Go or No Go: dodging storms in the Southeast

The mission today is to fly from your home in Louisville, Kentucky, to visit your business in Atlanta, Georgia. With the coronavirus pandemic, you’re trying to do it in a day and save a hotel stay. You made it to Atlanta easily with an 8am takeoff, but now the question is whether you can make it home. As you review the weather in the pilot’s lounge at PDK, ForeFlight shows some pop-up storms.

The flight home should be about an hour and a half in your turbo Bonanza, and its solid performance means a flight in the mid-teens is an option. You’re instrument rated and current, so you’re planning on flying IFR, and your airplane is equipped with SiriusXM satellite weather, a modern GPS stack, and a good autopilot. Your proposed departure time is 1830Z. Read the weather briefing below and tell us if you would make the trip or cancel.

Overview

The radar map shows lots of rain to the east, but along your route it looks more like typical summer afternoon “popcorn” than anything organized. Most of the METAR circles are green.

The surface analysis shows no major weather system along your route; that’s off to the south and east.

The prog charts show scattered storms this afternoon, with the worst weather remaining over Georgia and South Carolina.

Later tonight it’s more of the same, with scattered rain and storms throughout the Southeast.

Radar and satellite

It’s summertime in Georgia, so it’s not surprising that storms are brewing. The question is: how many are there and how fast are they developing? A look at the regional radar shows a lot of action in Georgia, but the worst is to the south of your departure airport.

Closer to your destination, things seem to be clearer.

The infrared satellite shows a typical pattern of scattered cumulus, with higher tops in the Carolinas.

On a day with mostly build-ups, the visible satellite image sometimes offers more details. This shows a lot of cumulus, but no organized walls of convection—at least not yet.

Convection

This seems to be concern number one, so you glance at the Convective SIGMET graphic. As expected it shows a chance of storms all over the Southeast, but the actual SIGMETs are not along your route.

The short-term convective forecast mostly agrees, with the forecast areas for serious weather south and east of your route.

Icing

This isn’t usually a big concern in the summer, but since you might be going high today to avoid build-ups, it’s always worth checking. Fortunately the freezing levels are pretty high and the only area of forecast icing is east of your route.

Text weather

Conditions at your departure airport (PDK) are IFR, with multiple layers and mist. The forecast has lots of colors, including the chance for thunderstorms.

The only PIREP along your route is right over Atlanta, and it suggests you can get on top fairly soon.

En route, conditions are pretty consistent: multiple layers of clouds, but good VFR conditions at the surface.

At Louisville, the weather is excellent but the TAF does mention a chance for storms.

Decision time

You’d really rather fly home this afternoon and avoid the hassle of spending the night, but you’re disciplined enough to know that’s always a possibility. It’s a hot summer day and the clouds are building; there are already storms in Georgia and Tennessee. But there seem to be some holes and you have a high performance airplane that can get you above the haze layer.

Are you firing up the Bonanza or cancelling? Add a comment below.

28 Comments

  • Looks like a prototypical summer afternoon in the Southeast. My biggest concern would be blundering into a cell while IFR. I would have to get a look at a moving radar image before I would make a decision. If this stuff is moving there is a chance it can get organized. If it’s all just pop-ups, I would likely depart and climb to VFR. I would use ADS-B to keep abreast of changing conditions. If I couldn’t maintain VFR I would likely set down and come up with a different plan.

  • I would start and continue until I couldn’t, lots of havens en route. The biggest challenge here is the IFR departure and I would want to know what it looked like to be sure; these types of automated readings can often be very misleading. So that would be my only caveat-I’d have to know what it looks like before I took off.

    Otherwise, I would go but if at all possible I would exercise patience.

    Summer times and afternoon flying can be a lot less fun then if you waited until an hour and a half before sunset to depart.

    Likely to have a beautiful trip home. Leave now and you’re likely to have a lot more work to do on the trip.

    Great job on the scenario!

  • I’d depart, full tanks, flying only as high as possible to be out of clouds, probably VFR, because any in-cloud flying on a popcorn summer day would be quite turbulent.
    The worst of the weather on the route seems to be in Atlanta, and it is forecast to worsen, so I wouldn’t take too long to leave, or the forecast rain cells might keep us there for the night.
    On the way I’d sort out the next steps, always open to alternate. But I believe if we can take off prior to the big rain in Atlanta, we’ll be good. Let’s try it.

  • I agree with the posted comments. If possible, I would take-off as soon as I could while there is known weather that I could deal with. Current forecasts looks like I could fly above and/or “skirt” around the smaller cells. As the above comment I could fly until I could safely not but ALWAYS enroute have an “out”. When I cease to have an “out” in sight most certainly time to come down and wait.

    The scenario shows there is not a reason to “have” to get there so plan a route, make deviations as you see fit when enroute and come down as soon as no longer safe.

  • I agree with Mark and Mark. I actually make a trip like this quite often in my non-Turbo Bonanza from my home airport at LZU to HOC but typically shoot for morning flights to avoid this scenario. I would have no trouble attempting as long as I was VMC once on top and could visually avoid any build up once there. If that became impossible, land at a convenient spot and leave early the next morning when things are much more predictable. IMC on a summertime SE afternoon can get bad pretty quick and would be unwise.

  • If you’re not flying in this weather, you’re not flying summertime afternoons at all. There’s always a chance of ugly weather somewhere along a cross country route this time of year so stay aware, be flexible and be smart.

  • I just made virtually the same flight decision from Florida to Hilton head South Carolina. The afternoon departure was selected to avoid the evening thunderstorms predicted. I opted for VFR so I could pick my way through the build ups getting on top of most of the clouds by 7500’. Made sure I had plenty of fuel and plenty of options along the route. A few diversions along the way to stay clear of the build ups only added 30 minutes to our trip. Made it safely but was willing to cut it short or even turn around at any time if it got ugly.

  • I’d fire up and head home. I’ve got a good panel, weather radar, good skill set. No frontal development appears to be forming along my route. Primarily pop ups which can be navigated around or over. Decent conditions at destination with lots of alternative options. I’d work to get out and up quickly avoiding embedded cells. As if and when it appeared a frontal line was forming or visibility on top degraded I’d set down at an alternate and spend the night. It’s always interesting to discover what my “co-pilot has pinched out of my RON kit since I last used it….

    • This one is a no-brainer. (LAUGHING), John Z, give us something more thought provoking;). My biggest concern is making it home in time for Happy Hour. Not even close to being a big deal.

  • I’d most definitely go plan on flying above the lower clouds being a turbo Bravo I’d be high and go around buildups, ATC has been extremely helpful this year they have limited traffic and have been great at depicting storm cells with accuracy I fly with ASBS, XM wx and stormscope when I’m closer to the weather I’d want to know the degree of lightning rain is fine hail not so good. The more experienced on is Can lead to good tactical decisions

  • Go for it. This why you have an instrument rating and stay current. And you have the experience for good ADM if things go south.

  • I have flown this type of SE weather many times, though more typically from Clemson to west of San Antonio, TX. On those 5 hour flights (TNIO A-36), we always leave early to be across the Mississippi Valley by 10:30-11 am. This flight will require a lot of winding around (proceeding through even low cumulus can bust your head on the ceiling), and the game is never touch a cloud. It’s lots of work, constantly being on alert for course change and not a relaxing VFR flight. If they get together, start forming a line, be ready to land. Good news, there’s many places to set down. We have spherics and both ADSB and XM, ipad and panel. Watch your storm scope. It’s the canary in the coal mine…it’ll point to a developing situation before the radar…and allow an early diversion course. It’ll also give you an early warning if it’s time to land en route. The flight is quite doable, except when it becomes not… On this one, I would refuse to penetrate cumulus because you never know what’s in it or on the other side…and it’ll give you and the airframe an unneeded bang.

  • I made this trip a few weeks ago starting in Augusta, GA with an IFR flight plan departing at 1:00 pm. As the weather kept blooming over central Tennessee I kept diverting to the west. I had to go all the way to Nashville, TN before heading north with the assistance of ATC. Saw lightning twice which was confirmed on the GTN 750 – FISB…

    The diversion added 30 minutes to the trip but the flight was successful sacrificing safety.

  • 90% chance I’m not going. Reason being is that there seems to be a strong line of storms already developing on a line SW to NE directly through Indianapolis. Given that location and knowing that line will more than likely move SE pushed by the cold front to the NW in southern Michigan at 1000 local this morning, it seems likely that those storms (and others yet to form) could be hitting Louisville just about arrival time. I’m calling for a detailed weather brief for Louisville, but I’m probably going to stay in Georgia, have a nice dinner and an enjoyable flight in the AM.

  • I would stay. On a day like t’storms com materialze in an instant. You don’t want to be in one in any aircraft.

  • This is the perfect scenario for an article in Never Again, ILAFFT, or worse, Aftermath. Leaving a “way out” is good planning for bad things. This situation is chancy enough and when we make it home on this one, (and I believe we could), we build a false sense of confidence for the next trip that might be worse than this one. This one is a GO. Tomorrow. Because dodging, diverting, rerouting is flying through a pinball machine to avoid the gutter. Let’s stay the night in Atlanta and depart in the morning’s cool, silky smooth air for an uneventful trip home. Or else our testosterone could get the best of us. TILT!

  • It depends on your personal experience in this exact type of weather and how often you actually fly in/around really bad weather. Unless there is a war breaking out and your plane is needed to strafe some targets in Louisville there is no need to take any chances at all.

  • Its still early afternoon. No mater what you decide you don’t have to call it quits now. There is still many hours of daylight, and never an absolute guarantee that tomorrow will be better. A hotel in say Nashville is still a night away from home just closer with a better chance of success in the morning. Every mile you get increase your chance of success.
    Yes I would go.
    Every comment has been good. These are my favorite article.

  • This is certainly a go. No brainer for a competent pilot and equipped plane. With radar is easy peasy. With XM or ADSB, and a Stormscope its still pretty easy. With XM only, a bit more challenging, but doable

    First I’d try to get more pireps. My goal would be to do this VFR at low altitude, however, would require IFR for the departure. I’d not go high because IF the stuff builds rapidly and lines up, you won’t top it in a TN Bonanza. However, there’s an argument to go high and if the buildups a spaced well, would be easy to navigate around. But for an 1.5 hr trip, doesn’t make sense.

    I’d get the metars for more airports along the way and a radar picture before departure and plan my path based on that.

    If I ventured into a buildup at fairly low altitude, would be a bumpy ride, but very doable.

  • SCOTT DENNSTAEDT says to stay clear of large areas that look like you took a paint brush and splattered it across the chart with green, yellow, and red. My guess is the yellow and red will be there shortly after departure. Not going in my 172 but if you can get high enough this still may be doable, just not for me, no way. Early morning, barring large areas of ground fog after the evening storms, would be my choice. Of course the scenario is chosen to be in that grey area of no real absolute answers, I guess….but what do I know?

  • Well, I’d also like to take a look at the GFA and, for a sanity check, call Flight Service. Otherwise the flight looks doable as long as I can remain VFR on top and visually navigate around the buildups. If things close in ahead, it’s time to divert to a safe place on the ground. I’ve done trips like this as a VFR-only pilot and it’s can really be exhausting, so be extra careful on the approach and landing at home.

  • I’m surprised at the number of pilots that said they would go it on their own VFR foregoing the help of ATC.

    I’m also surprised how many said they depended on FIS-B to keep them out of cells considering that we are constantly warned not to depend on it because of the latency issues.

    With full tanks in a PA28R-200, I recently took off from saratoga county to Groton IFR with a radar picture that had tight corridors to get me home. Flying at 7,000′, ATC, with their real time radar, steered me around the yellow, orange and red stuff, kept me on the edge of the green stuff, contacted the big iron coming out of Albany for PIREPs and kept asking me if the precipitation and turbulence were tolerable. I never had anything greater than light precip and turbulence.

    That flight was my first in those conditions and it was a tremendous confidence builder. Now the weather I’m willing to fly in has been somewhat expanded (within reason, of course). I would never take off into that kind of weather without ATC looking out for me. With ATC’s help it was an uneventful flight that was only 10 minutes later than filed.

    I had a plan ‘B’ which was simply to put the airplane on the ground at the nearest suitable airport if the patches in front of me closed up into a line that I couldn’t climb over.

    I almost never fly VFR because I want the the folks in ATC standing on my shoulder helping to keep me out of trouble.

    So, short answer to a long story, I’d fly the article’s weather IFR in a heartbeat.

  • This is a go flight but weather enroute should be monitored closely in case something pops up. Alternate airports along the route should be noted in the event I would suddenly need to land somewhere.

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