Surface analysis
4 min read

This article is the second in a series called “Go or no go?” We’ll present actual weather conditions for a planned trip. You study the forecast and tell us if you would fly the trip or stay on the ground–and why. Just write a comment below the article to post your answer.

On the schedule for today: a family trip from cold and gray Cleveland, Ohio to the beautiful Green Mountains of New England for vacation. Your planned flight departs Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport (KBKL) and arrives at Claremont Municipal in Claremont, New Hampshire. Since you do not have an instrument rating, the flight will be VFR, but your Cirrus SR-20 is well-equipped with a good autopilot, moving map GPS, terrain warnings, XM Weather, traffic alerts and more. In your 500 hours of flying, this has become a regular trip for you, most recently last month. But while you’re comfortable with the airplane and the route, will the weather cooperate?

First, a look at the overall weather picture is in order. The latest surface analysis shows a high pressure area over the Northeast, but an area of rain and clouds moving into the Cleveland area:

Surface analysis

US Surface Analysis.

The regional radar agrees with this surface analysis, showing a large area of rain moving in from the west of Cleveland, clear skies over Pennsylvania and New York, and some scattered precipitation just east of your destination:

Regional radar

Regional radar display.

Next up is the satellite picture, which shows you’re getting out of Ohio just in time. Clouds are approaching Cleveland, but it looks clear for most of your flight. Some thin clouds are in the New Hampshire and Vermont area, which is a consideration.


Regional infrared satellite image.

Finally, it’s always worth a quick look at AIRMETs along your route. Today there are some icing AIRMETs, but they start at 9000 ft., so they shouldn’t be a concern. But there is an AIRMET for clouds and visibility:


Graphical AIRMET map.

Now for the text weather. While clouds are rolling in, conditions in Cleveland are still excellent VFR:

KBKL 160153Z 15010G16KT 10SM OVC085 05/M01 A3015 RMK AO2 SLP215 T00501011
KBKL 160053Z 14005KT 10SM SCT095 05/M02 A3017 RMK AO2 SLP220 T00501017
KBKL 152353Z 16006KT 10SM OVC100 06/M02 A3018 RMK AO2 SLP224 T00561017 10072 20050 53002

Fortunately you’re leaving in 30 minutes, because the forecast is not as promising:

KCLE 152339Z 1600/1706 17006KT P6SM SCT050 OVC080
     TEMPO 1602/1605 4SM -RA SCT025 OVC035
     FM160500 16008KT 5SM -RA BR SCT025 OVC035
     FM160900 16008KT 4SM -RA BR SCT015 OVC025
     TEMPO 1612/1616 1 1/2SM -RA BR SCT006 OVC012
     FM161800 25010KT P6SM OVC025
     FM162100 26010KT P6SM OVC035

Conditions en route are also good VFR, and are forecast to stay that way for at least the next 6 hours. Here are the current METAR and TAF reports for Buffalo and Albany, New York:

KBUF 160254Z 13006KT 10SM FEW100 SCT250 M01/M04 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP237 T10111044 55009
KBUF 160154Z 14005KT 10SM FEW033 SCT100 SCT250 M01/M04 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP235 T10061044
KBUF 160054Z 17003KT 10SM FEW033 SCT100 SCT250 00/M04 A3022 RMK AO2 SLP241 T00001039

KBUF 160247Z 1603/1624 14005KT P6SM SCT100
     FM160400 14005KT P6SM BKN100
     FM161000 14005KT P6SM VCSH OVC060
     FM161200 17010KT 5SM -RA OVC040
     FM161700 21012KT P6SM VCSH OVC040
     FM162100 23015KT 5SM -SHRA BR OVC015

KALB 160251Z 27005KT 10SM OVC036 02/M02 A3029 RMK AO2 SLP259 T00221017 51008
KALB 160151Z 27005KT 9SM BKN036 02/M02 A3028 RMK AO2 SLP256 T00221017
KALB 160051Z 28006KT 10SM BKN040 02/M02 A3027 RMK AO2 SLP255 T00171022

KALB 152326Z 1600/1624 00000KT P6SM FEW040 FEW090
     FM160600 00000KT P6SM SCT110 SCT250
     FM161200 VRB03KT P6SM BKN110 OVC200
     FM161800 17004KT 4SM -RA BR SCT020 BKN035 OVC070

Weather at your destination is more of a concern, where rising terrain means low clouds are a concern. Claremont does not report weather, but Lebanon (10 miles to the north) is reporting marginal VFR conditions. The good news is that visibility is excellent:

KLEB 160153Z 00000KT 10SM BKN027 OVC038 02/M02 A3021 RMK AO2 SLP239 T00171022
KLEB 160107Z 00000KT 10SM BKN029 OVC036 01/M02 A3020 RMK AO2
KLEB 160053Z 00000KT 10SM OVC031 01/M03 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP234 T00111028
KLEB 152353Z 00000KT 10SM BKN037 BKN044 OVC100 02/M03 A3019 RMK AO2 SLP230 T00171028 10067 20011 53016

Springfield, Vermont (5 miles to the west of your destination) is a little better, with scattered clouds instead of broken to overcast:

KVSF 160154Z AUTO 28003KT 10SM FEW026 SCT034 OVC041 03/M02 A3023 RMK AO2 SLP243 T00331017
KVSF 160147Z AUTO 27004KT 10SM SCT027 BKN034 OVC041 03/M02 A3023 RMK AO2
KVSF 160127Z AUTO 28004KT 10SM BKN027 OVC033 02/M02 A3022 RMK AO2
KVSF 160054Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM OVC035 02/M03 A3021 RMK AO2 SLP238 T00221033
KVSF 152354Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM OVC043 02/M03 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP233 T00221033 10072 20022 53016

So, are you going? Here’s a twist: did you notice that this flight will be conducted completely after sunset? How does this impact your decision?

John Zimmerman
29 replies
  1. Lee Newcomb
    Lee Newcomb says:

    Being a student Pilot I struggled with this article. After wresting with it only to discover that I completely missed that his VFR wouldn’t let him fly in the first place. Felt dum and smart at the same time.

  2. Ed
    Ed says:

    If there is a bright moon and conditions are at least 2000ft. ceilings and 10SM visibility at Cleveland and to the east before takeoff, I would give this a shot. With the large area of good VFR conditions enroute, I would plan on watching the arrival weather carefully and be prepared to land short of my destination if a low ceiling develops over New Hampshire.

  3. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    The wind has picked up at KBKL and the ceiling is starting down, so it’s a game of beating the wx out of town; not a comfortable thing to do at night. The broken to overcast at Lebanon is also worrisome unless very familiar with local weather patterns and terrain. Plenty of options to stop short, but that’s sometimes a problem at night at an unattended airport with a family in tow. I probably would not do this with passengers. I would go solo if the need to go was high and I was familiar with the route and alternates. Generally, I would not even plan a scheduled vacation this time of year with a VFR airplane unless a solid backup plan (driving or not going) was in place; way too much external pressure to complete the trip.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Great analysis, Steve. You’re right about the difference between flying with family vs. solo. It does change the pressures.

      • Mike
        Mike says:

        That brings up an interesting point-if it’s hazardous to take your family, isn’t it just as hazardous by yourself?

        I guess to answer my own question…if having my family will cause me to make poor decisions (getthereitis, etc.) and exhibit less flexibility, then I’d go solo if I needed to. Otherwise the conditions are the same regardless of how many people are in the plane.

        • Stephen Phoenix
          Stephen Phoenix says:

          Going solo obviously doesn’t change the potential hazards but does greatly increase your options. Without any external pressure to complete the trip, stopping at any suitable airstrip becomes an alternate possibility. By myself, I can(and have several times) sleep in the airplane if need be; I can walk to town, etc. With passengers on board you subconsciously believe (and rightfully so) that is not an option, so you press on.

  4. Larry Baum
    Larry Baum says:

    If the pilot’s familiar with the territory and is comfortable with flying at night, this looks like a reasonable flight. There are plenty of places to stop along the way (ITH, ALB, GFL) before the terrain rises should the weather in LEB and VSF drop. I’d keep a close eye on the weather while enroute watching for any specials being issued.

  5. Craig
    Craig says:

    A good primer for this flight is to read the accounts of the “1996 New Hampshire Learjet Crash” (you can find one on wiki). A pair of charter Learjet pilots from CT on ILS approach to LEB got lost (that’s about 10 miles north of Claremont). This was in December of 1996.

    The wreckage of the plane went undiscovered for 3 years. A hunter finally found it about 20 miles northeast of the airport; they had flown into a mountain.

    That is a bear of a river valley to fly in, with VFR conditions going downhill to IFR in minutes.

  6. John Unverzagt
    John Unverzagt says:

    This seems too borderline for me. I am only a student pilot and have never flown such a long cross country before, but I would stay on the ground. The risk of the weather becoming IFR is too great for my tastes. With a family in tow, there might be serious distractions in the cockpit. I would not want that added stress while already flying in marginal conditions. Also it is common for pilots to get “go fever”. By which I mean a pilot presses on saying “I can still turn around”, but he/she does not because of pride or some other factor. My fear would be replicating those same mistakes. Stay on the ground and reschedule. If I had an instrument rating, I would file IFR and try to fly through it. Since that is not an option I would wait for another day.

  7. Bill Bennett
    Bill Bennett says:

    Maybe some will call me an overly cautious pilot, but anytime things look marginal, I’m staying on the ground.

  8. Matt E.
    Matt E. says:

    Honestly, I’d let all that weather pass. I did in fact notice it was a night flight and that is when I pretty much quit reading and said, “No Go.” I do most of my flying in the TN valley, and the proximity to the mountains, coupled with sketchy weather, and night flying pretty much spell disaster. This is further complicated by the presence of pressure to reach the destination in hurry in order to avoid the approaching weather. This is definitely a solid no go.

  9. Craig
    Craig says:

    You folks who fool around with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator might want to try this flight there-I still use the FS 2004 version as FSX hogs too much computer. Sadly the default scenery for this part of New Hampshire is horrible and doesn’t correctly show the various mountains and rivers around Claremont and Lebanon that well. The Claremont Airport is up the Sugar River from the Connecticut River, with hills on either side, and Mt. Ascutney across the river in Vermont is a huge obstacle to avoid (I live about 30 miles northeast of Claremont myself so know the area well).

    According to the City of Claremont airport website there are obstruction lights on the tops of all the surrounding hills (Mt. Ascutney also has TV transmitter towers at the top), but the airport itself has no tower and is basically “unmanned” after dark. You might want to try this flight in Flight Sim using Real World Weather tonight, as the forecast is for it to cloud up rapidly after sunset with snow showers and marginal visibility.

  10. Harry Toll
    Harry Toll says:

    IMHO, there is no such thing as a safe night MVFR flight into terrain. I would go part of the way, wait for the weather window to move east, finish the next day…or take a pass.

  11. Forrest Ward
    Forrest Ward says:

    No go. The pilot is not instrument rated, and the only reasonable way to deal with a airport in a mountainous area, with margional weather, at night is an instrument approach. This pilot can not legally fly IFR and therefore to stay legal he is at significant risk of CFIT, if he does an instrument approach (using the AP?), he may be successful, but launching planning on violating FARs is a bad plan.

  12. Earl Brownlee
    Earl Brownlee says:

    Any pilot that has a family, especially a family in the airplane with him should sit this one out and let the weather pass. At 500 hrs’ flight time, he’s in the danger zone of thinking he’s experienced enough to handle the wx. Why push it and get yourself and your family hurt…or worse?

  13. Holger
    Holger says:

    Rising terrain at destination and quite high terrain enroute assuming pilot goes direct (better may be to go east and than north). The mentioned AIRMET even reports that higher terrain reachs into the clouds.
    Small spread (temp minus dew point)at detination means clouds/fog can start to build up quickly. The calm wind may support that tendency.
    The high pressure conditions are only a small area between lows.
    I would not take that risk.

  14. Mike Friedman
    Mike Friedman says:

    Not enough weather info to make a decision. I would want the TAF for KLEB, Concord, Manchester, Portland and anyplace else that reports in the area. I would also like to see the radar picture in motion to see how the New Hampshire weather is moving. If the weather is moving east and improving at my destination, I would launch with a plan of reevaluating at ALB since the chances of leaving the next day are slim to none. I would decide in advance that I would have to have at least 2000 feet of clearance over the 4000 foot terrain east of Cambridge VOR and at least 4000 and 10 reported minimum weather for Lebanon and Concord when I passed ALB in order to continue and take a look at getting through to the destination. Even so, I would be planning on a retreat to ALB if there was any issue on ceiling or visibility after passing ALB. I would also make a call to the FBO at Albany to be sure I would have transportation if I landed. If all of those conditions were met, I would launch. I would first tell the family (or other passengers) that we were likely to stop in Albany and finish the trip the next morning to relieve myself of the pressure to complete the flight to meet family expectations.

  15. dick welsh
    dick welsh says:

    With a 1 degree spread between the temp and dewpoint makes this a definite no-go. This could be risky, family or no family, even for an instrument rated pilot in the mountains.

  16. Ron
    Ron says:

    I would go. However I would have plan B to land at Albany if the mountains became obscured. Another possibility is to swing south of the Green mountains go over the Berkshires and then head up the Connecticut river valley.

  17. David Gissen
    David Gissen says:

    No go VFR at night. Marginal forcast for VFR in the mountains. I have flown into Lebanon, NH. It is ringed by mountains with not much development — that is no markers for the hills. I have had to circle to gain altitude after departure to get terrain clearance there. Also at night this time of year you can expect decreasing temperature that equals a lowering icing level (note dewpoint spread).
    So again not VFR at night however in that aircraft being IFR rated I might go under an instrument flight plan.

  18. Mike Brown
    Mike Brown says:

    If it were daytime, I’d give it a shot. As others have noted, there are lots of alternates along the way with good conditions, at least as far as Albany. At night, as a non-instrument pilot? Not a chance. Night VFR with clouds is essentially IFR, regardless of what the FAA says.

  19. Beth Robinson
    Beth Robinson says:

    I was all set to takeoff …. Then the “after sunset twist” stopped my prop. With family, with potential ceiling issues, and the normal risks of night flying….well, we’re going to the movies…staying on the ground.

  20. J A Cann
    J A Cann says:

    Sorry, but conditions are too marginal and/or iffy for VFR, and the comment on being fortunate to be leaving as stated seems a bit cavalier.

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