There’s an old aviation adage that goes, “Got time to spare? Go by air!” It’s a reminder to the pilots of small airplanes that while most of the time we can get where we need to go in a timely fashion, sometimes we can’t due to forces beyond our control — namely, the weather.
Dana and I were hoping to be able to use our Cessna 172 to visit our family up north for Christmas this week, but only if the weather was nice. We prefer to fly in good weather and only use our instrument rating privileges to penetrate thin, benign cloud layers as needed when there’s good visibility and plenty of room below the clouds to fly under VFR. When we looked at the aviation weather forecasts yesterday, it became clear that we might have to wait until at least Wednesday for decent weather here for our departure. Jacksonville has been IFR all day, and the forecast for low clouds and poor visibility tomorrow confirmed our decision to hit the road in the morning. If we were to fly, we’d need the fog and low clouds to lift by noon in order to make it to Dana’s mother’s house in Virginia by early evening. But if the weather isn’t better by noon and we decide to drive, we’d be on the highway well into the night which we don’t like to do either. We need to make our fly/drive decision today in order to make it all work out best for our family. Even though it will take us about twice as long to drive as it would to fly, we won’t have to worry as much about the weather and more importantly, we won’t have to risk not being able to see our loved ones in the limited timeframe we have available.
Flying long distances in a small airplane is totally possible, but you have to be willing and able to delay your departure by a few hours or even a few days in order to have acceptable weather conditions. We are comfortable flying IFR in our airplane for short stretches, and even shooting an instrument approach to land if the ceiling and visibility aren’t too low. But we choose to do most of our flying under VFR because flying in the clouds is much more tiring, especially without an autopilot, which we don’t have. Winter weather can also be problematic because flying through clouds in below-freezing temperatures can cause ice to build up on the airplane, which can be very dangerous. Most small, single engine airplanes like our Cessna 172 are not equipped to handle ice buildups, so the safest thing to do is to stay out of the clouds entirely if the temperature is at or near freezing.
This map, which is hanging in our office, represents the route Dana and I followed when we flew a restored 1938 Piper J-3 Cub around the United States in the summer of 2012. The trip took about eight weeks, during which we spent about 130 hours flying over just about every type of terrain this country has to offer. Do you want to guess how many hours we were delayed due to weather? Two! That’s it! The plane didn’t have a radio or any IFR instruments, yet we were able to fly it all that way with virtually no weather related downtime.
Christmas in July sounds like a great idea to me!
Happy Holidays everyone, and safe travels this week.