Pilots and Weather

We’re sitting in the hospital waiting room while waiting for my mother-in-law to come out of surgery. We sit watching the news about tornadoes and flooding in Tampa. As I watch the satellite and radar images of the weather, my mind goes back to the times I flew jets with regularity. I miss those days, especially for the familiarity I used to have with the atmosphere and weather patterns throughout different regions of the nation.

There is something important about knowing the weather in particular geographic locations. Additionally, I really miss flying in air masses over which I was capable of seeing vast expanses of air and moisture. I liked being able to go to FL 450 and look a cumulonimbus eye to eye. That is something hard to do from the ground. Even from little airplanes, you still have to look up to see the storms. And they are intimidating. At least you can almost feel as powerful as the storm when you can look it in the face from the seat of a tactical jet.

The weather is a monstrous machine, something that some pilots understand, and others do not. For an instrument pilot, one of the most important things about instrument flying competency is the ability to “read” the weather. The most skillful instrument pilot isn’t worth a hoot if he or she ends up dead as the result of dangerous weather. Similarly, a moderately skilled pilot who really knows the weather system they are flying through will probably land at the destination safely. Given the choice between the two, I always prefer flying with the latter.

Hazardous weather presents many different dangers of which pilots should be careful. These serious weather situations include turbulence, wind shear, fog, and terrain obscuration, to name only a few. When it comes to weather, pilots must be confident of their abilities to observe and forecast for themselves. Like ATC controllers, FSS specialists are human and can make mistakes. One memorable mistake I witnessed happened back in the 1970s, before we had the Internet and computers.

I was planning a cross-country flight and needed to check the weather. My apartment was less than a mile from the PIE Flight Service Station. Rather than call, I jumped into my Bug at about a quarter before midnight and drove over to take a personal look at the charts.

When I walked in, the specialist was on the phone briefing another pilot. He looked up at me, held up a “wait-1” finger, and continued his briefing. I was content with studying the charts. When he finished the call, a radio call prevented him from briefing me.

The pilot on the other end of the frequency seemed a little freaked out. His voice carried that higher than normal pitch that usually accompanies the onset of panic. The pilot asked about the weather in Tampa. He was over Orlando and the weather completely closed in underneath him. He explained that he had left the Carolinas with a promise of good VFR for his trip. Unfortunately, the temperature – dew point spread closed, socking in the airports at Orlando, then Lakeland. Fuel was critical and he needed a clear airport.

When the specialist started reading the Tampa weather, he suddenly stopped and said, “Standby, Tampa just issued a special.” Visibility at Tampa dropped to less than a quarter mile. When the specialist read the new weather, the panic in the pilot’s voice was palpable.

“What is the weather at St. Pete?” the pilot asked. The weatherman began reading the teletype in front of him. The weather according to the strip was great – ceiling unlimited, visibility better than six miles, with light winds. Only problem was, during the 15 minutes I had been waiting for my brief, the PIE weather had also gone “zero-zero.”

This flight was still east of Lakeland and the pilot had already reported critical fuel. He could not afford to fly to St. Pete, turn left, and try to make Sarasota or Venice. There just was not enough fuel for that. He needed to proceed direct to SRQ – now! And yet, the specialist was happily reading the old PIE weather to the pilot, a report that would have the pilot make the wrong decision to fly to St. Pete rather than direct SRQ.

I could not stand it any longer.

“Dude!” I called out, just like that. “Have you looked out the window lately?”

I will never forget the look on his face when he turned and discovered he could no longer see the taxiway lights from his window. He quickly amended his report to the trapped pilot, giving him the chance to make a timely decision to head south to Sarasota, which was still clear.

I am sure the pilot landed safely in Sarasota. I never heard anything in the news to the contrary. I am pretty certain the pilot learned a hard lesson that evening. I will also say I learned the lesson, too, only not at the risk of peril, as with the pilot and his passengers.

That’s the nice thing about being observant. You can learn from the actions and mistakes of others.

-30-

©2014 J. Clark

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