I Learned About Flying From That: A Change in Weather

What to do when landing options diminish.

Barry Ross

Barry Ross

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

(December 2011) Hutchinson, Minnesota, had been covered in snow, ice and arctic temperatures all winter. A week earlier it had been 24 degrees F below zero. This week brought a 45 degrees F above zero temperature and melting snow. Since the temperature was warm, the moon was full and the stars were out, I decided it was a good time to take my not-so-fond-of-flying wife on an evening flight. I had hoped to show how beautiful the winter landscape is at night and help her gain an appreciation for spending time in our Vans RV-9A.

After arriving at the airport and getting my sweetie comfortably settled in her seat inside the heated hangar, I did one last check on the weather: 10-mile visibility, light winds, temperature 39, dew point 36 and clear. We departed Runway 13 and I planned to fly over our hometown of Hutchinson just southeast of Litchfield.

As soon as we lifted off and gained some altitude, I could tell that the weather wasn’t quite as good as advertised. The visibility seemed a bit hazy, but still good. I climbed to 3,000 feet and did a lazy arc around Hutchinson. We passed south of the Hutchinson airport as we turned north to head back toward Litchfield. The conditions at Hutchinson were good and we had an excellent view of the airport. As we turned north, I could see that the path we had just traveled had deteriorated in a big hurry. With a tailwind, I headed north to Litchfield with a 185-knot groundspeed, planning to end our evening flight before the conditions really turned sour.

By the time we returned to Litch-field, about 20 minutes after we left in clear conditions, I couldn’t see the ground through the cloud deck. Fortunately, we had a full moon and clear skies above, which provided good VFR conditions on top. As a VFR-only pilot, I needed to find a place to land. It is my practice to always leave the ground with full fuel, so I pulled the throttle back to 2,100 rpm and felt some comfort in the fact that I had at least 3½ hours to find an airport that was still VFR. We headed south hoping to land back at Hutchinson, but the cloud deck had also engulfed Hutchinson and well beyond. We couldn’t see any ground lights in any direction.

I managed to stay calm and stay focused on flying the airplane. I didn’t want my wife to begin to panic, so I tried to exude confidence even though my grip on the stick had tightened considerably. I tuned the radio to the ATIS at Flying Cloud, a controlled airport (FCM) on the southwest side of Minneapolis, and the report was encouraging: seven miles and clear. I tuned the GPS to Flying Cloud, but as we approached I could tell that conditions there had deteriorated as quickly as they had where we had been. I got to within five miles of Flying Cloud and reported to the control tower that there was a solid undercast and I was VFR only. The ceiling at FCM had dropped to 1,000 in a very short time, and I was beginning to wonder how far I would need to have my son travel to pick us up.

The FCM controller had checked with Anoka-Blaine airport on the north side of the Minneapolis metro area. It was still reporting seven miles and clear. FCM handed me off to Minneapolis Approach and they vectored us to Anoka. Once again I got a knot in my stomach as the cloud deck stretched endlessly before us, even though we were only a few miles from Anoka. I reported the conditions to Minneapolis, and the controller suggested that we head farther north, possibly to Princeton, Minnesota.

As we passed over the Anoka airport covered in a solid blanket of cloud, we could see lights on the ground just north of Anoka! I radioed back to MSP that I thought I could descend under the cloud deck, now at about 1,000 feet, and land at Anoka. The visibility was actually very good, about seven miles under the cloud deck. With the runway lights on high and the flaps down, I made one of the smoothest landings in a while. I didn’t want my wife to experience a bumpy landing and put her off flying. After being airborne for 1½ hours, we both breathed a sigh of relief as we taxied to a stop.

The Anoka controller normally closes the tower at 9 p.m. but stayed on duty until we got safely on the ground at about 9:20. I must say that the three controllers who helped us were calm and professional. It was very reassuring to have their help. I noticed my normally precise communication to the towers deteriorate into normal conversation about my situation. I secretly hoped the controllers would get the message that “I am in trouble” without having to say the words.

In retrospect, I should have listened to my instincts when the weather conditions were much different than reported. I also should have been suspicious of a massive amount of melting snow combined with cooling night temperatures. However, in 24 years of flying I have never seen conditions change so rapidly. I learned about flying from that.