A trip to Sun ‘n Fun

The following article was written by an Air Facts reader. To submit your story, click here. –Ed.

The task on this week late in March was to fly the new owner of a not-so-new Baron from Indianapolis to Tampa by way of Atlanta for a couple of days of business. This would be the owner’s first trip in the airplane and only my second trip in Seven Tango Romeo after helping ferry the airplane to Indy from the northeast with a pilot friend a month or so earlier. The Baron owner’s request for a trip to the Sunshine State couldn’t have come at a better time, as that same pilot friend and I were already planning to venture south to spend a day or two at Sun ‘n Fun that very week. The prospect of a free trip south in a fast twin sure beat our plans of splitting the fuel for the flight down in a borrowed airplane, so we packed our bags and set out for the long drive to Indy early Monday morning.

The first half of the day’s trip looked to be a piece of cake. VFR conditions prevailed over most of Indiana and Kentucky while Tennessee and the northern half of Georgia were blanketed in 1,000-foot ceilings with low tops. It was benign IFR if there ever was any. The airplane was prepped and ready to go by a little after 11 a.m. for what was a planned 11:30 departure. The owner’s arrival at 2 p.m. was, looking back, a preview of what would be many more late arrivals, but he did own the airplane and the schedule wasn’t ours. Welcome to the world of corporate flying.

Florida radar
The line that destroyed nearly 50 airplanes at Sun ‘n Fun 2011.

The cruising south was nice with a light tailwind pushing our groundspeed to over 200 knots, and the ILS into Fulton County was about as easy as they come through the perfectly-forecasted 1,000-foot ceilings. The owner set off into town while my flying buddy and I set off to the weather room.

It quickly became obvious that a tranquil flight south just wasn’t going to happen on this night. The muggy, 80 degree air in Florida was colliding with the much cooler air to the north in a spectacular fashion. The rainfall across Florida was torrential, and the radar was a conglomeration of yellows, oranges and reds. It was getting late and the fact that we were already behind schedule meant we wouldn’t leave Atlanta until well after dark. The conditions between us and Tampa were forecast to improve, but not until early the next morning. My buddy and I weren’t excited about flying the airplane for the first time at night in such conditions and we figured our passenger wouldn’t be either, so we made arrangements to spend the night in Georgia.

We awoke early the next morning and departed into overcast skies. Atlanta departure was quiet and we were given vectors directly over ATL and then were cleared on course. South Georgia was all low IFR with ceilings between 300 and 500 feet and visibilities of a couple of miles. The tops were low, however, and we trekked south in smooth skies and sunshine. Flying early meant we made our way through the remnants of the previous night’s weather without much ado, encountering only light turbulence as we punched through some small building cumulus that were sure to fire back up in the heat of the Florida afternoon.

Conditions throughout much of Florida were marginal VFR at best, but a lot of VFR traffic was communicating with Tampa approach as we began vectors for the localizer 1R after having received no less than two amended routings due to Sun ‘n Fun arrivals. The arrival ATIS at Tampa was reporting 600 broken. That, coupled with the sight of the tops of antennas poking through the clouds to our right as we dropped the gear at the final approach fix, made us both happy to be operating IFR in the area and curious as to how the VFR pilots who seemed to be scud running beneath were able to justify their doing so. It just didn’t look like a VFR day from our perch.

It became VFR soon enough though and, after leaving the airplane in the care of Tampa Jet Center, my friend and I set out for an afternoon at Sun ‘n Fun while our passenger headed out for his meeting. Sun ‘n Fun crowds were light thanks to the icky weather to our north, giving us plenty of room to gawk at what neat airplanes had made their way to the show.

Wednesday morning arrived at the heels of a stiff southerly breeze and a look at the radar on my phone as I rolled off of the Baron owner’s couch in his condo (apparently copilots are relegated to sleeping on couches) revealed a truly nasty-looking line of weather in north Florida, right where it had been sitting for the last two days. The line was picking up strength, however, and was about ready to begin its march southward on the same day we were ready to take flight and head northward.

Once we arrived back at the airport at around noon, it was obvious that we were not going to be able to find a way through the line of thunderstorms even though our airplane was equipped with both NEXRAD and airborne weather radar. As we sat and examined the weather, the pilot of a jet canceled a trip to South Carolina, telling his passengers that there would be no way to safely descend through the storms.

There was hope for us though. The weather ahead of and behind the line was flyable, so we decided to exercise a plan that often works well when dealing with such lines of weather. We decided to fly right up to the thunderstorms, find an airport and land to wait things out. After the bad stuff moved through we could launch out behind it and on to Atlanta, where the owner wanted to spend a bit more time. The destination became Gainesville, Fla., and we departed for there just after 1 p.m.

Landing in Gainesville to wait it out
Tampa to Gainesville to wait it out.

Just under an hour later we were tying down the airplane with thunder rumbling in the distance and big rain drops plopping on the ramp in the random fashion they do before the arrival of a big, juicy storm. The heavens let loose just as we settled into to the comfy couches in the pilot lounge to enjoy a Dr Pepper and a snack.

After two hours of some strong winds and fierce lightning, the worst of the stuff moved on out to our south and east, leaving a safe path for our escape. Although it was still raining quite heavily (yellow on the radar) the rainfall gradient, or the distance over which the rainfall goes from light to heavy, was quite shallow. That, coupled with the high ceilings, meant we could head north without much fear of encountering anything truly terrible. We ran out to the plane in the rain, loaded up and taxied out while letting the XM weather system on our Garmin 560 gather the latest radar image. Soon enough it was positive rate, gear up and we were cleared on course. The ride was relatively smooth in the rain, which we flew out of in 15 miles or so, leaving a nasty line of otherwise impassable weather safely behind our rudder.

It was low IFR throughout much of southern Georgia again and only slightly better in Atlanta, where the ILS 20L into the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport took the owner to his business and my buddy and I to a great burger at the Downwind Restaurant just below the tower. Conditions lowered quickly after we landed and we sat and watched as Gulfstreams and Learjets launched out into the low overcast with vapor trailing off their wings. As nighttime fell so did the ceilings and the visibility, so we spent another night in Atlanta, not excited about dealing with the icing in our non-booted Baron that might have been present in the cooling clouds above. As it turned out, the owner decided to stay late anyway.

We launched again the next morning into low ceilings with low tops, and the view of the rising sun above the gently rolling undercast was spectacular. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for all the poor folks below who were driving to work to sit behind a desk all day while someone was paying for us to sit in the best seat for miles around.

We knew we would be flying into cold clouds ahead over Tennessee and Kentucky, but icing wasn’t forecast and there were no pilot reports of the stuff, so we plowed on with the pitot heat on and a close eye on the leading edges. Although ice wasn’t forming, the temperature was just below freezing in the clouds so we began to ask for top reports from ATC. There weren’t many airplanes out and about, but one controller told us that an airplane in our area had just reported tops at 9,500 and that he was well on top at 11,000. We asked for and got a clearance to 11,000, where we leveled off in clouds that were just as thick as they were back down at 6,000. Despite the bum pilot report, there was still no ice and we cruised on in the muck until reaching the Ohio River.

Final approach on the ILS
Those lights lead the way to another successful ILS.

In the end we had four days of fun flying in what was some pretty nasty weather. The fact that we did it safely and more or less on the owner’s schedule is a testament to the capability of even light airplanes when operated under IFR. Granted, we were flying with good equipment and in a good performing airplane powered by two engines. That amount of redundancy does give peace of mind when operating in instrument conditions, although modern singles can be equipped with nearly the same level of systems redundancy as twins.

My pilot friend remarked upon our arrival back at Indy that he wouldn’t have flown that same trip in the Cirrus that we had planned on taking to Sun ‘n Fun (our trip down and back would have occurred on the same days and in the same weather). I initially agreed and then I began to think about that. The Cirrus is a modern, well maintained airplane and both of us are current instrument pilots. The airplane also has redundant systems so the only real increase in risk that would have accompanied flying the Cirrus down would have come following an engine failure. We had no intentions of running out of fuel and the chances of the engine going quiet for any other reason are slim, although it could very well happen and a plan for dealing with an engine failure would have been in place for the entire trip. We flew along prepared to deal with an engine failure in the Baron too, but at least the other engine would have taken us on to an airport. Perhaps the Cirrus’ parachute would be the answer in the event of an engine failure in low instrument conditions, but having it shouldn’t be the justification for launching out into questionable weather.

On the same day that we flew from Atlanta back to Indy (the day after we left Florida), the same nasty weather system that we negotiated twice dropped tornadoes all over Florida, including the one that damaged or destroyed nearly 70 airplanes on the Sun ‘n Fun grounds. Flying is chock-full of challenges and rewards, and knowing you successfully and safely passed though such a weather system twice is definitely one of them.

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1 Comment

  • So would you have made the trip in the Cirrus, you never said… ?

    Some thoughts—I hear you when you say “but having it (the parachute) shouldn’t be the justification for launching out into questionable weather” (and I have heard Dick Collins say something similar about how the parachute may lead pilots to fly in situations they otherwise would not). But as I think about it though, does it make any more sense to ask “would I make this flight without the parachute?” than it does to ask the question “would I make this flight without an autopilot?” or “would I make this flight in a single-engine rather than a twin-engine?” or “would I make this flight without NEXRAD?” …point being, IFR pilots for example flying a G3 Cirrus don’t limit themselves only to flights they would otherwise make in a 1969 C-172 with original equipment—at some point the equipment does matter …and so why shouldn’t the parachute be considered (and I emphasize considered) when making the go/no go decision? Couldn’t we just as easily (and illogically) make the go/no go decision based on whether we would make the flight with no autopilot? …I totally understand the logic that the presence of a parachute might make the pilot overconfident in certain circumstances, but I do think it should get at least some credit when weighing engine failure and potential pilot incapacition risks (from a passenger standpoint)…appreciate thoughts..

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