It was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend and the Midwest was experiencing an unprecedented level of convective weather with thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding all urgently reported by the TV news. Unfortunately, a longstanding Lear client of the company I fly for had an unexpected death in the family and needed to attend the funeral on that Saturday, right in the middle of all the weather.
The airlines were canceling flights left and right due to the conditions, and the distance from the West Coast was too long to drive or take the train. As a result, I got a call from our dispatcher Lori late on Friday morning asking if I can fly the Lear 45 to Iowa early on Saturday. While she is talking, I pull up the weather on my cell phone and see nothing but red radar returns widely dispersed over the entire three-state area. Thinking out loud about what to do, I ask Lori who will be the other pilot (a Lear 45 requires a crew of two), and she says Scott has tentatively agreed to go. Though newly rated in the airplane, Scott is a very experienced pilot I have flown with all over the country for a decade. I tell Lori I can do it then promptly call Scott. When I get him on the phone, I mention all the red radar returns, and he says, “Well, we’re going anyway, right?”
Now, we are rather careful professional pilots and the “going anyway” attitude might seem to contradict that statement, but not so. Over the years, we have developed ways of operating in or near bad weather which are quite safe, and for the next several minutes Scott and I outline our severe convective weather strategy – something not often required flying up and down the West Coast from Alaska to California. Convective weather requires heat and moisture, and with the Pacific Ocean at 45 degrees Fahrenheit off to our west for 3,000 miles, we get plenty of moisture but rarely enough heat to drive that moisture high. On the other hand, it seems any time we need to make a trip east, all the convective activity in the middle part of the country has been saving itself especially for us.
So, one of the first things Scott and I do is look at the size and pattern of the weather system. Usually, the convective area runs on a southwest to northeast line, extends about 200 nm wide and is almost always moving eastward around 10 and 20 knots – with predictions to worsen as the day goes on. If we find our destination is east of a system with the weather moving that direction, that makes us feel very uncomfortable because it means the conditions will only deteriorate as our arrival time approaches and we will likely need to overfly the system. On the other hand, if our destination is already in the middle of the action, that is a much more favorable sign as it means things are likely to improve. In the case of this trip, our destination in Iowa (DBQ) was already in the middle of the weather, which we found encouraging.
The next thing we look for is good VFR conditions on the upwind side of the weather. When severe weather passes, the atmosphere is cooled and typically there will be relatively mild conditions where it had been terrible just an hour or so before. In this case, it looked like Cedar Rapids (CID) would be well clear of the weather by the time of our arrival.
Now, one of the benefits of flying business jets as opposed to airlines is that we don’t have to land at our planned destination. Provided we can put our passengers within an hour car drive to where they want to go, they are often happier than if we push into turbulence and bad conditions. Most of them understand this before departure and readily agree to use that plan if we need to. Oddly, an hour drive rarely proves to be much of a bother or inconvenience – certainly nowhere near waiting in a long TSA line. Occasionally, if we are forced to land short of the destination, rather than putting the passengers in a rental car, we will just get a crew car and take everyone into town for lunch while waiting for the destination weather to improve…something not possible for the airline crew. For most passengers, the business of mixing with the crew seems to make the whole affair more of an adventure as opposed to an inconvenience. They also appreciate the care we take to avoid truly bad conditions, all the while trying to get them where they want to go.
With our background strategy worked out, Scott and I decide to leave our base (KBVS) just north of Seattle at 0530 the next morning. It is a 1,300 nm trip which the computer says will take us about 2:45, and have us arrive at .just before 10 a.m. local time. With convective weather usually growing worse as the day goes on, the departure and arrival time should be helpful. Plus, the funeral our passengers are attending is in the mid-afternoon, so that will also give them plenty of time to get there even if we have to land short of DBQ.
We take off shortly after dawn in clear West Coast weather, take up heading 082 and climb to FL410. As we depart, the weather radar on our iPads shows all red at our destination but with the system moving east at about 20 knots. Given our approximate 3-hour flight time, we think it should be clearing out just as we get there.
But within an hour of arrival, things at DBQ still do not look good, so I go back to the cabin and brief the passengers about the conditions. I take my iPad with me so they can see the red over DBQ. Everyone understands something red is probably dangerous, so they have no problem accepting the fact that they may be driving the last 50 miles of the trip. This kind of passenger cooperation and consent is simply not possible in the airline business, which is one of the reasons why we can say “we’re going anyway” when the airlines are still stuck on the ground.
As we cross the Iowa border, we pay attention to what is ahead and make sure we have all forms of weather avoidance equipment up and running. The one we typically pay most attention to is near real-time downloaded weather radar and lightning detection data on our iPads. This allows very good long-range planning from hundreds of miles away, with plenty of time to think through and review options. In the airplane, we also have radar in the nose which is helpful when close to the weather. But I have found if I am paying attention to the iPad, maneuvering up close to the weather with the onboard system is rarely necessary. Finally, we are IFR and talking to the controller, who is definitely not about to let us stumble into weather without a lot of warning.
When we cross the state line, the iPad shows the western edge of red weather to be about 10 miles from our destination and moving eastward at about 25 knots, meaning that it will likely clear by the time we arrive. But to cover our bases, we slow the jet down to give us some more time. As luck would have it, about 20 minutes out, the ATIS at DBQ starts reporting wind from the south at 15 to 20 knots, light rain, visibility 6 miles, with 600 broken and 4,000 overcast – a significant improvement from the lightning, heavy rain and gusting conditions reported earlier. This information is confirmed by the radar picture, which shows the system has moved out of our way. I look back over my shoulder and tell the nearest passenger the good news.
Ten minutes later, we land at DBQ in pleasant and improving VFR conditions. As they exit the airplane, our passengers attribute our safe arrival to the expertise of the pilots in front, but the truth of the matter is it was a matter of luck more than anything else. Even with the “we’re going anyway” mentality before departure, we had no intention of penetrating convective weather. If it had not conveniently moved out of our way, we would have landed elsewhere. Highly skilled or not, we don’t fly into red weather, even when “going anyway.”