Traveling by VFR airplane means staying flexible, especially in the winter months. That’s why you’re at the airport today, two days ahead of your planned departure: with a huge line of rain headed for the southeastern United States, you’ve cut short your visit to Savannah, Georgia, to see if you can get home to Tallahassee, Florida. Is there a safe way to make it back before the bad weather moves in?
You’re current and familiar with the route of flight, but this will have to be a strictly VFR flight since you do not have an instrument rating. The flight should take just over two hours in your Cessna 172S, and given the 2115Z proposed takeoff time, you would be landing just before sunset at your destination. Your airplane is well equipped with a Garmin GTN 650 GPS, a Bendix/King autopilot, and datalink weather on your iPad.
Read the weather briefing below, then tell us what you would do: go or no go?
The first look at ForeFlight shows nothing noteworthy around Savannah or along your route, with no rain and plenty of green METAR symbols.
The surface analysis shows some weather is brewing though, with a low pressure system and a long cold front to the west.
The prog charts show this weather system moving into the Georgia/Florida area overnight.
While the front is forecast to stall a bit, rain and presumably IFR conditions should appear tomorrow and even into the next day.
Radar and Satellite
The regional radar picture shows lots of green and yellow, but not along your route.
The infrared satellite does show clouds, but mostly near your destination.
The visible satellite shows a few more clouds near your departure airport, but more scattered clouds over southeastern Georgia.
While you’re reviewing the big picture, AIRMETs are another good resource. The AIRMET for IFR conditions shows plenty of warnings to the northwest, but nothing along your route.
The wind is blowing just a bit, so it’s also worth checking for any potential turbulence. The G-AIRMET does show the possibility for a few bumps and low level wind shear around Savannah, but you should be out of it relatively soon after takeoff.
Cloud and Surface Forecasts
With no rain or convective activity around, it looks like avoiding clouds and staying VFR will be the main focus today. Fortunately, ForeFlight has recently added some new forecast maps that are particularly helpful for planning a VFR flight. First up is the cloud forecast map, which shows both estimated bases and tops. The first forecast period is right about your time of departure, and shows the same scattered clouds along your route, but with some bases below 3000 feet.
The next map shows conditions about an hour after your ETA, with very thin clouds but again some lower ceilings near your destination.
There’s also a similar forecast product for surface conditions. Since your flight will most likely be at a low level, this is also an important chart to consult. Again, the first one shows conditions around your ETD.
And the next one is for slightly after your ETA in Tallahassee.
Given the varying weather reports about clouds, it’s always wise to review the PIREPs to see what other aircraft have encountered. Unfortunately, there aren’t many near your route today.
The same goes for turbulence PIREPs, but at least this might indicate a good ride.
Last—and certainly not least—comes a look at the METARs and TAFs. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, but at least the weather around Savannah is quite good. The forecast calls for conditions to drop below VFR minimums, but not until overnight.
En route, weather conditions are generally VFR, with a pretty consistent ceiling at 3500 feet.
Weather at your destination features that same broken layer at 3500, but a scattered layer below that. The TAF also shows some unappealing weather, although the truly low IFR conditions aren’t forecast to roll in until 9pm local, a few hours after your estimated arrival.
Given the TAF, you decide to look a little further to the west to get a sense of the weather that might be coming your way. Conditions along the Gulf Coast are worse than Tallahassee, with ceilings below 3000 feet, although the visibility is still excellent and there is no rain. Is that because of the ocean air or a sign of things to come?
It’s time to make a decision. It looks like if you’re going to make it home, it will be either this afternoon or a few days later after the big front moves through. Weather at your departure and en route seems to be VFR, although the ceiling is not much higher than 3500 feet. Weather at your destination is marginal VFR with good visibility and no rain, but the forecast doesn’t inspire confidence.
Is it a go, a no go, or a go part of the way? Add your comment below and explain your thought process.
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For myself, this is an easy go, especially by myself. With passengersI’d have to consider the “confort” aspects more. Get in the air, be flexible about diversions, and keep ground speed up as much as reasonably possible to buy an extra 15 minutes or so if able. Use the autopilot and keep eyes out the window and backup against foreflight for any terrain or obstruction issues because you’re probably at 2500-3000 feet the whole way.
..and your flying experience and hours flying in this region are???
I would go with the option of stopping part way if conditions worsen. The route looks clear for the duration of the flight, except for the vicinity of the destination. Plan a couple of alternatives and go.
Chris and John have it right! Depart with full tanks, keep an eye on current and forecast weather and winds and use this flight as further motivation to obtain and maintain an Instrument ticket. If conditions deteriorate more than expected, turn further south to avoid the approaching frontal weather. Lots of landing options along the way if that seems appropriate.
This proposed flight is an excellent opportunity for learning. Document it with good notes and review it carefully after landing. Above all, resist the temptation to punch through a few clouds — just turn further south to avoid them!
A real trip is always a little more complicated than this scenario. Why are we leaving 2 days early? To get back to work? Is it a business trip or a pleasure trip?
If it was a business trip and I absolutely had to be back at work, the decision point should have been made before I left by considering a 5 day forecast. If it is a pleasure trip, maybe a few extra days aren’t such a bad idea. Leaving early seems to kind of defeat the whole purpose of the trip.
Agreed the main flight risk is deterioration of VFR conditions south of that developing stationary front. But it isn’t the only risk.
If the warm air mass retreats and the cold front accelerates (defying the forecast) much of the flight will take place in, or near, the frontal zone with some very active turbulence. Surface winds gusting to 30 knots aren’t uncommon in these conditions and might prevail at the destination and most of the alternates.
None of this argues against making the trip if you weigh the potential discomfort and landing challenges against your confidence in the forecast.
Good scenario. I agree with departing and keeping an eye out with diversion opportunities to the south or landing short. I also wonder why not wait the extra two days, although the stationary front may hang around for a couple of days, but can’t tell because the longer range information was not provided.
I had a similar VFR flight from Hilton Head to Dayton, OH several years back in the summer. Weather showed a cold from coming down from the NW going stationary right along the SE coast with rain showers for several days. Ended up departing a day early, but still ended up waiting almost 3 hrs in the HH FBO due to a TS that just sat over us. It would begin to disappeared and then regenerate. Because of the delay, took the end around through northern GA versus over Asheville, with plenty of places to stop if needed. Once home watched the weather, and although the front did stall out, there were opportunities in the mid morning to have gotten off and behind the stationary front. After 10-11 AM, forget about it, as there were numerous TS popping up.
Personally, I would only go if it was an instrument flight, not VFR. The reason for me is the weather is sketchy VFR and flying around 500′ below under the clouds at 3500′ leaves very little engine out glide distance. Flying IFR would give you good glide distance and a good ceiling to break out for a VFR landing. I thought engine outs only happened to the other guy… until I had my own. Now I don’t even fly at night; just don’t need to be anywhere that bad. This short trip would not even be horrible if you had to do the “D word” (drive).