It’s Monday morning, so it’s time for work. This week that means (hopefully) a one hour and ten minute flight in your Cessna 172 from your home in Greenville, South Carolina (GSP), to your satellite office location in Danville, Virginia (DAN). You’re current in the airplane and you’ve flown this route many times before, but you are not instrument rated so the trip will have to be VFR. Proposed departure time is 1430Z. Read the weather briefing below and then decide whether it’s a go or a no go.
Today’s flight definitely isn’t a slam dunk, as a quick look at ForeFlight proves. While the view out the window is good, the radar shows a big line or rain headed your way.
The surface analysis shows exactly what you would expect: a pretty strong winter cold front moving in from the west.
The prog chart shows it steadily moving into the Carolinas, but perhaps not until later in the day.
Radar and satellite
It’s time to dive into the details a bit more. To start, you look at the regional NEXRAD. It shows a solid line of rain along that front, but on your route of flight it’s wide open.
The infrared satellite shows a similar story: thick clouds along the front but nothing through central North Carolina. There are a few clouds off to the east, though.
And the visible satellite image, just now available with the rising sun, similarly shows a large gap along your route.
For a more detailed look at whether conditions are VFR or IFR, you take a look at the surface forecast chart in ForeFlight. It shows strong southwesterly winds and some scattered clouds, along with an AIRMET for IFR conditions.
The cloud forecast chart also shows a much more pessimistic view than the current satellite image.
Wind and turbulence
It’s not surprising that the wind is blowing, given that cold front. The winds aloft chart confirms you would have a nice tailwind on the way to Virginia.
Will it cause any bumps? The AIRMETs for turbulence are all around, but once again not along your route (at least not yet).
With the big picture in mind, it’s time to review individual airport weather. Your departure airport is showing good VFR and light winds, although the TAF suggests that won’t last too long.
En route, the map shows mostly VFR conditions, but there are a few pockets reporting some early morning mist. Is this burning off or something more widespread?
At your destination, conditions are good VFR and forecast to stay that way. The winds will be picking up as the day goes on, though.
It’s time to decide whether you’re headed for the airplane or the car, and once again Mother Nature has posed a tough decision. While it might not be the best day for a student pilot’s first cross country, it does look flyable: the weather at departure and destination is excellent and you should arrive in Danville long before the cold front moves in. You could have a quick flight to work today and fly home Thursday as planned, well on the backside of the front. On the other hand, the window of opportunity here is narrow and there are scattered reports of marginal VFR and even IFR. Will you really be in the clear all the way to Danville? Will the wind pick up too fast?
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If the Aviation Surface Forecast should prove to be accurate then this is a no-go.
I’ll get on my trusted motorcycle.
VFR only makes this decision challenging. With that limitation, normally I’d recommend going earlier. Right now the enroute weather is fine, but the outs to the east are limited until the mist burns off. It’s doable, but the confidence and VFR experience of the pilot is relevant. Someone with more experience would be fine. Not necessarily a good decision for a newly minted private pilot. Get an instrument rating and make sure the plane is tied down well at KDAN.
As a soon to get my check ride pilot I fit into the newly minted pilot category. I would choose not to take the risk of flying into IFR conditions given the relatively low cloud bases and the conditions off to the east. The IFR Airmet would keep me on the ground for a xcountry of that duration. Options could get limited very quickly so the driving option would win out unfortunately.
Read Pete Alexander’s piece “VFR to IFR in a Flash” and then factor that in before making any quick decisions.
This case really illustrates the value of IFR equipment and IMC proficiency for pilots flying business missions.
Sure, if the forecast holds, this could be a straightforward VFR hop. But there are a lot of things to deal with:
– Charlotte has major departure and arrival corridors along the route of flight. You won’t get cleared into CLT class B on a weather day like this. Expect vectors and altitude changes on VFR flight following that might take you well north or west of Hickory.
– The terrain is not the worst the Appalachians have to offer, but it is high enough, and remote enough, to limit precautionary landing options.
So much depends on the pilot’s experience, capability and mental equanimity that I can’t give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Great points Kim ….. annnd, even on a day when the wx in every part of the region is pristine, and on a IFR flight plan, I’ve still been given all sorts of reroutes well to the North/West to circumvent the CLT arrival/departure corridors. This time, drive and arrive alive.
Sct at 1200 and 2000 with a heavier layer above? I’m a VFR pilot and even with extensive training time flying actual IFR in clouds this is a no go. Terrain, ATC to deal with, a fast moving front and low clouds all add up to a big NO.
It’s a no go
I don’t consider myself a risk taker but it’s only 173NM with a strong tailwind so you should be able to predict the weather and arrive well before the front. Flight into IMC is always a concern and would study the profile view to make sure you are high enough yet not going to get stuck above a broken layer. I’d also want to feel comfortable with the wind sheer and strong crosswind landings should things kick up ahead of the front. Always be prepared to divert or since it’s a short flight, even turn around. You will know 15 minutes into the flight if visibility is deteriorating ahead. Diverting or turning around is a good procedure to practice when you have the time so you don’t have the inhibition of get-there-itis another day. I would try to go while consciously thinking of reasons I should discontinue the flight.
Too much temptation to continue into deteriorating weather and not enough outs. Get in the car and drive. Fly on a better day.
I would personally add looking at en route weather forecasts, and the deviation between forecast and actual in the entire flight area. Also rental car options at airports short of my destination. 1h 15m flight plus planning, preflight, destination activities could push total elapsed time for flying up to 2h-3h. The drive would take 3.5h-4h, so total maximum time savings (there and back) could be 4h. I would probably pass on this without an instrument rating. If the 4h saved were a huge issue, I would get an instrument rating, move, or get a different job.
As a VFR pilot with a C172, you are a recreational pilot at best. Your decision was made in the previous sentence. This is an example “get there-itis”. You do not have the training or equipment for the mission. I use the three strike rule…its easy and I never break it. If 3 things cause me to pause, I’m out. Here you have far more than 3. I would potentially fly this weather, staying local, to gain some seat time but stay close to home and never get into trouble. I live NW of this route near Boone, NC. The clouds can close ever so quickly, mountain obscuration happens fast, and it closes in behind as well as in front. My job requires frequent travel. I have a well equipped 182. I leave my work travel when schedule matters to American 100% of the time. The first strike in my chain would be “I need to get to work” on every work mission. There is a pressure, admit it or not, every time. It’s a strike. This is a drive and plan better for me.
Since the quiz states the pilot will stay three nights we have to assume that they are the owner, a partner or a regular renter,,, thus familiar with the plane.
File KGSP BZM KDAN 6,500 or 8,500 feet.
If problems arrise stop at any airport to the southeast of that route.
I’d prepare to go and have a hard no go time planned that keeps me ahead of the line. The ceilings “should” come up with widening dew point spreads given it’s morning not evening, hence prepping and verifying they actually do before the hard stop time. I’m not familiar with terrain in the area, so I’d want to be comfortable that there are no obscured ridges between me and my “outs” along the way and local knowledge should help assess which ones typically stay low or burn off quickly. I would not plan for ATC help thru airspace, so it’s a bonus if I get it, not a dependency.
This is a problem that could have been prevented the night before with a flight out in the evening well before dewpoint spreads became an issue…I’m sure today’s weather line was not a surprise. It would also preclude the alternative being hours on the road in heavy traffic and heavy rain…not the safest option either!
TAFs show deteriorating conditions. Only reference to the pilot’s qualifications is in the “Decision Time” section. Expecting rwy 31, that means approximate 40 deg crosswind. Potential for windshear persisting. Potential for turbulence as the front moves Eastward is a consideration. If the pilot is actually a student pilot, as a CFII I wouldn’t recommend or sign off on the flight.
Other comments seem to say “this is why you should have an IFR rating.”
Actually, I think being IFR rated would make the decision harder, and is more likely to lead a pilot like this into bad weather.
I agree. This is still a small single engine plane originally designed for pleasure flying VFR. No amount of fancy electronics can make that engine duplicate and IFR gliding usually doesn’t work out well.
In similar situations in the past I have called for a weather briefing and the briefer has been very helpful in assisting me to analyze the conditions and potential changes. Not saying yes or no here just recommending if you are on the fence call a briefer.
Not a good choice when your life is on the chopping block
The weather is always a concern for pilots, (unless they’re not flying). If you’re going to fly aircraft, earn you instrument rating – it will make you a better pilot and you can be part of the system. If you’re going to own an airplane, buy one that is equipped for instrument flight and stay current – you will get more utility out of it, (especially if you want to use it for your business). If you live in the southwest, there are definitely more VFR days than not. If you live in the northeast, (like I do), there are more IFR days than not. Regarding the aforementioned flight, I would probably drive and continue to drive, based on the location, until I earned my instrument rating. Then the real go/no-go decisions can be made. Otherwise, stick to the severe clear VFR flights that offer the lowest risks. If it isn’t safe, it isn’t fun..
This is almost my exact weekly struggle. As if it were written for me. I’m a VFR only 400 hour pilot and I would make this flight. I’m comfortable with my route and my aircraft though.
You are going to be another satistic
I honestly would give this a stay on the ground issuance. As a private pilot i would stay where i am and wait for better weather. No “Get-There-Itis” for me. If you have the slightest doubt over the ability to conduct the flight safely, Stay and wait for better conditions. I am not IFR rated, am working towards it. So this is a no go for me out of pure safety and smart ADM.
Take your CFII along. You’ll pay expenses for hotel and good meals.
You might not get to Danville but you will log real weather flying and be able to divert anywhere.
Either that and drive and risk the highways.
What a good answer! Our pilot is flying for business and needs to learn in real time about this kind of weather on their way to an instrument rating. As a student pilot I have often wondered about this scenario. This is a perfect solution and turns the flight into a safe training opportunity. Thanks for the tip.
When I was learning to fly, I lived in Santa Rosa, CA, and for my work I needed to go to places like Roseburg, Eugene, Portland, and Pendleton, OR, plus Fallon and Winnemucca, NV. I started doing Xcountry flights to these locations before I got my PPL. I hired my instructor to fly along and he turned those flights into a series of go/no-go decisions. After I got my PPL, I continued to hire him to fly along with me when weather was questionable. Those flights helped me learn to make better and safer decisions for as long as I flew. Unfortunately, my financial situation changed significantly and I not only never got my instrument rating, but had to quit flying after about 300 hours.
A VFR pilot in a C-172 is not a good profile for business trips of this type. The absence of IFR certification and a more capable aircraft suggests a lack of commitment to professional piloting standards that would be necessary to conduct business trips like this, especially in a low performance minimally equipped aircraft. There are dozens of things that could go wrong and if you can think of half of them, you’d be a genius — and your profile suggests you’re not a genius!
Leave the airplane in Greenville and drive 3+ hours to Danville on the scenic Interstate highways system. Better yet, leave the afternoon before, get a good nights rest and arrive at the office refreshed and ready to tackle the day’s issues rather than being frazzled from dealing with the issues of flying. Actual travel time may not be much different but would entail much less risk and much higher probability of arriving in time to get some work done which appears to be the purpose of the trip.
I’m surprised at the 400 hour VFR private pilot that would make this flight. As a CFI, this scenario would be a great teaching tool for students (i.e. no easy yes or no answer), but at the end of the discussion I’d hope that the student would see the many risks and scrub the mission. There are simply too many pieces of the weather forecasts, that if off even by a couple of hours (which is an almost daily occurrence for those who read forecasts and then see what actually happens) could create real trouble. I personally would not attempt this flight VFR.
Perhaps I’m thick.
Yes there is IMC in the area and on its way, and the VFR that is there isn’t the best, but the area through which this trip would go has many many potential alternates If finishing the trip once you take off were the only option, then I agree don’t even start. But it is extremely important to remember that one can divert or return at any time. The “go-no-go” decision is not immutable once made. In fact, its a decision that should be revisited every moment of any trip. If this trip were out in the part of the country where (even modest) airports are hundreds of miles apart, then that’s a different story. But the Carolinas and Virginia are blessed with a relatively dense array of potential landing sites. We need to give ourselves permission to fail. While that is sadly inconsistent with many pilots’ personal attitudes, without the possibility of failure, the the demand to succeed eliminates too many options. Options equate to safety margin. If absotively posalutely getting there is an issue, not only don’t go this time, but sell the airplane and never fly again.
The 1hr 10 min flight is actually going to be 1 hr 30 min when you take into account runup, maybe waiting for someone else to land before you can takeoff, climb and potential diversions. Add: Time to get to the airport (depends on how far you live but likely 20-30 min), another 20-30 min for a good preflight (and to pull the plane out) and another 20-30 min for tie down, getting the car rental or uber and now you are up to about about 3 hr. The drive is about 3 hr 30 min. You have to stay overnight because of the weather (maybe longer). Makes more sense, safer and cheaper to drive.
You’re making a lot of assumptions that may or may not be correct. Yes, flying is faster, but it is close, especially if you have to rent a car at the other end.
Some folks can leave their front door and be airborne in 30 min… I can. And if someone is picking me up, easy.
The weather is fine. I deal with this all the time in FL, however, I’d need a bit more info before finalizing this.
For me is, definitely a no go. Although the situation is contemplating a only VFR pilot and a route with reasonable VFR flyable conditions, with excellent “weather at departure and destination” and with a prognosis of an arrival “long before the cold front moves in”, a cautious pilot shouldn’t forget that the weather has a dinamics that goes far behind or ahead the existing TAFs. In such a situation, considering the presented charts, I’ll better go without flying.
Drive, no doubt about it. Life is too short for wasting time trying to justify a flying trip like this. Unless it is wartime and this is a crucial mission!
When in doubt, stay home or car
With the experience I have! I’ll drive! Weather has a mind of it’s own!
Go get an instrument rating. It gives you some good backup in case you get caught in the rain. Also, be prepared to divert to the east.
Under the conditions and airplane used in this scenario, a no-fly is the only option I would take. Mother Nature can be a fickle lady. I would rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air than in the air wishing I was on the ground. The only exception in this scenario for me would be if my CFII was available to go and could turn this into a safe learning experience.
I can’t count how many times the weather forecast versus the reality have not agreed when I’ve flown. The window of oppurtunity here is narrow and the possibility of it closing down quicker than forecast is there. I would advise staying on the ground wishing I was in the air rather than being in the air wishing I was on the ground.
Easy. If the pilot was expected at work the following day, go and see; if expected at work that day – NO. It should not have gotten to this point. Single pilot VFR is not reliable transportation, and it was known the day before the weather would be an issue, and the decision should have been made then.
Eliminate the E in PAVE and enjoy flying. A C172 can be reliable transportation – yet limited without an experienced IFR pilot who attends recurrent training every six months, and then only in benign IMC (no ice, no Thunderstorms, etc.)
I see a lot of no-go plans and won’t criticize one for cancelling out. However, to utilize our planes and make them productive we need to fly them. The weather in this scenario is certainly doable, but some caution is advised (heck, don’t we have some caution on every flight?). The above implies the pilot is reasonably experienced and flown this route many times.
What this flight needs is just watching the weather and keeping a good plan B in your back pocket.
I’d recheck the metars and TAFs before departure, and pireps and a few other things. And be prepared for a possible bumpy ride.