Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unscripted IFR

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
2 July 2013 N21481 SDC (Williamson, NY) - SDC3.01170.4

Home Stretch

Nearing the IFR check ride, a final hurdle remained in place: the dual (flown with an instructor) IFR cross country flight of 250+ nautical miles with different types of approaches flown at three airports.  For me, the challenge of reaching this milestone lay neither in the planning nor the execution, but in finding an appropriate day to make the flight.

To my mind, the ideal day would feature a thick stratus layer starting at 800 feet above ground level allowing for some actual IFR flight in a relatively benign atmosphere.  In other words, the ideal weather would be crummy, but not too crummy; thunderstorms need not apply.   Unfortunately, like much of the country east of the Mississippi, Rochester has suffered a soaking from an abysmal weather pattern generating a near continuous threat of thunderstorms.

Hemming and Hawing

Our first scheduled attempt was Tuesday, June 25.  I was worried about forecast thunderstorm activity, but we decided to re-assess closer to the planned departure time.  I departed Williamson in Warrior 481 bound for Le Roy to meet Tom.  On the way, I flew through a light rain shower that I first saw depicted on my moving map by Foreflight/Stratus before my eyeballs confirmed its presence.  The let down into Le Roy was chock full of bumps and burbles, but this did not stand in the way of punctuality.  I shut down at precisely the appointed 9:00 meeting time.

Plan A: 279 nautical miles.

My flight plan was meticulously crafted the previous Saturday while riding the train from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central in NYC.  I was very proud of this plan, which had us flying from Le Roy to the Geneseo VOR, to Elmira for an ILS approach, to Jamestown via the Elmira and Wellsville VORs for an RNAV approach, then back to Geneseo via the LANGS intersection to fly the VOR-A back into Le Roy.

Because it was our first time together in nearly three months, Tom and I did some review and went over the plan in detail.  We briefed and filed it.  Forecast convective activity along the route inspired a go/no-go debate.  We hemmed, we hawed.  When the office shuddered in a sudden squall, Tom and I ran outside and tied down Warrior 481.  We sought inspiration from the local sky, despite knowing that the view would not be relevant to our planned route of flight.  In the end, we came to a consensus that the risk of embedded thunderstorms was simply too high for comfort.  My IFR flight plan expired without any clearance granted.

It was a turbulent return to Williamson with a ground speed of 144 knots at 3000'.  Had we gone, it would have been a rough ride and later viewing of the radar showed thunderstorm activity all along the planned route and, at times, right over the intended destinations.  We made a good choice.

The Scuddiest Scud to Ever Scud
(with thanks to Homer Simpson)

A second attempt, Sunday June 30, was foiled by a broken ceiling of 600 feet over Williamson, preventing me from departing VFR to meet Tom at Le Roy.  I noted with irony that it was exactly the sort of weather I had in mind for getting my IFR ticket in the first place.

In lieu of flying, I washed and waxed the Warrior.  It was exercise of a different sort.

Best Laid Plans

Forecasts improved for the evening of July 2 in that thunderstorms were absent from the terminal area forecasts, though there was still an active convective outlook advisory.  Low weather was nonetheless anticipated across the route of flight.  We concluded that it just might meet my idealized "crummy, but not too crummy" criterion.

Moist air off of Lake Ontario was pushing south such that a 600' ceiling persisted over the shoreline and impacted the Williamson-Sodus airport.  Tom, as keen to complete the cross country as I, offered to make the long drive from his house to Williamson.

Plan B: 261 nautical miles

As I waited for him, I realized that my beloved original plan no longer made sense if we were flying from Williamson rather than Le Roy.  I hastily crafted a new plan: Williamson to the Geneseo VOR, to Buffalo for an ILS approach, to Jamestown for a VOR approach, back to the Geneseo VOR via LANGS intersection, and an RNAV approach (LPV!) into Williamson.  When Tom arrived, we reviewed the plan, briefed it with Flight Service, and filed it.  

Sitting in Warrior 481, the moment of truth came and I called clearance delivery on my cell phone.  As the flight specialist put me on hold to contact Rochester Clearance, Tom looked me in the eye and warned, "if he comes back with anything other than 'cleared as filed', do not think - write."  As it turned out, we were cleared as filed and received a release time ten minutes hence with a void time ten minutes after that.  It was a perfect window with the airspace over Williamson owned by me for all of ten minutes.

We departed Williamson in four miles of visibility and entered the cloud base at 400'.  We contacted Rochester departure who responded with, "November 21481, radar contact, 1.5 miles south of the Williamson-Sodus airport.  There are no other aircraft within twenty miles of you."

"Look Ma, no sky!"  Photo by Tom

I tuned the Geneseo VOR and intercepted the 060° radial while climbing to 4000'.  At altitude, we were passing in and out of the clouds, but we were more in than out.  Foreflight and Stratus showed some intense precipitation just to the left of our course and Rochester suggested a 20° course correction to the west.

It was the first deviation of many.

On the Fly Flight Planning

Rochester was juggling deviations for several commercial flights and one lone Warrior plowing through the cumulus.

"The area around Geneseo is developing some very heavy precipitation," Rochester reported, then provided a vector that would avoid Geneseo.  I set up the #1 Nav to intercept the next airway that would take us to Buffalo while Tom monitored our bearing from Geneseo on the #2.  

Deviations already in progress (see the GPS).  Photo by Tom

The world outside our windows varied from the absolute white of a blank canvas, to towering canyons of cotton candy, to neutral grey accompanied by streaks of moisture streaming over the windscreen.  Through it all, my scan was solid and our heading and altitude remained true.  I was amazed by my blase reaction to my first significant flight through real weather.

On initial contact with Buffalo, the controller warned us that our planned sojourn to Jamestown might be unwise as thunderstorms were beginning to pop just south of the field.  We decided to re-assess the situation after flying the ILS at Buffalo, but I began to seek an alternative to Jamestown that would provide a VOR approach that met the required diversity in approaches.  Dunkirk had a VOR approach for runway 24 that looked like it would meet the need.  I was thankful for Foreflight, which made this process comparatively easy to accomplish because of the way it organized and presented a voluminous amount of aeronautical data.

A peek of blue sky.  Photo by Tom

Vectored onto the ILS by Buffalo, the cockpit of the airplane darkened as we descended deeper into the murk.  I intercepted the glidslope, centered the needles, started the timer, and configured the airplane for a stable 500 foot/minute descent.  Glancing outside, some fuzzy gray buildings could be just seen passing underneath, but no runway.  Then, about two miles out, I got a visual on the runway.  I returned my gaze to the instruments and flew the approach to the 200' decision altitude before breaking off on the missed approach.

Climbing back into the clouds, Buffalo departure advised that Jamestown still looked like an undesirable destination, so we amended our clearance to Dunkirk.  As luck would have it, a direct run to Dunkirk from Buffalo put us right down the throat of the approach.  My approach there was a bit sloppy because I had not briefed that particular plate until we were en route, but it was passable.

After the low approach, I was preparing to enter the published hold when Buffalo cleared us direct to Williamson-Sodus.  "You do not want to go near Geneseo right now," the controller informed us as he eschewed the last vestiges of my original flight plan.

Best Lesson Ever

Photo by Tom

We enjoyed several minutes of clear air over a fluffy undercast while surrounded by cumulus gorgeously accented in golden highlights by the setting sun.  Through it all, the Buffalo and Rochester controllers took excellent care of us as we worked as full partners in finding suitable deviations to get us home.  Having the ADS-B weather displayed on Foreflight, even knowing that it was less current than what the controllers saw on their screens, provided an excellent visual representation of the very detailed reports of heavy precipitation given to us over the radio.  I was glad to have it.

During the relatively calm flight back to Williamson from Dunkirk, Tom said, "you couldn't have asked for a better training experience than this."  Indeed.  It was no sterile, canned training experience, but an immersive lesson on managing real world weather deviations.  I was reminded of a recent, excellent post by Frank Van Haste on this very topic. Unlike my prior actual instrument time in which we chose higher altitudes that deliberately put us in the clouds, this flight could not have been conducted any other way but IFR.  And, it met the "crummy, but not too crummy" goal - even if conditions were actually crummier than we anticipated.  At least the thunderstorms were in isolated pockets amenable to circumnavigation.  We never experienced any significant rough air, which suggests that we never came particularly close to the convective activity dotting the airspace around us.

Vectored Hither and Yon

Closer to Rochester, more isolated buildups necessitated a deviation well north of the city toward Lake Ontario.  Briefly, I saw the Port of Rochester pass below through a hole in the clouds.  In the post-sunset gloom, we literally swam through a grey murk with water flowing over Warrior 481's recently waxed skin.

Photo by Tom

Williamson was still IFR, though the ceiling was higher than when we departed.  The GPS-generated glideslope led us down through the grey until we broke out from the cloud base to see the runway lighting shining merrily from a dusky landscape as rain pelted the windscreen.

The landing was no greaser, but a solid, good landing that inspired Tom to quip, "and after all that, you just had to show off!"

Once the Warrior was put to bed for the night, Tom and I were walking back to the clubhouse in the light rain when he gave me a shove.  "You did frikkin' awesome tonight!"

I count that as one of the best compliments on my flying that I have ever received.

We logged 3.0 hours total with 2.6 in actual IFR conditions.  When I asked Tom what we needed to do next, his response was that I needed to take my check ride.

The Promise

Over breakfast with my daughter the following morning, I asked, "do you know what I did last night, Little Bear?"

"What, Daddy?"

"I flew inside the clouds."

Her eyes grew large and she gaped for a moment.  "Wow!  Will you take me into the clouds with you?"



  1. Great job! Abby did the same ting when I was working on my IR. when I finally got it she begged to go fly into every cloud. Unfortunately that enthusiasm has now worn off a bit since she now knows some clouds are very bumpy!

    Keep up the great work and goid job remembering the timer!

  2. Thanks, Geoff! Her next question was, "what do they look like inside?" When I told her that they were just white, I thought she would lose interest but, instead, she said, "cool..." :-)

  3. Kick-ass writeup (and performance!) about the XC, Chris. I could picture you passing through all the clouds and rain as I kept reading - great stuff. I must say, reading about all your IFR tales certainly isn't making me want to start my IR work any less.

    Good luck on the checkride!

    1. Thanks, Steve. Other than a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, it's been a great experience!