A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

The day we didn’t fly

July 14, 2016
Emilie Phillips

Thursday we were headed south for a major trip. I (Emilie) and Isaac were stopping in West Virginia to see my parents. Tyson was continuing on the next day to North Carolina for a week of intensive IFR training.

Tyson’s class starts Saturday. To make sure we made it on time, we scheduled two days of vacation for the 6.5 hour flight to be flexible around weather. The weather showed up. We packed the family in the Bearhawk Thursday morning and flew to Jaffrey for fuel mid morning. I don’t think it would have changed the outcome had we left earlier.

My parents were driving from Lynchburg (KLYH) in the rolling Virginia Piedmont. Given the weather, it sounded more likely we could fly to Lynchburg than Windwood (WV62) up in the 4,000’+ highlands of West Virginia. I called up my parents first thing in the morning and told them to stay in Lynchburg and we would meet there.

The 8AM prognostic chart showed low ceilings up and down the Appalachians, and IFR conditions in most of the northeast. The 8PM chart showed improving conditions. The adverse weather charts from www.1800wxbrief.com showed VFR conditions west along the Great Lakes and into West Virginia in the morning. However, the Appalachians looked impassible, so we couldn’t get there from southern New Hampshire. That same forecast predicted worse weather on the coast.

I also consult the non-aviation weather forecasts. The morning was forecast to be better than the afternoon, and the whole Northeast was supposed to devolve into rain and thunderstorms by afternoon. This land forecast was the opposite of the aviation forecast. Every forecast agreed that Pennsylvania would be cloudy and rainy. There was a cold front coming in from the west, and a stationary front hanging around Maryland.

Emilie flying the Bearhawk to Jaffrey.

Emilie flying the Bearhawk to Jaffrey.

For the morning, the main concern was low ceilings. In Brookline, the ceilings were marginal but acceptable. We packed the Bearhawk and headed to Jaffrey for gas. I flew the Bearhawk for practice. On the west side of the Wapack range, we found worse conditions. Monadnock hid in the clouds. I had to tighten up my pattern to avoid lower clouds and rain in Jaffrey center. We landed and fueled up the airplane. Before we were quite done fueling, the rain arrived and ceilings and visibility dropped. It looked like we were grounded at Jaffrey before we had even started.

Tyson talked to his dad who had flown southbound about the weather he had passed through. Then Tyson and I both researched weather online. Out over western NY and PA still looked nice, but the cold front and associated storms were moving in. The only way to get there was to fly north almost to Burlington VT and then south again. By then we expected the cold front to cut us off. METAR reports from Connecticut and Long Island Sound ranged from very marginal VFR to socked in IFR. Nothing that we could pick our way through. Directly east to the NH coast looked reasonable, but that didn’t get us anywhere. The only other option was through the Berkshires. Reports from that area were Marginal VFR — the same as Jaffrey. KBAF in Springfield MA reported scattered clouds at 1,3000′, 2,900′, and overcast at 3,700′. The forecast for the rest of the day was mist and overcast at 1,500′ at 11:30, strong gusts and 2,500′ clouds at 2PM, and thunderstorms at 5PM. Given how suddenly Jaffrey had gone from marginal to unflyable, it didn’t seem safe to taunt similar weather in the mountains. And, of course, there was the minor issue that we couldn’t even leave Jaffrey just then. Tyson considered the weather later that day and Friday, but there was no clear break.

So, since Tyson had a hard commitment, we decided to drive.

View east from Jaffrey

View east from Jaffrey (an hour later)

View west from Jaffrey

View west from Jaffrey (an hour later)

We almost had to leave the Bearhawk in Jaffrey for the week, but after twenty minutes, the weather lifted enough to cross back over the Wapack ridge. To the east it looked flyable. To the north, the clouds dipped down and obscured our view. To the south, I could see a long way under the clouds. Far away, the land disappeared into a nebulous gloom. Maybe I could only see to central Massachusetts or maybe I was seeing far into Connecticut. The winds around us were turbulent, making the clouds shifty.

Moving the luggage to the car.

Moving the luggage to the car.

Back at Brookline, we unpacked the Bearhawk into the car, ate lunch, and started driving. We had chosen certainty to arrive in VA, rather than spending a day skirting weather and possibly never making it anywhere.

The whole drive down we watched the skies. It’s hard to tell ceiling altitudes from the ground. It seemed like they stayed around 2,000′ AGL the whole way though Massachusetts, Connecticut, and most of New York. On the eastern edge of NY, we drove under the cold front. To our left, towered a beautiful cumulonimbus. To our right, thick clouds clung wetly to distant hills. Our route on I-84 passed through a wide clear break in the front. After that, we saw nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

Pennsylvania clear weather.

Pennsylvania clear weather.

The irony of course, is that we were headed to Tyson’s instrument rating course. Next time, we’ll be flying under an instrument clearance and get there in 5 hours rather than 12.


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Comments (2)

  • There are many adages that go hand in glove r/t aviation and weather. No pilot has ever been lost exercising an abundance of caution regarding problematic meteorological conditions.

    • Thank you! Though we never drove through any conditions too low to fly, that is hindsight and luck. We would not have been in the same places at the same times if we had flown. We also happened to drive through a small gap in a long storm front that I would not have challenged in the air. On the next day, the 2nd half of my journey involved driving through thunderstorms and torrential downpours.