Don’t ruin a flying vacation with weather worries

Ah, the joy of flying your family on a vacation. Leave when you want, fly direct to your destination, and stay late. More time relaxing and less time stressing about travel, right?

If you’ve ever planned a flying vacation, you know this isn’t quite how things turn out. Sure, the convenience of traveling by general aviation is hard to beat, and as pilots we usually have a lot of fun just getting there. But there’s another factor that can quickly overshadow the fun – weather worries.

I’ve battled this off and on for years, but a recent trip to Disney World with my wife and two kids was almost ruined by my constant stressing about the weather. For a week leading up to the trip, I watched the forecasts, my stomach churning. The charts showed a huge front bearing down on our route, with ice, low clouds, high winds, and thunderstorms – much more than the few pop-up storms I was expecting. TV weather reports also got excited about the upcoming weather event, which only added to my worries.

Radar map
Lots of rain, but is it anything worse than rain?

I hated to disappoint my family, but as the day of our departure drew closer I knew I had to make a decision that put safety first. A few bumps and some IFR is fine with my passengers, but some things are simply a no-go for me. That might mean canceling (and by this time airline tickets were prohibitively expensive).

After a restless night’s sleep, I awoke on the morning of the trip to a pleasant surprise. That front was indeed a nasty one, but the worst of it was far to the west. Our departure airport was IFR, but there was nothing more than rain. After the first 100 miles, it looked as if we would be out of the rain completely. With a noticeably more relaxed attitude, I took off and four hours later we were touching down in sunny Florida.

While the outcome of this trip was successful, I wasn’t very happy with my emotional state or my decision-making process. I wasn’t disciplined in my approach to the weather, and perhaps more importantly, I had allowed flying to become a source of stress instead of a source of joy. After reflecting on this week of weather worrying, I wrote down a few lessons learned.

1. Set a realistic departure window. Flying yourself demands flexibility, and sometimes the right answer is to leave a day earlier or later. Keep that option open, but you have to be realistic: what’s the earliest you could leave on your weekend trip? If it’s Thursday, don’t spend all day Monday stressing about the weather. You can’t do anything about it anyway, so avoid the temptation to over-analyze the situation. A quick check of the prog charts is fine, but don’t let the long range forecasts make a decision for you five days out. The weather and the forecasts will change many times before the big day arrives, and you should rarely cancel a flight just because a forecast map looks ugly.

2. Have a solid backup plan. This one is obvious, but most pilots talk the talk more than they walk the walk. On my big trip, I didn’t have a great plan B and it backed me into a corner. The right approach is to leave yourself the option to leave earlier/later, drive instead of fly, take the airlines, go to another destination, bring along another pilot, or something else. Whatever works for you, be serious about a backup option. If nothing else, it will put your mind at ease – and that’s worth a lot.

3. Focus on specifics. This is an easy trap to fall into: the weather forecast says there’s a 30% chance of thunderstorms on the day of your departure. That’s less than ideal, but does it really matter? Especially in the southeastern US in the summertime, that forecast is valid almost every day. Widely scattered storms that appear in the mid-afternoon do not preclude a safe and comfortable day of flying. Ask yourself if these storms are in solid lines or just pop-ups. The same goes for IFR conditions: is it due to local conditions like fog or something more serious like a warm front? Asking these questions will force you to be specific about the weather system you’ll be flying through. Stick to precise aviation forecasts and don’t spend much effort on the TV weather shows.

Thunderstorm
Thunderstorms are bad news, but often there are wide gaps that allow a safe and comfortable flight.

4. Don’t obsess about radar. For many pilots, the radar image is the go-to weather product when making the go/no-go decision. It’s a great tool, but a single-minded focus on it can lead to bad decisions – especially if you’re flying IFR. Nobody likes rain, but a little green on the map is just fine, and yellow returns are often safe if it’s in stratus clouds. Even if it’s worse than that, consider how scattered the cells are and whether you could weave around them. More than anything, back up your radar analysis with METARs, satellite imagery, convective forecasts, and forecast discussions. On a recent flight the radar was solid green and yellow, but the ceiling was 8,000 feet and the visibility was quite good. The radar looked ugly, but it was a safe VFR day.

5. Don’t check the weather too often. When there’s nothing to do but wait, it’s easy to park yourself in front of a computer and refresh the radar every five minutes. Don’t do it. This constant stressing about weather doesn’t make your decision any easier, and might even tempt you into an unsafe flight. If you’ve been watching the radar all day and it’s consistently bad, you might jump at the first update that shows improving conditions. Wait and be sure you see a trend before making a decision.

6. Don’t be afraid to take a look. Canceling on a forecast or a radar image is not always smart, especially if you’re disciplined enough to take off and turn around if the weather is below your minimums. The fact is, some days the only way to accurately evaluate the weather is to go flying and see what it looks like. That doesn’t mean you should scud run around mountainous terrain or tackle conditions beyond your ability. At the same time, I’ve made numerous flights comfortably because I was willing to break up the trip into short legs and only fly as far as conditions were safe. Have some firm rules about when to give up, but remember that the view out the front window is what counts.

7. Have the talk with your spouse/friend/colleague long before you fly. Almost all of the preceding tips demand that you set passengers’ expectations ahead of time. If they expect airline levels of punctuality, they will be disappointed and you’ll feel additional pressure to complete the flight. If they realize getting there is half the fun, you’ll have a lot more freedom to change the departure time or the route. Be honest about the limitations of traveling by general aviation aircraft, and have that talk long before you get to the airport and the clock is ticking.

More than anything, keep your priorities straight. Your job as pilot is to make sure flying adds to the enjoyment of your trip. If you find it becoming a major source of stress or a distraction, it’s time to move to Plan B.

19 Comments

  • Good stuff…this is me on every crap weather flight! Thanks for the tips! I’ve also noticed that for some reason the radar image looks a little “less mean” on the iPhone, rather than the iPad (even though it’s the same image), so if I need some comforting, I always look at the phone.

  • Nice article John. Especially important is your #1. At WeatherSpork we’ve made this the #1 feature of the app. Finding that departure window is extremely easy and quick without too much overthinking the best time to depart. Also I would add a #8, think big picture. That’s going to tell you more about the weather you may experience than any of the TAFs, MOS or even ground-based radar. I know most pilots are very bad at this, but I really try to emphasize this in all of my workshops.

  • John,

    Thank you for your endorsement of flying in the “green”. In that spirit I’ve included these simple time-tested rules.

    Flying in rain is absolutely the best way to wash an airplane. Dial the prop back to the lowest practical RPM (or else periodically file a few thousandths off the prop leading edge) and let nature do the work. If the airplane leaks, be sure to have plenty of towels. Above all, don’t get water on the approach plates. They will turn to mush.

  • John, I can so relate. Finally learned there’s no point stressing until departure day. A forecast is not a guarantee. The prog charts on aviationweather.gov are pretty good for the general picture up to 48 hours out, but I make my go/no-go decisions based on actual and near-term forecast conditions. Even then, the situation can (and sometimes does) change along the way. Like you said, it’s all about being flexible.

  • What a terrific article for the average pilot like me who has checked Metars every hour on the hour while waiting for the right time to depart… So much information, especially forecasts, have led to cancellations and long drives that, in retrospect, would have worked out, or as you say, at least take a look… If a high time pilot like yourself stresses over “vacation weather” then I feel much better…. Good insight here.

  • Good article—I’d love to see you develop this idea into a longer form, maybe even a book like “The Anxious Pilot’s Survival Guide.”

    When I compare the number of flights I’ve stressed over for hours with the tiny handful I’ve actually had to cancel or postpone over the last 16 years, I wonder why I’m fussing so much. But I still haven’t learned how to avoid letting it spoil a lot of the fun of flying.

  • First – let’s begin with the table stakes! Are you current AND proficient and is the plane up-to-snuff? If not, find the time to get yourself and the plane ready for a trip. If you can’t at least do that, then why bother using GA? Buy the airline tickets and be done with it.

    For 44+ years, I’ve worked hard at being a proficient GA pilot regardless of what plane I’ve owned. And when the plane is down, then it’s either another plane (if available) or the airlines.

    I do watch the weather, but I don’t obsess over it. Like John and others have said, unless it’s a huge system or hurricane, usually there’s some kind of wiggle room in the departure or arrival time to allow for weather. If not, you’ll usually know that far enough in advance to make large enough changes in the departure/arrival times to accommodate (either leaving a day early or late).

    Have I had to cancel vacation GA flights – yes, but for good reasons:
    – In 2014, we didn’t fly to the Outer Banks due to a hurricane in July. Went to Chicago instead.
    – Took the airlines to Florida when a fuel tank leak in our plane required sending a tank out for a repair.
    – Missed a wedding in Philadelphia due to a hurricane. Very few others made it to that wedding – the airlines canceled as well.

    Many times we altered our plans slightly to deal with the weather:
    – I can’t count the number of times we’ve left early or late to beat or be behind the weather.
    – Stayed on vacation a day late to miss a front that came through late the prior day. Got a nice tail wind as a consolation prize.

    So it can be done. You have to be proficient, then have a positive attitude that you convey to your passengers. Above all – be flexible.

    We’re going to AirVenture this year. Leaving on Wed 7/25 @0800ET … assuming decent weather. See you there!

  • Most of my flights are for work and while there are times I can be flexible, there are times I cannot.

    The more flexibility (can go two days before, come back two days after), the less I even think of alternate plans.

    When I know I will have no flexibility, I plan on the airlines and buy the tickets immediately – weeks before the trip.

    Then the thought process changes: I am planning the airlines (usually Southwest) so the Cessna is a pleasant surprise if it works out. And there is no economic pressure because you can reuse the funds.

    Just don’t forget to cancel the airline tickets before you pull the plane from the hangar; I mistakenly thought they were automatically cancelled and it cost me one time – I learned.

    As to weather… I agree with all John said. I would add three things

    1.) Read WEATHER FLYING by Bob and Bob Buck and Mr. Collin’s FLYING THE WEATHER MAP. Both are practical guides to flying weather. The intro to Weather Flying (Wolfgang’s comments and Chapter 1 should be read and reread and read again. Then read it one more time.

    2.) All forecasts are poisonous snakes – handle with great suspicion! Never decide to go until the morning of at the earliest. Have absolutely zero faith in them. Watch the actual METARS and other weather info with a great service (XM) in the cockpit.

    3.) The only thing that matters is what is outside the window; always have an out, never box yourself in. Suspicion and alternate action are the ONLY way to fly on any but the nicest of days.

  • Surely this is a bit of commentary on how our society has progressed over the last 150 years. Back then people would load the family into their 6 hp covered wagon and head out into heat, cold, rivers, mountains, rattlesnakes and Indians to see if they could survive on some windblown piece of dirt in Oklahoma or worse. Now we worry if our 700 shp turboprop with weather depictions and de-ice equipment will get through green or yellow spots on a radar picture and make it to Disneyland. I wish I could see what the next 1000 years will bring (actually, I would be happy for the chance to see the next 50 years).

    • I guess that’s the point I was getting at (but not very thoughtfully). Even 20 years ago I would have either cancelled the flight with no second thoughts or blasted off and watched the ADF needle for nearby lightning. All the additional weather information is great, but it has also made the decisions a little more fraught.

  • If you’re not already reading them, the forecast discussion section of the nws page is useful …gives you insight in how confident they are in the forecast products, whether all models agree and it’s a slam-dunk or they’re all over the place and admitting it’s a WAG at best.

  • Thanks, John. From the number, and quality of the responses to date you’ve obviously touched on a subject that many of us struggle with. You’ve described me to a “t”————-when I’m flying my family. But, when I’m just flying myself the stress in the preflight days is nil. Zilch. Zero. It’s amazing, the difference in attitude. Thanks for a fine article and thanks to those who’ve responded above with such good perspectives and advice.

  • I once was planning a summer vacation flight to Alaska from SoCal with my family. As our departure date approached, a huge storm pushed southeast through Alaska. It would affect our flying plans for at least 4 days. So we just changed our vacation plans. We spent the two weeks hopping around the southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada — and had a wonderful time with no weather concerns.

  • John,

    Thanks for the great article. As many have said already, a lot of us suffer from this malady. I have my IR, but have been non-current for a while. Sometimes I wonder if being current would help this situation or make it worse.

    Keep the great articles coming.

  • John, I know what you mean. Biblical weather warnings once changed my family March break trip home. I bought airline tickets to Canada from Florida on 24 hr. notice. They had to get back. I didn’t want that pressure. They left Key Largo in a limo for FLL (and a non stop flight home) and I took off in the Navajo at the same time, expecting to spend the night somewhere near Charlotte. Their flight was delayed, then they waited an hour for their bags. Guess who was the first to walk into our house in Toronto? But no regrets….it comes with the territory.

  • Hi John – Very timely as I am currently considering an IFR flight from the MSP area in our Cardinal to take my daughter’s family (including my only grandson) to her 25 year college class reunion in GRB over the upcoming weekend. Prior to reading your article, I told my daughter to implement her plan B and texted her that “the aviation weather forecast is too serious [low IFR throughout WI] to plan a flight with your family at this time”.

    She texted back by saying that the 2 boys would cancel but “how about just you and me? I’m willing to take on some tough weather”. Her perspective is based upon years of her IFR flying with me all over the country when she was a child and then back and forth to college in countless fun but challenging IMC weather situations – never missing a schedule if I recall correctly.

    I texted back and said: “that opens up the window for me and will seriously study situation with decision nlt noon tomorrow. Will talk at that time.”

    And then I read your July 9 2018 post a few moments later. You have a perspective on making weather decisions that is most compelling and I commend you for your ability to so well articulate making critical safety of flight decisions when engaging a serious weather map – while minimizing the stress factors in the process.

    A sincere thanks from an FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award Recipient.

  • John –

    I want to add my note of thanks for this article. I fall into the “stressing-over-weather” trap easily prior to and during vacation flights, so I saw a lot of myself in your introductory comments.

    One minor thing that I would mention on top of your excellent comments is that I am a big proponent of watching the trends. Take MOS data, for example. I usually start monitoring those forecasts as early as they are available. If the forecasts are consistent over time, that suggests to me that the forecast models are predicting conditions well and I increase the level of confidence that I ascribe to those forecasts when the time comes to make the decision. Sometimes, those MOS forecasts change every time they are updated, suggesting that the model is not fitting well and I become more conservative in my planning. I don’t think that single point forecasts are very useful, but that the trends speak volumes and are worth following in the run-up to any cross country trip.

    Thank you for an excellent article, John!

  • Great article John, as demonstrated by all of the replies. Back in the “old” days we got our briefing from FS and most of the time took off and made decisions on the go. This left us sitting at airports, or perhaps an occasional overnight waiting for the weather to clear. But that was part of flying.

    Now with all the weather info we have, we expect to be able to make all of the weather decisions before flight. We often spend way too much time pouring over all that data.

    All that I can offer after 40 years of cross country is that about 75% of the time, the forecasts are pessimistic. The weather is better than forecast. Then there is the 25%. Better have a backup plan and be ready for some inconvenience.

    Now I fly rescue dogs and cats for Pilots n Paws. I worry more about turbulence than I used to. The thought of being grounded at an intermediate airport with 11 dogs and a cat is terrifying. I bring extra leashes, water, and food, but being stuck at an airport overnight wood be a disaster.

    So the worry continues. Guess it is part of flying.

  • I need to flag this article and read it before every trip. Despite 40+ years flying, an instrument rating, and a capable airplane, I still obsess about this stuff as every trip is planned — and then worry about the return weather! Ignorance is certainly NOT bliss, but in some ways I miss the days of calling FSS, and having a guy (always a guy in those days), tell you to “go,” or “you would be an idiot to leave the ground.” A highly experienced friend notes that on occasion we have too much information on demand, and he is correct in a way. For those of us who do not fly for a living, the goal must be to enjoy the experience by securing adequate training and equipment, carrying passengers who understand the limitations of general aviation, having multiple backup plans, fully understanding the weather and what causes it, and simply not fretting about forecasts that often as not will change (for better or worse) by the time of departure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *