The two rules of weather flying

Rain spit on our backs as my wife and I walked along the shore, toward the southern end of Amelia Island. The tide was coming in, and each wave brought the potential for another set of beach treasures. She looks for interesting shells… conches, welks, sand dollars and the like. My preference is sharks’ teeth, which are plentiful but still hard to find as they hide among the smaller coquina along the water line. We make a habit of celebrating the first find during each of our visits.

“Got one,” I said. “I’m off the schneid!” It may be the only one I find for the next two weeks, but still, this trip is now a success.

Rain over beach
Weather moves slowly, but it’s not static.

We had walked out of the rain showers, but now it was time to turn back, and the sky ahead was menacing with streaks of gray falling to the ground. Staying dry looked like a real improbability, as the downpour was smack dab over our condo. These were the kind of morning showers that hit the coast of north Florida when a high pressure sits over the Carolinas, pulling the ocean moisture up against the land. They can be heavy, but also very short.

“Do you think we should wait it out?” my wife asked.

“Nah, let’s just start walking and see what happens.”

As we ambled back toward the storm, I thought about how my perception of weather has changed through time as a pilot. I suppose it’s common for new pilots to look at weather as static. It’s ingrained during private pilot training. When the only place you’re going is the practice area, and rain or low ceilings have invaded that space, the flight is scrubbed. And even when you start planning for short cross-country flights, the time and distance horizons are seldom greater than the weather that exists right over your head.

It’s when you start to plan longer trips, over several hours or several days, that you develop a deeper understanding of how to navigate the atmosphere. And for me there are two principles that guide my thinking on these journeys: the weather will always change; and, it’s always scarier on the computer screen!

The first principle seems cliché… Who hasn’t heard that in their life? We all know the weather will change, eventually. But as a pilot, you learn to predict how it will change, and when. This doesn’t come immediately but is learned through experience. And with this experience comes the confidence to fly more, and farther, and to enjoy the thrill of going up against Mother Nature with the odds in your favor.

A recent flight from Denver to Atlanta illustrates this principle. A strong low pressure over the Plains had been creating great storms along my route for several days. But on the eve of my planned departure, the low started lifting toward the Great Lakes, and the storms were dissipating. I could tell they were petering out and I could easily make my fuel stop in northern Oklahoma. Indeed, I made it there in mostly clear skies with not a drop of rain on the windshield. (And a bonus, the bottom side of that same low gave me 50 knot tailwinds, which would extend all the way to Atlanta.)

Radar map
Lots of storms, but lots of gaps too.

The second leg was more interesting. I planned a nearly straight shot into Atlanta, using the Walnut Ridge (ARG) and Muscle Shoals (MSL) VORs as waypoints to avoid a few lingering buildups from the low pressure. The bigger question mark was a mass of moist air moving up from the Gulf of Mexico, causing wide bands of storms to creep northward into Georgia. But this mass was moving slowly, and I judged (with my tailwinds) that I could get in ahead of it. Worst case scenario, I could land somewhere north of town and wait it out.

And this is where the second principle comes in. As I departed, NEXRAD showed big blotches of yellow and red with those little lightning marks on both sides of my route. And the map of central Georgia was filling in like a jigsaw puzzle with similar colors, and creeping toward the city. To the average person, and certainly to my wife following on FlightAware, this looked like a very scary proposition.

But these maps show things in only two dimensions. What the computer doesn’t show is that clouds and storms are not uniform, and that especially with these summertime buildups, there is often clear sky between them. Which is exactly what I found at 13,000 feet: clear air, great tailwinds and the ability to easily navigate around the storms and make it back to Atlanta in personal record time.

Years ago this trip would have frightened me… now it was an exhilarating challenge and a great memory. And I realized that this mirrors life itself: things will change if you wait them out, and they always seem more threatening until you tackle them head on.

Back on the beach, as we approached our condo, the storm did indeed blow itself out, and the dark clouds dissolved into a fine mist. In their place a rainbow appeared, starting at the edge of the waterline and arcing halfway into the deep blue sky. The rainbow merged directly into a contrail streaking much higher across the heavens, as if signaling those other pilots that it was all clear to their next destination.

7 Comments

  • “…it’s always scarier on the computer screen!”
    Sounds like the author never has endured a ride through the bowels of a thunderstorm.

  • True, I have not ridden through a thunderstorm, but that’s sort of the point of the article! They are often easier to avoid in the air than they appear on NEXRAD.

  • High pressure system over the Carolinas “PULLS ocean moisture against the land?” I thought air flows from down, out, and clockwise from a high…just trying to visualize what you are describing…seems like it would PUSH rather than pull. But I’m also thinking that i have given this way too much thought!

    • The flow is clockwise around a high pressure system. When the center of the high is over the Carolina’s, the flow south of the center is easterly over Florida, which is off the ocean toward the land.

      When the high center is directly over NC/SC the winds are basically calm. Winds over Virginia would be westerly, over TN southerly and directly off Cape Hatteras, northerly.

      This is simplistic. Other pressure systems will deflect the wind some, but essentially the direction of the wind are in a relationship with the center of the high.

  • Jeff, I totally agree with you on the weather changing. I do a lot of 3-4 hour flights to pick up dogs for Pilots n Paws. It is not at all uncommon to start a flight with the destination weather quite bad with storms or low IFR, and to have it clear before I arrive. Timing is everything with the weather. I also worry about turbulence when flying dogs and I find the turbulence forecasts to be very pessimistic.

  • Great article Jeff – well said. The satisfaction of heading out on a 800 nm trip and timing it with the movement of an entire weather pattern so you get tailwinds out and then 3 days later enjoy a tailwind for the return is right up there !
    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Good article, thank you. Also keep this in mind while zipping between those towering cumulus; sometimes the weather can “move” faster than you.

Leave a Reply

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