Sunday, May 20, 2018

It's my birthday and I'll fly if I want to

Plane: Cessna 182 RG 
Route: BFA-MGY
Weather - BFA: Broken clouds, 47 degrees, wind variable at 5 knots
Weather - MGY: Few clouds, 77 degrees, wind variable at 3 knots

Today was one of those days in the sky where you make some tough decisions and learn a few things. After a great weekend in Boyne golfing with my future brother-in-law, it was time to head home. I'd been checking the forecasts all weekend and I knew the weather wouldn't be perfect. The question was whether it would be good enough to get out and get home.

It was overcast when I woke up, so obviously I wasn't going anywhere right away. But the ceiling and visibility forecasts looked flyable by lunchtime. There was also a line of storms crossing Lake Michigan that would be over the middle of the state by early afternoon. Thus we arrive at my main conundrum - could I safely depart Boyne in time to fly the length of Michigan in VFR conditions ahead of the incoming line of storms?

On the ground in Boyne waiting for the clouds to break

I was at the plane around 8:30 so I loaded my golf clubs and suitcase and did my pre-flight. Then I waited and kept checking the weather. The clouds began breaking and there were many holes forming with plenty of space to safely take off and climb through them. PIREPs reported the clouds were less than 1,500 feet thick and it was clear above.

Aerovie's Vertical Weather Profile for my route

Here's where I must mention a wonderful resource - Aerovie. I think it has perhaps the best weather planning tools of any aviation app. Their Vertical Weather Profile is especially stellar. Basically, it uses the weather balloon soundings that are used to create Skew-T diagrams to overlay and visualize forecast conditions along your route. For under $50/year (if you're an EAA member) it truly is a great tool.

In conjunction with the standard ceiling/visibility forecasts, general weather prog charts, and radar, it was a great help this morning. Essentially it showed that there would be a sizeable vertical chunk of space between the low overcast and high altitude clouds over my entire route. In order to beat the weather moving across the lake I would have fly VFR on top for a portion of the flight, which is not without its risks. But I knew I'd be flying in VFR conditions towards improving weather in Ohio.

So where did that leave me decision-wise?
  1. Get in the air soon, climb well above the overcast settled over much of lower Michigan, beat the storms moving in from the west, and make it home
  2. Wait it out for VFR conditions along the majority of my route - which would likely mean staying another night
I did know it was totally clear just south of Dayton and was forecast to remain that way all day, so my backup plan was to fly to Lunken or Clermont County (or somewhere in northern Kentucky if needed) if the weather in Dayton wasn't good enough by the time I arrived.

It would be ~2.5 hours home and I had over 5 hours of fuel onboard so I was comfortable with remaining airborne even if I had to divert south. The real tough decision was the 100% legal but still potentially dicey plan to fly VFR on top as a non-instrument rated pilot. I'd be lying if I didn't say having an autopilot, multiple navigation sources, and a Stormscope on board gave me a bit of extra comfort in making the "go" decision.

It was a long trip home, made quick by the Skylane RG

Once I decided I was going to fly home, I quickly got settled in the left seat, started the engine, and completed my pre-takeoff checks. As I finished up at the end of the runway, a King Air called in four miles out on final and I quickly spotted him well under the cloud deck. That meant the cloud bases had risen higher. Good news.

After he landed I asked the pilot over the radio what the cloud tops were and he said they were around 4,000 feet. I thanked him for the information and turned on to Runway 35. Within seconds I was off the ground, quickly climbing into the crisp, clear morning sky. The clouds remained broken with much blue sky visible above; I turned southwest and climbed through a large hole then turned on course while climbing up to 5,500 feet.

Climbing out with Boyne Mountain off the left wing

Deer Lake and the golf clubhouse and driving range

The Alpine and Monument golf courses

The clouds were scattered over the area just after takeoff

Overflying Grayling Army Airfield

For the first 30-35 minutes of the flight, the clouds below remained broken and I could still see the ground. Then the holes began to close up as forecast; before long, I was flying over a solid layer. Although the tops were still well below me, I elected to climb up to 7,500 feet for a little added margin of safety.

I called Saginaw Approach for flight following. As you may expect, the frequency was rather quiet. Not too much VFR traffic on an overcast Sunday morning.

You could clearly see darker areas in the sky to the west where the storms were moving in from across Lake Michigan. While they were many, many miles away I elected to deviate east towards Saginaw. From there, I could basically fly due south all the way home. At 155+ knots, I knew I'd be well south of the weather before it made it this far across the state.

Closer to Bay City, the sky below turned to solid overcast

Avoiding some weather moving in from the west

Patches of broken clouds over mid-Michigan, near Owosso

Saginaw handed me off to Lansing Approach. That sector was just as quiet. For a brief period between Flint and Lansing, the clouds broke up a bit and I could see the ground again. I made a mental note and figured I would turn back and make it through one of the large openings in the clouds to land at the airport in Owosso should something happen.

Around this time I also encountered a small rain shower. Visibility decreased, though it remained at least 10 miles, and I again turned slightly to track towards a brighter spot on the horizon. A few minutes later, the rain stopped and blue sky and sunlight filled the windshield.

The clouds began to slowly break southwest of Toledo

My ground speed remained good and it wasn't long before I crossed into Ohio. As I passed over the Maumee River between Toledo and Fort Wayne, I again started to see the ground - except this time it would remain visible for the remainder of the flight. The clouds went from broken to scattered to few to essentially nonexistent by the time I was within 30 minutes of home.

It was nearly clear by the time I reached Lima

Flying over I-75 south of Wapakoneta (home of Neil Armstrong!)

One of the most interesting things was seeing the stationary front that has been hanging out north of Dayton for much of the past week. As I approached the area, a haze seemed to suddenly appear in every direction. Visibility decreased from 30+ miles to 10 at best and I felt the warmth and humidity increase. It may have been in the 40s in northern Michigan just 90 minutes earlier but now it was in the 70s and muggy!

It became quite hazy as I approached Dayton Int'l

Downtown Dayton was also somewhat obscured by haze

By this time, I was talking to Columbus Approach. They instructed me to descend to 6,500 and then 4,500 feet. Just west of downtown Dayton they cut me loose and I tuned in the CTAF at Wright Brothers. It really was hazy - I didn't spot the airport until I was maybe 8 miles away.

Still descending, my ground speed was close to 175 knots so I reduced throttle to slow a bit. Leveling off, I dropped below 140 knots and lowered the gear to help me slow down some more. I entered the pattern in a long 45 to a left downwind for Runway 2. My approach was smooth but the rising air over the hot asphalt caused me to float more than anticipated in the flare; I added a touch of power as the plane rose slightly at the last moment to prevent a carrier landing. The mains squeaked onto the runway reasonably softly and I taxied back to the hangar.

It was way warmer and more humid than where I was just a couple hours prior. Add that to the "lessons learned from a fast new airplane" list - always dress for weather and temperature changes! I pulled off my sweatshirt as soon as I climbed out of the plane; by the time I finished loading my car I was still nearly soaked through my t-shirt.

Debriefing the trip here now with myself, I returned home safely without any issues, so it obviously worked out just fine. At no point do I feel today's trip was as dicey as what I still look back on as my diciest flight weather-wise. Still... this is yet another superb exhibit as to why I need to get my instrument rating ASAP!

With the added speed, range, and overall capability of the Skylane RG comes the added chance of encountering adverse conditions along the (extended) route. I feel reasonably good about my decision-making today but I also certainly felt a little lonely and uneasy by myself on top of a sea of white. There's no doubt additional training and ratings are the clear next step for me.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 2.5 hours
Total Time: 394.8 hours


  1. This brings back memories. The first time I visited First Flight, I flew a long way VFR above an overcast. Like you, I was flying toward improving weather, had plenty of fuel on board, and had thought carefully about the risks and the available “outs”. All was well that ended well, but I went a long way toward deciding on pursuing an instrument rating that day.

    1. a) Not sure why, but I never got a notification that you'd commented.

      b) Yep, even when all turns out just fine, it did feel a bit uncomfortable. Time to really get after that IR!