A 1200 nm VFR workout

After a few days of poor weather conditions and unplanned maintenance, on Saturday August 4, I finally took to the skies in our club’s (Lehigh Valley Flying Club) Cessna 182 to visit my nephew and some friends in Tennessee. This was my longest solo cross country adventure which I also utilized to meet (and exceed) one of the Commercial certificate requirements. The 600 nm (each way) adventure tested my endurance, weather knowledge, aircraft management, and ability to pre-plan and adjust to conditions.

I greatly increased my appreciation for in-cockpit weather tools with the use of the handy Stratux ADS-B receiver. I don’t know how in the not so distant past aviators managed without this nifty tool. I can’t think how cumbersome it was to contact Flight Watch while keeping an ever vigilant watch with only the “Mark II eyeball” receivers. It’s a great time to be a pilot!

Planning

Forecast discussion
Reading the forecast discussion is a great way to get a feel for weather trends.

A week ahead of time I pre-planned primary and alternate routes. The primary being the most direct route between our home airport, Lehigh Valley International in Allentown, PA (KABE), and my final destination of Smyrna, TN (KMQY). This route took me over the high terrain of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. My alternate routes were east of the mountains, traveling south through Maryland and Virginia and then southwest at Roanoke, VA (KROA), over even higher elevations of the Appalachian chain. The other alternate was west of the primary route through western PA into the Zanesville, OH, area and south through Kentucky and on to Tennessee.

Also, the week before my flight, I began reviewing the various long range forecasts from local news along the various routes of travel, the Weather Channel online, and the NOAA weather discussions. I find the NOAA weather discussions very useful as they are NWS center meteorologists basically discussing amongst themselves their forecasted conditions up through a week (read some at AviationWeather.gov or in many EFB apps). I often utilize this resource whether I’m remaining in the pattern or adventuring further from home.

The long range forecast up until the departure all seemed to indicate my best route of travel would be the west route through Ohio and then a turn to the south. Therefore, as the date came closer, I became more detailed on this route for airports, fuel stops, obstacles, and “all information” I could get my hands on.

Departure from Allentown

On the evening before, I created a flight plan on my iPad (FlyQ EFB), filed it with Leidos/Flight Service, performed an Outlook self-brief (1800wxbrief.com) and reviewed the weather discussions for the Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee , Virginia, and West  Virginia areas. Based on this review, I adjusted my planning back to the most direct routing through West Virginia.

On the morning of departure, I reviewed the most current weather discussion and called Flight Service for a Standard Brief as I followed along on the web-site. All was a go, knowing there would be isolated and scattered thunderstorms popping up but no Convective SIGMETS. Yet!

I prefer to utilize the tools from 1800wxbrief.com rather than the EFB as the graphics are better and the set-up I find is easier to follow.

Clouds from Cessna
Staying clear of clouds is the best weather strategy.

After having already completed a thorough pre-flight of the aircraft, my tools (iPad, phone, GPS, Stratux) and myself the only thing left to do was wait for the cloud cover to lift somewhat over Allentown as this was taking longer than forecasted. As soon as the cloud coverage ascended enough to allow VFR departure (a one hour delay) I fired up 89N and obtained my VFR departure clearance.

As the clouds could still become an issue on my climb-out, I requested a climb in the pattern to increase my margins. However, Departure could not accommodate my request. This did not pose any undue concern as the clouds continued to open up more and I knew I would be able to maneuver around cloud coverage to maintain VFR. This was just the beginning of my many small and not so small deviations to remain VFR around buildups both outbound and on the return journey.

Enroute

The Stratux was indispensable in identifying weather I needed to steer away from enroute. Using this practical tool provided me plenty of time to plan ahead as I continued to work around build-ups. Always looking out the window, I constantly monitored changes in the build-ups, ensuring I continued to identify and update all the ”outs” and maneuvering required to remain VFR (climbs, left and right course deviations, descents). Eventually, as time wore on, I noted that soon I would not be able to climb high enough around the build-ups and decided to go below the ceilings. I knew this would be a trade-off between better visibility higher (with a potential of not having the ability to go around or over a build-up) and lower margins by being closer to the hills. With that said, there was no scud running as the ceilings were adequate while visibility was much hazier. I maintained a constant vigilance on visibility and terrain avoidance.

High or low, the air was smooth all around, gratefully providing one less item that could cause fatigue on a long flight. Little did I realize that the flight to Smyrna (KMQY) was the warm-up. The main event was saved for the return flight.

Return

For my return, I again planned multiple routes and fuel stops and went through the same pre-flight planning routine noted above. All the routes planned had multiple isolated showers forecasted and the forecast held up. I would need to contend with this activity and therefore chose the most direct route for my northbound return home by retracing my flight south.

Based on the conditions, I selected and planned two alternate airfields when filing my flight plan with Flight Service. The planning paid off as the first fuel stop (KLOZ $3.99/gal) had a cell right over the field. I decided to continue to the field as I had an hour of flight time before reaching the destination and was working with the indication that the cell would be 20 miles away by the time I arrived. In the meantime, I noted to myself that I would make the divert decision 20 miles from the field.

River
Unfamiliar territory means building more margins.

At 22 miles the field still appeared IFR. However, ATC informed me there appeared to be one VFR departure. From the information I had and what I could see, that was a low departure. I was not about to attempt a low approach into an unfamiliar airfield with hills in the area. I informed ATC I was diverting to my alternate: Powell (KDVK).  I contacted Flight Service on Louisville Radio and informed them of the diversion to my first planned alternate and increased my arrival time by 20 minutes. During planning, I ensured enough fuel was available to divert from the first destination, both alternates and continue to Lexington (KLEX) if needed or even return to Smyrna if those were unavailable.

I decided early on for two fuel stops (each way) to ensure I always had enough fuel to take a longer route than preferred based on conditions. The planning paid off, as build-ups and isolated/scattered showers and storms were along every route possible to get to Cherry Ridge (N30) in Honesdale, PA, that afternoon. I repeatedly needed to navigate off course to maintain VFR. I was constantly observing, evaluating, deciding and executing deviations.

Summary

I utilized flight following on the initial and return flights and found it interesting that not only did I communicate with the expected Class Charlie and TRSA approaches; I was also handed off to Indianapolis Center and Memphis Center based on route and ATC coverage of the different areas. I was not expecting those centers to be involved and will have to see how I change my preparation in the future. I did keep an ear out to the handoffs other aircraft were receiving and anticipated those frequencies having them loaded in standby.

I had a great flight and the time passed more quickly than I imagined. Constant vigilance was maintained throughout, helping me stay ahead of the aircraft and the weather. For example, on one occasion during my leg north to Clarksburg, WV (KCKB), there was a small area I identified on the Stratux ahead of me – about 20 miles and about 10 miles wide according to ATC, who also pointed this out to me. However, ATC (Clarksburg Approach) noted the intensity was undetermined.

I deviated approximately 30 degrees to the left, always aware of the “outs” and as I drew closer, and was parallel to the area of disturbance, I informed ATC that the area was very intense in what appeared to be valley fog and heavy rain taking on the impression of a very dark, impenetrable grey wall. This area of precipitation threw off cloud layers, reducing the ceilings. However, I always ensured a heading toward clearer skies and airports as much as possible to increase the margin of safety. The topping off of fuel allowed this increased margin of safety.

Flying with friends
Flying with friends – always more fun than solo.

My friend Joe, whom I visited in TN, and is also an aviator with much more skill and experience, asked me if I ever felt uncomfortable or if I felt at any point it was too much for me. The answer was simply, no. I always had several outs. In communications with ATC, they were always looking out for me also. I was comfortable with my capabilities in the aircraft and know the aircraft’s performance. I planned on deviations, changes in altitude and fuel requirements. All I had remaining was to execute for any given condition. I did not hesitate. I decided on a course of action and executed. I re-evaluated if needed. Or to put it more succinctly, I performed a variant of the Plan, Do, Check, Act continuous improvement cycle. Or since we are talking about aviation, the 3P’s were employed: Perceive (a hazard), Process (evaluate the level of risk), Perform (mitigate or eliminate the risk).

Finally, I used all the tools I had available to constantly make decisions and adjust for any changes in conditions.

I also took the opportunity to practice entering and programming the Garmin with more involved flight plans and practiced loading approaches utilizing them to help me identify the airports quicker.

On a personal note, I want to thank my nephew, Andrew, for a great visit, Dalton for joining us on our sightseeing flight, and my friends Joe and Sandy for giving Andrew, Dalton, and me a great day on the lake. My nephew is an incredibly talented musician, songwriter, and producer. While Joe and Sandy are the best people you would ever want to know and I’m grateful for their friendship.

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