In the winter months of the northeast, weather can change quickly, and be fairly unforgiving. What this means to a pilot is entirely dependent on what type of pilot you are. There are a few things I learned early on in my flight training that I feel are relatively important to a pilot.
Wind Is Weather.
We often only think of weather as things that can adversely effect our daily life, and as an average citizen we are less inclined to pay attention to benign frontal systems, air masses and all other weather that does not change the course of our lives. As pilots however we have no choice but to consider wind in almost everything we do. Our runway choice, flight planning, navigation, estimated time en route, fuel consumption are just some of the many elements of a pilots life that depend on how the wind is behaving. What is most important however is that those things we do consider weather, travel because of the wind. How fast they travel, where they are going, and what the result will be come from the behavior of the wind.
One of the most important things I learned as a pilot is simply this; wind is weather.
Ice Actually Is Important.
While we are training we learn about icing conditions, how to spot them, what the aircraft feels like, what happens to the aerodynamics and most importantly, that icing can in fact kill you. Far too many pilots learn just enough to pass their check ride and let the knowledge slip away. Admittedly I also did not take weather as seriously as I should have. If you are a private pilot, the idea that you will be a fair weather flyer lingers in the back of your head and allows you to be complacent about weather. (For those of you that do not know, the atmosphere cools at approximately 2°C per 1000 ft of altitude, or approximately 4.4°F.)
What this means is that mathematically, if you take off with an outside air temperature of 55° F and fly to 7500 ft the ambient air temperature will be approximately 22°F. A full ten degrees below freezing. Your freezing level will be at approximately 5200 Ft.
If the sky are completely clear you may not find a justifiable reason for this to be relevant. However every pilot eventually comes to a moment when the weather does something other than expected, and it does it quickly. If you fly at all, it WILL happen to you, the only question is when. Any contact with visible moisture will cause icing and lets not forget, clouds are visible moisture, and not all visible moisture is clearly visible. On a recent flight we encountered unexpected rain with an OAT of exactly 32°F. The sky that day was overcast and the ceilings were dropping. There was no way to tell if this was a small embedded rain cloud, or if the rain were to continue from that point forward. With no deicing equipment the obvious, and safe choice was to reverse course and return to the airport. A pilot that didn’t consider OAT or the lapse rate may have continued, and may have encountered catastrophic icing.
On January 20th 2017, the day of the presidential inauguration, a friend and I decided to take flight and have breakfast in Westhampton. We were in a Cirrus with a full and functional anti ice system. The ceiling was 2600′ overcast and the layer was a little over 1000 ft thick. Filing an IFR flight plan was necessary and temperatures were below freezing. Obvious icing conditions. Shortly after departing from Orange County Airport (KMGJ) we could hear a Diamond under an IFR flight plan as well, in the clouds, and collecting ice. The pilot was begging the controller for a lower altitude so they could regain visibility and stop accumulating ice. You could hear the panic in his voice; he knew there was a chance he would never see the ground again. The Diamond had no de-icing equipment of any kind, and was not certified for known icing conditions. In this case the pilot should have never entered the clouds, knowing that conditions were a guarantee for icing. Later that day we discovered that the Diamond landed safely back at KMGJ before the icing became catastrophic. That aircraft should have never been in the clouds on that day, and the pilot ultimately made a terrible decision, regardless of the results.
We are responsible for our aircraft, our decisions and ultimately our lives. We cannot always count on the weather to do what we expect, and in this case our knowledge is critical.
There Is No Certainty.
One of the most important lessons I have learned from another pilot, aside from always be learning, is that you must always be ahead of the aircraft by a minimum of two decisions. This also applies to weather, we must always try to be ahead of the weather. Do everything you can to keep yourself informed. Start with the least accurate methods and work your way into the most accurate (1800-WX BRIEF). Watching Jim Cantore on The Weather Channel is a great place to start, but you must also rely on predictive tools like the Aeroweather app, MyRadar app, US AirNet, and NOAA. Ideally, you can make your go/no go decision long before you ever get to a phone call with the briefers, saving their precious time for other pilots that may be more qualified for the current conditions, in more well equipped aircraft.
No matter what sources of prediction you use, there is no certainty. Weather can change in the moment, and it can change for the worse. From unexpected rain in the winter to a pop up thunderstorm in the summer, possibly a violent wind shear while low in a mountain valley, or even a ceiling that drops rapidly driving a VFR only pilot toward the ground. What we can do is count on our training, and a commitment to continue learning to prevent a problematic situation from happening.
Its not very often that you can see what the weather is doing, the below short film is an amazing time lapse compilation that allows us to see what the weather is truly doing from moment to moment.