5 min read

Ah, the holidays. A fun time for relaxing with family, right?

Maybe, but first you have to get to grandmother’s house for the big turkey dinner. While your wife and kids made the trip two days ago for some extended family bonding, you’re using your airplane to buy you some extra time in the office during this busy time of year. Your plan is to leave the office around lunch today (1700Z) and fly from Erie, PA (KERI) to the suburban Chicago area (KGYY) in time for tonight’s family get-together.

Just by looking out the window, it’s clear that the weather stinks. But your Beech B58 Baron is a capable machine, with known ice protection, two engines, on-board radar and a good autopilot. You also have 2000 hours in this very airplane, so you are quite comfortable flying it for serious transportation–you could say it’s become an extension of your hands. There are no passengers for this two hour flight.

Read the weather briefing below, then decide if you’re going or canceling.


One look at ForeFlight shows you’ll have a lot to deal with today, from rain to low ceilings. Your route takes you from northwestern Pennsylvania, across Ohio and Indiana and into the Chicago area.

thanks route

The surface analysis shows a well-organized cold front that stretches from Canada all the way down to Texas, cutting your route in half.

thanks surf

The radar picture shows an area of rain across northern Ohio, but it doesn’t appear to be convective.

thanks radar

The satellite picture shows basically unbroken clouds across the entire region, as you would expect with a front like this.

thanks satellite

Prog charts

A look at the prognostic charts should give you an idea of the trend, and they show the cold front continuing to move out to the east. Below are the 12 and 24 hour surface prognostic charts.

thanks 12 hour

thanks 24 hour

The low level prog charts show wide areas of marginal VFR (blue) and IFR (red) conditions over the next 12 hours, but moving out of the area on the 24 hour chart.

thanks 12 hour low

thanks 24 hour low


This is one of the biggest concerns today–anytime a cold front marches across the Great Lakes in winter, in-flight icing is a serious consideration. You start with a look at the AIRMETs for icing, which are scattered all over your route today, going up to 18,000 ft.

thanks ice airmet

Next you look at the CIP icing product at aviationweather.gov. Since you’re flexible on your cruising altitude, you look at altitudes from 3,000 up to 9,000 ft.

thanks ice 3K thanks ice 5K thanks ice 7K Thanks ice 9K

That’s a look at the forecast icing conditions; now it’s time to review the actual conditions, with a look at PIREPs for icing.

thanks ice pirep 2 thanks ice pirep

Finally, it’s worth a quick check of the freezing levels, since lower may keep you above freezing for at least part of the trip.

thanks freezing level


Besides ice, fronts often bring disturbed air and turbulence, so you look at the AIRMETs for turbulence. Fortunately, they show only high level turbulence along your route.

thanks turb airmet

A look at the PIREPs for turbulence generally supports the notion that most of the bumps are up high today.

thanks turb pirep 2 thanks turb pirep

Ceiling and Visibility

The other concern today is the widespread area of low ceilings and reduced visibility. A look at the Ceiling/Vis map shows the situation.

thanks ceiling

Your departure airport is right at minimums (300 and 1/2 mile), so you could get back in if something went wrong after takeoff, but it would be tight.

KERI 221620Z 25008KT 3/4SM R06/4000V6000FT BR OVC003 09/08 A3011 RMK
    AO2= (SPECI)
KERI 221551Z 22009KT 1SM R06/6000VP6000FT BR OVC003 09/08 A3012 RMK
    AO2 SLP202 T00890078=
KERI 221451Z 23006KT 1 1/2SM BR OVC003 09/08 A3012 RMK AO2 SLP203
    60001 T00890078 58003=


The forecast calls for conditions to improve over time, so at least the trend is on your side.

TAF KERI 221139Z 2212/2312 22006KT 6SM -DZ BR OVC006 TEMPO
     2212/2216 4SM -DZ BR
     FM221900 30010KT 5SM -SHRA OVC008
     FM222200 31012G22KT 6SM -SHRA OVC010
     FM230100 32012G20KT P6SM OVC025
     FM230400 32012KT P6SM BKN035=


You check a couple of en route airports to get a sense of the weather, too. Toledo, Ohio shows IFR conditions, but not quite as bad as Erie.

KTOL 221552Z 30008KT 4SM BR BKN007 OVC016 08/06 A3019 RMK AO2 RAE23
    SLP229 P0001 T00780061=
KTOL 221544Z 29009KT 3SM BR BKN007 OVC012 08/07 A3019 RMK AO2 RAE23
    P0001= (SPECI)
KTOL 221536Z 28010KT 1 3/4SM BR BKN007 OVC012 08/07 A3019 RMK AO2
    RAE23 P0001= (SPECI)
KTOL 221452Z 27007KT 3SM -RA BR BKN007 BKN011 OVC055 08/07 A3018 RMK
    AO2 RAB1356 SLP225 P0001 60001 T00780072 53011=
TAF AMD KTOL 221209Z 2212/2312 28008KT P6SM OVC008 TEMPO 2212/2214
     5SM -DZ BR
     FM221400 31010KT 4SM -SHRA BR OVC006 TEMPO 2214/2217 2SM
     FM221800 32012G22KT 6SM -SHRA OVC012
     FM222200 32010KT P6SM OVC025
     FM230100 32008KT P6SM BKN200=


By South Bend, Indiana, visibility is much better and the ceilings lift a little.

KSBN 221554Z 34019G28KT 10SM OVC012 04/02 A3031 RMK AO2 PK WND
     34028/1549 RAB40E51 SLP271 P0000 T00440017=
KSBN 221454Z 34014G22KT 10SM OVC010 05/02 A3029 RMK AO2 CIG 009V014
     SLP262 60000 T00500022 53024=
TAF AMD KSBN 221516Z 2215/2312 34014G23KT P6SM OVC015
     FM222100 34008KT P6SM SCT020 BKN250
     FM231100 31012KT P6SM BKN015=


At your destination, it’s easy IFR, but the wind promises a fun ride down final approach. Fortunately, the preferred runway at Gary is 30, so the crosswind isn’t as bad as it could be at some airports in the Chicago area.

KGYY 221445Z 34018G30KT 10SM OVC015 04/01 A3036=
TAF AMD KGYY 221606Z 2216/2312 34017G30KT P6SM OVC016
     FM222100 34013G19KT P6SM SCT020 SCT250
     FM230100 31008KT P6SM SCT250
     FM231100 32013G21KT P6SM SCT020=

You decide

The wind is blowing, the ceilings are low and there could be ice at altitude–hardly a walk in the park. But you’re an experienced and proficient instrument pilot flying a very capable airplane between familiar destinations. And you’d really like to have turkey with your kids tonight, without having to endure United.

You have your iPad in your hand: are you filing a flight plan or buying an airline ticket?

John Zimmerman
35 replies
  1. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    Go, but with all fuel tanks topped. There’s an easy escape route to the south if the icing and visibility get bad near destination, and with 2,000 hours just on this aircraft, I’ll trust that the pilot has the wisdom and experience to be willing to divert even 15 minutes from destination if conditions suddenly go below his/her personal minima.

    • Ivan
      Ivan says:

      Go United and relax. Icing, and turbilance are monsters to face. YOU OWE IT TO YOUR FAMILY TO TAKE THE SAFEST ROUTE. It would be a dreadful situation for your wife to face your burial next week. I am a pilot who only has about 80 hours and have been in icing situations one time and it is stressful. I do not want to go there again.

  2. Duane
    Duane says:

    “Get-there-itis” (potentially missing a major family holiday) is significant risk factor that will almost certainly cloud the pilot’s judgement on assessing flight risks. He should have left home a day earlier to give him better weather, or at least to give him more schedule flexibility. He should have also bought the airline ticket as a backup and good defense against get-there-itis.

    Taking off from an airport already reported to be down to minimums is another significant risk factor, putting the pilot right on the edge if there is any problem at all with the aircraft itself on, or shortly after takeoff. By the time he gets to the departure airport it could already be below minimums.

    I don’t see posted here the winds aloft forecast with temps at altitude, nor an indication of the reported cloud top altitude(s) enroute. The TAF at KSBN indicates broken at FL25, which is well above the service ceiling of the B58 Baron (about FL20) indicating it’s at least possble to stay between layers (and thus avoid icing) while transiting the frontal boundary, but that’s just one point on the route, and it’s just a forecast. Not enough to bet your life on.

    If the Baron is equipped with oxygen, and if reported cloud tops enroute are well below (and/or above, where flying between layers is feasible) the service ceiling of the aircraft, then I’d be inclined to go high and get on top of the lower layers, and thus avoid icing down in the clouds until past the frontal zone (assuming ATC will clear you accordingly). Even then the layers could converge and still put you in the soup in the middle of a frontal zone right over the Great Lakes in winter – a classic sucker setup for icing.

    In this case, buy the airline ticket and get there safely. A Baron (and any other light aircraft) is by no means an “all weather aircraft”.

    • Dave
      Dave says:

      Concur with Duane. Get-there-itis is almost enough of a risk factor by itself, regardless of weather. Another huge risk factor is stress and fatigue. If I’m ‘too busy at work’ that I have to sneak in a half day, I’m guessing my head is not in it, I probably didn’t get adequate rest the night before, and I’m probably planning to gobble down some inadequate lunch once airborne. Not the best way to start out on a flight that will likely require maximum performance from the meat servo behind the controls. I’d say this is a classic three strikes setup. Heck, I’d think twice about even driving. Get a good night sleep, go once the front has passed.

  3. Anissia Narang
    Anissia Narang says:

    Where do I find info on reported cloud top altitude(s) enroute. Cieling is cloud base but have not seen cloud tops reported.

  4. Brian
    Brian says:

    No go. You are going to be in Icing conditions on pretty much the entire flight. Flight into know icing condition? Well 10-15 minutes of icing O.K., but the entire flight?!? No way! There is only so much protection from de-ice boots.

  5. Felix
    Felix says:

    I’d go. File for the lowest altitude i could to avoid the ice below 7k. If the ice is a problem at the destination i’d divert south and ride my folding bike all the way to grandma’s house. :-)

  6. Keith Bumsted
    Keith Bumsted says:

    Good scenario, John, and for this one I’m going in my PBaron and I’m headed for Columbus, then over toward Indianapolis and then into Gary from the southeast, and I’m filing for FL220. Since I’m light, it’ll be a quick climb (~ 18 minutes) or so to the filed altitude. Before departure, I’m checking all the warmies on the ground (windshield hot plate, fuel vents, hot props, etc.) and I’m turning everything on as part of the pre-departure checklist plus cycling the boots for good measure. These will stay on until there’s no indication of icing or until breaking out on top. I expect to climb at 140 knots so as to avoid any buildup behind the boots during the climb and I’ll be watching the elevators for any buildup on tail surfaces. Once out of icing conditions, it should be a very pleasant flight on top and in the sunshine. Before starting the descent and approach, all the warmies come back on and it should be a routine approach using the autopilot to reduce the workload.

    The somewhat longer flight path I’ve chosen could perhaps be amended to a more direct flight if the tops are lower than you’ve indicated, but in any case it shouldn’t add more than 30 minutes to the trip, and I get paid by the hour — what’s not to like?

    I wouldn’t be quite so comfortable doing this trip in a normally aspirated Baron — it’s probably doable, but that’s why one buys the additional capabilities — the only time you need it is when you need it! Living in NW Pennsylvania, you just have to know there’ll be multiple occasions to use it. To me, it makes little sense to buy a twin that doesn’t come fully equipped in that part of the country if you expect to make use of it during the winter months. That’s not to suggest that there won’t be days when even the best piston twin will be inadequate, but in this scenario, this is not one of those days.

    Now, pass the turkey!

  7. Chris
    Chris says:

    FAA and NTSB accident investigation findings are matching perfectly the given scenario. Like my good friend John B. (FAA Safety team Manager) says. ” There is no job on Monday worth killing myself on Sunday”

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      No one in the Accident Statistics Data, intended to have an accident while flying. They all intended to make it safely to ” Grandmas House”,have a good time and go back to work …on time.
      Some managed to survive the given scenario …this time….the next flight is always the one that determines how safe we are…not the last one.

  8. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    I am not sure what I would do at John’s experience level and with a twin. I THINK I would go filing for 6 and planning on getting continual updates on where the layers open shortly after departure and along the flight, moving to those areas when possible.

    I would be getting PIREPS on the way to the airport and would hit the highway instead of the skyway if more then 1 moderate ice report materialized across the route at divergent altitudes. I would prefer the road trip of 420 miles and 7 hours over United. It would probably be faster then commercial and also, wouldn’t it be tough to get a ticket?

    Worst case in the air: go south.

    At 550 hours I see two risks that would get my attention: low ceilings at departure and icing on arrival. En route icing will require a lot of communication and perhaps altitude changes, but there are not widespread PIREPS, just forecasts.

    I fly a single so an engine failure on departure would require a landing and recalling the terrain around Erie’s field out west there are places to go but the risk would be high and difficult to manage. In a twin I would plan to pretend it’s a single and land if I lost one. But you can’t get much utility from an aircraft if you plan around the unlikely event of an engine failure. The pre flight, run up and takeoff roll would get close attention and triple checks instead of the usual doubles.

    As to the icing on arrival, when I got to Fort Wayne I would start getting the updates on aircraft going into Gary. If ice is a trace or light, I’d land there. More then that and I would be heading to an airport large enough to get a rental car. First choice: South Bend.

    • Dave
      Dave says:

      While PIREPS are useful, absence of PIREPS doesn’t mean the weather isn’t bad. In fact, absence of PIREPS may mean others were smart enough not to fly in there, or they are too busy wishing they were on the ground to make the PIREP. I haven’t really looked for one, but I bet there are flight tracking apps now that show you active flight tracking (like FlightAware, but showing all flights), so you could see who is flying where and at what altitudes, then see if they have given any PIREPS. Then absence of PIREPS then could almost be interpreted as absence of severe weather. Who knows maybe ADS-B may help in this regard one day, allowing one to more easily/quickly/accurately submit a PIREP via the extended squitter by way of app or PIREP page on your avionics.

      As far as driving to Grandma’s, you’re probably in a very similar (if not worse) high risk situation with get-there-it is, fatigue, stress, weather, etc. Although, it is a lot easier to pull over if/when you realize you’ve made a bad decision, the problem is the thousands of others trying to get to grandma’s without enough rest, in bad weather, that might not be as good at risk management as you. Good luck.

      P.S. What would the insurance company say about this scenario when you wife and kids try to get them to pay out your benefits?

  9. Larry Baum
    Larry Baum says:

    This is a tough one. Having flown south of Lake Michigan a number of times, I’ve got first hand knowledge of the icing potential in that piece of airspace.

    In looking in the forecasts, they improve during the day. So with that and all the other information presented:
    – If possible, leave later in the day.
    – Bring extra fuel to accommodate diversions.
    – Once you are near the south end of Lake Michigan, diverting south seems like a reasonable plan.
    – Consider going part way and if the weather stays down or the icing is more than forecast, land and wait till later in the day when the Metars at KGYY improve.

    The strong winds are a consideration, but with a Baron and a well experienced and current pilot, they are manageable.

  10. Gene Woods
    Gene Woods says:

    It’s hard to say, as I am a 600 hour pilot and only about 25 hours of actual. I have incurred ice once, and that was enough. I am currently looking at taking my nephew back to college tomorrow – about a 200 mile flight. My plane is not FIKI, so if there is any chance of ice, he will have to get a ride from a friend.

    With a multi engine plane, 2000 hours, and hard IFR experience, it might be safe enough to go.

  11. Mike
    Mike says:

    No go. Call United and let the professionals transport you. That supposed escape route to the south is a “suckers bet.” ALWAYS assume that the weather will WORSEN.

  12. Ron Horton
    Ron Horton says:

    I’m voting with the No-Go group mainly due to the icing near the destination – weather looks great for tomorrow, and there are always turkey leftovers.

    John, this is a GREAT scenario and I really appreciate all the work you put into this article and especially the supporting documentation. I have printed it out and filed it behind the “Weather” tab in my notebook that I used just 10 days ago during my CFI intial. As a newly minted instructor (at the age of 63, 47 years after my first solo) I look forward to using this documentation to teach others who will face these decisions.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Thanks Ron. I think the Go/No Go decision is one of the few things that doesn’t really get easier with experience. We learn how to land better, how to talk on the radio, etc. But weather is always a challenge. That’s what this series is about.

      Some pilots cancel too much – it’s not a popular view but I believe it. We can’t run every time there is adverse weather forecast. By the same token, the NTSB reports are filled with pilots who never cancel. The judgment part is in between – getting good utility from a pilot’s license without sacrificing safety.

      • Randolph Holder
        Randolph Holder says:

        I agree John. He’s obviously done a thorough briefing and knows the risks in a capable and properly equipped airplane. 80 hours TT and flying a 172? Absolutely not.
        I also agree with the other commenter who said “climb to 20,000 and enjoy the ride in sunshine.” Easy for me to say with a FIKI turbo and built-in O2, but that would be my plan.

  13. Steve
    Steve says:

    I’d go. Have the same plane and done this kind of trip many times. In this case, I’d probably stay fairly low, perhaps 4 to 8K. However, it’s prudent to always have a good out.
    I’d also need more info prior to departure… more pireps and an update on current weather.
    I’d bet on ice free layers, which isn’t uncommon with this kind of weather, but need to find them.
    If it really got bad, I’d delay, as the wx is improving. Perhaps getting in as late as 6pm (still daylight) and VFR weather for the arrival. If not, the next morning looks a lot better and could always have fun on Sat.

  14. Michael
    Michael says:

    For civil flying, on my own time, if I have to debate a “go or no go” scenario for more that 15 minutes, I don’t go. That is my own rule and it has worked out 100% of the time. When I fly for work… I am willing to accept greater risk because I have access to a more capable aircraft. For this scenario, as stated, I would go… I would also be willing to divert, and rent a car if things became dicey. That is just a reality of general aviation flying and I have made peace with it.

    • steve
      steve says:


      Reading your post suggests perhaps a double standard, which I’m not sure you mean….

      Keep the level of safety the same…. all the time. Weather you’re flying a SE piston or a jet, and weather you have your family on board or your solo. In some cases the jet will get you thru where the piston SE won’t.

      You may have more capability with a jet, but keep your standards for safety the same. Keep the risk/benefit for all flights at what ever level you hope to have, and I hope it’s high.

      • Michael
        Michael says:

        To rephrase (and indicate agreement):

        I am able to mitigate risks differently in a more capable aircraft.

        There are certainly flights I will accept in an all weather aircraft, and/or a high performance aircraft, that I would not take in a light civil SEL for instance.

        So, the one constant between both scenarios is rejecting a flight in which the risks that cannot be mitigated out weigh the benefits of the flight.

        There is significant risk in any flying. A competent pilot must accept or mitigate some risk, or not fly. The question is where you draw the line. And where you draw the line is based on your, or your aircraft’s capability to mitigate risk.

        I think we are saying the same thing. Are we?

        • steve
          steve says:


          Perhaps we are saying the same thing…. you state you’re willing to take a higher risk in a more capable aircraft. I would state you should take no additional risk in any plane… except that you will be able to go more often in a more capable aircraft, but the risk does not increase.

          For example, you may be just as safe and no difference in risk if you fly a FIKI plane in this weather vs. a non ice plane in the clouds when there’s no ice forecast but temp may be marginal.

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