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4 min read

General aviation worked its magic for the first half of this trip, with your Piper Saratoga delivering you and your spouse to the Bonnaroo music festival in rural Tennessee in just over two hours compared to the six it would have taken you to drive. Now can it work on the way home?

After a wet night in your tent (and some ringing in your ears from the concert last night), you are ready to fly from Tullahoma, TN (THA), to your home in St. Louis (SUS). Now you just need Mother Nature to cooperate—while you earned an instrument rating a few years ago, you are not current so VFR is the name of the game today. Read the weather reports below and let us know if it’s a go or a no go for you. Departure time is 1800Z.


Most of the bad weather seems to have cleared out overnight, but ForeFlight still shows some scattered rain in the area. There is a colorful mix of both green (good VFR) and blue (marginal VFR) METAR circles along your route.

Radar map

The surface analysis tells the rest of the story, showing a low pressure system centered on western Kentucky.

Surface analysis chart

The upper air analysis charts show it is in fact a cutoff low, explaining the swirling mess of rain that is slowly inching northeast. The prog chart for tonight shows that, while you’re definitely on the backside of this front, it’s not going anywhere fast.

00Z prog chart

Even the forecast for tomorrow morning isn’t exactly calling for clear skies.

12Z prog chart

Radar and satellite

With the big picture in mind, your eyes immediately move to the current observations, namely rain and clouds. The regional radar is mostly clear along your route, especially the convective stuff, but you’ll be skirting the western edge of some rain. And remember—it’s coming from northeast to southwest, so you can’t count on it moving away from your route.


The infrared satellite shows plenty of clouds around this low, but everything along your route looks very thin.

Satellite image
The visible satellite fills in a few of those gaps, including a few rows of puffy cumulus in western Tennessee.
Visible satellite

Cloud and convection forecasts

Now you need some detail about those clouds. First, is there a chance for convective activity? There are Convective SIGMETs out there, but not directly along your route.

Convective SIGMETs

The TFM convective forecast also looks clear to the west of Nashville.

convective forecast

The cloud forecast suggests that while there is a solid layer of clouds out there, it is fairly thin and it breaks up the further west you fly.

Cloud forecast

There aren’t many PIREPs, but they seem to back up this forecast. The first one, not too far from your departure airport, shows a 2000-foot thick layer with bases around 2500 feet.

PIREP Nashville

Another one close to your destination reports a layer that’s just 1200 feet thick, but with bases down to 1800 feet.

PIREP St. Louis

You also decide to step outside ForeFlight to look at some model imagery. Your favorite is the High-Resolution Rapid Refresh (HRRR) from Pivotal Weather. It suggests that more rain will swirl around from the northeast as the afternoon goes on, but it looks quite scattered.

HRRR image

Text weather

Since this is a VFR flight, the specific airport weather is probably the most important data point. Your departure airport has layered clouds, but it’s definitely VFR. The forecast isn’t very pretty for the overnight hours though, with conditions going to IFR by 10pm local.

THA weather

En route there are conflicting reports. There is clearly a cloud layer at roughly 2000 feet AGL, but some places it’s few and others it’s overcast. Just west of Nashville, M02 is reporting few at 1600 and scattered at 2100, with the ceiling up at 5000 feet.


Further along your route, Paducah is broken at 1900 feet.


But nobody says you have to fly a straight line. Further west of your direct route, conditions seem to be more solidly VFR.

METAR west

Your destination airport is showing good conditions and it’s forecast to stay that way. The only issue seems to be a bit of summer haze, possibly caused by Canadian wildfire smoke.


Decision time

The tent is packed, so it’s time to make that go or no go call. It’s obviously not a CAVU day up there, with some leftover rain showers and layered clouds over western Tennessee and Kentucky. Some METARs are reporting marginal VFR, with good visibility but clouds starting less than 2000 feet above the ground. On the other hand, the weather to the west looks at least a little bit better—there might be an easy VFR route out that way.

Are you headed to the airport or headed to a hotel? Add your comment below.

John Zimmerman
11 replies
  1. Capt Gary
    Capt Gary says:

    Maybe, just maybe…
    Go have a good breakfast and take your time. Then look at the reports again. Maybe then I make the decision. How are my ears doing…? The ring settle down a good bit?
    I’m VFR, 2500hr. Pilot. & have learned to Not fly, when I’m not ready. Also my 1st rule is Don’t Mess with Mother Nature….

    • OngoingFreedom
      OngoingFreedom says:

      I like this approach, but with a 1p departure (18z) there isn’t much time to play with.

      While the author presents departure pressures (tent’s packed, next morning’s weather at Smyrna (actually Nashville) is low IFR) using a stutter-step approach can remove some of that pressure, but not all. The drive to “take a look” will grow stronger if the en route weather is reluctant to follow the forecast.

      I favor heading west, say, towards Jackson, TN (KMKL), diverting to Spirit once the weather along the path looks promising. That keeps you away from the lowest ceilings and a path away from the low.

      A powerful tool in ForeFlight is the vertical profile: I put in KTHA-KMKL-KSUS at 2,000’ and while there are a few obstacles to watch for and avoid (such as close to KSUS) the route looks pretty good.

      One thing I shudder at, though, is lost engine glide performance in that Saratoga. That’s going to keep stress levels high as I constantly seek emergency sites in that poor glider. That alone would make me more strongly consider a six hour drive vs. a two (more like 2.5) hour flight home.

      Fatigue is also an issue. Late night, high energy evening (probably with alcohol) PLUS a stormy night in a tent of questionable weatherproofing means a less than restful night.

      The more I think about it the more I favor the drive home.

  2. Larry F Baum
    Larry F Baum says:

    Looks doable VFR – outs to the south and turning around if necessary. IFR – this an easy flight. Get yourself an IPC and practice to return to proficiency. You’ll get a lot more utility out of your airplane.

  3. José Serra
    José Serra says:

    For a IFR trip, no worries for me. On the other hand, for a VFR only flight is a no go, definitely. I don’t mess with morher nature in such conditions. Only may be trying a more westerly route, but, even so, with lots of interrogations.

  4. Maule Pilot
    Maule Pilot says:

    Triple check all the WX sources then burn some more gas and head west, then north. Have alternates picked out every thirty miles or so if you need to land and re-evaluate. I’d go have a look.

  5. Dan Drew
    Dan Drew says:

    You have a license that says you can fly in instruments, you have an airplane, the plane has an autopilot….just go! Currency? The AutoPilot is always current. If Captain Joe in his big jet can fly in this why can’t you? Don’t be a sissy! I promise the weather will be crystal clear in a few days when they bury you. Some good points about heading west then up but like one person said..”have some breakfast”, look at your wife and think how she would look on the coroners table and then sit down and look at the weather again. Then and only then, after watching the actual trend for a couple of hours make a decision. I have found that it is 50/50 as bad or as good as they say but you can always turn around and head another direction.

  6. Michael Berkeley
    Michael Berkeley says:

    I’m an old pilot who’s comfortable in the slag. But I’m just a little out of IFR currency, so I couldn’t file IFR legally. So it’s a no go for me. I’m off to Houston next week to get current with my CFII, but the forecast isn’t the best. So I might have to sit on the ground in a motel waiting for the weather to improve rather that scud run.

  7. Michael Hackney
    Michael Hackney says:

    Option one-southwest departure to then head to Jonesboro Arkansas and refuel, then reassess for the final leg. Or if not a better option, head back to the hotel and depart the following day. Scud running below 2,000 feet msl across eastern-central Tennessee is stupid.

  8. David C
    David C says:

    This is a tough VFR flight due to the ceilings. I would definitely go west first where things appear to be much better and then head north. Not sure waiting is a good call with the possibility of pop up convective activity, already enough to dodge. Much better is file a plan and head west first.

  9. Charles Lloyd
    Charles Lloyd says:

    2 hour flight and if you go to west then let’s say add .5 hours. The siren song says “go” until I look at the TAF for Tullahoma. Whoa! the forecast is heading downhill. As a CFII with 69 years experience I would ask the pilot some questions, asked. The destination has questionable Wx. Are you willing to start and be prepared to land somewhere to the west or northwest and refuel to head home or possibly rent a car to drive to your destination for the festival? A few things to keep in mind.- You are never guaranteed a great circle route to your destination and there are factors that will rise up and make your arrival at your destination a potential realistic conclusion.
    You can take off and skirt to the west VFR but you may not safely get to Tullahoma. I would suggest you stay home and invest in Frasca or Redbird AATD recurrent training.(It is will cost less than your direct operating cost of your airplane. Then, you will be better prepared to make trips like this with more confidence and not scare the dickens out your passengers to the point where they will not want to fly with you.

    Yes, for me I would not go. I don’t cheat no matter what the situation – minimums, currency or medical. Autopilots fail and other failures can place you in a situation that will be more than you can handle without training for the what ifs.

  10. Charlie Mueller
    Charlie Mueller says:

    I am tempted to fly SW and then NW and airport hop my way, but I have flown through Tennessee at 2,300 scud running below an overcast in 6 miles vis and it was very uncomfortable. I am a 1,500 hr instrument rated but not current pilot. I wouldn’t go.


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