Evaluating Weather & Exercising Options

Evaluating Weather & Exercising Options

I planned to fly up to Oshkosh from Wichita on Friday before AirVenture. My plan, following suggestions I included in “Are You Good Enough to Fly into Oshkosh?” (July issue), was to fly about 2.5 hours to Dubuque, Iowa (KDBQ), top off the fuel tanks, then make the roughly one-hour hop to Oshkosh following the NOTAM visual arrival.

A few days before the trip, forecasts called for marginal VFR conditions off and on along the route. I began to think about flying IFR to KDBQ and the possibility of having to stay there overnight since conditions were forecast to be Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) on Saturday morning. I made a refundable hotel reservation at Dubuque.

Friday morning the weather was VMC to KDBQ, but with a 4,000-foot broken to overcast layer – not bad, but worse than forecast. I filed IFR to cruise above the clouds, still thinking I might descend to visual conditions at Dubuque, fuel up and then fly visually under the clouds into Oshkosh. As I flew closer and closer to KDBQ, uplinked METARs showed the clouds were lowering at Dubuque. Soon it became obvious I would have to fly the RNAV (GPS) approach into KDBQ and I did, breaking out at about 900 feet AGL in good visibility. Half a dozen Oshkosh display airplanes were already there for the night with IFR reservation slots into KOSH the next morning. The ramp looked like Pensacola, Florida or Sweetwater, Texas in 1944, with dozens of North American SNJs and their Army AT-6 counterparts of the North American Trainers Association (NATA) waiting to go to Oshkosh as well.  I shared a cab with a retired Air Force officer who was weathered in in his RV-8, and took the hotel room I’d reserved.

As soon as I checked in, I took another look at forecasts for the next morning. The updated TAFs looked good: MVFR with good visibility, averaging about 1,800 feet overcast along the route for Saturday morning. That’s not great, but it meant I could fly about 1,300 feet AGL and still be 500 feet below the cloud bases, the minimum distance permitted for VFR. Sure, most of the route I could fly “one mile, clear of clouds” in Class G airspace below 1,200 feet AGL, but I don’t play that game even without the traffic likely to be heading to KOSH at the same time. 

Meanwhile, brief but intense bands of rain swept repeatedly over Dubuque, taking the visibility and clouds in and out of IMC…none of which had been in the day’s forecasts.

A look at the Graphical Forecasts for Aviation (GFAs, which have replaced Area Forecasts) showed the ceiling would be lower along the route. The terrain I’d overfly in western Wisconsin is about 300 feet higher in elevation than Oshkosh but the cloud bases were a constant altitude Mean Sea Level all the way. In this world of immediately available weather data, I’ve seen a trend in pilot behavior where they will check METARs, TAFs and the radar picture, make a decision, and go. They apparently forget that METARs and TAFs are only valid for five miles around the reporting point, and radar shows rain but not clouds or other hazards. 

So, while a cursory check of the weather might tempt me to go, a more detailed look told me I definitely did not want to try a one-hour VFR trip beneath the clouds. And most importantly, the actual weather was already trending worse than the forecasts, and there was no approaching front or other weather disruptor expected overnight that would suggest it would do anything besides be as bad or worse than the GFAs predicted for morning.  

Get a Reservation

I went to the Oshkosh NOTAM, found the procedure for obtaining an IFR reservation, and made my online request. The system lets you name your requested airport, day and time, including alternatives. In seconds, I had a 9 a.m. arrival reservation (my first choice) at Appleton, Wisconsin (KATW, my second choice after KOSH…which the website said was unavailable). I filed using the reservation code with an alternate back at KDBQ, knowing I could divert somewhere closer if needed, but I had the fuel to get out of busy Oshkosh NOTAM-area airspace if I had to.

Although the previous night’s forecast for my departure time was for 1,800 broken, the reality when I arrived at the airport was 1,000 overcast in drizzle. The weather at destination (KATW and KOSH) was still 1,800 overcast with good visibility. But the worse-than-forecast weather at KDBQ was slowly drifting east toward Oshkosh – it was probably not going to remain MVFR at Oshkosh. So, my plan was this: 

  • Depart IFR toward KATW. 
  • If approaching Appleton I broke out high enough to proceed with the visual approach to Oshkosh, I would cancel my IFR clearance and go visually to KOSH.
  • If I landed at Appleton and the weather later improved enough to take off for the visual procedure at Oshkosh, I would do so. If it did not within a reasonable time, I’d get ground transportation to Oshkosh and get the airplane another day.
  • If I had to miss the approach at KATW, I would return to KDBQ or some other airport where I could rent a car, drive to Oshkosh, and return for the airplane later.
  • Request to divert to Oshkosh en route if ATC permitted.
  • Any one of those options was equally acceptable. Deciding this beforehand, making the appropriate decision in flight would be a low-stress event with no temptation to second-guess or “make it up as I went.” I planned my flight; now I merely had to fly my plan.

Flying the Plan

Whether KOSH or KATW, the NOTAM preferred route starts as “Direct Madison.” Although I was cleared to my requested 5,000 feet cruising altitude, soon after handoff to Departure I was cleared to 7,000 feet as I flew directly over a Cessna 182 on the same course. As I approached Madison, ATC directed me even higher for traffic, up to 9,000 feet. 

Meanwhile, I tuned the #2 radio to the Oshkosh visual arrival frequency as found in the NOTAM – the printout of which I carried, with all my notes and tabs, alongside me in case I needed the visual procedure before landing. Sporadically I heard an airplane calling in on the visual approach, between the controllers’ standard soliloquy about how the NOTAM was in force and if you get too close to the airplane ahead of you “it isn’t going to work.” So at least a few airplanes were getting in visually. The clouds beneath me were breaking up a bit, revealing narrow swaths of very-green Wisconsin farmland. Sucker holes, they used to call them. The KOSH METAR on my cockpit weather was still 1,400 broken, 10 miles visibility. 

I was talking to Madison Approach. Appleton is in the Green Bay Approach area, while Oshkosh is controlled by Milwaukee Approach. I had printed hard copy of charts for both airports with me, and already briefed myself on the approaches to include all the note-taking preparation I teach and use for instrument approaches. I again briefed the Oshkosh RNAV (GPS) 27 approach, listened to ATIS (the field had gone IFR, 800 overcast) and got ready to load and activate it on the GPS because I wanted to try something. If it didn’t work, I’d brief for Appleton. I wanted the most recent briefing to be the approach I was going to fly, so I wouldn’t mess myself up.

“Contact Milwaukee Approach 127.0.” Perfect! I knew my request wouldn’t work with any controller other than the one with a real-time eye on Oshkosh arrivals. After checking in, then pausing for a moment to determine the sector wasn’t very busy, I asked with an intentional lilt to my voice, “Milwaukee, request.” “Go ahead,” the controller replied, probably already knowing what I was going to ask. “Milwaukee,” I replied, “I know it’s highly unlikely, but is there any way I can change my destination to Oshkosh? I have Information Hotel.” A slight pause. Then, equally animated, the controller replied simply, “Wait right there!”

In retrospect that may have been holding instructions. I don’t know.

“You’re cleared to Oshkosh. You’re five miles from IGVEW (the first fix on the approach), maintain 3,000 ‘til established, you’re cleared for the RNAV (GPS) 27 approach. Oh, and if you could give me a good rate [of descent] through 4,000 [feet], that would be helpful.”

I gave the controller a big “thank you,” threw out the speed brakes and extended the landing gear for drag for an expedited descent out of 9,000 feet with five miles to the fix, and activated the approach direct IGVEW. I could not have done all that if I didn’t already have the weather information, the approach briefed, the GPS ready for the switch and the paper chart with my notes immediately available…not having to call it up electronically, because I was still heading for the ILS at KATW when I made my request, and I had my iPad ready for that even though I had an annotated paper chart for the Appleton ILS as well.

I’m not writing all this to boast. It’s simply my public debrief of what went right on this flight. It all came down to preparation. I made it all click on this flight and as a result broke out of the clouds at about 800 feet over Lake Winnebago on a three-mile final for Runway 27 at precisely the place I wanted to be – Oshkosh…knowing it was the least likely of outcomes on this trip, and I was just as ready to end up with any of the other equally acceptable options. I landed about 9:15 a.m. before several bands of showers began taking KOSH in and out of IMC for most of the day.

Lessons Learned and Reaffirmed

The key lessons of my trip to Oshkosh include:

  • Check not only the weather state (how it exists in the briefing), but the weather trend (is it getting better or worse?).
  • Part of the weather trend is not only checking which way the forecasts say the weather is going from now on, but also how the current state compares to previous forecasts for the current time. In other words, did yesterday’s forecast accurately describe today’s weather? If not, is today’s weather better or worse than was earlier forecast? If it’s worse, is there a front or other major weather feature to break the trend, or do you have to assume the forecasts for later on are inaccurate, too? Forecasts and actual weather trend evaluation is something that happens over days, not hours.
  • Don’t be afraid to make requests from ATC. But don’t be disappointed or argumentative if you don’t get what you ask for. Sometimes, as they say, the answer is “no.”
  • Before you make a request, be fully prepared to execute it immediately. It’s bad form, at the very least, to ask ATC to do you a favor and then not be able to do it when granted. It’s even worse if you force yourself into a high-risk, high-workload condition because you aren’t ready to do what you initiated in the first place.
  • Brief yourself for as many options as possible, and realize that any number of outcomes can be equally acceptable as long as you are prepared.

Flying is all about weather and options. The better prepared you are, the more options you’ll have.

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