Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The shortest distance between points "A" and "B" might only be found with a huge deviation.



I knew the trip West after AirVenture from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to North Big Horn County Airport (U68) in Cowley, Wyoming, would bring this flat-land pilot closer to mountain peaks than I'd been for a while and require some changes in my normal operating procedures. With MEAs (minimum en route altitudes) over the Black Hills and the Big Horn Mountains as high as 12,000 feet, there would be a potential for ice in any clouds even in August, so I'd be more comfortable flying VFR on the last leg from Rapid City, South Dakota. If there was any weather over the mountains I'd be between a rock and a hard place, so I was careful to leave plenty of slack in my schedule.

What I hadn't anticipated was that on the first leg from Green Bay to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while there would be no "rocks," there would be two "hard places" between which I'd have to thread my way. During my preflight weather briefing, the flight service specialist warned me of sigmets for severe storms that scribed wide areas both north and south of my course. I decided, since the weather at Green Bay was good and either a return or diversionary landing along the route were viable options, to go ahead and at least begin the trip.

The sigmet-ed storm south of my route was the closer one and it looked, from the WSI NexRad display on the MX20, that once I had eased past the brunt of the southerly system, I'd be able to angle southwest toward Nodine (ODI), the VOR just west of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and stay in the middle of the corridor between the two storms.

I wasn't the only one trying to stay out of the weather. There was a VFR pilot on the frequency who was getting lots of help from the controller in his effort to get through the area without getting slammed around too much. I didn't envy him. At least I could see where the storms were-or had been only minutes earlier. Using the Stormscope as a backup, I was reassured there was nothing lurking in the clouds with me to cause a slam dunk!

As I got closer to the storms, my planned deviation, based on the direction and speed of the echo tops, appeared to still be a reasonable path down the gulch between the storms.

Once I passed the storm to my south, I called the controller and requested a deviation direct to ODI and then direct to Sioux Falls. You can imagine my reaction when the controller came back with: "Unable to approve the deviation because of military activity. I can't approve a deviation from your present position."

Without the deviation, my course was taking me directly into the maw of the second storm. The WSI was indicating that the tops were at 50,000 feet, there was large hail and the path of the storm was to the southeast.

"I'll need a deviation as soon as you can approve it," I told the controller. The situation was not yet critical, but it was time to begin considering my alternatives.

As I approached my time-to-make-a-decision point based on my distance from the storm, I called the controller again. "Any chance of deviating 20 degrees to the left?"

"Deviation of 20 degrees is approved and I can let you deviate anywhere you want in about five miles."

I ended up a lot closer to the storm than I wanted to be. It turned out that the deviation to ODI wasn't going to keep me clear and I had to swing farther to the south than I had expected, but I was able to skirt the storm and turn back toward Sioux Falls and clear skies.

It was an interesting lesson. It's been rare that I haven't been granted a request for a deviation when I've needed one. The possibility that a request might be refused injects another prudent consideration into weather avoidance planning. I was recently reminded of another lurking gotcha. Doug Stewart and a student, during an instrument approach on one of his 'Narly New England training flights', had to execute a missed approach when the student broke out high and fast. But they found because of the mountainous terrain in the area, that their only option was to fly the published missed and it required them to fly much closer to a cell than they wanted to. The cell hadn't been in their path during the approach, but became a concern during the missed. We're often so set on getting on the ground, we neglect to consider what might be in our path if we do have to execute a missed approach.

As I continued west, the VFR flight from Rapid City over the Black Hills and across the Big Horns on a line direct to Worland before turning north to avoid higher terrain went smoothly. Well, not smoothly, crossing mountains in the middle of the afternoon on a hot day is not the way to enjoy a smooth trip but it could have been a lot worse. When I dialed up the North Big Horn County AWOS it was reporting a density altitude of 7,200 feet, higher than my typical cruising altitude back east. As I began my approach to Cowley's Runway 27, the wind strengthened in advance of a storm from the west and was blowing from 230 at 25 gusting to 35 by the time I touched down. I remembered not to enrich the mixture and taxied off without killing the engine. Curt Young, the airport manager, and his friend Daniel, helped me wrestle the airplane into a tie-down spot and get it chained to the ground.

After spending a week at AirVenture at Oshkosh-arguably the world's busiest airport during that week-the Big Horn Basin was eerily quiet. Occasional motorcycles on their way to the rally in Sturges would remind me of airplanes, but in four days I saw the contrails of only one airliner and the morning departure and evening return of a single single-engine Cessna one day. That was it.

It's too bad. Cowley is a well-kept airport and with the price of avgas at $2.30 a gallon, it has one of the lowest fuel prices anywhere around. But unfortunately Cowley, tucked into the north end of the Big Horn Basin, isn't really on the way to anywhere, so it's not a convenient fuel stop. On the other hand, as the nearest airport to the Medicine Wheel, an 81-foot diameter stone site that is believed to have been built by American Indians and continues to be the destination for religious pilgrimages, the wild mustangs of the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range, Devil Canyon, the Bighorn National Forest, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation area and the Yellowtail Reservoir, Cowley has a lot to offer. Curt, who has an impressive mustache, is a cowboy who's built more like a bull rider than a saddle bronc rider. He seemed embarrassed that all he could offer was attentive and helpful service and low-priced fuel.

On my return flight, I flew VFR from Cowley to Pierre, South Dakota, with flight following all the way. Most of my flying is IFR, whether in weather or not. Flying IFR makes it easier to stay away from TFRs. Plus, when there are clouds ahead, you can just bust through them rather than trying to decide whether to climb above or descend below them and having to figure out whether you're legally far enough away from them. Flying VFR again after becoming used to IFR was a good reminder of the need to activate my flight plan, ask for flight following, monitor Flight Watch (122.0) and close my flight plan when I was back on the ground.

When I got my weather briefing for the return flight, the specialist told me there was a notam at Pierre for the closure of Runway 13/31. That wouldn't have been a problem except that when I got close enough to get the ASOS, the wind was reported to be from 150 degrees at 18 gusting to 22. Obviously, Runway 13 would have been preferred, but it was closed, so the only option seemed to be Runway 7, which meant an 80-degree crosswind. An airplane's ability (not the pilot's) to land in a crosswind is determined by the effectiveness of the rudder. If you can't keep the nose pointed down the runway because you've run out of rudder authority, it's time to choose another stage upon which to strut your stuff.

After I announced my intentions to land on Runway 7, the pilot of a Mooney approaching Pierre, radioed: "Airplane landing at Pierre, after you're on the ground, could you let us know how it was?"

The rudder remained in control and the gusts weren't much more than the steady-state wind and my landing was acceptable. I keyed the mic, "Mooney landing Pierre, it was rough, but not as rough as I expected."

Another airplane on the frequency asked me what kind of airplane I was flying. That made sense to me. But I wondered about the wisdom of the pilots assuming that if I could make a successful approach, they could. I remembered an accident in which a pilot elected to land in below minimum conditions because another airplane had successfully made the approach ahead of him. He wasn't up to the task. I decided that I was a stranger in a crosswind world and they were probably more familiar with crosswinds than I was. They both landed successfully.

The trip to Oshkosh and beyond involved a little bit of everything that makes flying a small airplane both a challenge and an adventure. My Cardinal and I traveled some 3,600 miles in about 30 flight hours and flew across mountains, deserts and lakes. We experienced thunderstorms, high-density altitudes, IFR and VFR legs and even potential icing on the flight back across New York, when the outside air temperature dipped to 32º F. People who think they've seen our vast and varied land when they cross it in their SUVs or in airliners at altitude are missing out. The trip reminded me not to take for granted the travel advantages I enjoy as a general aviation pilot and to appreciate the perspective of the world afforded me from the vantage point of my catbird seat.