Go or No Go: low IFR in a Baron

It’s a typical late afternoon flight for you, with the mission of returning your boss to his home in Lexington, Kentucky (LEX) after a day in Greensboro, North Carolina (GSO). The trip should take just under two hours in your Beechcraft Baron, which you fly professionally. It’s well equipped, with datalink weather, onboard radar, dual GPSs and an autopilot. You have over 1500 hours in the airplane and are instrument proficient, since you almost always fly IFR. Take a look at the weather briefing below and tell us if you would make the trip or cancel. Proposed departure time is 1815Z, so arrival will be just before sunset.

Overview

The map on ForeFlight shows nasty storms the the southwest, but nothing more than green radar returns along your route. There are plenty of red and even a few pink METAR circles, though.

The surface analysis shows the driving force behind this weather pattern: a low pressure system over eastern Tennessee and some associated fronts:

The prog charts show the system moving through the Carolinas and Virginia over the next 24 hours, with plenty of rain overnight:

By tomorrow morning, the worst of the rain should be through the area, but some leftover rain will remain in Kentucky on the backside:

Radar and satellite

With some rain on the map, a good first stop is the radar and satellite images. Regional radar shows a thin line of rain across southeastern Kentucky, but it’s mostly green at this time, and your destination looks clear.

The infrared satellite confirms that, unlike the area in southwestern North Carolina, the clouds along your route have less vertical development.

The visible satellite fills in some gaps, including how widespread the lower level clouds are near Lexington.

Convection

It’s May and there are some lightning bolts on the ForeFlight map, so a check of potential convection is in order. Sure enough, some Convective SIGMETs are active.

The short term convective forecast, though, shows storms only to your south.

Icing

It looks like a definite IFR flight today and with mountains across your route you’ll probably be flying above 7,000 feet. Might icing be a concern? Fortunately, all the icing AIRMETs are well north of your route.

And the freezing level chart shows you should have an ice-free ride, even at 10,000 feet.

IFR conditions

Last on the list is a look at surface conditions. The approaching low seems to mean IFR conditions over a wide area, as the surface chart shows.

The cloud forecast chart shows more detail about the clouds, with lower tops near your destination but higher tops en route.

Some Pilot Reports confirm this forecast, with tops in the high 20s in that line of rain:

But the tops are much lower near Lexington:

METARs/TAFs

Reviewing the METARs, you find that your departure is reporting marginal VFR conditions with good visibility. The forecast shows showers later in the evening, but still marginal VFR until 8pm local.

En route, conditions vary from solid VFR to low IFR. Near the North Carolina-Virginia border, Mount Airy is reporting good visibility and light winds but a ceiling at 1,100 feet.

In the Virginia mountains, conditions are about the same but the ceiling has become solid and at 800 feet.

In the Tri-Cities area, conditions are solid VFR:

Lexington, your destination, is reporting low IFR conditions. The ceiling is right at minimums for the ILS runway 22 and visibility is above the 3/4 mile minimum. The forecast is for conditions to stay low, but then to slowly improve around the time of your arrival.

Decision time

Time to make the go/no-go call. Your boss is a very understanding traveler, but getting home to Lexington tonight is clearly preferable. It’ll be an IFR flight, but no ice and probably no convective weather en route. Your destination is low IFR, but it’s a big airport with good lighting and a full ILS. Add a comment below and tell us what you would do.

9 Comments

  • Based on “my” experience and proficiency listed in the scenario and equipment being flown I’m going. It looks like there are some good alternates not far to the north if LEX goes below minimums.

  • All of the objective signals say “GO” – capable pilot and equipment, improving synaptic weather, plenty of alternates.

    The subjective factors are a mixed bag. The flight transits some of the highest ridges in the Appalachain range then, according to the forecast, it will penetrate a cold front near the destination. It could be a rough ride. Night IFR is a another factor. The improving weather at the destination relies on that cold front sweeping through. If it is delayed a widespread area could go below minimums. Is any of this likely? Not really. But….

    I’d want two hours of fuel on arrival just in case. That said, my real concern is fatigue and its influence on ADM after a long day at work and a non-trivial flight at night.

  • I am a close approximation of your hypothetical pilot, and own and operate a BE-58: If the pilot is well-rested and night current this is a “go” trip-an easy decision really. The two most important factors the PIC needs to consider are destination alternates (and of course fuel on arrival) and contingency plans for an engine failure over higher terrain. The fuel on arrival should be adequate for :30 or so of holding at LEX, and a good alternate-but no more than necessary to preserve good SE performance over high terrain.

  • One screen grab that is missing from this collage is the simplest one of all. A look at the Cincinnati Sectional to get a sense of the terrain elevation across the Appalachians and suitable alternates along the way. Given the terrain features along what is presumably a direct route of flight, I would fly at 8,000′ minimum except for one MEF sector of 6,100′ ivo VA11 which has me concerned. Given the encouraging freezing level details provided and the performance of the airplane, I will be flying this trip at 10,000′ and that is presuming the airplane is equipped and functional for flight into known icing conditions. I view forecast details with the same healthy dose of skepticism as I do following the beautiful flute music of the Pied Piper. There are NEVER any promises when it comes to weather forecasting. I’m also looking at EVERY suitable alternate along this route of flight and that includes NOTAMs for each. Selecting ONE and ONLY ONE alternate to comply with 91.169(c) is never sufficient. A pilot never knows when he/she will have to put it down in a hurry. Airports like UKF, PSK, TRI and CPF all have mile + long runways and ILS facilities. The keyword to accomplish 91.103 compliance is >>> BEFORE <<< Therefore, after I fill in those blanks, the mission will be a GO.

    Q: How do we measure the distance between a CHALLENGE and a FORMALITY ?

    A: In units of _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _.

  • I forgot to mention. The L-26 chart indicates an OROCA of 8,400′ in the same vicinity of VA11 so 8,000′ minimum would NOT be acceptable.

  • Just wait until morning. Have a nice dinner, a healthy breakfast, and enjoy a pleasant trip home, fully refreshed.

  • This is easily a GO flight. Plenty of options, fuel is not an issue, and weather is not an issue.

    I also own and operate the same plane, and just recently had a few flights very similar to this. The plane is capable. The pilot needs to be proficient and have a plan B in mind at all times…. occasionally a plan C. And he needs the ability to execute it if needed. Fortunately, rarely needed.

    One of my recent trips has both the departure and destination at or below mins. Legal alternate was 400 nm from destination. No ice issues, no convective issues unless I turned the wrong way for the alternate. So this was an “update as you go” flight. Had my arrival area gone below mins, it would have been plan B.

    Another recent trip was similar to the OP flight, with a path between fronts. The first front has nasty convection so the plan was to depart after it passed and time the arrival to be ahead of the next front, which worked out find. Most of the thunderstorms were not on the flight path so it was rather easy. And the worst weather was around the departure, so we were heading into improving weather for the most part, and broke out on top with a nice tail wind for a VFR landing at destination. Also, had a number of backups with high mins underneath most of the way.

    The pilot needs to be aware of what to do “if”, especially when weather is a factor.

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