Friday, May 15, 2015

To fly or not to die

Plane: Cessna 172 
Route: 40I, Local 
Weather: Broken clouds, 78 degrees, wind 180-240 degrees at 8-12 knots

Pardon the sensationalist headline; I promise I haven't been watching that much CNN lately. But this was one of those days that required a serious go / no-go decision. For those of you who aren't pilots, a) the title pays slight homage to the media's usual inability to cover anything aviation-related without resorting to sky is falling tactics (I'm sure doctors harbor similar thoughts when anchors wax poetic about viral outbreaks, teachers when they discuss standardized testing, etc.) and b) while departing today certainly would not have led to imminent death, it could have been a very bad first decision in an accident chain by the end of the weekend. Read on.

Ok, tangential discussion aside, back to the decision that did not involve LeBron. We were supposed to fly to Syracuse this weekend for Gina's cousins' graduation party. Flying was really the only option since it's a 10 hour drive or a 4 hour flight and Gina has to work Sunday afternoon (strike one - time and schedule pressure). I've been closely monitoring the forecasts; the trip went from seeming feasible earlier in the week to looking quite iffy by this morning (strike two - forecasts trending in the wrong direction). Nearing our planned departure time, it was obvious a Sunday return would not work due to forecast low ceilings and visibility, but I momentarily considered returning Saturday afternoon before further analysis of the forecast (strike three - VFR pilot flying 400 nm across a stationary front and possible embedded thunderstorms). So, in what I can only label a good no-go decision, we cancelled the trip.

But I was already at the airport. And - an isolated thunderstorm having passed by a half hour prior - the weather was currently quite conducive to flying. Good enough reason to at least putter around the pattern before heading back home.

I loaded far less baggage than lie under my hatchback's hatch into the 172 - just myself, my GPS logger, and my headset. N2814L had flown just prior to my arrival so the engine quickly roared to life with one small shot of primer. I taxied over to the fuel pump and topped off the tanks.

As you can see, the wind picked up at times

Gusty winds had come and gone throughout the day and remained in the forecast but it was rather calm when I first departed. The Skyhawk took to the sky without much fuss under the relatively light load. One of the jump planes on the field departed behind me with a load of meat missiles so I made sure to wait to turn crosswind until passing abeam the jump zone. Though the winds at this point were steady the heat kicked up some decent thermals and I was constantly adjusting the power on short final; I touched down rather smoothly just past the threshold.

The second lap was decent and the third was great - total greaser on the landing in spite of winds that now were a gusting, almost direct crosswind. I was tempted to call it quits right there but I wanted to keep flying. On the fourth time around, I pulled the power abeam the numbers on downwind and negotiated a mostly-successful power-off 180, slowly adding flaps until I had all 40 degrees out right before touchdown. I landed slightly long with a solid thump but it wasn't too bad given the conditions. My final lap was nearly as good as the third with a smooth rotation into a crab on takeoff, culminating in a smooth crosswind landing in the gusty winds.

It's always disappointing to cancel a trip, especially last-minute, but I sure as hell don't intend to be the kind of pilot who doesn't learn from his own past experience. Having discussed the trip with a few more experienced pilots (including Upstate NY local Chris) I'm honestly not even sure we would have launched if I had my instrument rating. But it wouldn't have been remotely logical to make a go of it as a VFR-only pilot. It's better to be down here wishing we were up there, than up there wishing we were down here, as the saying goes.


As you may expect, I couldn't help but check the conditions along our planned route numerous times throughout the weekend. While it may have been clear enough along the Lake Erie shoreline (in lieu of flying the direct, more inland route over western PA/NY) at times, the overall reality was marginal at best. To hit flyable conditions would likely have required near-psychic timing, too, as I saw much more IFR or very marginal VFR both days.

Saturday mid-afternoon radar

Saturday early evening lowest reported ceilings

Saturday early evening TAFs (red = below my minimums)

Even locally I never saw a break in the weather on Saturday (we ended up running errands and driving around the area all afternoon) that I think we would have easily made it home through, had we left earlier. So, now with the benefit of hindsight, initial no-go decision confirmed. Flying to NY was definitely the right thing not to do.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 0.7 hours
Total Time: 328.5 hours


  1. I wholeheartedly agree. The weather reality this weekend in Upstate NY was poorer than forecast, particularly on Saturday. I was at the airport most of the day on Saturday and, in the afternoon, chose to exercise the airplane. I departed with the AWOS calling calm winds, ceiling clear below 12,000, and visibility 10+ miles. When I departed, I found myself in a little bubble surrounded by haze. A marine layer had crept over the shoreline, obscuring Lake Ontario and the first few hundred feet inland. Sodus Bay could not be seen. To the north, water and sky were a single undifferentiated expanse of white. Though there was no "hard" ceiling or poor visibility per the AWOS, haze and scud were all around the airport. There were four airplanes up at the time and we all stayed close to the pattern.

    Sunday morning was gorgeous over the Williamson-Sodus Airport (the fly-in breakfast was a huge success), but areas downstate where the terrain begins were fogged in for a good portion of the morning. And these were the areas that were expected to be reasonably nice per the forecast! Although it didn't scuttle the breakfast, fly-in traffic was a little sparse until latter in the morning.

    As much as it would have been nice to see you, I think you made a good choice.

    1. Thanks again for the great info before and after the (unattempted) flight. Sounds like it was somewhat similar to our last trip that direction, when the METARs and TAFs never really aligned with the view from the cockpit.

      Besides, the last thing I want to do is shortchange you by rendering myself unable to give proper Cub rides only a few weeks before you visit! :)

  2. Glad to help, Steve.

    I don't so much believe that the METARs did not align with the view from the cockpit as that the weather was quite variable such that the METARs did not apply to the surrounding areas quite as generously as we might ordinarily try to apply them. It's a good reminder that these are point sources of information. As as for TAFs, well..."difficult to see, always in motion the future is."

    Oh, yes, of all the tragedies that could have resulted from a poor decision this weekend, my being shortchanged a Cub ride would have been the most dire! Sheesh! *shakes head and rolls eyes*

  3. Steve, good no-go call. It's always best to come back and fly another day rather than make headlines. Skud running is deadly and dealing with boomers is down right scary.

    Mary and I considered a no go for the Wings Fly-B-Q even with my instrument rating this past Saturday. With the potential for thunderstorms forecast I was watching wx Thursday-Saturday time of launch.

  4. The instrument rating sure does expand the envelope, but boomers are bad. If the are isolated you can certainly avoid them by staying VMC. If it is possible I will climb on top and then deviate around build ups. Some days, it's best to hanger fly...

    1. Yep, it would have been a rather iffy trip at best. Don't think it's one I would have even undertaken IFR (had that been an option) without onboard WX, for sure.

      On the bright side, we ended up at home with time to make a bit of extra progress on our seemingly never-ending kitchen remodel!