I've known and worked with Richard Collins for 28 years, and he has taught me much about flying. I can't believe there is any general aviation pilot who has traveled more in the IFR system than he has. But I never really fully shared his enthusiasm for studying and understanding the big weather picture. My attitude has been the weather is as you find it. Why should I care if that mean-looking cloud ahead or the precip on my radar was caused by a cold front, warm front, low, high or inverted trough aloft?
My attitude toward weather works pretty well, particularly with the improvements in technology that we have seen over the past years. Flight directors and good autopilots that are common even in light airplanes make flying the perfect ILS a snap, so minimum visibility isn't the challenge it used to be. Weather radar can find heavy precip miles ahead of the airplane, making it possible to avoid thunderstorms, whatever caused them. And more and more airplanes have ice protection that gives you time to escape icing conditions with a change in altitude or route.
But it is, in fact, the advance of weather reporting technology in the cockpit that has forced me to rethink the issue and change my mind. Richard has been right all along about the importance of understanding what factors are creating the weather phenomena I can see out the windshield and on the equipment in my cockpit.
My thinking on the topic crystallized on a trip down the East Coast in the early spring. It was nice to have a tailwind while flying southwest, but when I thought about why that was happening, I could understand the weather that lay ahead.
We were flying in light rain at 6,000 feet in and out of the clouds. The air temperature was right at freezing on the gauge in my Baron, but no ice was forming on the airframe. Snowflakes occasionally mixed in with the raindrops.
For the past hour I had been looking at a fairly large area of Level Three red Nexrad radar returns on the Avidyne EX500 and Garmin GDL 49 datalink weather systems in my airplane. The Level Three red Nexrad returns that both systems show are intended to duplicate the same precipitation intensity as Level Three detected by the airborne weather radar in the nose of the airplane. The presentations are not exactly the same between airborne and Nexrad downlink, but red returns get your attention every time.
My wife, Stancie, was busy reading a magazine and apparently not paying much attention to the progress of the flight. But as the red returns on the Nexrad displays marched relentlessly closer to the little symbol that represented our Baron, she put the magazine aside and demanded to know why I was flying into an area of red. Good question. Just then the Myrtle Beach approach controller called with a turn toward Savannah that avoided the heaviest levels of precip he was seeing on his radar. But that route would still take us through red Nexrad returns on the EX500 and Garmin.
I didn't have time to explain my decision to Stancie, and she probably wouldn't have cared about the details anyway. I told her the ride would probably be bumpy and very wet, but there was nothing dangerous in there like a thunderstorm.
How could I know that? Because I had actually done what Richard advises and looked at the surface weather map before takeoff and thought about the weather system I would fly through. There was a well-developed low-pressure system off the Carolina coast, and its counterclockwise flow was responsible for the northeast wind on our tail. It was also supplying the moisture that was pounding on the windshield. With no fronts in the area, and cool temperatures at the surface and aloft, there was no lifting to convert the moisture into convective storms. I also had the comfort of a Stormscope that did not detect any lightning, which is an essential ingredient of a thunderstorm. It was simply a coastal rain-snow drencher that is common in the southeast in winter and early spring.