(Reprinted and condensed from "Things My Flight Instructor Never Told Me" by Michael Leighton)
Experience is by far the best teacher. When it comes to learning things in aviation, I have found that it is always more comfortable to venture beyond your own personal experience while in the company of some who has been there and done that. That way, if thing do go to hell in a hand basket you have the voice of experience to listen to. But if you fly long enough, the day will arrive when you know a lesson is coming and you're going to have to learn it alone.
So it was for me on the morning of March 4th. Our charter company had a trip scheduled in a King Air and, me being the lowest time captain in our group, it was decided that I would fly this particular trip.
The morning weather map was a classic late winter picture. A cold front extending from over the Great Lakes into the Gulf of Mexico was dumping snow all over the Midwest. A warm front, created from the remnants of the last cold front, had backed up over the state of Florida and was moving north, attached to a low moving northeast out of the Gulf up the cold front.
Our trip was from our base in Palm Beach, Florida up to Jacksonville, pick up our client and then on to Teterboro, NJ for the night. The next morning we were to go on to Bradley International in Hartford, CT, pick up three more passengers and return to Jacksonville, and then on home to Palm Beach.
The northbound trip was a cinch, featuring clear skies and great visibilities, not to mention a 25 knot tailwind ahead of the approaching cold front. We landed within five minutes of our projected ETA. After putting the plane to bed and catching some dinner, my copilot and I sat down to look at tomorrow's forecast.
The weather in the morning in the northeast would be fine. The front would not make its presence felt there until later afternoon, at which time we would be a thousand miles away. But as the warm front (now across northern Georgia) moved north, a trough emanating from the low over Louisiana would begin to move north and east. The same features that gave us those welcome tailwinds would now create strong headwinds, and it was likely we would not be able to make the trip from Hartford to Jacksonville non-stop.
But the die was cast. We were supposed to be professional pilots. The chief pilot didn't want to hear about weather. The customer didn't want to hear about weather, and I was pretty sure the three passengers we were picking up in Hartford didn't want to hear about it either.
Fortunately, my client is a pilot and a close friend as well and does not suffer from "get-there-it is" at all. So I always had the "wait until tomorrow" card to play if the weather exceeded my personal comfort level. Knowing this, I went to bed early because one way of another, tomorrow was going to be a long day.
After checking the winds and weather, I dialed up the "Wind Optimize" feature on my laptop. Tell the computer what you want to do and it will tell you which altitude will give you best speed vs. best fuel burn. No matter how I sliced it, we were not making it non-stop without eating into our one hour fuel reserve. I filed for a fuel stop in Salisbury, MD where the weather was forecast to be VFR through the morning.
The next morning, our first leg from Teterboro up to Hartford and the second down to Salisbury went off without a hitch. But it was apparent that the winds were definitely stronger than forecast and our groundspeed confirmed this. When we picked up the weather at Salisbury for our trip to Jacksonville, it was showing airmets for turbulence at almost all altitudes, sigmets for ice and low ceilings, with our destination weather forecast to be 1,500 and three on arrival. Higher altitudes meant higher headwinds, but also much lower temperatures, thus a lower chance of severe icing, plus better fuel burns.
We filed for 22,000 feet.
100 miles south of Salisbury we were in solid IMC and minus 22C. We didn't see any ice until well south of Norfolk. By the time we were north of Charlotte, NC we were picking up ice fast enough that I had to cycle the boots every few minutes. The big feature was the wind. The groundspeed was down to 130 knots, a hundred knots right on the nose.
Approaching Savannah, the controllers advised us of convective sigmet Echo 21 for a line of thunderstorms 30 miles west of Jacksonville to Ft. Myers, moving northeast at twenty knots. We were now in a horse race. I figured we had about an hour until the line of thunderstorms reached Jacksonville. South of Savannah, Jacksonville was reporting better than 5,000 and five. Descending through 8,000 feet we could see the coast through the undercast and the line of thunderstorms appearing on the edge of our airborne radar's range. We were told to expect the visual to runway 14.
As we turned base to final the radar swept to the west revealing the imminent deluge lurking in the gloom just west of the field. As we taxied in, a lightning bolt struck a tower on the airport. As my passengers deplaned, the first large super-cooled water droplets began to fall on the ramp. We waited in the FBO for an hour until the storm passed to the east and we were able to proceed to Palm Beach. We touched down 12 hours to the minute from departure at Teterboro.
The moral of the story? If I had been in a lesser aircraft and not a twin-engine turboprop with all of its high altitude and known ice protection, we would not have gone. Our decision making process was sound and based on aircraft and pilot capabilities. Having the "out" plan ready if the destination weather went to hell prior to arrival as well as the command authority to "just say no" in the first place all played a role in flight planning.
There is nothing that I can think of in my flight-training syllabus that could have prepared me for this decision train.