A Stretch of Bad Weather

by on February 11, 2014

De-icing an airliner at its parking gate.

De-icing – a cold, miserable job.
Thank these people whenever you get the chance.

I haven’t had the plane out of the hanger for almost two weeks now and it looks like the non-flying stretch is going to last a bit longer.  Last weekend our winter finally came back. There was a little precipitation but, more relevant to an aircraft without a heater,  the temperatures dropped about 20 degrees (F) for the daily highs – barely reaching 40 late in the afternoon. Yeah, I know, compared to what is happening in the central and eastern part of the country 40 degrees is a heat wave.

This weekend the weather wonders are saying there is a 50-60 percent chance of rain/snow… and more wind. Around here they don’t put out a percentage that high unless it’s actually raining at the time. Such is forecasting in the mountains – way too many variables.

CFI Open Forum

Last week the local FAASTeam representatives put on what they call a CFI Open Forum. The FAA used to sponsor CFI workshops that, over a period of time with consistent participation, could qualify for a CFI renewal. They ended that program and the local office picked up with these Open Forums events. It’s a way to get a little more information out to the local CFI community and a chance for the CFIs and DPEs to get together and talk about the latest ‘problem areas’ that are showing up in certificate check rides.

The primary topic for this Forum event was Preventing Loss of Control Accidents. There has been a string of accidents in the Reno-Tahoe area over the past 12 months that has attracted the attention of the FAA Safety people.  When you live up here in the mountains it is easy to attribute accident causes to inexperienced mountain flyers – flat-land pilots flying up to mountain destinations for a weekend or to visit friends and then disregarding the tremendous differences in aircraft performance and weather phenomena between the two locations. In this case though, only about half of the accidents involved pilots from out of the area.

One factor that appeared in multiple accidents was an ignorance or disregard for density altitude. This FAA document discusses density Altitude in fairly clear terms and includes a Koch Chart that can be used to determine the effect of density altitude on typical non-turbocharged aircraft performance. You enter the chart with the OAT and the airport Pressure Altitude. It’s more for reference than specific number – that’s where your individual aircraft performance handbook needs to be referenced. If you use the Koch Chart and enter with 80 degrees and a Pressure Altitude of 5000′ the chart says to increase your normal takeoff distance by about 130% and to decrease your rate of climb by almost 65%.  Most general aviation runways will have enough pavement to handle the added distance necessary to lift off (though I would use 200% to account for my technique, engine condition and aircraft rigging). The question then becomes what you do after you get into the air.

In most cases ‘climb on course’ is not an option.  The safest option for a VFR pilot (especially at night) is to fly the airport traffic pattern rectangle in a climb until you are well above the mountains/obstacles that you have to cross. In our minds we know that mountains do not move – but they sure look like they are growing if you are flying toward them. Instrument pilots are familiar with ODPs (Obstacle Departure Procedures).

Most major airports have charted departure procedures that combine obstacle clearance with integration of the flight into the air traffic control system but small airports can have them, too. The Instrument Approach Procedures Chart has a section on Takeoff Minimums and (Obstacle) Departure Procedures. Each airport listed has a section for IFR minimum weather conditions for takeoff and a section that describe in text the Departure Procedure for each runway. As a VFR pilot, what do you care?  Well, the procedure described will keep you clear of terrain/obstacles no matter what the weather might be.  You know that the procedure listed will keep you clear of terrain. If you have any questions in your mind about what your options are for climbing out of a mountainous area, check the published Departure Procedure and see what is shown.

For instance, at Reno-Stead taking off on runway 26 the procedure says to use a climbing right turn to head 050 degrees and intercept the FMG 314 deg radial and proceed inboud to the FMG VORTAC. Then climb in the holding pattern at the VORTAC and describes the holding pattern. Then is says to depart the VORTAC at or above specific altitudes (from 10,000′ to 12000′) for different directions of flight. If you are VFR just call up (NORCAL) Approach Control and tell them what you want to do. There is no reason not to call them and get flight following out of the mountains anyway.

That was another topic of discussion – flight following, flight plans and personal tracking devices. One of the accidents described was survivable. Two of the three airplane occupants lived through the crash but died before the aircraft was found. No flight following was used, though I believe a flight plan was filed. It just took too long (measured in days) for the route of flight to be traced, the location determined and the rescuers to arrive. One Forum attendee recommended always carrying a 406 MHz PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). I don’t have one of those, but I do use a SPOT Satellite Messenger. It is set up to record my location on a map every 5 minutes. The map is available at any time to my specified list of individuals. The unit also has the ability to sent an “I’m OK’ message or a ’911 -  I need help’ message. So far the 5-minute interval seems to be sufficient. For an additional subscription fee I can decrease that to every 2 1/2 minutes.

As with most accidents we read about, every one could have a different outcome had the pilot in command made at just one different decision.

Cedarglen February 11, 2014 at 10:59 am

Hi Tracy,
Thanks for several great posts. This one, considering density altitude, flight following and one of several position alerting systems is spot-on great advice for any pilot, and especially flat-landers.
My first introduction to density altitude came via a short, mid 60s film produced by the FAA. Another lesson comes from a former professor/pilot whose family has a summer cabin in high-altitude Idaho. Despite a high performance single, it takes them several shuttle trips to load in and out for their seasonal visit, due to density altitude. In general terms, they fully load the goods and souls near Portland and fly to a modest FBO-served field in Idaho, about 45 minutes air time from their destination. At Idaho One, they UNLOAD gear and souls, double check the fuel/weather and then, with a far lighter load, climb to Idaho Two and land safely. Fuel weight is traded for cargo/souls to a degree, but he always carries enough to return to Idaho One, plus… While Mr. Professor Pilot does most of the flying, Mrs. Professor Pilot is also qualified for VFR and she certain understands density altitude! For the final trip, climbing up to Idaho Two, they load max fuel such that they get easily get out, three souls aboard and no cargo, should it be necessary. The end-of-season out-loading is much the same but in reverse. After a brief climb, they get to ‘coast’ down to Idaho One and certainly burn a lot less fuel. Good lessons! While perhaps not directly related to human anatomy or micro biology , there were some excellent links about human performance at high altitude. Mr. Professor/Pilot is now well into his late 70s and as fit as the former Smoke Jumper that he is. He is not a CFI, but he certainly has the gift. He and Mrs. Professor/Pilot still make their annual trek and good, safe flying habits are one their several hallmarks; even an urgency won’t compromise their standards. A big salute, Dr. Bill!
I’m still grounded. Stan, my flying partner for several years, voluntarily grounded himself as of January 1. It was difficult for him, but it was time and everyone knew it. At 79, close to 18k hours with no ill events, flying out on top is not a bad thing. Stan understands my situation well and, of course, he now faces a lot of that himself. He’s made some introductions and we are both working on connections that will allow us to continue flying, at least for the odd burger. (When one offers to cover fuel and burger costs, a few ears really do perk up.) This is our down season as well. Most of the interesting aircraft are in for their annual gyni exams and the timing is great; in this micro climate, VFR flyable days from January to the end of March may happen, but they are rare. Those of us without airplanes or licenses do not whine; we are grateful for each and every opportunity to share the experience, and more learning, with a willing friend. For the novice and amateur, lessons learned DO transfer well, if one listens to the new PIC and learns a bit about his practices. With ~ten years of begging for rides (and some driving time) under my belt, I’ve encountered only one pilot with whom I would not care to fly again; the vast majority are genuine PPL hobbyists, yet strive to drive at professional standards. I won’t be grounded for long!
Thanks again for a great post – and for returning to your blog after the long absence. Reading your posts is fun the basic rule remain the same: you write, I read and we – and many others, enjoy the exchange. Regards,

Tracy February 11, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Thanks Craig,

I hadn’t heard from you in a while so I was wondering how things are going with you. Good news/bad news about your flying partner. We’ll get to that point some day. It’s good to hear that you are still actively seeking out another ride.

The weather broke here today – mostly sunny anyway. I do see some standing lenticular clouds forming over the valley though, so the forecasts of windy conditions tomorrow are probably going to be accurate.

Take care and be sure to drop a line once in a while. I appreciate the updates.


Cedarglen February 15, 2014 at 9:06 pm

Hi Again Tracy,
Yes, all is quite up this way. For the blog; you write, I read and we enjoy. Folding Captain Stan’s wings was not traumatic. Everyone, including Stan himself recognized that it was time. I like to think that I gave him that least year, but that really is a stretch. We both know that I’m not legal and not really competent beyond an extended VFR pattern.
Heavens yes, I am pursuing new rides! Funny/Strange how serious offers of fuel and the odd burger tend to generate some great offers of air time. I insist on some informal measure of continuing education, but I don’t push it. It seems to be working and, when our weather improves I’m sure that I’ll log a few more hours. I’ve become a bit less fussy about what I am allowed to do, yet the standards remain as I have been taught. More than once I’ve heard something like, “Oh, you are the guy that was flying with Stan for a while…” As far as I know, the notes and thoughts are positive+++, and have generated some offers. I’ve not really been a hanger rate, our field is just too small for that. Still, I guess folks talk and my bent for safety is known.
This is simply not flying season for us. When one can get off the ground and make a dash to Eugene or other poets nearby, for their off-season annuals. I’ve done shuttles x3 and one or two more may be pending. My flying habits have some modest credibility, Captain Stan talks waaay too much and I’m not complaining. When our ’14 FLYING season begins, I suspect that I will have some offers. That is good enough for me.
All but one of these new hosts are +/- new to me. I hope that they are not annoyed when I ask to view their personal and hardware logbooks before we go flying for the first time. I have no flying credentials – none, not one. And I still have to believe that valid tickets and currency – honoring the rules – are important. Despite being retired, I certainly honor the letter of the rule in my own profession. I maintain what I really need, drop the rest as they expire and heavens yes, purse the continuing education programs necessary to remain current at the appropriate level. I expect my licensed partner pilots to do the same and yes, Captain Stan, now standing down, has been a huge influence on a lot of our local pilots and more than a few CFIs (including one CFI-I) in the region. Doing it right, every time – and teaching it properly, is never a bad idea. Should I write that again? I think the first part is the most important: Do it right, every time! Perhaps – just perhaps… that why my friend has managed something slightly over 15K hours and without bending an airplane or harming anyone. Do it right, every time – or say ‘No’ and go home.
Sorry for the long blather, but it has been a long dry spell from both ends. I’m delighted to see that you are posting again, when you have something and heavens yes, I’d like to hear about all of your flying. I cannot report quite that much detail, but I’ll share what I can. I expect a great season, more hands-on education and considerable expense. Those burger prices keep going up…
Best regards,

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post: