No GA pilot has spent more time studying the weather than Richard Collins. And Richard’s meteorological research and observation didn’t happen in a classroom – unless you, as I do, know that 20,000 hours of cross-country flying in a GA airplane is nature’s very best classroom.
Richard is also a student of the Civil War and has visited most of the important battlefields. He has also located the markers that commemorate where many of his ancestors engaged the Yankees in what he and others sometimes call the “War of Northern Aggression.”
Richard and other old-time pilots, particularly those who are familiar with the great lost cause, have observed over the decades that in the winter and early spring there is usually a weather boundary between the warm and moist air of the Deep South and the cold dry air of the North. They call this the “Confederate Front.” As I was heading out the door to fly down to Florida for the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In on Monday morning I got an email from Richard pointing out that “the Confederate front is going to make it tough for the Yankee pilots to get to Florida for the next few days.” And was he ever correct.
It doesn’t take a lot of weather training to know that when it’s in the 80s in the Deep South as it was late last week, but when it’s in the 20s and 30s in the northern tier of states, there is going to be a clash of air masses in between. Where that clash happens is the Confederate Front, and it usually forms in a more or less east-west line throwing up a defensive bulwark for pilots flying north or south.
The Confederate Front can be charted as a cold, stationary, or warm front. More often the area is shown on the charts as a combination of all three, as it was last Monday. No matter how the weather guys choose to draw the front on the chart, you can expect to find areas of widespread low clouds, low visibility, and, in some areas, violent thunderstorms.
The front was draped across Louisiana and Georgia last weekend and tornadoes broke out, destroying a number of buildings. By Monday morning the front and its associated area of terrible flying weather had retreated farther south. It was snowing in Kentucky and Tennessee, hard enough to cover the ground. It was in the 40s in southern Georgia. It was in the low 80s in central Florida, and humid. With that setup the Confederates – at least those we blame for the weather – were doing their best to keep Yankee pilots from invading Florida for Sun ’n Fun.
As is often the case, the forecasters were slow to recognize the potency of this particular Confederate Front. When I checked the weather before heading to the airport the forecasts called for IFR conditions at my fuel stop in Statesboro, Georgia, and only scattered to broken thunderstorms and rain showers south into Florida.
The IFR part in Georgia was right with a 400-foot overcast and 4 miles visibility in drizzle at Statesboro. But those “chance of” scattered thunderstorms were already forming into pretty solid lines even in northern Georgia. And when I dialed the range out on the Nexrad I could see nothing but solid heavy level four returns all the way across the middle of Florida.
There were some breaks in the storms that had formed along the Georgia-Florida border as I flew south and I was able to make small deviations to get around them. A new SIGMET for an east-west line of storms moving in from the Gulf Coast was just to my west so I was glad to be through that area because it was certainly going to get worse.
But ahead of me on the Nexrad satellite weather was something I had never really seen.
Both the XM Weather picture on my Garmin G600 display and the WSI radar mosaic delivered by Avidyne showed an area of solid level four returns starting at Ocala, Florida, and extending at least 100 miles south. The area covered the entire width of the state and extended way out into the Gulf to the west.
When precipitation becomes heavy enough to show level four it is normally concentratedinto thunderstorm cells with lighter rain around it. These cells often form into lines, but a line of such heavy rain is typically only a few miles thick. But this area was solid. And both displays showed lightning strikes scattered throughout the area. Clearly, with lightning present, there were thunderstorms embedded in the big mess.
What was missing that is a key radar signature of severe weather is a gradient in the radar return. Gradient refers to the distance between light rain, medium rain, and heavy rain returns. A steep gradient where the radar target goes from light to heavy in a short distance is an important indication of severe weather and turbulence. This radar return had zero gradient. It was all the same color for miles and miles.
The onboard weather radar showed the same thing – just solid rain ahead. With each sweep some returns would jump from level three to four, but there was really no way to identify that one spot had heavier rain than the other.
The airline jets were descending through the weather to land at Orlando and Tampa and the crews were making only small deviations. There were only a couple other GA pilots on the frequencies and they were also asking for turns here and there, but were pressing on south through the weather. Maybe this system really was flyable.
What I have learned in all of these years of flying GA airplanes in all kinds of weather is that lower is better when thunderstorms are about. Jacksonville granted my request for 3,000 feet and I was under the bases of the black-looking clouds and above a lower solid layer – most of the time. But the rain was as heavy as I can ever remember, and relentless. I felt like I was flying a submarine.
Occasionally the clouds would brighten with a lightning stroke hidden somewhere in the heavy rain. There were some of those convective type of bumps where the airplane takes off in a climb with the nose pointed down, and then gets shaken like a wet dog. The worst turbulence was on the ILS into Tampa, where the surface wind was gusting to 28 knots, from the west, of course, as we were landing on Runway 19.
The heavy rain just kept pouring down after I landed. The drive over I-4 to Lakeland was as terrifying as flying through the stuff. The downpour continued on into the night and the Sun ’n Fun show grounds are drenched. Now forecasters say the bad weather is going to hang around for a few days.
The Confederate Front did keep a lot of Yankee pilots at bay, particularly those with more caution and sense. But then if there had been an abundance of common sense both North and South the tragedy of 150 years ago would have never happened.