Fly Girl in Training: Interpreting weather data and understanding VFR conditions

Learning how to fly requires a keen understanding of weather and VFR
conditions. I learned as much on the way home from OSH13 this year!
When Mr. T and I first started dating, we lived a few hours apart and every so often, he'd fly the 45 minutes to visit me. I recall one trip where T asked for a cloud report before heading over. (My town was sunk into a valley between two small ranges and he wanted to make sure he was flying into good visibility.) I remember staring into the heavens, one hand shading my eyes, one hand holding up the cell phone to my ear, anxiously describing all of the big puffy clouds I thought might deter him from landing. The big puffy clouds that I found out were up near 20,000 feet and clearly no factor for T in his Cessna 182.

Fast forward a decade(ish). OSH 2013 has just finished up and we're heading home in the same 182. Only this time, yours truly is the primary pilot. (Not quite "pilot in command" as I don't have my ticket yet!) Unlike the sunny, clear skies we enjoyed for our trip Eastbound, we're faced with low visibility, overcast and Summer storms.

Our extended fuel stop in Minnesota was actually
delightful thanks to these helpful boys and their
hospitable parents who ran the FBO.
In fact, the weather gets so crummy that at our first gas stop in Luverne, Minnesota, we're forced to hang out for an hour or two and wait. As a pilot without an instrument rating, I must operate under "visual flight rules" (VFR) which means staying clear of clouds and maintaining specific levels of visibility at particular altitudes. During the day in the rural heartland, that meant being able to see at least one mile in all directions.

One mile.

Sounds like a lot, if you're running.

In the airplane, it's NOTHING. I know, because T and I flew through three mile visibility conditions and I felt like I couldn't see a damn thing. To me, the landscape looked like a big grey blob and I started to feel acute anxiety at not being able to see clearly. (Never mind the fact that it was also the first time I flew in real precipitation.)

The clouds and the overcast? Heartburn inducing for me, despite the fact
that we could see the ground through the clouds in some places and had
lots of options for landing. 
Of course, our foray into marginal weather was informed by GPS weather reports and confidence in having a number of options in case visibility completely bottomed out. And, as T reminded me then and now, we could actually see fine and everything was safe and controlled, despite my feelings.

Once we got into clearer skies, T and I debriefed the experience that up until now, has been the most frightening 30 minutes of left seat flying for me. As a new student pilot with 40-ish hours of training, I would have never chosen to fly in that level of visibility, especially after listening to a presentation on "pilot panic situations" at OSH wherein I learned about a pilot who killed himself and three others after getting disoriented in poor visibility. (Truth be told, that guy went into IFR conditions after making a series of really poor decisions.)

I shot the photos above and below just after this picture. Note where our
plane icon is traveling--in space that looks clear on the map. Definitely not
clear out the window!
And therein lies T's lessons for me: Understand how to interpret weather, always have options, and know your limits and skills as a pilot.

One of the most startling revelations involved correlating the display of GPS weather with its colored storm cells and the actual conditions outside. The weather information--generated by a Stratus ADS-B receiver for my technical friends--showed us precipitation but not clouds or ceilings. What come across fine and maneuverable on screen looked untenable out the window. The moral? Use technology as a guide but trust your training and visual cues.

I am SO grateful to have the opportunity to learn about weather as a
student. Having started my training in sunny California, it's possible I
wouldn't see a day like this for months, potentially after earning my ticket!
And while technology is a useful tool, this experience taught me to always leave myself several options. While we were flying, T pointed out how we had at least three "outs"--clearer skies way off course and a couple airports below. We ended up getting through the muck without deviating too much, but listening to T articulate these options and how they would disappear if the weather changed (for instance, if the ceilings lowered such that we could not maintain proper altitude above structures on the ground), was eye opening.

Which leads me to the biggest point of insight from this experience- Knowing limits!

Had I been flying alone (imagining, for example, that I had my solo cross country endorsement already), there's no way in hell I would be flying in this kind of weather! It's beyond my comfort zone and capabilities at this point, especially as I don't have a sophisticated understanding of weather systems yet. But the point of knowing the limit of my skills is the important part. So many general aviation accidents are the result completely preventable pilot error, often related to pilots flying in conditions or with equipment beyond their skill level. I plan to maintain a realistic and at least for awhile cautious approach to flying because I'd much rather be late and safe, than sorry!

Coming up next: Some thoughts on density altitude and mountain flying, more OSH13 pictures and what it feels like to land on a grass strip! Questions or comments? I'd love to hear from you. Use the comment link below or shoot me an email: bluestmuse(at)gmail(dot)com.


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