Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Look at the Bright Side of Dark Clouds

Ask just about anyone that doesn't live in my home state of Oregon, and they'll tell you it rains all the time up here. But we locals know that generally is just a myth cooked up years ago to keep the California northbound migration to a minimum. I believe the old timers secretly started the whole "it always rains in Oregon" plotline to scare off those in the "Golden State" who must have their sun and free vitamin D every day.

The truth is, on most years, the weather here in the Southern Willamette Valley is fairly predictable. I am based at KEUG, which is separated from the Pacific ocean by the rolling coast range and about 50 miles by car. So we "normally" get the same weather that the coast gets, only without the daily fog that hugs that coast from Anacortes, WA. south to Tijuana, MX.

But when it comes to flying the Northwest, this instrument pilot is finding out some things this year:
From October, 2007 when I brought 8527W north to Eugene from Whiteman Airport in Pacoima (L.A.), I have been working hard on my instrument rating. I earned that rating in March of 2009, and last spring, only got into one weather-related situation that was not a walk in the park. But as fall turns to winter right now, Mother Nature has been in a crappy mood up here. We've had one front after the other, non-stop, with usually only hours between most systems. You can look on the GOES West satellite and usually see a freight train of fronts stretching up to Sarah Palin's house in Alaska, all riding a powerful Oregon-bound jet stream directly to my hangar.
As a new instrument pilot, I am still a noob when it comes to making go/no-go IFR decisions. To get that advanced rating, you need to know a ton of theory and regulations, but putting this knowledge into practice can be challenging. It's like this:
I know for certain that there are two things that will knock Katy and I out of the sky...icing and thunderstorms. On some days when the Northwest is covered in stable air and showers are widespread and consistent, an IFR pilot can punch up through the deck and get on top, cruise above the soup, and descend on an ILS into the wet but basically still air below. But on almost every front that has passed this way in the past 60 days, the air was moist, unstable and dangerous. Big, nasty towering cumulus clouds have been part of nearly every system, along with extremely heavy rain and gusting winds that have approached hurricane strength along the coast. To say the Northwest has not been friendly skies to fly smaller personal aircraft would be an understatement.
These relentless thunderstorms and nasty fronts are screwing with this pilot's mind:
On a couple of occasions, I have gone out to fly IFR practice approaches, only to watch a 500-foot ceiling with two miles VIS become one-half mile and a 100-foot ceiling with dropping RVR. One evening, I departed rwy 16L on the east side of the KEUG when the field was reporting VFR, and hoped to be vectored north for a couple of practice ILSs into 16R in VFR. But from the time I took off to the time I reached the southbound turn back towards the airport to start my practice approach, 16R RVR had dropped to "one hundred overcast and about 1,000 RVR" according to ATC...below IFR minimums. So I sidestepped back to still VFR 16L and landed just as the the most ominous fogbank ever unleashed on humanity began creeping east to engulf the runway I had just touched down upon.
In the last couple of weeks, Katy has been down for some annoying little mechanical squawks, and my work schedule has been busy. There have not been many times when I looked at the "pre-flight intelligence" on Foreflight 2.4.1 and wished I could get up in the weather. And even if Katy had been up and running during this time, planning any cross country flights with 3,500-foot freezing levels and TCU in all quadrants nearly every day when you live in a valley surrounded by large, hard mountains would be suicide.

So as winter descends upon Western Oregon, I haven't much choice but to sit beside the fire and wait it out. On the bright side, I've had almost no credit card charges in some time for aviation fuel. On the down side, I can almost SEE the rust forming on my new IFR skill set.

Would I trade the serenity, scenery, unpopulated peace and heavy weather of my beautiful home state for the sunny, endless VFR days and clogged roadways of California's Central Valley? Not in a million years...because they get winter weather too in the form of Tule fog that reduces KFAT to zero/zero on some nights each year. But when we have 72 degree spring and summer days with a light breeze, they have 110 degrees in the shade that will bake you in your airplane waiting at the hold short line.

I earned my instrument rating to be able to pop out of or blast down through a little weather. One thing that I am learning is this: If I plan on living long enough to see my granddaughter solo, I will keep the Cherokee parked when these developing cells and Supercooled Liquid Droplets (SLD) is slapping Oregon around.