On top of the clouds in a Citabria
6 min read

The rules are the same

Two recent trips reinforced for me both the potential and the limitations of using general aviation airplanes for transportation. In many ways, they could not have been more different: the first flight was in a Pilatus PC-12 at 26,000 ft., the second in a Citabria at 500 ft. But while the equipment was quite different, the result was the same: a successful trip of 400+ nautical miles between cities poorly served by the airlines, and more or less on my schedule. The successful outcome of both is proof of the utility of personal aviation–regardless of the airplane.

But the two flights also reminded me of two caveats that are critical to safe GA flying, and indeed were essential to completing these trips: be flexible and be prepared. Nothing revolutionary here, certainly, and probably good advice for life in general. The power of these commandments to improve your flying is based on the pilot in command heeding this advice on every flight, without exception. Being prepared or flexible doesn’t work “most of the time”–only when you’re in that state of mind for every flight can you realize the benefits.

Nexrad display of the thunderstorms

Just one hole to go through.

Take flexibility first, what I consider the most powerful tool in any pilot’s bag. On the first flight, from Hilton Head, SC (HXD) to Cincinnati, OH (LUK), a nearly unbroken line of thunderstorms had stacked up from New York to New Orleans. Crossing this line looked far from a sure thing, but we decided to “take a look” anyway. While this phrase is often the first part of an NTSB report, my co-pilot and I agreed to take off because weather was excellent all the way up to the line, there looked to be a gap, and most importantly we had two “flexibility agreements.”

First, we would take any deviation we had to in order to avoid weather–even if it added 50% to the flying time. Secondly, if either pilot felt unsure that the line of weather was flyable, we would land, no questions asked. We were, in essence, committing to being uncommitted to this trip. And importantly, we always had an out in the form of great VFR weather short of the line of thunderstorms.

In the Pilatus, we had the advantage of going right up to 26,000, but the plan is the same I use whether flying a Pilatus or a Citabria–visually avoid as many clouds as possible, especially in convective weather. No matter what the datalink weather or the on-board radar said, we were going to take the longer deviation and stay VMC if at all possible.

In the end, this strategy worked perfectly–what looked like a really crummy day on the radar turned out to be an uneventful trip. We flew up to what looked like a substantial hole in the line and we picked our way through visually, always cross-checking what we saw with our eyes against our datalink and on-board radar. We never hit the first cloud and never had the first bump. Airliners were slamming through the line on more direct routes, and while none ended up in the accident reports, they were certainly enduring worse rides than we were. Being flexible kept us safe and comfortable, all for 10 minutes more flying.

This simple principle should not be underestimated. While we GA pilots may not have two-crew cockpits, dispatchers, jet engines and the other safety tools of the airlines, we do have the great advantage of not being tied to a schedule. There are no on-time ratings to maintain and no fines if we arrive at the gate late. In addition to accepting a long deviation, in many cases not taking off at all can be the safest play. A delay of even a few hours can often mean the difference between an unsafe flight and a perfectly doable trip–especially when weather is involved. Not having to go: to ignore this tool is to give up a major advantage of personal flying.

The second flight certainly reinforced this “be flexible” mantra, but it rewarded the “be prepared” one as well. What started out as a fun VFR flight in a Citabria to the big Oshkosh fly-in soon got more interesting thanks to a blown forecast. The morning TAFs called for a very scattered layer of scud that hung over Indiana and Illinois to clear by 10am. But a fast-moving cold front had stalled out, and this forecast turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

On top of the clouds in a Citabria

Scattered layer? Sure looks overcast.

We departed Sporty’s (I69) VFR and settled into cruise on top of a scattered layer. As we flew further northwest towards Chicago, it was clear that the scattered layer below was not breaking up–in fact, it was thickening. Scattered soon became a solid 800 ft. overcast with visibilities of 1-2 miles in fog below, even less than a mile in some places. Our intended fuel stop, a wonderful grass strip in northwest Indiana, now looked out of the question. Here was a case not to “take a look.”

But what could have been a major problem turned out, again, to be an uneventful flight. Like good Boy Scouts, we were ready for a curveball. We carried a Garmin 696 with XM Weather, so we could quickly see how bad the weather was, and pick a “bail out” airport with decent weather. We were flying an airplane that, while not sophisticated, was IFR certified. We had IFR charts on board (thanks to the Garmin), and I was current and proficient at IFR flying. If we needed to go IFR, we could.

Half an hour from our fuel stop, we needed it. We got a pop-up IFR clearance from Chicago Center and, after calmly explaining that our Citabria was in fact IFR certified, ended up with 0.3 actual IFR and a localizer approach to Lansing, IL. We were definitely not at our intended destination–or even our planned alternate–but we were flexible enough to ditch the initial plan when it became clear that Mother Nature was not playing along. In fact, we didn’t give it a moment’s thought. We confessed, filed IFR and diverted some 75 miles away to better weather and a good approach.

The second half of the trip was flawless, with a beautiful flight up the Chicago lakefront and a fun arrival at Oshkosh. The Fisk arrival and runway 36L at Oshkosh (video here) is another place where being prepared and flexible pays off in spades, but that’s another story.

General aviation won on both of these trips, and in my experience it often does. Can you always get from your departure airport to your destination, on the route you prefer, at the exact time you prefer? No. But if you’re proficient, prepared for plans to change, and willing to be flexible on route or time of departure, you can get surprisingly close.

John Zimmerman
4 replies
  1. RIch
    RIch says:

    Love the site, but the RSS feed should really be full text for those of us on bad connections. Hope you make that change so I can read it.

  2. Mike
    Mike says:

    Excellent article, real-life examples of what can easily and often be encountered coupled to darned good advice.

    Hit home as just yesterday I had a 400 nm round-trip VFR cross-country with similar scenarios to the ones in the article. Forecasts didn’t exactly pan out regarding ceilings at the destination. Had a nice ride on top of the widely scattered layer at 7500 no problem until about 40 miles out when I noticed the scattered was starting to seriously fill in ahead. Was on Flight Following so told KC Center I needed to descend right away as it was going overcast below, picked a fair sized hole and dropped through it. The last 30 miles was decent but bumpy at only 2500 ft. to stay under what was now an overcast at 3000 … note the forecast had said it should lift and be few to scattered at 5000 by our arrival time.

    My alternative out if there wouldn’t have been a suitable hole would’ve been to backtrack and land at an airport we’d flown over.

    The lesson is to never fully trust forecasts…. I had checked several sources within an hour of departure, including an abbreviated briefing specifically asking about ceilings immediately before departing.

  3. Markus
    Markus says:

    In Germany you would be in trouble now.
    They don’t accept air filing of IFR flight plans. If you dare to do it you get treated as an emergency and a nice investigation from LBA.
    They want you to scud-run instead of reverting to a flexible plan c.

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