Saturday, April 28, 2012

Flirting with a Nor'easter

Last weekend we wanted to visit someone in Lexington, KY. This was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility that personal airplane travel offers. Rather than spend 5½ hours in a car, we fly for 1:45 and spend a little more time driving to and from airports.

As the week last week progressed, the weather got cloudy. Disappointing to some, this can be very exciting for an instrument rated pilot ("oh boy we get to fly in the clouds!"). Saturday dawned with a great deal of promise. Low ceilings and lots of clouds dominated the area along our route. I might get a whole bunch of cloud time. I checked the weather and saw that a cold front was draped across our route, but it didn't look like it was generating any severe weather. What I didn't see was the early stages of a Nor'easter.

As for taking advantage of those beautiful overcast skies, well one thing led to another and we left for the airport much later than we had originally planned. One of the advantages of personal air travel is that there is no set schedule. One of the disadvantages of personal air travel is that there is no set schedule.

By the time we were ready to start up the plane and taxi out, the low overcast skies had given way to some cumulus clouds with lots of blue between them. Sadly, not as much "cloud time" as I was hoping for. Since I still don't have IFR GPS in the plane I filed for the airways: NELLO V311 HCH V333 HYK direct KLEX. We launched from PDK and climbed up to our cruise altitude of 8000 feet. As soon as I got handed off to Atlanta center they gave me "cleared direct Lexington VOR", side stepping alot of the twists and turns in my original route. Who am I to argue?

As we got closer to the cold front we started plowing through the cumulus clouds. They were bumpy, and a few gave us a bit of a jolt, but it was nothing beyond what we normally experience. Our daughter, buckled in to the back seat, enjoyed the roller coaster ride and kept asking for more. Once we made it through the front we broke out between layers with a solid overcast below us and above us. Beautiful smooth flying conditions and a beautiful view. Of course we didn't see much of the ground, but the cloud watching was great!

Eventually we lost the upper layer, but we still had a blanket of solid white below us. LEX was reporting 1100 foot ceilings so I was confident that I would still get some quality instrument time in on this flight. We were vectored for the ILS 4 approach and entered the clouds at around 4000 feet in our descent. A few turns from the controller and he expertly placed us on the final approach course with plenty of room to spare. Still in the clouds we could catch glimpses of the ground here and there if we looked straight down. On final, we eventually met up with the glideslope and the navigation radios guided us directly to the runway. We broke out underneath the clouds right where we were supposed to, and ended the leg with an uneventful landing. It was a pleasant flight with no surprises and just enough weather to keep it interesting. But that was the front side of the nor'easter. It's the back side that bites hard.

Except for the hibachi dinner (with burnt rice) we enjoyed our brief stay in Lexington. Sunday afternoon it was time to start the return journey. I wasn't in front of a computer so I called flight service to get a briefing. Imagine my surprise when I heard an Airmet for moderate icing from 4000 to 12000 feet! It's late April in Kentucky and there's icing at 4000 feet? Wow, this Nor'easter can really pack a punch!

We headed somewhere with a network connection and I used my favorite online tools to analyze the weather situation. My favorite tool for evaluation icing potential is the Forecast Icing Product at It is considered supplementary information (does not substitute for an official weather briefing), but it provides a great picture of where the ice is likely to be. With that tool I could see broad stretches of ice potential throughout eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, all the way down to 5000 but not at 3000 feet. If I flew IFR I would be required to maintain minimum altitudes along my route, and because of the mountainous terrain in the area that was 5000 feet or higher. That would not do.

So I took another look at the cloud ceilings between Lexington and Atlanta. Current and forecast conditions were mostly 4000 feet and higher. Those areas with lower ceilings were easy to avoid. So it looked like the best chance for success would be to go VFR and stay below the clouds where there is no ice. So around 4 in the afternoon we launched and turned south.

Not only does a Nor'easter bring cold weather and moisture, it also brings windy conditions and turbulence. We had a bumpy ride all the way home, but my passengers took it well. Once we crossed the Smokies and got in to Georgia, the thick clouds gave way to mostly blue sky, but the turbulence did not let up. I tuned in to ATIS at PDK airport and got another shock. Winds were 310 at 22 knots with gusts up to 39! I listened to the recording three times to make sure I heard it right. Yes, she said gusts to 39.

I requested runway 34 because it was mostly lined up with the wind. We had an interesting approach and a roller coaster ride down final. But just above the runway things settled out a bit. As I muscled through the flare I muttered "c'mon baby" a few times and finally got the wheels to kiss the pavement. It was an exciting trip with a few surprises, and some important lessons about weather.

No comments: