I flew from Ottawa to Sault Ste. Marie yesterday, then flew a Hope Air patient from the Soo to Kingston this morning, before making the short hop back to Ottawa in the afternoon.
Flying westbound to the Soo is a slow prospect in the Warrior. The trip is a bit under 400 nm, but due to the headwinds, it generally takes around four hours. This time, it was all IFR, but at least it was smooth, the icing levels were well above me, and all the thunderstorm activity was about 50 miles to the north of my route. Everytime Toronto Centre gave me a new altimeter setting, it was significantly lower, sometimes requiring an altitude change of a couple of hundred feet, as I flew towards the big low parked over Lake Superior and the nasty weather around it. The IMC on my route from Ottawa, however, had a different cause: the tropical storms and hurricanes had pushed a huge amount of hot, humid air north above them, leaving a stationary front a bit south of James Bay (north of my route). Because the front was there for so long, what had been supposed to be nice and clear became cloudy and hazy, plunging us into unseasonable IMC of the summer variety.
A cold front was be blowing through overnight, and I know that I’d have to fly through that cold front from the back side in the morning. For those who don’t fly, you need to understand that cold fonts suck — they mean lots of rain, thunderstorms, turbulence, fog, cloud, and just about anything else you don’t like (in the summer, they even bring tornados). Lying awake in my hotel room at 5:00 am I heard the rain pounding outside, and knew that the front was on its way through.
When I walked out of my hotel in the morning, I found an airplane sitting in the parking lot right outside the door. I wasn’t sure whether to take this as an omen of good luck (the flight will go fine) or a warning (it’s a good day to tow your plane on a trailer) — I guess superstition is too complicated. Here’s a second cellphone photo of the plane, this time from behind, the way I saw it when I walked outside.
IMC and thunderstorms are a bad combination, because when you’re in cloud, there’s no way to see a storm coming. Before I left, weather radar showed that all the activity was well north of my route, though the GFA called for isolated thunderstorms all over ahead of the cold front. I evaluated the situation, and decided to list every way I had to avoid storms:
- try to stay out of cloud so I can see buildups coming
- use my Stormscope to watch for lightning strikes
- ask Flight Services for regular updates from ground-based radar
None of these is 100% reliable: between cloud layers (and the layers go very high ahead of a cold front), it’s often hard to make out buildups ahead, since everything fades to white; the Stormscope is a very blunt instrument and misses intense weather that doesn’t happen to produce lightning; and Flight Services is looking at outdated and and low-res lightning and radar pictures, when I can reach them by radio at all. As a result, I made a couple of rules for my flight:
- At least two of these three methods had to be available to me at every point during the flight, or else I’d abort and land at the nearest airport.
- All available methods had to show a wide, clear path with no storms moving towards it.
It turned out a bit bumpy, with a lot of rain, but nothing more disturbing. Three hours of hand-flown IMC has left me a bit tired now, though. As usual, the weather cleared up just before my destination, so I didn’t get to log an approach.
With the tailwind from the southwest, I flew into Ottawa like a rocket: the whole flight from Kingston took about a half hour, and I made it home before the front hit Eastern Ontario. Unfortunately, I then had to wait 35 minutes for a cab to take me the last 10 km home. The wind’s starting to shake the leaves outside my window now, so I guess the weather’s on it’s way in our game of leapfrog.