Navigating Some Texas-Sized Storms

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Occasionally I will fly home with a new buyer in his or her recently purchased aircraft so that the pilot feels comfortable and/or insurance requirements (a certain number of hours with a CFI) are met. That was the case in April when the buyer of a G1000-equipped Turbo Skylane arranged for me to fly back home to the Dallas area with him. This trip was a bit unusual, though, in that my mode of transportation back was a Piper located in the Houston area. Obviously, this couldn’t be accomplished in a day (well, it could have been, but circumstances prevented that, which I will soon explain), and I later planned to get myself from Dallas to Houston. But first we had to get there…
As is often the case, flights made toward the southwest must contend with strong headwinds, and this flight was no different. Upon leveling off just after our departure from KLEX, we were disheartened to see a low groundspeed. But we had pleasant weather, and this would be the case for the majority of the day. After a brief stop in southwest Tennessee, we departed for our final destination of Arlington (KGKY). I helped the buyer navigate the ins and outs of the G1000, reminded him of power settings, fuel flow and temperature considerations, and enjoyed sharing in his first experience going through some clouds (we had filed IFR on the second leg). But as we neared KGKY, things got interesting. On the G1000 (with XM satellite weather), we had been watching a developing line of thunderstorms throughout the day as a cold front formed just west of Dallas. We were hoping we would be able to beat the line at our ETA. That seemed very unlikely listening to Ft. Worth Center, as we heard the controllers tell arriving aircraft that they “just lost the field” (translation: a thunderstorm was moving over the airport and there would be no arrivals just yet). It was interesting to hear them give holding instructions and to hear some crews report that if it was going to be much longer, they would need to proceed directly to their alternate. Ft. Worth finally told us Arlington would not be able to accept any arrivals due to the weather, and that was the news we needed to hear in order to make the decision to divert (as if we needed any more convincing). We landed safely at Hillsboro (KINJ) and waited the weather out. After re-evaluating the line of storms, we concluded it would be safe to depart and weave our way through the big stuff in the clear air en route to Arlington. First half of the mission: accomplished.

Navigating around some Texas-sized storms just south of the DFW area.
 

The Nexrad on the G1000 showing the storm in the top photo.
 
My day wasn’t over yet. I still had to drive the 3+ hours down to the Houston area, so after securing my rental car and getting a bite to eat, I headed south. Through rain. Heavy, heavy rain. I was very glad to be driving through this stuff instead of flying.
The next day dawned calm, gray and overcast, but somewhat threatening as well. I had been watching the forecast and knew that a cold front was to work its way through a large portion of the deep south, including all along my route. Storms, rain and low ceilings were forecast for the day. I knew that the earlier I departed, the better. But I also wasn’t willing to neglect my preflight planning to ensure I chose the best route, altitude and fuel stop.
Careful preflight planning doesn’t ensure that all is well and will be well. After taking off from KDWH, the first indication of this profound thought was air traffic control telling me that they weren’t detecting the mode C (altitude reporting) information from the plane’s transponder. Ok, that’s not too big of a deal but it’s not ideal for a long IFR flight. The transponder is required to be checked every 24 calendar months for accuracy, a fact that I personally confirmed in the aircraft logbooks before departure. Furthermore, it should be operating properly. Unfortunately, it was not, and I was told to report reaching my assigned altitude. After about 10 minutes, I began to go in and out of some clouds and get into some crummy weather. The radar on my portable Garmin 796 GPS was showing that heavy rain was present from the northwest all the way around to the north. I requested to stay on a heading of about east until I could clear it safely.

The radar picture during my flight from KDWH to KVKS.
 
Around this time, the Garmin 530W GPS installed in the plane began to lose its satellite integrity. While the mode C problem wasn’t critical, it did leave me a bit flustered since I was doing my best to stay ahead of the plane. The momentary GPS outage deepened the level of flustering, if just a bit. As I began to contemplate letting ATC know of my issue, the GPS signal came back. I decided to forego my original fuel stop choice of Starkville, MS and head directly to the better weather of Vicksburg, MS (KVKS) so I could regroup. Except for some minor rerouting due to the transponder issue, the rest of the flight was uneventful.
Power down, power up. That seems to be the fix-all solution when it comes to electronics. It did the trick with the mode C as indicated by the “radar contact” I received from the Memphis Center controller after taking off from KVKS. I have flown this plane a couple of other times since this day, and I haven’t had any other transponder issues. I believe the 530W behaved as well, and I was soon cruising on top of a scattered layer of clouds at 9,000 feet. The weather’s behavior was a different story. Just as on the previous day I was in a race against thunderstorms going into Dallas, the same was true as I neared home. Who would win?
Just southeast of Nashville, I requested a deviation to avoid a large storm cell, and was granted it. I was still above the clouds at this point with a clear view of the cell. My attention, though, was on the line of weather zeroing in on the Lexington area. Even as I watched the airport become engulfed in an orange-red blob on the 796, I still held out hope I would be able to make it in. Just as I was about to be vectored on to the ILS for runway 22, the controller alerted all aircraft that the field just went IFR due to heavy rain and thunderstorm. Again the decision had been made for me. I decided to play it safe and land at Georgetown (27K) and wait out the weather. It appeared I wouldn’t have to wait very long, so after landing (in some rain, but still VFR), I taxied to the ramp, kept the engine running and waited. Safe on the ground, I watched the radar and decided after about 10 minutes it would be safe to depart. Finally back in Lexington, my adventure had come to a safe close.
So, what did I learn on this trip? (You should learn something new on every flight) First, if there’s ever a question about who would win the race between you and the weather, let the weather win. Like a quarterback running with the ball slides to avoid getting pummeled (and most likely hurt) by two linebackers, play it safe and divert or proceed to a better weather area and wait it out. Second, don’t assume that just because something is installed in an airplane, it looks new and other people say it works, be skeptical. While the equipment issues on my flight home didn’t cause me to cancel my flight, I might have made other choices in my preflight planning (such as using a non-GPS form of navigation). Finally, take your time in evaluating the weather before a long cross country flight. On both days, I could have made a cursory check of the conditions along my route and jumped in the plane to depart. It is true that if I had departed sooner on both days, I would have arrived before the linebackers - I mean storms - met me at both destinations. But the tradeoff was that I was better prepared for both flights, and in the end that is the most important thing.

My diversion to 27K. Although the radar doesn't look too bad in this image, it is actually a later image; the large cell south of LEX is what was over the field at my ETA.