Yesterday, I had what’s probably my most “interesting” GA experience. It’s mid-December 2022 as I write this. Recall a nasty storm hit the middle of the U.S. with a north-south line of extreme weather that spawned tornadoes down south and blizzards up north? It even killed some folks. If I’d been bolder (more foolish) and less experienced, we could well have been among the fatalities.
We were returning to Santa Fe from a family gathering on Hilton Head Island. Winds were absurd. I normally fly my Cessna 340 in the low 20s, but the up-to 60-knot headwinds at 6000 feet and stronger up high dissuaded me from that. I’d planned two legs, with a stop at about five hours just west of the unpleasantness.
That weather further increased winds and forced our otherwise uneventful first leg to stop for fuel before the weather. While refueling, the weather got worse so instead of picking our way west, we got cleared south almost 200 miles before heading west.
Our southbound headway was only about 110 knots groundspeed. I used all available tools (ATC, NEXRAD, radar, spherics) looking to weave west through the mess. Every time I turned toward an acceptable westerly path, another red blob formed on the radar in front of us, requiring further southerly diversion.
One airliner we heard, after being told of a delay into their destination for tornadoes to dissipate, said, “No way. I’ve had enough of this! We’re going back to…” That was sobering, but we persisted.
After almost two hours we got through it. I needed a break, so I looked for a stop. There were many, but all had north-south runways and the surface winds were gusting over 30 knots from the west. Uh, no thanks. We continued to an airport with lighter winds and better-aligned runways. We fueled (again) and flew home VFR.
Lessons learned? Remain flexible. After our first fuel stop and going south, not west, we paralleled the beast a long time. There was plenty of yellow on the on-board radar image. But, radar shows precipitation, not turbulence, although we associate the two. In this case, there was a lot of rain. (I was far enough south and low enough that at least it wasn’t ice.) The yellow was just wet, not particularly bumpy.
Probably a big lesson though, is if you’re suitably equipped to negotiate weather, consider at least taking a look. (If you’re not suitably equipped, turn around.) Of course, always avoid the red. But be willing to see what the green and even some yellow contains. If not bad, be confident in your tools and try to find your path, always leaving an out.
Some would say I was foolhardy; for them they were. But, my airline experience, knowledge, and confidence in the equipment, allowed me to explore my options. Fortunately, those options got me home in the same day with no more than some heavy rain and light, occasional moderate, turbulence. And that’s the kind of utility we want from GA.