Most of my flying is IFR in high performance airplanes, so a recent helicopter trip through Kentucky and Tennessee was an interesting change of pace. In fact, it was the first time I’d flown a strictly VFR cross-country in years (this helicopter is not IFR certified, so it’s not even an option). The trip was flat out fun, but I also learned some valuable lessons about weather, staying flexible and embracing the delays that sometimes come with VFR flying.
The weather was forecast to be interesting all week, and on the day of the trip Mother Nature did not disappoint. While the weather at my departure was decent and the weather at my destination was good VFR, in between looked challenging. A large band of rain showers was producing low ceilings and reduced visibility across a wide area, and the forecast called for little change over the next 8 hours.
My first lesson came early–a good VFR weather briefing is wildly different from a good IFR weather briefing. Maybe that’s obvious, but I hadn’t done a VFR weather briefing in ages, and I had to adjust my habits. Planning for a VFR flight in marginal conditions means carefully studying the weather at each point along the route, not just at the departure and destination (as is typical with an IFR flight). In particular, I focused on the trend in the METARs more than the forecasts. Forecasting ceilings is very tricky, and planning a flight based solely on a three hour old forecast is wishful thinking.
Since filing IFR was not an option, I was forced to consider another option: scud-running. The very phrase may strike fear in the hearts of some pilots, but a well done scud-run can be safe and effective. As Richard Collins has written, scud-running “was widely done in the good old days. A lot of pilots were pretty good at it.” In the last 20 years, we’ve conducted a war on scud-running, placing this technique in the same league as smoking and drunk driving. While the latter two deserve their bad reputations, I think we’ve gone too far with scud-running.
Certainly, it is not easy–a safe scud-run demands precision and discipline. There are some rules that simply must be obeyed, like having a hard limit on how low you will fly and never getting backed into a corner. But with the right preparation and some experience (don’t do it on your first solo cross-country), it’s another tool in the pilot’s bag.
For my flight, I also tried to build in some extra margins. On the plus side, my departure was good VFR, so I could always turn around. I had plenty of fuel to take a circuitous route if needed. I had no significant schedule pressures. I had a GPS with current terrain and obstacle databases. And my destination was good VFR and forecast to stay there. That’s important, since get-home-itis seems to be worst when you’re trying to make it the last 25 miles in worsening conditions.
I’m an advocate of “taking a look” when it comes to weather and I was up for an adventure, so I departed. I simply flew as far as the weather allowed, hopping from airport to airport. This meant flying away from rain showers and low clouds and seeing where that led. It can be hard to ignore the magenta “direct-to” line on the GPS, but that’s exactly what must be done in low weather.
As I approached Bardstown, Kentucky, some moderate rain had brought down visibility to a point where I was getting uncomfortable, so I landed to wait it out. While some might find this to be an annoying delay, I took it as a chance to explore a new place. As it turns out, Bardstown is the bourbon capital of the world, home to Maker’s Mark and other famous bottles. After borrowing the crew car, I enjoyed an hour-long tour of the charming town and made plans to return some day (when I could enjoy the local product). By the time I got back to the airport, the weather had lifted and I could easily fly south under a 1000 ft overcast and good visibility.
In the end, I made it to my destination, and only about two hours late. The trip was not direct, but it was safe and surprisingly enjoyable, with spectacular scenery throughout the rolling hills of southern Kentucky. I saw places I’d flown over dozens of times before, but never low enough to appreciate the beauty.
The highlight was a stop at Mt. Cloud, a mountain-top resort with a great restaurant and incredible views. Fortunately, they have a beautiful heliport on site with a dramatic approach to the ridge. My wife and I enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime meal looking over the valley below, then had a stunning sunset departure from the mountain. This was an experience only possible for a pilot.
Beyond the pure fun of the trip, I learned a lot of lessons about VFR flying in marginal weather:
- Visibility is more important than ceilings. 3 miles under a 2000 ft. overcast is very uncomfortable, while 10 miles under a 900 ft. ceiling is flyable (in a helicopter at least). If the visibility starts to drop, get on the ground.
- Always have a real out. Turning around and flying 80 miles back to your departure probably isn’t realistic, so be honest about where you’re going if the weather goes down. If it’s really low, have two or three outs. In a helicopter, sometimes this means a nice field–not an airport.
- With most weather systems, an hour makes a big difference. Don’t be afraid to land and wait it out.
- Eyeballs beat datalink weather every time. I love datalink weather (ADS-B on my iPad for this trip), but it only tells part of the story for VFR flying. Flying to better visibility worked much better than just looking at radar pictures.
Another lesson has less to do with flying and more to do with attitude. The out-of-the-way places you discover on a long, winding flight should be part of the fun of being a pilot. We’d all love to fly direct under perfect blue skies for every trip. But I would never have visited Bardstown without a little rain. So I’m trying to embrace the delays and the non-direct routing on longer trips. If you don’t, you might as well fly the airlines.
As Richard Collins says in his great book The Next Hour, “A well-flown scud run was (and is) far more demanding of perfection than is a non-precision IFR approach.” It certainly is. But it’s just as rewarding.