Friday, September 18, 2015

Negotiating marginal VFR enroute to Kalamazoo

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: 40I-AZO
Weather - 40I: Clear, 82 degrees, wind 160 degrees at 9 knots
Weather - AZO: Overcast, 74 degrees, wind 180 degrees at 5 knots

When it comes to flight planning, there are two sources of weather information I find invaluable. The first is NOAA's GFS MAV MOS graphics, which graphically depict what the weather models spit out of the supercomputers every 6 hours - the forecast visibility, ceiling height, and thunderstorm probability are particularly useful to me. The second is every local NWS office's Forecast Discussion, which is a rather technical discussion of what the meteorologists are interpreting from the current conditions and models, including a dedicated aviation section. Combined, they make it possible to watch trends develop and better understand the reasoning behind the simplified-for-public-consumption forecasts.

All week it was clear that rain and scattered thunderstorms were in tonight's forecast; the real uncertainty was whether a window with a clear path to Michigan would be open. At first it looked good, then mid-week it appeared to deteriorate. But this morning, after another detailed analysis of the graphics and discussions, it looked like it might just work out and I made the initial "go" call. A line of storms that moved through overnight was pushing east and the second wave and approaching cold front weren't expected to move into west Michigan until roughly 8pm. Visibility and ceilings would be approaching MVFR conditions along the final 1/3 of the route, but I'm familiar with the area and considered that acceptable for this flight.

Our friend Jeff, who we're staying with this weekend, planned on picking us up (thanks again!) and I sent him directions to our first, second, and third airport options. We originally were debating between Plainwell Municipal (61D) and Kalamazoo, as they live right in between. But I had already scratched Plainwell since the weather was likely to move in there first. So I sent him directions to pick us up not only at AZO, but also Three Rivers (HAI) and Battle Creek (BTL) since they are south and east, respectively - both good divert options if that became necessary.

I continued to closely monitor the weather at work and by lunchtime it was clear that a window still remained but we needed to be in the air by 5pm. Thankfully I was able to head out early, and left for home around 2:30. I quickly packed and got my final weather briefing in an hour; Gina met me at the house when she got off work and we headed straight to Stewart. She loaded the 172 while I organized the cockpit, fully fueled both tanks, and completed my preflight.

This quick video captured the conditions of today's flight's quite well

We took off about 4:55, right on schedule to beat the weather. I first leveled at 4,500 feet and contacted Columbus Approach for flight following up to KAZO. There was a broken cloud deck at 5,000 to 5,500 feet so that was the highest we could go. Based on the forecasts, I expected to have to descend to 3,500 or 2,500 as we approached Kalamazoo due to dropping ceilings. The PTT switch on my side was acting up and only transmitting intermittently so I swapped the plugs of my and Gina's headsets and used her PTT for the remainder of the flight.

Columbus handed us off to Fort Wayne Approach, which was nice - sometimes in that area you get handed off to Indy Center, and their radar coverage down low can be spotty. Soon after the handoff the clouds bases began to drop and I descended to 3,500 feet. Visibility was still around 10 miles and I was looking down upon many familiar roads and landmarks. Closer to Fort Wayne, I spotted an area of rain showers and decreased visibility to the northwest; the ceiling also decreased again slightly so I descended to 3,000 feet. At this point conditions were officially MVFR but I felt safe continuing, especially with many airports nearby. I also kept dialing in nearly every AWOS along our route to confirm conditions weren't deteriorating quicker than forecast.

We had to gradually descend while enroute to remain below the clouds

We passed through some of those rain showers over the final 30 minutes of our flight. At times visibility was definitely down near 5 miles, which I confirmed with AWOS broadcasts (though I think the lowest I heard over the radio was 6 or 7 miles) and a visual check of landmarks out the window and the GPS / sectional chart. Fort Wayne handed us off to Kalamazoo Approach roughly over top of US-20. Another plane that had just departed Angola to the east called in, also flying VFR to Kalamazoo. It's always nice to know someone else is up there with you!

I spotted Kalamazoo just over 7 miles out when the two familiar lakes south of the airport came into view. Traffic was light and I was cleared onto a long left downwind for Runway 17. Airport in sight, I descended from 3,000 down to pattern altitude, roughly 1,900 feet. The light wind was nearly directly on our nose and I touched down softly with the stall horn whining and a chirp of the mains on the runway. We turned off on Taxiway E and taxied to the FBO.

Radar after we arrived in Kalamazoo

Flight rules and radar shortly after our arrival

We slid in just before the front (and storms) moved through

A lineman marshalled us into a parking spot at Duncan Aviation. Fellow pilot friend and former Kalamazoo resident Chris loves the folks there and I agree - they do always take good care of us. Even when in a lowly rental, which doesn't class up the ramp nearly as nice as Warrior 481. Inside, I filled out a little paperwork and opted for their "Storm" option - they'd tie the plane down outside but move it into a hangar if they felt incoming weather was likely to damage the airplane. For $50. Better safe than sorry, though, right?

There's certainly a difference between flying over known, flat terrain with <3,000 foot ceilings and flying over unknown, slightly bumpier terrain with <3,000 foot ceilings. While I still think today's flight nearly pushed the envelope, I planned it extensively and had plenty of outs (i.e. airports to divert to) along the way. Then again, that trip to NY four years ago laid a solid foundation for decision-making that undoubtedly helped me with this flight. Just goes to show how pilots continually develop their skills and every flight, at least in some small part, adds to one's experience bucket.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 2.0 hours
Total Time: 338.7 hours


  1. I completely agree - these sort of ceilings are much more manageable south of Kalamazoo than when you faced them over Pennsylvania and southwest New York all those years ago. In considering ceiling, it is often valuable to consider what's below as much as what's above.

    Thanks for the shout-out. This may be the first time anyone has ever accused a Warrior of classing up a ramp, though. :-)

    How was your AZO / Duncan experience? When we were there Memorial Day weekend, we were told that the airport (not Duncan) had implemented a $10 overnight parking fee. They (the FBO staff) weren't happy about it and when we departed, the lineman engaged in a little civil disobedience and refused to collect it. What was your experience?

    1. The lady manning (womanning?) the desk didn't suggest anything out of the ordinary about the fees. She simply told me it would be $10/night - or $50/night if they stuck it in the hangar. Which they did. Oof. And I really didn't think the weather was that bad - no doubt the plane's been through worse before.

      (I truly debated checking that "Storm Storage" box, as this and most of Stewart's planes live outside 24/7 on tiedowns...)

      But all's well that ends well and we had a non-broken plane to fly home on Sunday, so I can't complain too much. Fuel prices were surprisingly reasonable, too.

    2. Well, I can think of at least one overnight in Kennesaw, GA when I would have been thrilled if they'd charged me $50 to push the airplane in a hangar overnight. I would have a lot less hail damage had that been an option...

    3. Indeed, and that's why I chose the seemingly safer option!

      On the bright side, that nosewheel of yours looks quite nice these days.

  2. The view looked more ugly than bumpy, how was the ride?

    We hangared at each stop on our recent trip. I slept better knowing I didn't have to worry about the plane.

    1. As I recall it was actually quite smooth for the most part. Like you said, not much to look at, but overall it was a reasonably pleasant ride.