March 12, 2006

Plan B

Plan A: a leisurely flight late this morning down to Monterey (KMRY) in N1004E wth Boyan B. (my usual flight-share partner) as PIC, then lunch, then I'd fly back under the Cone Of Stupidity to see how well I coped with the G1000 without John in the right seat. Boyan has the G1000 VFR signoff, and Monterey's a nice little airport we've both visited many times before. Plus he owes me lunch, and Monterey's got a restaurant in the terminal building (nothing special, but it's definitely food). But by last night it's obvious that plan A's going to fall victim to the same weather that's causing all sorts of disruption around here (with freezing levels down to sea-level, rain, and forecast ceilings of 3,000' or less), and I start thinking about Plan B.

Plan B? Well, I dunno — there really isn't a plan B. After breakfast this morning at Javarama I use DUATS to get more forecasts, and while it doesn't look so good right now, the forecast has things clearing over the next few hours. It's definitely flyable VFR as long as you dodge the rainshowers and keep below the ceiling. And surface temperatures seem higher than I'd expected — often nearly 10C. So Boyan and I meet up at Cal Airways, prepared to cancel the flight, or just spend some time flying locally. Maybe a short trip to Livermore or San Jose (Reid-Hillview). And the sun's actually shining on Hayward (on and off, at least).

So we discuss the plan. We'll fly to Livermore (KLVK), just over the hills, and if it still looks good after landing there, we'll go on into the Central Valley to Stockton (KSCK), where we'll get some lunch if possible. Then we'll return the same way, cautiously. Some rules we agree to: no pressure to get back (it's OK to leave the damn plane at Livermore or Stockton and catch a train or BART back); no flying without at least a clear way to a visible airport (there are plenty in the Valley at least); we'll go to the nearest airport on any sign of ice at all; absolutely no IMC; no flying through rain; we turn back if the celings get below 2,500' AGL. That about covers it, and we get another DUATS briefing and look at Nexrad. Again, nothing too bad, and we pre-flight and head for Livermore. Livermore's looking good, and we taxi back and depart for Stockton. We have to dodge a rain shower, but otherwise things are still pretty good. The outside air temperature (OAT) doesn't go below 5C (which surprises me), and the G1000 Nexrad display correlates well with what we can see around us. Plus the celings are higher than reported, in some cases by several thousand feet.

We land at Stockton — the place is dead. The terminal's closed, so no lunch here. There's no one around on the ramp. There's one plane in the pattern doing touch-and-goes. We swap places, get ATIS again, look at the G1000 Nexrad display again, then decide to depart towards Tracy then Livermore, giving us an out if the rain gets started again. I take off and as planned head towards Tracy. Things look pretty good again, but Nexrad confirms that the ugly-looking rainstorm around Byron is much thicker than it looks, and there's unseen heavy rain up north of Concord. But otherwise, it looks OK, and we head towards Livermore. The OAT is still about 5C (it was 10C on the ground in Stockton), and things feel good. Then we see the rainstorm appearing on Nexrad out over the Peninsula and the San Francisco coast getting more intense. We can't see it from where we are approaching Livermore, but we're both conservative enough to trust Nexrad in this case, and decide to head straight for Hayward to get home before it makes things difficult. It's clear behind and around us, so we can escape back to Livermore if it looks like the rain will hit before we get home. As we approach the Oakland Hills we can see a huge dramatic dark curtain of cloud and rain coming across the Bay, and it starts lightly raining on us as we join the pattern at Hayward. I land a little fast with a gusty quartering headwind, and taxi back to CalAir as quickly as I can. As we start tying 04E down, the deluge breaks, and for the next few hours it's raining cats and dogs. Cool. If we'd departed Stockton any later, we'd have been sitting at Livermore or Tracy for the afternoon.

Overall, an interesting flight, and a good opportunity to see Nexrad do its work in real time in the cockpit. It did a good job of showing us trouble well ahead of when we could see it — we would not have seen the unforecast and basically invisible-from-Livermore rain front until much closer up, and it made it clear that going up towards Concord was not a smart idea either, regardless of what Concord's ATIS was reporting at the time. No, on-board Nexrad didn't enter into the decision to fly today (I would have flown one of the other non-G1000 SP's just as readily (or not)), but I can't help feeling it made me more conservative in my in-air decision making. Basically, it provided that extra information that helped me not do things I might otherwise have done (like head up towards Concord). It's probably not so useful 'round here for IFR/IMC flying in my situation, though — most "bad" weather around here is either too bad to fly a light plane IFR in, or it's relatively benign. But the extra information Nexrad gives you can't be a bad thing, can it? Unless you use it to justify bursting the envelope…

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