some weather to deal with, I went exactly where I wanted, with only minimal delays, and had a lot of fun.

That doesn’t mean it was boring. Over the course of one trip in particular, I hit a few speed bumps, and in the process I re-learned some important lessons about weather, decision-making and technology. Most importantly, I learned that flexibility pays off when you’re VFR.

Departing

Foggy runway
Not a great start to a VFR trip.

As I opened the curtains on day one of my trip, it didn’t look promising. Low clouds and fog clung to the trees around Cincinnati, and not just in the valleys where it had been forecast. I headed to the airport to complete my preflight, hoping the rising sun would burn off the clouds. An hour later, though, the METAR was stubbornly stuck at 600 overcast. This was more than just inconvenient, since developing thunderstorms at my destination made every delay potentially serious on this hot summer day. I wanted to be on the ground in Tennessee before things got too convective.

After nervously eyeing the sky every 30 seconds, trying to will the clouds into parting, I recognized a potential trap and hit the pause button. I was spring-loaded to go flying the minute blue sky appeared overhead, potentially chasing a sucker hole just to stay on schedule. While I’m a proponent of “taking a look” when flying VFR, this approach brings with it great pressure. If you’ve been waiting for two hours and then take off, are you really going to turn around and land if things aren’t as VFR as you hoped? It’s awfully hard to do.

Recognizing this mistake, I made a smart decision and went inside. I told myself that I would only look at the weather in 30 minute increments, to prevent me from chasing temporary changes. Overkill? Perhaps, but it worked. I took off 90 minutes later than planned, but by then the weather had cleared significantly and my departure was uneventful.

Lesson one: If you’ve been waiting on marginal weather to lift, don’t take off until you think there’s a very good chance of success – you probably won’t turn around. Be patient and wait until the trend is clearly in your favor.

En route

Pop-up storms on radar
Pop-ups or something more organized?

After an hour and a half in cruise, skirting around a little bit of leftover scud, the white cumulus clouds began to grow faster and turn gray. A quick look at ForeFlight showed thunderstorms popping up all over the place – Mother Nature’s popcorn, as a memorable instructor once told me.

There was no major weather system at work here, just the remains of a weak stationary front draped across southern Kentucky. The real work was being done by the heat of the day, as ground temperatures soared into the 90s. While a thunderstorm is always a threat, the difference between afternoon pop-ups and a line of severe storms ahead of a cold front is significant.

Since these storms were not organized, I could deviate around them fairly easily by dodging the rain shafts (by a wide margin). We had a smooth ride all the way. Still, I was happy to be on the ground at 1pm.

Lesson two: Know your air mass. Unstable or stable? Frontal or pop-up? It makes a difference. Perhaps easier to remember is the old advice that, in the summer, it’s best to finish flying by noon.

Fuel

The weather concerns were over, but the next day brought a new challenge. My destination was a convenient general aviation airport, but it lacked fuel, so the plan was to fly over to a neighboring airport for a top off before giving rides to some local kids.

Avgas self serve
These things always work…

This should have been a simple mission, but for the first time in my life a self-serve fuel pump let me down. There were no NOTAMs suggesting it was inoperative and I had used the airport often in years past, but when I flipped the switch to turn on the pump I heard only the silence of a quiet country airport. After 10 minutes of troubleshooting, it became clear that there would be no fixing it, and unfortunately there were no fuel trucks.

The only option left was to fly to another airport for fuel, but with 2+ hours of flying logged already, range was limited. There was another small airport over the next ridge, but I wasn’t certain we could get fuel there, and it was time to take a sure thing. After running the math (three times, in fact), I decided Downtown Knoxville was reachable with a safe fuel reserve. Before taking off, I called the FBO to verify their self-serve pump was functional, and that their fuel truck was available as a back up. As a worst case, Knoxville had a crew car and hotels to stay in if needed.

Lesson three: Always have an out, and preferably a sure thing. This cliche is often used with weather, and that’s true, but it’s equally applicable to fuel planning. I was dangerously close to being stuck at a remote airport with no options. When it was time for Plan B, I went with certainty over convenience.

By this time, I was hot, frustrated and thinking about the kids who were not going to get their ride anytime soon. That’s obviously the last thing I should have been thinking about, and sure enough I got my comeuppance: the left fuel cap, which I had removed in anticipation of fueling, rattled to the ground. In my haste to get to Knoxville, I hadn’t taken the time to do a real walk around. Fortunately, I noticed it before starting the engine, but I was embarrassed at my mistake.

Lesson four: When things go wrong, and especially when you’re frustrated, force yourself to slow down and double check your last few steps. Create some personal circuit breakers that pop anytime you’re in a hurry.

Headed home

Weather for flight home
Looks pretty good, but watch the rain.

The fuel stop in Knoxville and the rides both worked out fine, so all that was left a day later was to fly home. The weather was excellent in Cincinnati, but the first 50 miles looked marginal. Unfortunately, those 50 miles were over some fairly remote terrain in eastern Tennessee and southern Kentucky. That meant METARs were few and far between – educated guess time.

The METARs that were available looked pretty good (3600 overcast was the lowest) and the radar showed just two tiny showers over the hills. Given those positive reports and my experience flying in the area, I took off.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that 3600 overcast was not the reality in between airports. Those two small showers were barely registering on the radar, but the rain was just enough to create some low clouds in the valleys. In between the rain showers conditions were VFR, but barely. Those METARs weren’t wrong; they simply didn’t represent the weather eight miles to the east, where moisture and terrain were brewing up a whole different micro-climate.

Lesson five: Terrain matters, and not just for avoiding the rocks. Mountains and weather interact in all kinds of ways, so what is true in the plains does not necessarily hold in the hills. Be careful extrapolating too much between distant airports when the terrain is different.

Scud left
Flying where the weather is good, which means not there.

Any time the weather does not meet expectations, the faster you accept reality the better. I was over southern Kentucky, below radar coverage, so there was no use complaining. It was time to make a new plan. While good VFR had become marginal VFR, I was still legal, safe, and (perhaps most importantly) comfortable with the conditions. I still had a solid escape route to the east if I didn’t like what I saw further down the road.

My new plan was to break the flight down into a series of shorter flights, flying one ridge at a time. I evaluated the terrain and the weather, and simply flew where the conditions were best: blue sky good, gray rain shafts bad. If that meant a 30-mile detour, then fine. While it felt like I was weaving all over the sky, my track log revealed a surprisingly straight path, with less than five minutes worth of deviations.

Lesson six: Be flexible. Don’t get locked into your first plan, and reject the subtle pressure of the magenta line pointing to direct. Take what the terrain and weather gives you.

Once the hills and rain showers were behind me, the rest of the flight turned into a perfect VFR trip. A fuel stop in London, Kentucky, featured fully functional self-serve pumps and a well-stocked vending machine. The sprawling horse farms of Lexington provided excellent sightseeing, the air was smooth and I landed back home exactly on time.

Technology

One final lesson hit me the next day, as I reviewed the flight in my mind: Be unapologetic about using technology. Sure, this trip could have been safely completed without any modern gadgets, and some purists might scoff at flying such a basic flight with a portable GPS, an iPad and all the other goodies. But datalink weather, GPS moving maps and terrain alerts made it significantly easier – and safer.

It’s one thing to hope the weather is better over that next ridge; it’s another to know for a fact the terrain drops 500 ft. in five miles and all the rain is behind you. Likewise, making fuel calculations is a whole lot easier when you can get an accurate winds aloft forecast from your iPhone – and even call the FBO to verify the fuel pump is working. Oftentimes you are on your own as a VFR pilot down low, so the more tools you can use the better. Nobody gives out a Purple Heart for general aviation flying.

If you’re an IFR pilot who panics at the thought of flying without a flight plan, take a low level trip in a VFR airplane sometime. It’s a great learning experience, and in some ways, it’s easier at 500 feet than it is at 5,500 feet. As I learned on my way home, such flights often become a series of 25 mile flights, where you simply take what you get and enjoy the scenery. And isn’t that what flying is all about?

9 Comments

  • Your point about using technology is good. Inflight weather, airport/fuel info and GPS nav have made VFR flying a whole new game as long as one accepts the basic tenant of always staying visual.

    One point I would add is that low VFR is best done in a slower airplane. Running along at 500′ in a Cub type airplane is a lot different that trying it in an airplane that normally does
    200 knots. This should be obvious, but the record indicates otherwise.

  • I really enjoyed this article. I don’t usually fly around quite that low (500agl), but then the mountains are bigger here (Pacific NW). You did a great job describing and demonstrating some potential traps and techniques for VFR flying, while still making it sound like the fun, challenging, rewarding and safe adventure that a cross-country should be. The technology is a tool, and doesn’t take away from what it means to be a pilot, which is really all about situational awareness and decisions. Nice job.

  • This is the most fun flying there is. Flown to OSH over half a dozen times from North Georgia in a faster airplane down low like this. Pick up HWY 41 north of Nashville and it takes you straight to OSH thru Chicago. Great way to enjoy the scenery and there are a lot of interesting airports close to 41 along the way to stop and refresh. Best way to fly unless you have a helicopter.

  • I fly a pipeline route in and around Cincinnati, so I am low and slow and with the added pressure of someone paying me to do it. One thing I have learned with the weather is to wait until well past the minimums. I need 1000/3 everywhere along my route to fly it legally and safely. Once or twice I have taken off at exactly 1000/3 and have immediately regretted it. Even with all of my route airports reporting VFR, conditions in between can vary, especially with the late morning fog. I now wait until I have well above 1000/3 before I take off, which has helped give me more margin if I encounter worse conditions and have to deviate. If you have a choice, wait a little longer. It’s always better to take the more conservative option.

  • I really liked this article. Lessons 5 and 6 hit home for me. We were trying to complete a trip from Fredericksburg to the west side of the appalachain mountains. The forecast to the west was overcast and expected to break up as we went west with good VFR on top.

    The first plan was VFR on top over the mountains and then to decend through MVR holes as they opened up. The weather didn’t cooperate and a call to flight watch confirmed this about 1/3 into our flight. We returned to good VFR, stopped in Winchester and refueled while we considered our options.

    We started out under the clouds one ridge at a time. It worked beautifully untill we were 20 miles NW of Cumberland MD where a veil of clouds obscured the path ahead. We simply turned around and retraced our path back to good VFR and went home. We cancelled our trip and were able to complete the same trip a week later, no problem.

    I think about that flight often. We tried plan A and when it didn’t work out we backed out, safely landed, then formulated a new plan B and tried that. That plan worked at first but then failed, so we backed out again and cancelled. At no time were we beyond our capabilities and I gained valuable experience doing it.

  • Good article John. I particularly agree with you about popping a breaker when you feel rushed. I witnessed a fatal crash in which rushing may have been a contributing cause. I was sitting under the wing of our 210 waiting for a mechanic to arrive with a new battery. The subject aircraft was parked next to me. When the pilot and his wife arrived, it appeared to me that he rushed the preflight. Never did walk around my side of his aircraft, for example. After he took off, he turned left and I lost sight of him behind tall trees. Heard him turn left again for a downwind departure. Thought I’d see him again as he climbed, but he did not reappear. But I continued to hear his high RPM engines. Then a sickening thud, followed by quiet and a black cloud of smoke billowing up from the tall pines. I heard later that one of his fuel caps was found along the runway, and that before the crash his wife was screaming that the plane was on fire. It wasn’t, but the fuel streaming out of the uncapped tank probably look like smoke to her. The pilot got in too much of a hurry to land, stalled and spun in on his turn from base to final. A case of hurrying twice. Hard to beat the odds when you stack the deck that much against yourself.

  • One other comment about low and slow- the knowledge to do so safely does still exist: in the helicopter community. I was taught early how to cross power lines at the poles, and to estimate supporting wire locations by mentally laying down the height of the tower on the ground and inscribing a circle. 1000 ft tower? Stay clear by 1000 ft. Etc.

    • Good point, @Roca. I suspect the floatplane community (which is huge here in Canada) also knows a lot about low and slow: there’s the old joke about floatplane pilots getting nosebleeds if they fly higher than 1,000 ft AGL.

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