From my Desk to the Sky: A Lesson in Safety

Thursday, March 19, 2015

One aspect that improves safety in aviation is knowledge. I’m not talking about philosophical insights or political views, of course, but the cold, hard facts that can and do affect the outcome of a flight. Plenty of facts are available to pilots nowadays, more than any time in the 110 plus years of powered flight. Thanks to the internet and satellites, we have just about everything at our disposal to become fully educated before we take to the skies. There are no excuses when it comes to FAR 91.3: Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. In fact, I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the amount of available information. But I’m thankful nonetheless that it is available.

"FAR 91.3: Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight."

Recently, I flew a nice Saratoga to a client in order for him to finalize his plans to purchase the aircraft. The weather was fine – clear but cold, with a high overcast developing as I approached my destination in southeastern Iowa. The forecast was for the ceilings to drop during the day, but there wasn’t going to be any problem for my return to Lexington. I spent about 3 hours on the ground as the client got to really check out the airplane, about which he was very excited. Then it was time to return home.

Here’s where it really became apparent that the exchange of information is both extremely important and amazingly fast. AirMart has two portable GPS units, one a Garmin GPSMAP 696, and the other a Garmin Aera 796. Both are SiriusXM Weather-equipped (via subscription). On this flight, I chose to take the 796. I find it a bit more user-friendly than the 696 - it features a touch-screen - although both offer similar features.

I had flight-planned for 11,000’ for my return flight, seeing that the winds were looking favorable at that altitude. The overcast was being broadcast as 10,000’ (above ground level), so my plan was to climb to my planned altitude and see if that was the case. There was plenty of room to descend if I needed to. Once I reached 11,000 I realized I was still in the clear, but I could see that the base of the overcast was just above me. (I love that I don’t have to worry about clearances from clouds under IFR.) This didn’t last long, however, and soon I was enveloped in the “soup”. The pitot heat was switched on, and I watched for the signs of icing. I took note of the outside air temperature, which was -1°C. Pretty much immediately, the windshield showed some patterns of ice directly in front of me. Soon after, I began to see just a trace of rime ice on the leading edge of the wings.

It was time to descend. I requested 9,000’ to the controller, explaining that I was picking up a trace of ice, and I gave him the outside air temperature. Although not specifically calling it as such, I had just given a Pilot Weather Report, or PIREP. The definition of a PIREP, according to the FAA’s Pilot-Controller Glossary, is a “report of meteorological phenomena encountered by aircraft in flight.” PIREPs have been around for a long time, and they are used every day by pilots to get an accurate, eyewitness weather report at a specific place and at a specific time. They are a great tool for looking at during your weather briefing, albeit many minutes removed from your planned time of flight. But what was cool was the fact that just two or three minutes after giving mine, I was able to see it on the 796’s weather page, which means anyone else in that vicinity was able to do the same, thus avoiding 11,000’ as a cruising altitude (unless they were anything but a light single).

In-flight weather has revolutionized general aviation, and I believe aviation in general. Radar, satellite mosaics, fronts, winds, icing, TAFs, Metars – all are available at the pilot’s fingertips. It shouldn’t be used as a crutch, of course, relied upon instead of a thorough, approved weather briefing. There are limitations (as seen in this article). But in-flight weather is a great way to increase your situational awareness by helping you see the “big picture” when it comes to weather. And hopefully seeing that picture will help you get safely from Point A to Point B. I was able to return to Point B safely – and the winds were better at 9000’ anyway.

Find more information about flying in weather from the FAA here.