Ah, the joy of flying your family on a vacation. Leave when you want, fly direct to your destination, and stay late. More time relaxing and less time stressing about travel, right?
If you’ve ever planned a flying vacation, you know this isn’t quite how things turn out. Sure, the convenience of traveling by general aviation is hard to beat, and as pilots we usually have a lot of fun just getting there. But there’s another factor that can quickly overshadow the fun – weather worries.
I’ve battled this off and on for years, but a recent trip to Disney World with my wife and two kids was almost ruined by my constant stressing about the weather. For a week leading up to the trip, I watched the forecasts, my stomach churning. The charts showed a huge front bearing down on our route, with ice, low clouds, high winds, and thunderstorms – much more than the few pop-up storms I was expecting. TV weather reports also got excited about the upcoming weather event, which only added to my worries.
I hated to disappoint my family, but as the day of our departure drew closer I knew I had to make a decision that put safety first. A few bumps and some IFR is fine with my passengers, but some things are simply a no-go for me. That might mean canceling (and by this time airline tickets were prohibitively expensive).
After a restless night’s sleep, I awoke on the morning of the trip to a pleasant surprise. That front was indeed a nasty one, but the worst of it was far to the west. Our departure airport was IFR, but there was nothing more than rain. After the first 100 miles, it looked as if we would be out of the rain completely. With a noticeably more relaxed attitude, I took off and four hours later we were touching down in sunny Florida.
While the outcome of this trip was successful, I wasn’t very happy with my emotional state or my decision-making process. I wasn’t disciplined in my approach to the weather, and perhaps more importantly, I had allowed flying to become a source of stress instead of a source of joy. After reflecting on this week of weather worrying, I wrote down a few lessons learned.
1. Set a realistic departure window. Flying yourself demands flexibility, and sometimes the right answer is to leave a day earlier or later. Keep that option open, but you have to be realistic: what’s the earliest you could leave on your weekend trip? If it’s Thursday, don’t spend all day Monday stressing about the weather. You can’t do anything about it anyway, so avoid the temptation to over-analyze the situation. A quick check of the prog charts is fine, but don’t let the long range forecasts make a decision for you five days out. The weather and the forecasts will change many times before the big day arrives, and you should rarely cancel a flight just because a forecast map looks ugly.
2. Have a solid backup plan. This one is obvious, but most pilots talk the talk more than they walk the walk. On my big trip, I didn’t have a great plan B and it backed me into a corner. The right approach is to leave yourself the option to leave earlier/later, drive instead of fly, take the airlines, go to another destination, bring along another pilot, or something else. Whatever works for you, be serious about a backup option. If nothing else, it will put your mind at ease – and that’s worth a lot.
3. Focus on specifics. This is an easy trap to fall into: the weather forecast says there’s a 30% chance of thunderstorms on the day of your departure. That’s less than ideal, but does it really matter? Especially in the southeastern US in the summertime, that forecast is valid almost every day. Widely scattered storms that appear in the mid-afternoon do not preclude a safe and comfortable day of flying. Ask yourself if these storms are in solid lines or just pop-ups. The same goes for IFR conditions: is it due to local conditions like fog or something more serious like a warm front? Asking these questions will force you to be specific about the weather system you’ll be flying through. Stick to precise aviation forecasts and don’t spend much effort on the TV weather shows.
4. Don’t obsess about radar. For many pilots, the radar image is the go-to weather product when making the go/no-go decision. It’s a great tool, but a single-minded focus on it can lead to bad decisions – especially if you’re flying IFR. Nobody likes rain, but a little green on the map is just fine, and yellow returns are often safe if it’s in stratus clouds. Even if it’s worse than that, consider how scattered the cells are and whether you could weave around them. More than anything, back up your radar analysis with METARs, satellite imagery, convective forecasts, and forecast discussions. On a recent flight the radar was solid green and yellow, but the ceiling was 8,000 feet and the visibility was quite good. The radar looked ugly, but it was a safe VFR day.
5. Don’t check the weather too often. When there’s nothing to do but wait, it’s easy to park yourself in front of a computer and refresh the radar every five minutes. Don’t do it. This constant stressing about weather doesn’t make your decision any easier, and might even tempt you into an unsafe flight. If you’ve been watching the radar all day and it’s consistently bad, you might jump at the first update that shows improving conditions. Wait and be sure you see a trend before making a decision.
6. Don’t be afraid to take a look. Canceling on a forecast or a radar image is not always smart, especially if you’re disciplined enough to take off and turn around if the weather is below your minimums. The fact is, some days the only way to accurately evaluate the weather is to go flying and see what it looks like. That doesn’t mean you should scud run around mountainous terrain or tackle conditions beyond your ability. At the same time, I’ve made numerous flights comfortably because I was willing to break up the trip into short legs and only fly as far as conditions were safe. Have some firm rules about when to give up, but remember that the view out the front window is what counts.
7. Have the talk with your spouse/friend/colleague long before you fly. Almost all of the preceding tips demand that you set passengers’ expectations ahead of time. If they expect airline levels of punctuality, they will be disappointed and you’ll feel additional pressure to complete the flight. If they realize getting there is half the fun, you’ll have a lot more freedom to change the departure time or the route. Be honest about the limitations of traveling by general aviation aircraft, and have that talk long before you get to the airport and the clock is ticking.
More than anything, keep your priorities straight. Your job as pilot is to make sure flying adds to the enjoyment of your trip. If you find it becoming a major source of stress or a distraction, it’s time to move to Plan B.