Sunday, November 14, 2010

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"*

* With apologies to the creators of the TV show with the same name.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
  Nov 2010
LOM (Blue Bell, PA) - D38 (Canandaigua, NY)
2.5 887.8
  Nov 2010
N21481 D38 - 5G0 0.5 888.3

Deceptive Sunshine

It was a beautiful mid-November day in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, a northern suburb of Philadelphia.  Despite the breeze, a warm sun unfettered by clouds raised ambient temperatures right to borderline "jacket weather".  I was sitting in Warrior 481 at historic Wings Field after spending a few hours in the eclectic company of two scientists and a rock star.  I watched the activity on the runway as I spoke with a weather briefer about my journey home to Le Roy, NY.

The Pennsylvania portion of my two hour flight looked to be ideal VFR weather.  As he reached the New York segment, the briefer hesitated and confessed that the forecasts were changing rapidly and it was difficult for him to provide definitive guidance.  Rain and low ceilings were moving in from the west.  Buffalo weather was downright crummy and Bradford Pennsylvania, which I consider the southwestern extremity of my local area (i.e., a 45 minute flight radius from Le Roy), was already IFR.  These facts gave me pause.

"If you depart immediately and actually make it back within two hours, you'll probably be fine.  But you should check the weather again when you reach the New York border, especially if you are VFR only."

I thanked him for the warnings.  As I have noted in the past, VFR flying is all about flexibility and I am under no illusions to the contrary.  I could always divert somewhere along the way.  Still, it was difficult to be concerned when everything around me was bathed in warm sunshine.

En route at 6500', I had a tailwind that would help me arrive ahead of my original estimate.  North of Williamsport, high clouds to the west finally blocked the evening sun and I removed my sunglasses.  Closer to the border, Elmira was calling a 6000' ceiling and I descended to 4500'.

The briefer was right, the border region was a good place to reassess the weather.  Visibility had fallen from unlimited to about eight miles.  Hazy shafts of rain showers could be seen scattered around my position.  The outside air temperature was about 5°C, removing the threat of freezing rain.  I watched the outside air temperature gauge carefully for the remainder of the flight, thankful that I had a more reliable sensor installed a few months previous.

Although convective activity was lacking in the forecast, the clouds nevertheless looked menacing; the world was draped with a ceiling of charcoal bunting and the cloud bases seemed to be curled into fists poised over my little aluminum airplane.

I passed five miles west of Elmira when light rain first spattered the windshield.  Nonetheless, I had adequate ceiling and visibility to see the airport in the gathering darkness.  Elmira  would be a safe haven if the path ahead worsened.  With this harbor identified, a stake in the ground, I pressed forward.

A few minutes later, the world around me seemed to expand.  I was still beneath an overcast, but there were no more nearby rain showers and visibility increased to at least fifteen miles based on the landmarks I could see.

When I listened to the Dansville automated weather broadcast and heard that visibility was 10+ miles under a 5000' ceiling, I was sure that I was going to make it home.  I could see the runway lights at Dansville and, in the distance, lights from Rochester.  Then I listened to the automated weather at the Genesee County airport, just 11 nautical miles west of Le Roy.

Visibility was 4 miles in rain with a 600 foot ceiling.  Translation: IFR.

The Rochester ATIS, updated hourly, still reported 3500' ceilings with excellent visibility in light rain.  Very manageable, but the broadcast was 40 minutes old.  And somewhere between these two places was home base

Over Dansville, I hesitated.  The weather at Le Roy could be fine...or not.  Dansville would be a suitable diversion point, but it would be nice to get closer to Rochester in case I needed to leave the airplane someplace.  I checked the weather at Canandaigua, verified that it was good VFR (10+ miles, no precip., 8500' ceiling), and turned in that direction.

On the ground at Canandaigua, I took a moment to regroup.  Then, I used my cell phone to call the Rochester ASOS to obtain a current weather report.  Conditions were still VFR at Rochester and above my personal minimums.  With another phone call I verified that it was still IFR at Genesee County.  From my conversation with the briefer earlier in the day, I knew that the cold front and its associated clag would be moving east.  With Le Roy between the only two weather reporting points available to me, actual conditions at my home field were a complete unknown.  It all depended on how far east the front had progressed.

I decided to depart Canandaigua and fly west at 3000' toward Le Roy.  If I ran into any reduced visibility, even a hint of it, I would return to Canandaigua.  While I enjoy flying at night, my nighttime preferences are clear skies, moonlight, and familiar (preferably flat) terrain.  The notion of blundering into a cloud at night is, frankly, terrifying to me.  I did not want to become a "continued VFR flight into instrument conditions" statistic.

A dark night enveloped Canandaigua.  The sun had finished setting and the clouds to the west effectively cut-off any residual twilight that might have otherwise lit the sky.  A constellation of ground lights twinkled below, dimly illuminating the ceiling in a manner that compensated for the lack of horizon.

Aloft, I inched toward home.

I crossed I-390, due south of Rochester.  Nine miles to go.  So close...

Then, I noted a slight blurring of lights in the distance.  I was not in a cloud, but there was definitely an obscuration between me and Le Roy.  Given the dark night, I had no desire to press my luck any further.  I executed a standard rate 180° turn back to Canandaigua.

The ramp at Canandaigua was extremely dark.  I tied Warrior 481 down and fastened the cabin cover around the fuselage.  My only light was the occasional sweep from the airfield beacon and a flashlight clipped to my belt.  Rain started falling as I finished.

During this effort, a locally-based Cessna landed and parked directly behind Warrior 481.  Pilot and companions spilled from the cockpit, laughing jovially, as they pushed the Cessna into a T-hangar.  Before long, the bifold door closed, everyone jumped into an SUV, and I was alone again on the ramp.  Though I did not need help and Kristy was already on her way to pick me up, I was stunned that anyone would see an unknown aircraft and pilot at their airport after dark, in light rain, and not bother to check if they were in distress.  Had I seen such a thing at Le Roy, I would have checked.

I discovered that the terminal building was unlocked and sought refuge from the damp.  I sent a email to my friends at Le Roy letting them know I had diverted to Canandaigua in case the sight of my car still at the airport alarmed any of them.  I was surprised not to receive any replies.

The Day After

By the next day, Monday, the nasty weather had moved out of the area.  I wanted to ferry the airplane home as soon as possible because (1) my car was still in Le Roy and (2) temperatures were still relatively warm and I wanted to move the airplane before cold starts could become an issue.

My good friend Stacey, a recipient of many airplane rides over the years, volunteered to drive me down to Canandaigua after work on Monday night.  The weather was perfect for a night flight, with clear skies and a bright moon looking down on the Rochester area.  Stacey and I had stopped for sandwiches before the trek southeast when I received a call from Ray at Le Roy.

Though my friends did not respond to my email note, they began working (scheming?) independently on a plan to get my airplane home.  Ray explained that Darrell was already in the air and willing to pick me up at the Williamson-Sodus airport (the closest airport to my house) to shuttle me to Canandaigua.  This would mean much less driving for Stacey.  I agreed to their offer for help and listened through the phone as Ray firmed up our plans with Darrell via Unicom.

About forty minutes later, I was riding in Darrell's Cessna for the first time.  It was a magnificent night to fly.  The sodium vapor lights lining Rochester's streets and highways gave the appearance of a massive golden spider sprawled across the landscape.

At Canandaigua, Darrell parked directly in front of Warrior 481 and surveyed the ramp.  "This IS a dark ramp," he agreed.  When we illuminated Warrior 481 with our flashlights, I caught my breath.  The wing surfaces looked rough and what appeared to be large, transparent warts were scattered across them.  Frost and ice would be a non-starter for this flight.  With a brush of my hand, I learned that it was all just condensation, with the warts simply being larger droplets of water beaded on the wax.

Because the Warrior was out all night in the rain, I was particularly careful to examine the sumped fuel for moisture.  There was none.  When ready to go, I climbed into the cold, dark cockpit and swept my hands over the familiar controls.  I'm sorry I abandoned you here last night, but it was the right thing to do, I thought to the airplane.

I ran the pre-flight checklist, gave four shots of prime, and the engine fired immediately.  Darrell led the way to the departure end of the runway.

The flight home bore a striking resemblance to the one from the previous evening with the exception of the visible moon.  When I reached I-390, my turning point from the night before, the ground lighting in the distance remained as crisp as ever.  Ahead of me, strobe lights marked the passage of Darrell's Cessna through the nighttime sky.

I landed lightly on Warrior 481's main gear after Darrell cleared the runway.  "It doesn't get any better than that," I shared with him over the radio.


I do a reasonable amount of VFR flying outside my local area, sometimes across multiple states.  In nearly 900 hours, I have never needed to divert because of weather, though I have grounded myself plenty of times when I had planned to be flying.  I would like to think that this prudent go/no-go decision making is responsible for my track record.  And, ok, maybe a little luck too.

So what did I learn?  Nine miles (less than five minutes) from home is a tempting target in an airplane.  I learned that I can set a limit for myself ("I'm going to fly at 3000' and turn around at the first sign of reduced visibility") and abide by it in the face of "get-there-itis" and close proximity to home.

I also learned that I have some truly excellent friends.  Many thanks to Stacey, Ray, and Darrell for their enthusiastic and unsolicited help.  And, of course, thanks to Kristy for driving down to the rain...while sick...and not complaining once.


  1. Great decisions with a positive result. Thanks for posting, excellent write up and a good read for many pilots.

    I stumbled into a layer on a night flight, scared the bejeebers out of me. Started instrument lessons very soon after.

  2. Thanks, Gary. I try to share experiences that might be valuable, or at least interesting, to others.

    I also realize that others may analyze the same situation and decide that my decision making was not good. After all, I was not absolutely risk adverse, but took what I felt to be carefully considered risks that left me with an "out" in each case. Frankly, I am very intrigued by the different ways pilots approach aeronautical decision making.

    Sometimes there is no right answer, just the right answer for an individual. And, then again, sometimes people make really dumb decisions. I try to avoid those. :-)

  3. With every flight there is risk. If there was no risk, just anyone would fly and nothing unfortunate would happen. You showed that yes, you were aware of a greater risk than maybe a typical flight and you set clear limitations based on your abilities. You stuck with turn around point instead of making a poor decision to fly into something you were clearly uncomfortable to fly into. Egos must be kept on the ground when flying and you showed very good judgment.

    It is unfortunate to hear of the party in Canandiagua and their lack of checking to make sure things were OK with you. Hopefully others that read your post will think about this the next time they see someone in a like situation.

    A very good post for what to do in the air and also on the ground. Flying is deadly serious and if one does not respect that, they generally won't be flying very long. Great job and great post.

  4. Just came across this post and wanted to say thanks for sharing the story. Somewhat similar to our trip to NY a couple years ago - go up, check it out, turn back if anything deteriorates. Though dare I say you handled it a bit better than I did in this situation. Good stuff.

    1. Thanks, Steve. Yes, I can definitely see the parallel with your NY trip. Fortunately, we both made it safely to port (a least A port, if not the intended one) on our trips. My buddy Darrell had a similar experience with flag in Ohio that became the inspiration for his new instrument rating.