Not Believing the Briefer Can Get You Killed

10:59 AM

As I wrote this post last week from a friend's Casa in Central California, our 2002 PT Cruiser was parked just outside. That would be the same PT Cruiser I drove for 12 hours solid to get from my home in Eugene, Oregon to Fresno for a series of photo shoots and advertising client meetings.

Now I know what you're thinking. Why would a newly-ticketed IFR stick with a really capable IFR Cherokee 235 choose to dodge SUVs for a dozen hours on Interstate 5 when he could just flown the Katyliner? Two words: Thunder. Storms.

It's like this:

After my last Cali flying adventure was scrubbed when the front half of Katy's vintage starter broke off when cranking to depart for the Golden State – and after waiting three weeks to get the plane back in the air – I had flight-planned this flight to the most intricate detail, and the plane was flying great. But a combination of Global Warming and Mother Nature's bad-ass attitude had been spinning Monsoon moisture over the West coast for days, around a low that refused to budge. As the trip approached, things were looking like the flight over the dramatic Siskiyou Range at the CA/OR border might even be accomplished VFR.
I was awake hours before even the Dawn Patrol guys get up, planning a 7A departure. I had expected to call the weather briefer, and had filed one IFR flight plan just west of Mt. Shasta and another down the coast into Santa Rosa for fuel, potty and cookies before popping over to FAT. But before I called for a briefing, I checked the long list of online weather sites I use. Not a bad plan, get a good "big" picture in my noggin before calling Lockheed Martin's human to confirm what I thought to be the case. This usually works out fine, except when it doesn't:
My surfing the 'Net revealed only a handful of tiny green returns on the NEXRADs for the route, except one decent active cell just west of Redding. The IR satellite looked good, the only major buildup was that one big cell in the Shasta area. METARS for all stations to the border looked CLR, as did the major NORCAL stations and on into FAT. With a planned IFR route at 11,000 and a freezing level at 12,000, this looked like a doable trip. I would depart EUG IFR, cancel in the Shasta area, and navigate easily around that one big cell before cruising down the Big Valley into my destination. What could go wrong with this scenario? I checked numerous www sites and they were in agreement. You pack up the car, I'll slip in a quick call to 1-800-WXBRIEF. That's when this flight went seriously downhill.
See, I believe professional WX briefers know more than just about all pilots who get their WX data strictly off the web. So I floated the call, and got a response I did not want to believe:
The briefer told me in no uncertain terms that not only was VFR "not recommended", it was not even possible down my Shasta or coast routes. His system showed what he called "massive" cells maybe 100 miles wide all over NORCAL, with not much gap between these convective monsters. He mentioned the "possibility" of significant downdrafts over the Siskiyous, hail, wind shear and kept repeating himself that I really should not try this flight...period, end of conversation. This briefer was a pilot too, and when he said he wouldn't try this trip even in a Citation, this got my attention. But his info was so far removed from what sites like ADDS, DUAT graphics and Weather Underground were showing, his briefing left me completely baffled. And frankly quite pissed.
When I notified my half-asleep traveling partner of the dilemma, she suggested I call back and try to get a different briefer to see what his/her story was. Nice plan, considering the drastically different interpretation of the route WX:
So I called back, and this being 530A, I got the same briefer. When I honestly told him I was hoping for a different outcome from a new human, he was not amused. He again told me this would be a dangerous flight, and proceeded to ask me if I was planning to attempt it so he could get it on tape in case things happened. So when the briefer starts reminding you that he's recording the conversation as if to produce EVIDENCE for the upcoming NTSB inquiry, this should instantly get the attention of any pilot that is not a complete moron.
We decided the briefer must know more than I do, and packed up the PT Cruiser, pointing "Andy" hammer down southbound with his nose aimed at Fresno. Roughly a dozen hours later, we arrived in the city of my birth, tired but alive. On our jaunt south, we discovered the Briefer was right, and the Internets were way, WAY wrong:
The miles flew by driving from Eugene to the border, with a 3,000 layer of scud lying about 300AGL off the deck obscuring anything along the freeway. I could see the occasional hole and knew this was just a simple layer any IFR pilot could easily punch through to a beautiful blue sky cruise. But as we drove into the area where we thought Mt. Shasta should be, all we saw instead was a wall of impenetrable gray clouds. Our car and numerous big rigs began being pelted with a combination of heavy rain and bizarro crosswinds. There were strange cloud formations that looked just like what the very bottom of active CB systems might look like as they spit cats, dogs and buckets of water down upon us. It wasn't until we got all the way into Redding that the sky cleared and I could loosen my death grip on Andy's steering wheel. As I header south, in my rearview mirror was the nastiest buildup of thunder storms I have seen in a while. It was a bitch to get through this crap at zero feet AGL, I can only imagine what wrath this behemoth would have dealt my GA plane.
I still do not know why the online briefing data and phone briefing were so different, but it is clear to me that the phone human saved my bacon this go-around. On this trip, I did not feed the monster thunderstorm my small aircraft...and consider this bullet dodged.

I can attest to this sure thing: Earning your instrument rating DOES make you a better pilot and a better weather guesser. When these kinds of storms are out there waiting to devour your flying machine, those 40 hours of dual and endless hours of book learnin' really come in handy because when you earn this advanced rating, you will become an aviator with a better sense of with the "big picture" weather briefing really shows.

And that knowledge can save your life, which I'm sure we can all agree is a good thing.

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