VFR on top… for a long time

I could hardly control my anticipation for that weekend’s flight. I had just purchased my first airplane – N5701F, a 1968 Piper Cherokee 140. As a private pilot with just over 200 hours and no instrument rating, I was finally free to enjoy aviation in my own personal aircraft. And better yet, I was going to be able to fly from Ft. Worth, Texas (KFTW) to Destin, Florida (KDTS) to pick up my dad and fly him to Tallahassee to take in a football game. A flight like this is what propelled me to get my ticket in the first place.

As I was preparing for the flight Friday night, making sure the iPad and ADS-B receivers were all charged up, an unfriendly weather pattern was forming along my route of flight. This was in mid-October and my route would be taking me from north central Texas through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and finally to the Florida panhandle. A low pressure system and a weak warm front had formed over southern Louisiana, bringing at best some MVFR ceilings, but mostly IFR conditions along a good chunk of my flight.

The next morning, much to my horror, I saw nothing but IFR ceilings for about 100 miles from the western border of Louisiana to Baton Rouge. I called FSS to get a standard weather briefing, hoping in the back of my mind that the briefer would have some knowledge that I couldn’t obtain myself, but alas no such news came. In fact, I received the dreaded warning for a VFR pilot – “VFR flight not recommended.”

What am I to do? I had been so excited for this flight I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. What would my dad think if I told him I had to scrub the flight? I started analyzing the weather again, and noticed that the TAFs past the IFR conditions were all forecasting VFR. Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Gulfport, and Mobile all looked to be VFR for the day, as well as the Florida panhandle. I justified the affirmative to my go/no go decision as “I’ll just fly up to where the weather is, and let’s take a peek.” I had completed all of my primary flight training in Alaska, and even though I was a very low-time pilot, I had certainly dealt with adverse weather conditions, particularly low ceilings. I had clearly developed a “complete the mission” mentality, which ultimately led to a poor decision.

The first leg of the flight was routine and uneventful as planned, with clear skies and unlimited visibility all the way to the Louisiana line. I stopped at Beauregard DeRidder airport (KDRI) to top off and to reassess the weather. Sure enough, a thick 700-1200 foot overcast lay 25 miles ahead of me, which appeared to extend for about 150 miles. The tops were 4000. Without much hesitation, I rationalized in my head that the best approach would be to just fly over the top of the overcast. “It’s only 100 miles, right?” Also giving me some false confidence was my brand new Garmin GDL 39 with Garmin pilot, so I could have updated METARs and TAFs right in the cockpit. If I flew south of Baton Rouge and towards the coast, I would be over it quickly.

Shortly after taking off, I could see the cloud base ahead of me cruising at 5500 feet. Spotty at first, then scattered, until I was completely surrounded by a sea of white stratus clouds. At first the tranquility and the beauty put my mind at ease, and made me completely ignorant to the potential danger I had just put myself into. My euphoria quickly subsided, however, as a troubling pattern began to take shape.

VFR on top of clouds
Where are the holes in that cloud deck?

Slowly but surely, my outs — the airports that I intended to be able to land at if need be, began to close up. First was Baton Rouge, as the overcast quickly engulfed the airport to IFR. I also noticed that the TAF had been amended to include IFR conditions for most of the remaining day. Next was New Orleans. Now the gravity of the situation began to take hold in my mind. What if everything closes up? If I turn around now, will I make it back to clear weather fighting the 25 knot headwind?

At this point, the answer to that question was yes, I certainly could have made it back, but I stubbornly plowed ahead. Mobile, Pensacola and Destin were still reporting VFR and forecasted to remain VFR. For the past 200 miles, I had not seen the ground, and at this point called up flight service for some updated weather. They reported to me that the Florida panhandle was indeed VFR, with scattered cumulus at 4000 feet and unlimited visibility. I’m sure the briefer could hear the tense tone in my voice as I explained I was VFR over the top.

Next Gulfport and Mobile had closed in, and I was getting very worried. It seemed that the top of the overcast kept getting higher, so I climbed to 7500 feet. I was starting to truly understand how this situation could get out of hand. If I had to land now, how would I get through the clouds? I had a total of five hours of hood time leading up to this flight, and I knew that the odds of my surviving an approach in IMC were close to zero. I started practicing my instrument scan, and telling myself that if I had to come through the clouds, that I have to trust my instruments! Worse yet, is that I only had about 10 hours in the Cherokee, as all of my hours prior to this were in Cessnas, so I was still getting used to the handling characteristics of a low wing.

I made a plan in my head that if Pensacola became IFR, that I would tell ATC about my predicament. I was under flight following the entire time. Luckily, just as I crossed the Florida line, the overcast broke, and for the first time in almost three hours I could see the ground. I landed in Destin, picked up my dad, and we flew to Tallahassee to watch Florida State beat our arch rival Miami Hurricanes. The return flight to Texas was clear and a million the whole way.

It still amazes me that of all the books I’ve read on aeronautical decision making and all of the NTSB reports that I’ve read, I allowed myself to start a chain reaction of decision making which could have been disastrous. My rational for a failed mission (it’s a football game, HELLO!), and disappointment from my father (he would never have been disappointed; he really likes it when I’m alive), got in the way of making safe decisions. This flight, like all flights, made me a better pilot, and forced me to learn more tools which are at my disposal for making good weather decisions, evaluating AIRMETs/SIGMETs, and getting the whole weather picture before a flight. If you’re not instrument rated and instrument current, don’t get caught on top. Stay home and watch the game on TV.

5 Comments

  • Breakfast is Served …

    Here’s another “I learned flying from that” from your erstwhile, and very naughty Gringo Bush Pilot. The story:

    One stunning and beautiful Sunday morning I’m climbing out of Fallbrook Airpark (my home field) to fly up to the “Sin Fernando Valley” to sneak into my office in Encino while nobody is there. You know – a devious boss checking on the troops.
    At any rate, as the quaint little village of Fallbrook passes beneath me, I smell the unmistakable aroma of fresh eggs and bacon as it comes wafting into the cockpit. My saliva glands are bursting – when my addled brain comes to the realization that breakfast is not served in the cockpit – at least, not in a pauper’s Piper.
    Dimly aware that breakfast is cooking under the cowl, I do a 180 and descend to the field. With trepidation, I open the cowl – no breakfast … but on closer examination, and cleverly hidden by mama bird, is a nest with two eggs, just out of view over number one cylinder.
    As I clean my kitchen, I add one more item to my pre-flight mental checklist.

    Check the kitchen…

  • Well the real tragedy here isn’t just that you did all of this for a football game, but for a Florida State football game! (Go Gators) Couldn’t resist and thanks for sharing your story.

  • minor quibble: this article uses the term “VFR on top” as well as “VFR over the top.” The former is actually an IFR clearance.

  • Rollin’ the dice, eh? I know the mindset and feelings involved here very well. I’m glad you made it through this time, but I hope you won’t push your luck too far before you get that instrument rating and much actual IMC time. Practicing IMC flying under the hood doesn’t come close to the “real thing” when speaking of psychological matters; being smothered induces panic very quickly… You can get in over your head very, very fast. And vertigo (spatial disorientation), sneaks up on you like losing your balance on a high wire – once you begin to fall it’s almost impossible to catch yourself. Aviation, used for reliable, expiedient travel from place-to-place, is not practical without the ability to operate in clouds. Get that instrument rating, and practice partial-panel flying often.

  • Had a similar situation coming back from Las Vegas to SAN Diego. Had to choose between going under or staying above. I chose flying under and that was not fun either. These hills look WAY too close at 1,000fg AGL. IFR ticket is the way to go, now I just need to get one!

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