Go or No Go: smoky San Carlos

The overall weather for your flight today from Scottsdale, Arizona (SDL), to San Carlos, California (SQL), looks excellent—no fronts, no storms, no ice, hardly any clouds—with one exception. Huge wildfires have covered much of Northern California with smoke. That means widespread IFR conditions near your destination. Can you make the trip?

The flight should take about 3:30 in your Cirrus SR22, given the less-than-direct route and 12,000 ft. cruising altitude that are required for avoiding terrain. That’s a long trip in this airplane, but certainly within its capabilities; you should arrive in the Bay Area with about 20 gallons of fuel remaining, which is more than your one hour personal minimum. However, the need to fly to an alternate might cut into that reserve. You’re instrument rated and current.

Departure time is planned for 9:00am PDT (1600Z). Read the weather briefing below and then add a comment sharing your decision.

Overview

Your trip today will take you north out of the Phoenix area, then west towards Bakersfield, before turning northwest towards the San Francisco area.

The surface analysis shows hardly anything to worry about, with no organized weather system throughout the Southwest.

The prog chart shows more of the same, with generally fair weather continuing throughout the day and into tomorrow.

Satellite

There’s nothing to look at on the radar today, but the satellite image shows the smoke covering much of California. It’s clearly not vertically developed, but it is all over the coast.

Graphical Forecasts

The Graphical AIRMET shows what you would expect—good weather except for restricted visibilities. The unusual FU stands for smoke.

These weather conditions are where the Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA) can add some detail. First, the surface forecast, which shows widespread low visibility near your destination.

Then there’s the cloud forecast, valid for about an hour and a half before your arrival. It shows clear skies except along the coast, where tops are low and ceilings are forecast to be around 1000 ft.

Text weather

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Will conditions allow you to make a safe approach and landing at San Carlos? First the good news: your departure airport is reporting excellent conditions and it’s forecast to stay that way.

En route, the weather is good VFR until you get north of Los Angeles. At your destination, conditions are definitely IFR—in fact, they are below approach minimums right now (which are 900 and 1 1/4 for the RNAV (GPS) Z to runway 30). The nearest TAF (for SFO) suggests things will get better as the day goes on.

Given the current weather at SQL, the TAF at SFO, and common sense, you need an IFR alternate today. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good options. Smoke has brought ceilings and visibility down all over California. Here are three nearby international airports, all reporting conditions that are above approach minimums, but not by much.

The story is the same almost everywhere within 100 miles. In fact, Bakersfield is the nearest airport with truly VFR weather right now (clear skies and 3 miles visibility with haze), but that’s 200 miles away.

A few PIREPs offer the last details. As expected, tops are very low but so are ceilings.

Decision time

For a fairly benign weather day, there’s actually a lot going on here. First things first: if the TAF holds, you can fly to your destination and land safely. Easy. Legally, you need an alternate and while none of the airports around San Carlos qualify right now based on the METARs, they do based on the TAFs. In fact, you could wait half an hour longer and eliminate the need for an alternate altogether. The only minor issue is that a Presidential TFR is going active early in the afternoon in Phoenix, so you’d definitely like to be airborne in the next two hours or so.

The legwork for a “legal” IFR alternate is beside the point, really. When you arrive at SQL, you’ll have enough fuel to shoot the approach, miss, and divert to a nearby airport (there are plenty around with precision approaches, including SFO, OAK, SJC). Given all that, you’ll still have the FAA-mandated 45 minutes of fuel on board, so you’re legal. But you won’t have much more fuel than that, so if conditions happen to go down, you have few good options and no solid VFR weather within range. And then of course there’s the hassle factor—San Carlos is much more convenient for your ultimate destination than the big airports at San Jose or San Francisco, not to mention the higher costs.

Is it a go or a no-go? Add your comment below.

15 Comments

  • This is a no go for me. The wildfire smoke forecasts haven’t been accurate in the last month of the California wildfires, so I wouldn’t trust the TAFs to make the decision.

  • Well, lucky for me I flew this part of the route yesterday in my Mooney 231. I flew from Hillsboro, Oregon (KHIO) to Oakland, California (KOAK) in this exact weather. It was a great flight, very smooth, no icing concerns. The only concern I had is where to land if I had a mechanical issue because most of the west was IFR to LIFR. I decided the risk was acceptable and did the flight. I picked 11K to fly down to Oakland (given strong headwinds up high and for terrain allowance). As I climbed up out of Hillsboro, I was out of the smoke at 1,500 feet and on top of the smoke the whole flight. The arrival into Oakland was an easy ILS though a marine layer into good visibility. Coming back home was at FL180 and with a 27 knot tailwind. The approach was 3/4 mile visibility and 1,500 vertical visibility. The approach lights MALSR emerged from the smoke about 1 mile from the field and it was no problem. All in all, a good flight.

  • I would take that flight, filing KOAK as the alternate. KOAK is really two airports, an airline airport on the west side and a GA airport on the east, with a mile of taxiway connecting the two. Rwy 28R on the GA side has an ILS with low minimums and good approach lighting.

    I would also consider KHWD as a practical alternate, even though I would not file it as the alternate. KHWD is a GA airport located closer to KSQL than KOAK, and KHWD has an LPV approach with minimums lower than KSQL.

    Based on the Pireps, it appears that the low ceilings reported around the Bay Area are due to the usual overnight stratus that typically burns off mid-morning. If the TAFs are forecasting this stratus to scatter out before my ETA, that gives me pretty good confidence that I will be able to get into KSQL.

    I’m assuming this SR22 has some form of onboard weather data. If the reported conditions at the destination or alternate are not improving by the time I’m half-way there, I’ve got the option to turn south towards better air to land, refuel and reconsider.

    I will take issue with one part of your route planning. The direct leg from DRK to EHF passes through five different restricted areas around Edwards AFB and China Lake NAWS. I doubt you will get an “as filed” clearance for that. I would file a route that initially goes west from Scottsdale and includes PMD as a waypoint. Once you get into their sectors, the military controllers at Edwards will often give a shortcut over Edwards if their operations allow it.

  • Land in Lancaster and top off giving you a wider choice of alternates. Only go assuming you fly hard IFR on a daily basis. And single engine IFR has its own set of risks.

  • I would go. I would monitor the conditions while in flight using in flight weather. If the conditions are holding or improving, I would continue. If they appear to be deteriorating, I would land short refuel and give it try knowing I now had enough fuel to return to an area of VFR if I couldn’t get in at my destination or alternates.

  • Unless the trip is a must-do, go after the fires have passed and do your connections on-line. California is a disaster and no place you would want to be.

    As far as the flight… one of the easiest IFR flights ever. I would choose an alternate that would suit your destination. HWD is easy and most economical. LVK Is nearby and is often VFR or at least better weather. I like Reilly’s strategy for peace of mind, but the likelihood of you getting in is very good and with on-board weather, an early deviation to HWD or LVK is a breeze. I’m a firm believer that IFR proficiency is paramount whenever operating in and around congested and complex airspace.

  • Go: (1) can easily monitor weather & forecast updates enroute, (2) I like Riley’s idea of stopping somewhere enroute to top off fuel, (3) forecast winds are northwesterly, hence most smoke would be inland making KHAF (on the coast) a potentially viable alternate with RNAV LP down to below 400′. plenty of airports, so spoiled for choice w/r to alternatives, provided sufficient fuel on board.

  • Living in CA, I would have scrubbed, and in fact have repeatedly scrubbed over the last month. It is not about the smoke’s visibility impact on flight safety, as the IFR system will protect us from that, but rather on health. Remember that we’ve been under constant warnings for poor air quality.

    In an unpressurized aircraft like the Cirrus, we’ll be flying through thick layers of acrid smoke and breathing that unfiltered. That alone is bad, but then consider the thinner air at the cruise altitudes needed to stay above the terrain. Between the thin air and the dense smoke, there is a real risk of hypoxia, not to mention watery eyes and burning throats. That will likely have a negative impact on performance.

  • Not enough information.

    Where are the fire(s)? Where are the TFR’s? I suspect a goodly portion of this route would cross firefighting AC going to and from their bases.

    If you can stay well clear of the firefighting ops, I would still suggest not going. It looks do-able, but let’s be honest, if you’re wondering whether you should – you shouldn’t. The area is already congested and stressed enough without GA Aircraft charging in there causing extra workload for the ATC folks. Even if you can go safely – be polite and either stay home, drive or fly commercial. That area doesn’t need any more trouble than they’ve got already.

  • This is clearly a GO for any competent IFR pilot. It has very few risks compared to others with convection, high winds, ice, or really low IFR and plenty of ILSs if SQL doesn’t come up as forecast.

    This is overall a perfect IFR flight. If you can’t handle this, there’s an argument to just give up your ticket and take the bus.

    And the weather seems to be reasonably consistent, but would check in more depth. Also, would keep an update on wx enroute.

  • Nice scenario John!

    I’m voting with the naysayers. I’m not going to duel with Mother Nature on this one.

    When my thought process starts involving words like ‘convenience’, ‘cost’, ‘fairly’, ‘minor’ and ‘legal’, an extra Red Flag goes up.

    Could I go? Sure (if I had your Cirrus….). Should I go? What’s the point?

    This one has too many additional moving parts and potential ambushes: Smoke that doesn’t always follow a forecast; big fires that create their own weather; unexpected, active TFRs that suddenly appear on your MFD.

    “The Graphical AIRMET shows what you would expect—good weather except for restricted visibilities.”

    So-good weather-up in the ‘flight levels’, where you can hold in VMC with everyone else who’s trying to come up with their own Plan B, C, D…and restricted visibility down where it has the biggest impact.

    (“The unusual FU stands for smoke.” See, someone in the federal government did have a sense of humor!)

    Then there’s the other “what if’s”: What if you have an emergency that invalidates all your calculus? Sure, we’re cruising at a ‘cleared to’ enroute altitude that’s above the fray; but what happens if a widget fails that forces you down into airspace with Cal Fire, Dauntless Air, &/or the illegal sight-seeing drones?

    The scenario says it’s “for today’s flight”, which is Sunday. Why plan yourself into a smoke-filled box? At “Decision Time” (before you leave for the airport), decide to stay home & watch a quiet, crowd-free NFL game instead.

    If you do go: Don’t forget to spritz some extra DISCOAT 4220 PLEXIGLASS PROTECTOR on your windshield, bring extra M-95s, and probably have a spare Brackett air filter element (Cirrus?) for the return trip.

  • I’d be “go, with a before-takeoff divert”. Flew much this same scenario in real life on 15-Sept… intent was KSBA to KSQL… because of lingering low visibility, we changed our destination (before takeoff) to KOAK (with KLVK as alternate). Shot the ILS 28R at KOAK without issue.

  • I made a very similar flight to this several times in the last couple months. From Watsonville, KWVI, to Washington State, either KRLD or KBFI, and back. As everyone knows the entire Left Coast has been under a thick cloud of smoke for over two months. Once above the smoke the flight is easy. As mentioned above, I just had to worry about the approaches. I always had something within striking distance to meet FAA minimum requirements for an alternate. Fortunately I also made it in every time though coming back to Watsonville was the most difficult because the fog combined with the smoke made the visibility worse than normal. I fly a Mooney and with 64 gallons on board and only burning 9 an hour my options were greatly extended as to where I could go for an alternate. I would definitely go and did.
    Love these Saturday morning reads. Thnks

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