Spring Flying Weather: Lessons Learned

As the spring approaches it is a good time to remind ourselves that spring weather can be very diverse. Those of us living in the northern part of the country know this can be a wide swing including high winds, icing, freezing rain and thunderstorms. Two years ago we had a flight that included all of these elements, and a great deal of learning. The mission was to fly from the Minneapolis area to attend a wedding being held In Custer State park near Rapid City, South Dakota. We were flying a Cessna 182RG, between the two CFI rated pilots we had over 450 hours in this particular plane. Our passengers on the flight were my significant others sister and three year old niece. We spend most of our flight time instructing and keeping our skills sharp, we were both excited about using the plane for a cross country flight and sharing the utility with our family.


Our flight plan was fairly straight forward, we would depart the Lakeville, MN airport, pick up our IFR clearance and fly direct to Rapid city. With luggage and the four of us the plane was below its max gross weight, we were able to depart with full tanks. The plane had 6.5 hours of fuel for a flight that would last around three hours. The weather upon our departure was VFR. We settled into cruise, enjoying the views, music from the ipod and the company. When Kjersti and I fly on cross country flights we typically use a crew concept with one of us flying and the other handling communication and navigation. We trade these roles every half hour. Shortly after our departure we encountered IMC, our controller advised us of a line of showers with a light to moderate precipitation ahead. The precipitation was a non-event, soon we were breaking out of clouds. The rolling hills and farm fields of central Minnesota had been replaced with the scenic South Dakota badlands. We were handed off to Ellsworth approach who was kind enough to provide vectors over Mt. Rushmore. We all enjoyed the unique view we had of the monument, one that only general aviation could bring. Kjersti then dawned a hood and shot a practice instrument approach into the Rapid City Airport.


The 182 had extended range tanks, we had not used close to half of the fuel available. As the fuel at Rapid city was more expensive than home I instructed the FBO not to top off the tanks, having them add back about half of what we burnt on the way out. Our trip home was eastbound, we would most likely have a tail wind, and there would be no way it could take five hours to get home. We enjoyed Rapid City, family, and the wedding.


The morning we were to depart the weather was not as nice as we would have liked. Winds were gusting to 40kts at Rapid City, there was about an inch of fresh snow on the rental car and temps in Custer were just below freezing. We ate breakfast, studied the weather on Foreflight and decided to launch. We would have a head wind on the way home, but should still have1.5 hours left in the tanks upon our arrival. The elevation of Custer state park is just over 6,000 feet, the Rapid City Airport is 3,204. As we descended the mountain to Rapid City we discussed the temperature change as we descended as well as the MEA’s in the area, this along with a conversation with a flight briefer reaffirmed our decision to launch.


We arrived at the FBO, paid for our fuel completed our preflight and packed the plane. During the preflight it was clear how windy it was low 30’s gusting to 40 and right down the runway. After start up we added our additional fuel into the totalizer, plenty of gas to get home. Kjersti performed an excellent take off and we were in IMC at about 400 feet AGL.


All was going well about 20 min into the flight as we discussed trying to get on top of the clouds, however we did not know where the tops were. We did not know if there would be any icing as we climbed, but if there was we knew there would be warm air to return to at our current altitude. Center cleared us to climb, when we reached 9,000 feet it was clear that we were picking up ice on the leading edges of the wings, we continued our climb hoping that the tops would reveal themselves soon. As ice continued to build we decided it would be best to return to the warm air we had left below and requested a descent back to 5,000. The controller was unable to get us back down, we were assigned 7,000 feet. Upon reaching 7,000 feet we began to be pelted by what sounded like very large drops of freezing rain. The windscreen became opaque, this was truly a new experience for each of us and not one we welcomed. The mention of freezing rain to the controller got us a descent to 5,000 feet. It was not much lower then 7,000 when the ice started shedding from the windscreen and the wings, it was a very welcome sight. That was certainly enough excitement for one flight, little did we know it would not be our last.


Ground speeds were lower than expected, we heard regional airliners diverting from Pier below us do to winds on the ground. Even with our slower than expected ground speeds the fuel totalizer showed plenty of fuel in the tanks to make the trip home, still over an hour of gas left in the tanks after we land. Our controller mentioned some light to moderate weather in front of us, we assumed it would be similar to what was encountered on the way out. After a brief discussion with the controller about turning a bit south to avoid it, we decided to stay on course.


We had been in IMC since takeoff, had switched pilots a couple times, Kjersti was again flying with me on the radio. The ride was not bad, with occasional light turbulence. That was when our world changed. Kjersti and I found ourselves coming off the ceiling of the plane, the sleeping passengers were jolted awake and the airplane was in a nose low unusual attitude with a 70 degree bank to the left. We had lost 700 feet of altitude. As we came back down in our seats Kjersti began the recovery from the unusual attitude as I started talking with the controller about a turn to the south. The controller approved any deviation as required, but maintain our previous altitude. Our controller indicated cells popping up all around us, a course to the south would be the best bet to get out of the area that now had building convective activity.


The ride was now rough, moderate to heavy turbulence. It was time to assess the situation. Anything in the cabin that had not been secured now had a new location. The fire extinguisher now resided between my feet next to the rudder peddles, the ipad was MIA, and the backseat passengers were covered in popcorn. We received a clearance to the Sioux Falls VOR and then direct home. We also climbed, broke out and were able to see and avoid other buildups. Our new flight plan was longer, we would land with just under an hour of fuel left in the tanks, certainly legal, but outside or comfort zone. We agreed that after the turn at the VOR if our ground speed did not increase we would land and take on additional fuel. The rest of the flight was in VMC, although with each area of turbulence we were reminded of our convective encounter.


Our turn toward home resulted in a groundspeed higher than what we agreed to continue the flight, we would have just under an hour of fuel when we landed. A visual approach and we were on the ground. We taxied to the pumps and started the process of fueling and cleaning out the plane, recall the popcorn. We were all thankful to be on the ground safely. As we fueled the plane it became evident that the fuel totalizer and the tanks did not agree. We had less than a half hour in the tanks when we landed.


We took away a lot of learning from this flight, we talk about it often with our students. There are things that we did right and things that we could have done better.  We were well prepared for the flight both being instrument current and actively flying. We looked at weather together, and got a preflight briefing. Through the flight we talked through risks, were quick to ask for help from our controllers when we needed it. When we encountered severe turbulence we did not hesitate to take action to get out of the area as quickly as possible. Knowing that our flight time was going to be longer than expected, we were very aware that fuel may be of concern and continued to calculate our remaining fuel through out the flight.


There are also things that we could have done better. We saw a trend in the weather being different from what was forecast. A call to flight watch when we started seeing things that did not match our briefing would have been a great start, we also now fly with a Stratus ADS-B receiver so we can maintain better situational awareness while in flight. Imagine our surprise if we would have ended up short of our destination after encounters with icing and severe turbulence due to fuel starvation. We took off with less fuel in the tanks due to the desire to save money, we did not dip the tanks prior to taking off, we trusted that the totalizer knew how much fuel was in the tanks when we refueled.


We returned home safely and as better pilots. We both came away from this fight with new experiences, new things to share with our students and new procedures that now keep us safer.