Flying Marginal VFR

Have you ever had an experience that made you question if you had exceeded your personal limits? And if so, did you come to this realization while awake – or did you, like me, have a dream that caused you to reconsider your previous decision? Eleven years ago I had a dream that made me reassess my decision making process. It was an old episode of “The Twilight Zone,” the one where the driver of a car has an accident, dies, but doesn’t realize she has died until a hitch-hiker (who by the way is actually Death) catches up with her. (In case you’re interested, you can watch the full episode HERE.) Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself; first a little background.

MVFR image 1

Since I first started flying, I always considered myself a safe and cautious pilot. I err in favor of the safe decision and I have always felt comfortable with my personally set limits. You see, at the time I was a middle-aged (if I live to be 100) fairly new pilot. I had earned my private pilot certificate just a little under a year earlier and had about 150 hours of flight time. I also had my own plane and the same plane I own today, a nice little Cherokee 180, an hour builder that could keep me comfortable for many years to come.

To better understand why I set my limits as I did, you need to understand that I did my initial training during the spring and summer in New England. As a result, the vast majority of my flight time was spent either not flying due to IFR conditions, or flying with clear skies and unlimited visibility. While great for a new student, the absence of marginal conditions during training limited my ability to judge poor, yet acceptable flight conditions. In fact, it had been only recently that I flew with 10 mile visibility and I was surprised at how many of my normal landmarks couldn’t be picked out until I felt I was right on top of them.

To continue my learning experience I had been focusing on my IFR rating. That focus forced me to push my limits and become familiar with new flying techniques, like knowing how to locate a hole so I can fly on top and then descend through a hole upon return. Maybe it was that experience that had caused me to push my limits, but regardless of the reason – the decision was totally mine.

This brings me to the weekend flight – one of my longest flights to that time — a flight from my home base 1B9 to KMSV in the Catskills of New York state. This was a trip originally planned for the previous week, but canceled due to weather. A stickler for planning, I had used AOPA’s real time flight planner to plan my route, got an online weather briefing, decided it looked good, drove to the airport, preflight checked my plane and then called in to file my VFR flight plan and get an experts briefing by talking to a FSS planner. Whoever said belts and suspenders are excessive doesn’t follow my philosophy of planning.

At the time I called, fog had just rolled in (I did say I lived in New England didn’t I?), so FSS recommended delaying departure until the next weather update, about 40 minutes. I decided to wait another hour and try again. After another hour and another quick abbreviated weather briefing, off I went. The flight to Sullivan County International was an uneventful 2 hour flight; low visibility, about 8-10 miles but very, very smooth – probably due to the stable weather conditions.

MVFR image 2

We arrived at KMSV and after a short cab ride we met my wife’s Aunt Gladys for a brief, but enjoyable visit. After lunch and a quick trip to visit “her” slot machine at a newly built casino, we were back at the airport for the flight home. During the entire visit, I kept an eye towards the sky not knowing if the weather was really closing in or the film on the windows was just causing me to think it was worse than it was. Once at the airport, after refueling, I called FSS for a weather briefing. The general recommendation was that if I was going I should move it as thunderstorms were appearing over New York City and moving northward along the coast.

MVFR image 3

I quickly but completely pre-flight checked the plane, making sure I sumped the newly loaded fuel, verifying color, odor, water and sediment for each drain. After the pre-takeoff run-up, we were heading down the runway waving good-bye to Aunt Gladys. As we climbed out, I noticed visibility was below the worse I’d experienced and while I verified I was legal by referencing my portable GPS I knew I was testing my skills. In order to maintain legal minimums and cloud separation, I found myself weaving, always heading to the lightest area of the sky. While I was close to minimums, I still could reference the horizon. We finally broke out of the marginal conditions at 7500 but continued to climb to 9500 leaving a good buffer between us and the haze – later becoming clouds below.

During my flight eastward, I monitored Bradley approach until I was within their airspace to request flight following. While monitoring I heard a call to a departing Hawker notifying them of VFR traffic at 9500 at their 12 o’clock. Wait, I thought to myself- that’s me. Very shortly thereafter I saw a small jet break through the clouds and report visual contact.

MVFR image 4

Other than that minor event and a few building CBs (cumulonimbus clouds) I gave a wide berth to, a good tailwind brought us east and enabled us to descend only an hour after departure. Over the Putnam VOR I located a hole in the clouds and started an expedited descent – of course notifying Bradley approach of my descent. I remember wondering where the reported 10,000 foot ceilings and 10 mile visibility were but my first concern was getting below the clouds to allow me to land. Almost at the same time, I was requested to contact Providence Approach, but because of my tight, fast descent I delayed contacting them – I was flying first, communicating later.

MVFR image 5

My quick circling descent must have made Providence approach nervous as they called to me first — something I’ve not experienced before — at which point I briefly explained my current situation. Finally at 2700 feet I was below the cloud base. Continuing to descend to 2000 feet, I flew radial 99 from direct to 1B9. Ten miles out I requested a frequency change and completed my flight.

So now we’re back to the dream that triggered my decision. Upon waking, I questioned why it was so important to return that day – was it because of my business trip 2 days later, was it out of fear of spending a weekend in the Catskills, or was it just the desire to get home? Of course the questions only started after I was convinced the dream was just that and that I had arrived at my destination safely. I, also, am trying hard to remember the actual conditions and not allow myself to re-cast the story.

So given the same conditions, would I do it again? A resounding NO! The minimums, while legal, were well below my comfort level. What I will do is expedite my IFR training so that on similar high pressure return flights I will be able to file an IFR flight plan and have the assistance of Boston Center when flying in marginal conditions. I will also continue to train and maintain my aircraft in IFR condition. Lastly I hope to always wear belts and suspenders.

All-in-all it was a day to remember; one I certainly will never forget. Now 10 years later, I still think of that day and realize how much I’ve learned since it occurred. The weather was probably better than I thought it was and today being on top is a wonderful experience. Especially because I can get a pop-up IFR clearance to descend through the clouds.

I still believe I’m a conservative pilot, that takes a belt and suspenders view of planning as well as risk management. Over the years, however, my minimums have lowered and I’m much more comfortable flying in different conditions. I guess it’s true that as pilots we’re always learning and growing.

-Fly Safe, TNery1B9

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