Sun n Fun was blessed with darn nice weather this year. Temps were in the mid 80s, but by central Florida standards, humidity wasn’t bad, and a breeze kept it comfortable. Perfect summer weather.
It was a different story at home on the shore of Lake Michigan. Spring still hasn’t shown up. The snow—except the huge piles plowed up during March—has melted, but there have been flurries in the air almost every day during the first two weeks of April.
So, for our trip home from Sun n Fun to the Muskegon Airport in western Michigan, Stancie and I were going to traverse the seasons from summer to winter. The distance is nearly 1,000 miles and somewhere in between we had to transition from one air mass to a very different atmosphere.
When warm moist air collides with cold dry air we all know the result is usually thunderstorm formation. And that is what was happening for this trip. A cold front was advancing across the country and had produced killer tornados in Arkansas and Mississippi the day before our departure.
We all worry about weather fronts and their location, but when it comes to strong cold fronts the action is well ahead of the actual frontal boundary. It’s interesting to look at the surface maps and see where the front is depicted, but pay more attention to what’s going on ahead of the front.
On this day as we prepared to depart from Tampa where we had left our Baron the big cold front was well north across Georgia and stretching into the Carolinas. And there were storms near the front, but it was also kicking up big storms just north and west of Tampa. As we climbed out we were below the bases and in light rain, the lightning and heavy rain were to our west, but the air felt like it had been attacked by a giant egg beater. Turbulence was never more than occasionally moderate, but it was continuous. As bad as it was, I know when moist warm air is that rough, big storms will be growing soon so we were glad to be through it when we did.
The Nexrad images sent down by satellite showed a line of storms across our route, with at least a few breaks. Nearing Valdosta I deviated west of our route to London, Kentucky, for a fuel stop to miss much of what Nexrad was showing.
But it was a day for eyeballs and onboard weather radar more than Nexrad. The cells were apparently collapsing faster than the time it takes for the Nexrad mosaic image to be created on the ground and sent to the satellite. Areas where Nexrad showed level three red returns had nothing but puffy clouds I could see and go around. But I could also see new buildups forming in areas that Nexrad showed as clear. And our Garmin GWX 68 radar in the nose showed returns building where Nexrad had nothing. It was one of those days when the onboard radar would show a cell go from all level one green, to some level two yellow, to areas of level three red in just a few sweeps. Just one more reminder that satellite Nexrad is the best thing ever for avoiding areas of thunderstorms, but has limitations when trying to pick your way between cells or find gaps in a line.
On the northwest side of the cold front the air was clear and unexpectedly smooth given the winds at 8,000 feet were blowing at 50 knots and more from the west. The wind was about 100 degrees to the left of our course which, you would think, would be at least a little tailwind. But the reality is the airplane must crab into the wind to maintain course so the wind that is slightly behind you becomes slightly ahead and creates at least a little headwind. But I can’t complain about a 10 knot headwind component on a day like this.
By the time we flew over Cincinnati the sky had become solid overcast. The satellite picture sent down by XM Weather showed the cloud cover extending for hundreds of miles and covering more than half a dozen states. The tops soon chased us up to 10,000 feet, but cruising along in the sunshine with a blue sky above and nothing but solid cloud below is one of the most satisfying things about flying your own airplane.
There was a trace of ice—not enough to cycle the boots—on descent. I flew the LPV approach to runway 24 with the runway showing clearly on the synthetic vision while snow flakes blew past the windshield. With just over a mile to go to the threshold the real runway appeared directly ahead and the cold, gusty wind had the decency to blow pretty much down the centerline.
Personal aviation is all about flying what you want, when you want, and where you want. Many pilots think you can’t beat a sunny day for fun flying. For me, going where and when we want in almost any kind of weather is the challenge, and being able to do it is the fun. It is the freedom to choose what, how and when we fly that matters. Being able to change summer into winter on our schedule is amazing. Now, if mother nature would just look at the calendar everything would be perfect.