Go or No Go: how do you define scud running?

After a long Christmas break, it’s time to return to your home south of Seattle, Washington, from your home on the water in Ocean Shores, Washington. The flight from Ocean Shores Airport (W04) to Pierce County Airport (PLU) is an easy 30-minute flight in your Cirrus SR22 – much better than a two and a half hour drive. But as always, the weather may spoil your plans.

That’s particularly true because, while you have an instrument rating, you haven’t logged any approaches in at least nine months so you aren’t current. That means this flight will be strictly VFR. Proposed departure time is 2300Z, or 3pm local. That should put you in Puyallup a solid hour before sunset, so the flight will be during the daytime (if it happens).

Read the weather conditions below, then add a comment to tell us what you would do.

Overview

There’s a weak disturbance off the coast of Washington, and while conditions aren’t terrible, there are some scattered showers over the western portion of the state. Conditions seem to be better as you move east toward Seattle.

The surface analysis shows a weak stationary front hanging down from Canada, although it doesn’t seem to be very organized.

It looks like conditions might get worse overnight, as the prog charts show more rain coming on shore from an approaching low.

Radar/Satellite

The radar image doesn’t show any organized lines, just showery precipitation.

The infrared satellite imagery shows fairly solid clouds to the south, but more scattered around Puget Sound.

A look at the visible satellite confirms this analysis, but reinforces the widespread nature of the cloud layers.

Text weather

This is the key issue today – you won’t be flying in clouds so ice and freezing levels don’t matter, and there doesn’t appear to be any convective weather. But will the rain showers scuttle your proposed VFR flight?

Your departure airport doesn’t have any weather reporting, but a look out the window shows gray skies to the east, with brighter skies to the north. The nearest METAR – about 10 miles east southeast of your departure – backs that up, showing marginal VFR and light rain. The forecast isn’t great, although current conditions seem to be better than the forecast. The rain may have moved through already.

En route things get better, with solid VFR ceilings over Olympia.

At your destination, conditions are also very good VFR. It’s windy, but mostly down the runway.

Decision time

Your destination airport and the en route METARs look encouraging, but your departure airport is on the edge. The radar suggests the rain may be scattered enough that you could deviate around the rain shafts and stay in good visibility. But is that a chance you want to take?

Add your comment below.

23 Comments

  • I go, as long as I can get ahold of a good routing where 1500 feet keeps me well clear of obstacles. Plenty of fuel and daylight to divert or turn around if needed, with better than reported weather at departure and even better weather forecast en route and at destination.

    I also go renew my instrument currency with an IPC asap. I still probably choose this 30 minute flight as VFR, even if current, but as pilots, the last thing you want is to fly yourself out of options, and while a pop-up ifr clearance isn’t ideal, in an autopilot equipped airplane under marginal ceilings it shouldn’t be dangerous if the pilot is mentally prepared and proficient, and it’s a nice backup plan

  • I wouldn’t, because (unlike the hypothetical pilot in the scenario), I’m not familar with weather patterns on the West Coast, especially with the effects of the winds, ocean, hills, and valleys interacting.

    OTOH, if the flight were around the Great Lakes, I’d be comfortable with tighter margins. The weather here can still surprise me here after almost 17 years, of course, but usually I have a good idea of where the problems might come up (eg a northwest wind will carry narrow bands of low viz with it off Georgian Bay into southern/eastern Ontario) and what outs I can use.

    So that’s probably the main takeaway—how many different risks are you taking? If you’re unfamiliar with the region and its weather patterns, I don’t think you should cut the margins tight no matter how much general knowledge you have.

  • For me this is a no go VFR because of the visibility at the originating airport. I’ll fly under 1800′ ceilings all day, but only if I can see 10 miles ahead of me. Especially on days like this, where you can have an 1800′ ceiling, but with all of the moisture you can get all of those scuddy scattered clouds underneath it. I want to be able to see those and divert if necessary.

  • I’d “Go,” but with an extra effort to be fully prepared ahead of time with charts, frequencies, alternate airport information and such – no excessive heads down time in the cockpit allowed.

    The weather meets VFR requirements or better. The flight duration is only 30 minutes – meaning not a lot of time for the weather to take an unexpected turn for the worse. I’m familiar with west coast weather. There are several other airports in that region should I suddenly need an alternate.

    Even though my IFR rating may not be current, it means I do have a degree of familiarity flying in reduced weather conditions, so referencing the flight instruments during periods when the vis is reduced to 3 miles should not pose a problem.

    • — and when I say “referencing” the instruments, I mean using them in a VFR setting for increased accuracy — NOT flying into IMC conditions. Just to be clear.

  • Temp/dewpoint spread is narrow, and we’re near the ocean. I’m not familiar with west coast environment, but on the east coast fog can develop and move suddenly. There is water to the south and west of the departure airport, and winds are from the southwest. Since I’m unfamiliar I wouldn’t make the flight, but would like to hear whether a west coast pilot has a different perspective on fog.

  • I would sell the airplane and just drive. If I can afford an $800,000 airplane but don’r have the brains or time to keep IFR current I should just buy a cheaper airplane and stay out of marginal conditions.

  • I’d say No Go. I’m familiar with this area and there is rising terrain to the east of the departure airport with not many options for going around clouds. I’m not a risk taker when it comes to lower visibility, late in the day in the winter. It gets dark here around 4 so now you are looking at potential for night flying/IFR with low vis and not current. Why take the risk.

  • Been there, Done that literally! Have a condo Ocean Shores, and was returning to S50 (Auburn) just a few miles north of Pierce County. Having lived in the area for far more decades than you are old – and understanding the weather helps. Those low clouds are virtually a daily event on the Washington coast. Before the weather that we have now, I used to call friends, the airports, etc. before making my decisions. If IFR at Tacoma, it was a NO GO. If easy VFR there, and Olympia, I would check Hoquiam – the key point along the trip. If not breaking clouds at Hoquiam, I knew I could make a scud run across the bay and be good. However more than once I have returned to Ocean Shores and waited for better weather.

  • This one is borderline for me flying VFR … I’d have to be there to assess the weather from my departure airport. The reason for that is that aviation weather reporting is vital but not overly accurate sometimes. Normally, I’d have no problem taking a 30 minute flight where I can stay above 1500 ft and not run into ceilings along my route of flight.

  • No go for me…if you’re not already at the hold short it’s already decided…how many tasks between where you are and ready at hold short? 30 mins flying doesn’t mean anything unless you’re ready.

    Don’t have GA experience in WWA, but lots of time on VR/IR routes there. Late day, low sun angles, temp/dew spread narrowing and ice higher up and/or terrain limiting “outs”, I might have looked harder earlier in the day, but now it’s time for the rental car/Uber or tell folks at work I’ll be there when I get there and go feet up with the micro-brew I put off.

    Summer, early day, no potential viz issues, convective vs stratus, flat vs terrain changes the math.

  • I’d go, but I know the area well. There are LOTS of airports between the departure and arrival airport, so options for setting down short of my destination abound. With ADS-B in, (I can’t imagine a Cirrus without it), you can follow the METAR data for airports along your route of flight. If the next airport in the chain is reporting below MVRF status, land at the airport you are currently over and wait a bit. Weather here typically changes slowly and this flight is away from the mountains and other serious terrain features. Without scud running in this area, the number of flyable days/year would be greatly reduced. Many small airports in the region only have GPS approaches with more restrictive minimums than what is achievable scud running. he IFR rating doesn’t help in those cases.

    • Good takeaway from any of these articles is that without local knowledge pushing the edges is dangerous. With local knowledge and respect, marginal VFR opens up a lot of GA utility not available in the IFR system.

      It may be heresy to some, but sometimes it’s also safer VFR clear below than IFR in weather.

      • I think you nailed it Rich. Personal minimums is a fine idea but pilots need to admit that they vary based on familiarity.

        I also agree 100% that sometimes (depending on the pilot, airplane, location, etc) a carefully planned scud run is safer than IFR. Too bad nobody will ever teach how to do that safely – they’d be crucified.

  • if this scenario is in a familiar area that I have flown before I will go keeping open to diverting if necessary to any airport if it goes downhill. There seems to be plenty of airports with good VFR along the way.

  • I would want a bit more information ie the TAF and METARs from KAST to help me better guage what the bigger departure picture might look like, I also would be concerned about keeping adequate terrain clearance while enroute heading east to kplu, there are hills and towers heading east out of Ocean Shores and they even become more notable if you need to deviate North. I would want the weather from stations a bit more south and along the Columbia river valley as these would also be of value to me. I would want to have that get out of jail card before I Made this trip home. Another item I would note is that there is no fuel at the Ocean Shores airport, best to consider that you may need more than what was initially planned for the trip out and back home, including reserves just in case a notable route change in flight is needed. Ultimately, if it feels wrong just wait or drive home, it’s not that far and not worth it, an IPC and keeping current would have been of value in this scenario

  • I’ve lived and flown primarily VFR in this area for a little over 18 years. To reflect what some others have said here, you shouldn’t make this decision based on printed or computer referenced data alone. Along with available weather data, to make a go/no go decision, you have to be on the ramp (or at the hold short). You have to smell the air, feel the moisture, the wind direction and speed. See the character of the ceiling and visibility. Even if at 1200′ agl, is the ceiling stable and flat or are those nasty little curtains hanging all over? And even then, if your gut says go, be very prepared for at least 3 options out in case you find some roadblocks along the way. Being very familiar with the area and its terrain and obstacles, is paramount. To gain local pilot knowledge of the little opstacle-free corridors that can get you to the next open space with alternate landing options takes flying the area for years, accumulating a valuable cache of “close calls”. Also being part of the local pilot community can exponentially increase your knowledge. And finally, every pilot has there own risk assessment method and limits. In general, our limits in Washington are much higher than our friends in the only state north of us. Eventually I’ll post a story on an interesting event while bringing my Beaver down to Washington from Talkeetna Alaska a few days before Thanksgiving. Fly safe and if your gut disagrees with the data, go find a good book and a coffee shop. Those are everywhere around here.

  • GREAT article, as usual, John. However, as a pilot in the Air Force, flying B-47’s on Alert in SAC 1957-58; we received a complete weather briefing, and we were going to Go, regardless of what the weather was. Many years later leaving AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, flying VFR in our Cessna182 for home in Haverhill, New Hampshire; and getting a complete weather briefing that indicated we were going to have some ‘scud’ along the route. We did fly home successfully that day; but there was some ‘scud’ along the flight. The flying experience in the Air Force, and later in the Mass. ANG flying F-86H’s gave me confidence that I could handle whatever the weather was going to be. I would add another point to your article. Always, ALWAYS have a conversation with a ‘Live’ Weather Person, if at ALL possible, the be sure you have ALL the weather along the route you plan to fly; and ALL the airports you plan to land at along the route to you final destination.

  • It seems the tricky part is getting from Ocean Shores to the good VFR by Olympia. I’d go to the airport, preflight, then monitor the radar and window until it looked like heading East was good – along with a viable option to return or land en route. If the viz is good, there’s lots of gas to deviate around precip.

  • Since the given is that you live in Puyallup then one would have familiarity with the weather and terrain. There is a range of mountains to the East, tops at 3000′, that one needs to miss. But following the highway to Olympia can be done at 1500′ easily. A Cirrus is not a good scud running aircraft; too fast with crummy visibility forward in rain through the steep slope windshield. Given the scattered nature of the weather, this would be an easy run, even in a Cirrus.

  • Interesting commentary. Those with local knowledge generally would go. If this scenario was in our part of the country, I’d go as well.

    Also would add the option of asking for a special VFR clearance near the destination or Olympia if the weather started going down.

    However the real key is to get the IFR currency back and to stay current. Just opens up the options.

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