Go or No Go: home from Michigan?

Summer is coming to an end, which means your annual family vacation to northern Michigan is coming to an end as well. Today is go-home day – if the weather cooperates – so it’s time to look at ForeFlight. The goal is to get from Traverse City, Michigan (TVC), to your home in Columbus, Ohio (OSU). It’s about a two and a half hour flight in your flying club’s Cessna 172, which is well-equipped with an Garmin GTN 650, ADS-B weather, and an autopilot. You are an experienced pilot, having made this trip multiple times before, but you’re strictly VFR.

Read the weather report below and decide what you would do.

Overview

At first glance, it doesn’t look like a great day for a VFR flight. There is rain right across your route, and a few red and blue circles indicating less-than-great VFR.

The surface analysis shows a cold front is moving in from the west, which is bringing that line of rain.

The prog charts for the next 24 hours show the front moving through Michigan and Ohio, bringing scattered rain and storms with it.

By tonight, northern Ohio will see most of the rain:

Even overnight the front remains in place, although the low moves off into Ontario:

Radar and Satellite

Taking a closer look at the radar, you see a lot of green and a fair amount of yellow across southern Michigan.

Comparing base and composite reflectivity shows that some of that rain is aloft and not hitting the surface, but it’s definitely raining in many areas along your route. Here’s composite on the left and base on the right:

The visible satellite shows more detail, with lower clouds near your departure, thick clouds along the line of rain, and clear skies over Ohio.

The infrared satellite adds a little color:

Text weather

Since you’re limited to VFR, the METARs and TAFs are what really matter today. At your departure airport conditions are marginal VFR but with good visibility and no rain. The ceiling is forecast to improve, but slowly.

The beginning of your route continues the marginal VFR conditions, with generally good visibility but ceilings around 2000 feet.

A big focus is the area around the rain showers. Surprisingly, most of the airports in that part of the state are reporting VFR conditions, with only FPK showing restricted visibility due to rain:

Livingston County is solid VFR:

Mason is showing light rain but high ceilings and good visibility.

Even Lansing, which is under a yellow section of rain, is reporting pretty good VFR:

Past the rain, conditions are excellent in Ohio.

And your destination is severe clear, with a forecast to stay that way:

Decision Time

It’s time to decide if you’re flying today or spending another night in Michigan. While the airplane is due back today for another flight, you’re smart enough to know that doesn’t matter – safety first. You could take off and stay low for the first 100 miles, but beat any convective build-ups across the Ohio border. This looks doable and the weather around the line of rain is pretty good. But that could be a sucker hole too, and the ceilings might drop quickly as rain builds throughout the day.

Add comment below and tell us if you would go or no go – and why.

41 Comments

  • This is a great exercise – I haven’t “had” to do a VFR flight (aircraft equipment not withstanding) like this in over 40 years. Today, there’s lots of great information available to the VFR pilot right at your fingertips unlike the “guess and go” circumstances in the 1970s.

    Having a VFR experienced pilot and good experience with the route helps a lot. This is not a flight for an inexperienced aviator.

    But this has all the makings of a “scud run” flight till down past Lansing, Mi. To pull this off would mean flying low, all the while checking as many automated weather stations that you can hear along and beside the route to determine where to divert to should the visibility start to close out. That would include turning around if necessary. ADS-B weather will help too, but automated weather is updated much more often.

    I’d be making a “continue or divert” decision about every 15-30 minutes with the diversion airport already in mind updating it as the flight progressed.

    All this assumes that the pilot and the passengers are OK with this kind of flying. If not, spend another day in beautiful northern Michigan. It won’t be the first time a flying club had a plane not make it back because the pilot made the decision not to fly hone due to bad weather.

  • How understanding is the family? If I were solo, I’d go, and pick my way south and maybe east to see the best location to pass. Knowing this might make me stuck someplace inconvenient. With an impatient family onboard? Na, I’d fly tomorrow.

  • As ever, these scenarios are a great argument for getting an instrument rating. As commented earlier, alone, I’d go; with my family aboard, I’d wait it out.

  • Not sure I would want to cut through a summer cold front with building thunderstorms even IFR in a well equipped 172.

  • Solo? “Continue and divert” as Larry suggests above. I have no problem with the adventure of picking my way down and being willing to admit defeat at any moment to stay at an unfamiliar airport for a few hours (or overnight) to let things pass. 2,000ft AGL ceilings (nearly 3,000 MSL in Michigan) gives a good amount of wiggle room. I would not risk with family on board and would wait a day.

  • I would check to see if there are motels/lodging/hotels available prior to my destination and prior to the possible bad weather. I would work my way down some rather than spend another night from my starting point. That is, I would play at by ear as I moved southbound, then make decisions as I go. I too do not like the temp/dew point situation, but, rather than stay up in Michigan, I would work my way down.

  • Pilots kill passengers..so stay put. The pilot knew this weather was coming so the right decision could’ve been to leave a day earlier. Now a day later is the best option.

  • Wait for the cold front to pass stay another day enjoy the family rather than dodge the weather scud running vfr is no fun .

  • This is a recipe for disaster for a VFR pilot. I don’t think I would do it even though I am IFR rated. Too much yellow and a bit of red, convective or not. Best to build some slack into your schedule and wait it out. Good exercise.

  • 30 years as a commercial, multi-engine, instrument-rated pilot in Michigan. I’ve seen too many of those systems “bloom” after coming across Lake Michigan. I’m staying. A nice, leisurely dinner in Harbor Springs at our favorite restaurant and a nice leisurely flight home the next day in severe clear weather.

  • Excellent comments that should give pause to anyone flying a general aviation aircraft VFR. I recall having read somewhere that pilots die in weather-related accidents and are buried on a beautiful, sparkling day.

  • If you are at the FBO and ready to launch- I’d probably go. Its 9:38. You have 45-50 minutes until the weather, many stations are VFR even where the radar returns are, and it is good east of course, so lots of outs if the weather worsened. if you are not already locked and loaded, i might rent a car. Because I’m guessing OSU will be getting worse the longer you wait.

  • I would guess that you have to choose whether getting home is important or the lives of you and your family are more important. “Get-home-it is” is a dangerous game. The charts displayed only indicate the weather when they were printed. They could change in a matter minutes. I know, I live 25 miles from Lake Superior. Be safe and stay in Traverse City. Even airline pilots avoid the nasty weather. Oh, Northern Michigan is the Upper Peninsula, across Lake Michigan via the Mackinaw Bridge or airplane. Stay safe and alive.

  • If not IFR rated there would be no way I would fly this. Forecasts are just that so you’re betting your life they are right. What is the back up plan if the weather deteriorates? A VFR pilot never wants to get caught in IMC. Wait until the front goes through and re-evaluate.

  • Alone I would go. With family I would wait another day.
    It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were on the ground. FLY SAFE!

  • Why not give it a try. Good ceilings, familiar route, good visibility along flat terrain just don’t back yourself into a corner.

  • I’m interested in the comments about with and without family. Is that purely a comfort thing or do your risk preferences change?

    • John, I agree, it’s interesting to read that some pilots would go alone but not with family. Why would a pilot think their life is less precious than their families?

        • JohnZ, I too have heard different decision-making based on whether the pilot is by himself or has passengers. NB the question of whether to ever consider overwater flight beyond gliding distance to land in a piston single.

          I’m instrument-rated and I’d stay an extra day, regardless.

    • I hear this “I’ll do it solo, but not with the family” all the time. If it’s safety related, I could argue against this double standard…. stupid. Now, if it’s comfort (ie turbulence, hot, in the clouds) that’s valid.

      As for this flight, it’s certainly a GO trip. It’s pretty easy VFR with good vis, and forecasts are reasonably good. One would want to brief the route for towers, but at 172 speeds, a non issue. And the only ceiling below 2000ft is departure point and forecast to improve. There is no “storm” as mentioned, and no convective activity mentioned at all.

      Would most likely be a smooth ride, light winds all the way.

      Worst case, do an end run through Canada, but most likely not necessary.

      This flight is a no brainer for the experienced VFR pilot that is mentioned.

      • Larryo,

        You are looking at the current Foreflight map which shows airports VFR. What if the weather gets worse and lowers the ceilings? A VFR pilot stuck in IFR conditions is a recipe for disaster. Too risky for any VFR pilot.

        Regards,

  • Stay in Traverse City, Pick up a bottle of Iron Fish gin to take home (if you can find it) and go tomorrow. You’ll probably end up stopping overnight somewhere so may as well enjoy it where you’re at.

  • Skirting a storm system alone is one thing but to cram a family into a 172 flying into weather with tops more than likely in the 35K to 40k ft range is not a good idea.
    The marginal weather along your flight line will only get worse as you proceed to your destination. See all that yellow to your West? Guess where that will be in 30-45 minutes?
    Open up the laptop, pop some popcorn and watch a Netflix movie with the family and have a great flight home tomorrow.
    SGill
    Leawood KS

  • It is doable IFR, but too risky for VFR with this ceilings. Best IFR option is to cross over, if you can. File IFR plan with 8000-10000 ft initial altitude. I have done this several times between the northern Michigan and Indianapolis. My options were a) wait and fly behind the cold front, b) estimate the cloud tops and climb over c) go though the green precipitation. In this picture, I could fly over KMBS and then direct to Columbus while looking at the ADS-B map and matching the screen with the picture outside the window. I flew clear spaces between the towering clouds at 10k feet with no issues. Use composite radar and 4 color maps in Foreflight. Precipitation line is not thick and linear, so it will take about 10 minutes to cross the line. There will be some turbulence. I wouldn’t go, if the entire state is under rain (i.e. no escape route). Stay away from yellow and red! Tell the passengers that if the convective activity worsens during flight, you will land and wait for hours.

    • Temel,

      I think you have the wrong picture. There is no convective activity on this flight and rain with good vis will not hurt you.

      And using Foreflight to navigate between towering clouds and convection like you mentioned is a recipie for disaster.

  • I think I’d like to see some more forecast and convective products for along the route before making a decision. Probably a definite no VFR, but may be doable IFR depending on what the convective products are showing/forecasting.

  • So those thinking they would go alone prefer to leave their insurance for their family, and let their wife marry another man to raise your children?

    Had this similar circumstance take a great couple anxious to get home, and leave a huge hole in our aviation family.

  • Looks like a trip for a free plane wash ceilings aren’t too bad staying in the light rain is easily possible with a good auto pilot and lots of options to divert, dang sure wouldn’t go if my wife didn’t like rain,or low clouds, 2 1/2 hours of anxiety will kill u quicker in the cockpit , but I wouldn’t ever base my decision on wether or not she was with me or not. If she doesn’t like it and I do, I’m staying another night otherwise if We both like it then I’m going. I’m sure the feedback will be interesting

  • I run a similar route (GOV to HUF) several times each summer and spend a lot of time looking at the weather . I really don’t like the buildup to the west, assuming the radar image is from fairly early in the day. Very often it will grow and the south extension move east, leaving the hypothetical pilot in the rain for much of the trip.

    Forecasts aren’t reliable. Twice this summer with forecast good conditions I wound up in marginal vfr/brief IMC that forced me down, once to MEA.

    I think the responses that would go alone but not with passengers are more thinking about the distraction effect. It’s easier to remain calm and carry on. Also they are more willing to spend the night in the plane at an unattended strip so the urge to press on is less.

    Finally, even if you don’t pas the exam, doing the instrument rating program is very valuable when ambushed by the weather, as I was this sumer.

  • I would say that the more prudent thing would be to wait. I know that club aircraft availability is a huge factor during the decision process. To me it’s simple, stay on the ground another day and fly with improved conditions.

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