Cross-country flights that don’t.

by Berck

While I was dutifully studying for the private pilot written exam, my telephone rang. D. wanted me to plan a cross-country flight to Shawnee (SNL), then Paul’s Valley (PVJ) and then back to OUN. “Get the weather, plan it, and we’ll fly it.” I downloaded a standard weather briefing for the route from Duats, skimmed the OKC TAF, and a few local METARs which indicated that it would be getting a bit more cloudy, but the ceiling would stay pretty high. Winds were around 20 knots and were supposed to stay that way. I jotted down the winds aloft forecast and went to go plot the course. It’s about 25NM to Shawnee, 45NM to Paul’s valley and almost 30NM back to OUN. I got out my trusty flight computer, which once belonged to my Dad. It says “Copyright 1957,” and it’s probably that old. Flying hasn’t changed much in 50 years, really. Most of the planes I fly were built in the early 70’s, and some even earlier. I plotted the course, got the true course, computed wind correction, magnetic variation and filled out a navigation log with all the checkpoints I’d be using along the way. Things like, “River bend to the North.” “The town of Tribbey.” “Some East-West powerlines.” These things all sound promising or look okay on on the chart, but it’s all much more difficult in real life.

A few days ago, (after my checkride but before my last solo) D. had me fly by pilotage (looking at stuff on the ground) to Chickasha which is about 20NM away. This was rather embarrassing. I was fairly certain I was going in the right direction, but it’s so hard to be sure. If you’re staring at a chart which has an unidentified road intersecting another road with a bend that just might be the same kind of bend that you’re looking at, it must be the one you think it is, right? The trouble is, it’s hard to know for sure. You can be certain that one road is another road, and not find out for a very long time. “Am I sure this is the right road?” “Well, there’s a town up here, on the left side of the road, and there’s a town on my map on the left side of the road…” But how do you know you’re not at a completely different road, which also has a town on the left. Everything in OK looks pretty boring. Lots of fields and roads on a grid. Judging distances is easy. Roads exist pretty much at every mile mark. Sometimes there are roads on the half mile mark. And fields are generally quartered at .25mi x .25mi.

I didn’t see the airport until I was nearly flying over it. We did some touch and go’s there. Landing at a different runway is nice for a change. Then we flew to Purcell. This was easier because a road goes between Chickisha and Purcell. I had some difficulty being sure I was at Purcell, but there’s a river and stuff. Then I flew the river back to Norman, and I was able to find it because it had gotten dark enough the beacons were on. Beacons are good. And traffic is so much easier to spot on a clear night than it is on a clear day.

I’m not completely lost even though I have a hard time with landmarks. I can tune up a VOR or a couple of NDB’s using the nav radios and come up with a fairly accurate idea of where I am. And there’s a nice strong NDB sitting at OUN, which makes it easy to know which direction it’s in. But… I’m supposed to be able to fly completely without reference to instruments… You know, in case I lose them. Or I’m flying a plane without them. (Uhh… Handheld GPS?) D. insists it gets easier. He said he flew his entire commercial cross country to Little Rock, AK and back using nothing but pilotage. Course, I-40 will take you there pretty easily. That’s a really long trek for a Cessna 152. 6.5 hours of flying round trip.

Anyway, I dutifully plotted out the course. I had all wind correction, headings, speeds and so on figured out. Then I looked outside and noticed that it looked like the weather gods had gotten bored and decided to stir things up… “But I checked the weather!” Then I realized that I hadn’t yet read the SIGMETs, or even the summary, or the severe weather warnings…. Rather than sifting through them, I simply pulled up the National Weather Service’s, Norman’s weather for dummies page. The local radar looked particularly nasty. Then I went and read the text weather more closely:

******** Convective SIGMET ********
MKCC WST 242155
CONVECTIVE SIGMET 53C
VALID UNTIL 2355Z
TX OK
FROM 60W OKC-10E CDS
DVLPG LINE SEV TS 20 NM WIDE MOV FROM 24020KT. TOPS ABV FL450.
HAIL TO 2.5 IN…WIND GUSTS TO 60KT POSS.
OUTLOOK VALID 242355-250355
FROM BRD-GRB-30SSE TTH-30NE
MSL-BUM-SJT-MAF-ICT-PUB-CHE-BFF-OBH-BRD
REF WW 273 275 276 278 279.
WST ISSUANCES EXPD. REFER TO MOST RECENT ACUS01 KWNS FROM STORM
PREDICTION CENTER FOR SYNOPSIS AND METEOROLOGICAL DETAILS.
DNB

Oh. right. As if that wasn’t good enough:

DISCUSSION…DEEP MIXING ALONG DRYLINE IS EXPECTED TO RESULT IN
ISOLATED SEVERE STORMS DURING THE NEXT FEW HOURS. STRONG DEEP LAYER
VERTICAL SHEAR PROFILES AND VERY UNSTABLE AIRMASS INDICATE A RISK OF
SUPERCELLS CAPABLE OF LARGE HAIL AND DAMAGING WINDS.
AVIATION…A FEW SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WITH HAIL SURFACE AND ALOFT
TO 2.5 INCHES. EXTREME TURBULENCE AND SURFACE WIND GUSTS TO 60
KNOTS. A FEW CUMULONIMBI WITH MAXIMUM TOPS TO 500. MEAN STORM
MOTION VECTOR 25030.

Oh, dear. I felt rather silly for missing it before. But, the problem with text weather is that there are pages and pages and pages of it, most of which has nothing to do with me. And, if I’m leaving the pattern, I usually actually talk to a weather briefer anyway before I leave, so it’s not like I wouldn’t have noticed. Still bothered me.

I called D.. “So, uhh, have you looked outside?” I asked. “Yeah, we’re securing all the airplanes as best we can right now… I’ll put you in the schedule for tomorrow.”

So all that planning for nothing. Now I get to do it again tomorrow. Actually, the weather might well be crap tomorrow too.

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