Sitting Around Waiting

We’re sitting in a waiting room while waiting. After all, that is what you do in a waiting room. We sit watching television 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 across the nation with regularity. I miss those days, especially for the familiarity I once had with the atmosphere and weather patterns throughout different regions of the nation.

There is something to be said for knowing the weather in a particular geographic location. Additionally, I really miss flying in air masses of 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’s hard to do from the ground. Even from little airplanes, you still have to look up to 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.

The weather is a monstrous machine 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” weather. The most skillful instrument pilot isn’t worth a hoot if he or she is killed by dangerous weather. By the same token, a moderately skilled pilot who knows the weather system they are flying through can land at the destination safely. Given the choice between the two, I always would prefer flying with the latter.

Hazardous weather presents many different dangers of which pilots need to be careful. These serious weather situations include turbulence, wind shear, fog, and terrain obscuration to name only a few. When it comes to the 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 – like all rest of us. One memorable mistake I witnessed happened back in the late 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 and drove over to take a personal look at the charts at about a quarter before midnight.

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. So there I was again, waiting. I was content with studying the charts. When he finished the call, he was again prevented from briefing me by a radio call.

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 temp-dewpoint spread closed and socked in the airports at Orlando, then Lakeland. Fuel was becoming 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.” After 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. The 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 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 your window lately?”

I will never forget the look on the specialist’s 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 direct Sarasota, which was still clear.

I am sure the pilot landed safely in Sarasota. I never anything in the news otherwise. I also know the pilot learned a hard lesson that evening.

I learned the lesson, too, only not at the risk of peril as with the pilot and his passengers that night.


©2017 J. Clark

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