Go or No Go: heading to the beach?

After nine weeks in quarantine, your family is ready for a visit to the beach. It might involve more quiet walks and fewer packed restaurants this time around, but in your Piper Saratoga, the beautiful beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama, are only two and a half hours away. Will the weather cooperate?

Your Saratoga is well equipped, with dual GPSs, SiriusXM weather, and an autopilot, but you are not instrument rated so the flight will have to be VFR. Proposed departure is 1900Z (2pm local), and your route will be from your home in Little Rock, Arkansas (LIT), to Jack Edward National Airport (JKA) in Gulf Shores. Read the forecast below and tell us what decision you would make: go or no go.

Overview

The map on ForeFlight doesn’t look too bad at first glance, with mostly green METAR circles and just a few rain showers west of your route.

The surface analysis also shows no major fronts or areas of low pressure. It looks like there is some type of mild disturbance over Mississippi, which is probably creating those rain showers.

The prog chart for this afternoon shows scattered rain and thunderstorms along the Gulf Coast.

The forecast for tonight shows more of the same, with a chance for storms. Not great, but not surprising for June.

Radar and satellite

The regional radar image shows mostly rain over central Mississippi, but there is some convective activity near Alabama and Florida. Right now it’s very scattered, but is it building?

The infrared satellite shows no major lines of clouds along your route, except for a few higher ones west of your route.

The visible satellite image shows the same big picture, but with typical summer cumulus filling in as well.

Convection and IFR conditions

As you would expect for a late spring afternoon in Alabama, storms are in the forecast. Right now the convective SIGMET map shows only an outlook for the Florida panhandle, not an active SIGMET.

On the good side, there are no other AIRMETs in the area—for turbulence, icing, or IFR conditions. Likewise, Pilot Reports are pretty sparse around the Southeast US.

The clouds forecast chart shows mostly clear skies along your route and to the east, but there are a few lower clouds near the coast.

Text weather

Little Rock weather is great right now, and forecast to stay that way throughout the afternoon.

En route, conditions are good VFR, even under the areas of rain in Mississippi.

Your destination, on the other hand, is showing a lower cloud layer. It’s VFR, with good visibility, but it’s not great VFR. The TAF, for nearby NPA (20 miles east of JKA), also shows a whole mess of contractions—mostly for rain and storms. However, it does show a 3,000 foot ceiling and good visibility during your ETA.

In terms of nearby weather, Mobile (25 miles to the northwest of JKA) is showing better weather, with that lower layer of clouds scattered.

Decision time

It’s time to make the decision. Weather is quite good except for the last 75 miles, but then again that’s what counts. Is it time to load up the kids and take off, or time to load up the car and start driving? Add a comment below.

30 Comments

  • If I were to go, I’d be prepared to land short of the destination. The destination weather is already worse than forecast, and the ceiling is below my personal VFR cross-country minimum of 2000′.

    • Since not IFR rated, either change destination, start driving, or stay home and BBQ in the backyard. NO time to “test” VFR skills with family on board. Better to be “on the ground looking up than in the air wishing you were on the ground.”

  • Ed’s right.

    Go, evaluate en route, land short and rent a car if indicated. This is exactly the kind of flight that builds VFR skills and motivates pilots to consider an instrument rating.

    The worst decision would be to stay home and forego the benefits of airplane ownership.

  • I would go with an eye to stopping early if necessary. Assume to be already renting a car so just a matter of a bit longer drive, but much shorter than a drive from KLIT. Great incentive to purchase Instrument Rating Training videos from Sporty’s.

  • I would leave the next morning. If nothing else, its going to be bumpy due to afternoon heating. That said, I think the flight could be safely made VFR as long as the pilot is willing to divert or even turn around.

    • When it comes to the threat of convective weather, the real concern here, “see and avoid” works best…if Scott Crossfield couldn’t survive embedded thunderstorms, most of us can’t either!

      The no-brainer would NOT be trying to get to the beach during prime thunderstorm hours…go early in the day for no drama. It’s Florida, it’s coastal, it’s summer, afternoon t-storms are as reliable as death and taxes.

  • Bad time of day to start a flight with convective activity in the area. Pack the night before and fly in the morning. As previously pointed out, a bumpy ride at least. But I think it is still doable keeping an eye on things as you progress and land short at Mobile Downtown and enjoy an evening in the city. Fly the rest in the morning. Don’t forget to look at doing a touch n go at Dauphin Island on the west side of the bay. The runway is completely surrounded by water.

  • I’m based in the area and we fly around this environment VFR all the time. But it’s something that requires jungle knowledge of thunderstorms in the south and the time of year. Weather and airplane ownership require you to always have a backup plan or an “out”! This situation is the same, lots of opportunities to land short and wait out the storms, just don’t get boxed in.

  • Given the almost daily build up of thunderstorms along the gulf coast, I would always plan for a morning departure and early afternoon arrival if possible. If this is the only time to depart, I would be hoping to make it all the way, but definitely plan to land short at another location.

  • I rarely take off on such an long trip in the afternoon. If this was the decision I had to make, I would go knowing a stop is almost certain and I would be comfortable with that. I would pick a few alternates mostly to the NW of the destination. I would get weather updates along the way to see if the forecast is still in check. I would not break my minimums and I would also get flight following as they have routed me around such weather (although with better ceilings). Knowing tops of the stuff I am flying near to (near is 20 miles or more) is also crucial for me to keep going or head for the alternate. Having on board weather and autopilot is nice, but one should not take off making a decision based on the fact that they have this technology. We fly for fun and when its less than 2,000 ceiling and you are pressing on, its NOT fun!

  • I think it depends on a few things not presented –

    – how comfortable you are with the aircraft and equipment,
    – how well your family tolerates a change of plans,
    – how open you are to diverting or going back if things don’t look right,
    – how well you can judge what you’re seeing through the window versus on the screen,
    – prior experience in the area and route.

    You have a lot of tools at your fingertips to make the flight safely with opportunities to divert if needed (although it would have been better if you left earlier) provided you know how to use them and pay attention to them. If you and your family are used to flying, flexible and going to enjoy a trip no matter the destination, there’s less pressure and fixation on getting there. There’s some mitigation for your risks.

    I would also say to keep an eye on weather back towards LIT and make sure it isn’t closing in behind you.

    That said, I’m wondering about when the return trip is planned.

  • Why risk it today? Won’t be beach weather when you arrive so get the family up early and go the next day. Summer thunderstorms are tricky and it’s not worth the risk.

  • I agree with Johnny T; too many factors not included in the presentation.

    How many total hours does the pilot have?
    How many recent hours?
    How many in this aircraft?
    What other aircraft does the pilot fly regularly?
    Does the pilot have any Instrument training at all? ( NOTE – if you don’t have at least some – go get some. It could save your life. You don’t need to become an Instrument Pilot, but being familiar with what to do could conceivably save your life and that of your passengers in an “inadvertent” VFR into IMC situation. Off soapbox now…)
    What is the pilot’s personality? Aggressive go getter? or Intellectual? Prideful? or???
    How much do the passengers want to be there?
    What experience does this pilot have on this route and time of year?

    Those factors are just a start.

    That being said, why go then? You could get up very early the next day and have a sweet smooth ride with minimal chance of storms – and save yourself a night’s hotel bill. Not to mention that your passengers will be much more likely to be asleep on an early morning flight thus allowing you to concentrate on the flight. There is no downside. Oh and assuming the Saratoga doesn’t have AC – the flight would likely be orders of magnitude more comfortable in the morning. And you could still be on the beach at the same time as you would have been. Why were we thinking of going this afternoon again???

  • As an instrument rated pilot, this flight is an easy choice, however, as we get older and more experienced, flying VFR is a lot more fun, IFR is lots of work. All the comments presented above are very valid and applicable. Since my destination is presented as possible marginal VFR, I rather take that than solid IFR. But if I really had a choice and I could leave early the next day, that’s what I would prefer to do. If I have to leave this afternoon, then I will prepare the family for a diversion and short drive if need be to the beach. The return trip is another thing that we must carefully look at. If there is plenty of time go by air, if you have to be back by a specific time, use other means of transportation.

  • If u r not IFR rated then avoid taking risk. Forecast is not for absolute VFR on route, so might land up in troubles. Think, is it must to go ?that too with family. It’s fun ride then big NO. be prudent in aviation. Balance the risk and need. One can always wait to have better weather in which you can comfortably & safely fly! Happy flying, safe flying.

  • You could safely try, but may get stuck short of the destination due to building convective activity. This is a trip you should take in early morning, before convective activity builds. VFR/IFR doesn’t matter that much–you want to be able to see and avoid convective activity.

    • Roger, I agree. This is very similar to my flights to HH. If I am not able to get airborne to land by 2 pm, it is a no-go. If I have to leave later, Plan A is to stop somewhere for the night. Plan B is to continue ONLY if the weather allows it. Plan C is to wait till the next morning.

  • As a student pilot being asked to evaluate this situation, my natural inclination is one of flight safety. From this unpracticed eye, it appears that a flight could be made safely about +/- 75% of the route, with a planned divert along the way generally north (or possibly east) of the destination. That said, this calls into question the utility of taking this flight at all at this time of day; as a Maryland resident, we’re used to afternoon summer thunderstorms too. Any beach travel in my area would require an early morning flight, not a mid-afternoon one, especially with potential or actual convective activity anywhere along the route. Like others have said, this is good incentive to get IFR rated, and perhaps an experienced IFR pilot could make this trip happen safely, but I’m not sure if even that is a prudent solution in and of itself if this destination WX is known before T/O. I suspect that the majority of IFR-rated GA pilots would prefer not to put themselves into a position where they’ll need to exercise those skills with their family, let alone themselves, aboard—wouldn’t this be a central precept taught during IFR training?

    • Uh, what? An instrument rating isn’t just so that if you accidentally go vfr into imc you can get a pop up without getting into trouble. Shooting an approach through a 2000-4000ft layer should be bread and butter to an instrument pilot – you probably wouldn’t even get to log it for currency. If that’s an unreasonable risk to take solo, one probably shouldn’t have taken the checkride.

      Going IFR doesn’t change the gameplan others have laid out. Go, maybe try to go earlier, monitor wx and be very willing to land short or bail north. But you have a much higher chance of completing successfully, only convective activity need alter your plans.

      If anything, the VFR Pilot is taking disproportionate risk with the family in back. Needing to run 30+ miles less than 2,500agl under a gradually lowering ceiling seems like a far better recipe for surprises.

  • That’s our favorite airport and we fly there very often. Not mentioned in the options to consider is landing early and waiting until after 6pm to complete the flight. Coastal Alabama weather often settles down before dark and the sunset sky makes for awesome and memorable flying. Our best in-flight photos are from that time of day looking toward Mobile Bay.

    If the weather doesn’t clear then just rent and drive or stay the night and fly at sunrise.

  • 2 pm in the afternoon is not a good time to go. The potential for afternoon thunderstorms along the coast is just to great. Go in the early morning and be safe!

  • I would have to waive off the trip. Living along the Gulf Coast there is to likely a chance that conditions will change during the trip. In looking at the data and the forecast I would delay the trip. If time permits fly the trip in segments. I too have flown in and out of Jack Edwards. Great little airport great location to the shore.

  • Take off earlier if possible. Next morning is good as well as noted above. If that’s not feasible and there is no pressing reason, expect to land short if weather deteriorates. If it starts to clear as daytime heating dissipates the clouds, or at least thins them out, it’s still feasible after the peak heating. If you recall your weather training don’t forget that daytime heating causes convection which does not necessarily end when the sun goes down. Overnight thunderstorms can persist for many days. In the case presented that is not likely so not a major concern. The point here is that you need to be aware of what is possible and what is likely.

    However, VFR flying around convection means you really need to be able to see it. No night flying in this instance if you delay too long. Spring time true dark is far later than mid winter so you have a much longer day of full light to play with. If you’re unsure, don’t go. If you’re comfortable but not wanting to land short or otherwise divert, delay takeoff. It’s a lot easier to get airborne later, as in the next morning, than to be airborne and it become untenable due to weather or darkness.

    Yeah, you get there most likely, but there are always risk levels to consider. If it’s not part of your livelihood, any other factors pushing, then you’ll have the equipment and training to fly around or over the weather. Otherwise, be smart, take off early as possible, delay if you must. If you decide to try it, expect outcomes to be success arriving at desired destination, success arriving at an alternate and driving the rest of the way, (or flying the last bit the next day), or not being successful. That last outcome is definitely not the desired one. Anything else is okay. Use common sense, err on the conservative side and plan better whenever possible.

  • Weather changes so rapidly in this area in June. I had to land and wait out a storm in St Augustine for 4 hrs during my first solo cross country flight due to rapidly developing thuderstorms in the area. I would not risk it with my family. Especially without instrument proficiency, aircraft capabilities and redundant instruments risk can outweight the benefits.

  • As a VFR pilot, I encounter this pretty readily in the northeast summer. With this scenario, I would takeoff with extra vigilance on weather enroute and a solid plan B (land somewhere else). This is why I always travel with 1-2 days leeway on either end of trip. If weather gets bad, we get to see a place we have not visited before! Also, instrument rating will commence for me…

  • This is kind of silly and almost a trick question. You post screenshots of Foreflight which almost no one uses yet not enough WX info to make a meaningful decision. Given the hypothetical nature of this scenario I think many of the comments about experience and currency are superfluous and not valid. I think any reasonable pilot would take this flight without reservation. If it were me I’d agree with others who would leave earlier in the day.

    • First of all, regardless of the source, the vital information was provided. Second, where are you located that “almost no one uses” Foreflight?

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