I think it’s wonderful that the internet and satellites and smart phones have given everybody the ability to see Nexrad radar pictures almost anytime and anywhere.
Stancie and her golf buddies study the Nexrad returns as closely as I do before a flight. Sailors, joggers, farmers and almost everybody else stays up to date on the precip shown on Nexrad. But do we understand what we are looking at? Especially when it comes to flying weather?
When we see those colorful Nexrad returns we are probably looking at some form of precipitation. But we can’t be sure the precip is reaching the ground, is obscuring visibility, is caused by a thunderstorm, or know if turbulence is lurking in the radar echo.
That was the challenge for a trip back home from Sun n Fun last week. The Nexrad mosaic picture showed hundreds of miles of radar returns over a broad swath of the middle of the country. The area was at least a couple hundred miles north and south, but about a thousand miles east to west. Going around in a piston airplane wasn’t an option.
The precip was associated with a slow moving cold front that had become nearly stationary. Thunderstorms–clearly indicated by lightning returns overlaid on the radar image–were moving northeast at 35 to 45 knots along the southern edge of the weather.
But what about that 150 miles or so of solid yellow Level Two return on my satellite weather that was behind the thunderstorms? Was it turbulent? If I found a gap in the storms could I fly on home to Michigan through all of that “yellow” radar return?
My conclusion was yes, the huge swath of yellow radar returns would be wet, maybe bumpy, but flyable if I got past the leading edge storms. The reason I believed that is because there was no gradient. The area, at least 100 miles wide, was solid yellow. The returns didn’t change from yellow to green, or yellow to red, just solid yellow. It was the biggest area of one level of radar return I can remember seeing.
With great cooperation and advice from ATC, and using both the satellite weather and onboard weather radar to confirm, Stancie and I found a gap in the line of thunderstorms between Cincinnati and Columbus. We watched a cell on the radar pass off the left wingtip, and just to prove it meant business, the storm pumped out quite a cloud to ground lightning show.
Past that cell we turned northwest toward Lake Michigan. All radars showed moderate to heavy rain, but the radar returns didn’t vary from solid yellow. I felt a little like I was flying a submarine as for nearly an hour the rain beat on the airframe, found leaks around the door, and created some P-static on the radios. But the ride was smooth, we were mostly between layers at 4,000 feet and by the time I neared home and Muskegon Airport conditions had improved enough to fly a visual approach.
When I climbed out of the airplane water was pouring out of the many scuppers under belly and tailcone. And I’m sure a little more paint had been knocked off. But we had a good trip, the Nexrad didn’t lie, and it’s something that would have been a real worry before Nexrad in the cockpit. When everything on radar is green or yellow in very large areas with no red or many changes from green to yellow you can’t be assured good visibility and decent ceilings, but you can be sure the wings aren’t going to break off.