Plan The Flight; Fly The Plan

Good can things happen when preparation and opportunity meet

by thomas p. turner
NOTE: This article was originally published in FLYING LESSONS Weekly and is reposted here with permission.

I flew my employer’s airplane to Oshkosh. Because I needed to be there ahead of time to help set up our display, I planned to fly up from Wichita on Friday. My plan, following suggestions I include in my traditional six-part “Flying into AirVenture” series, was to fly about 2.5 hours to Dubuque, Iowa (KDBQ), top off the fuel tanks, then make the roughly one-hour hop to Oshkosh following the NOTAM visual arrival.

A few days before the trip the weather forecasts were for marginal VFR conditions off and on along the route. I began to think about flying IFR to KDBQ and the possibility of having to stay there overnight, since conditions were forecast to be Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) on Saturday morning. I went ahead and made a refundable hotel reservation at Dubuque…which would replace my plan of sleeping in the airplane the first night if I made it all of the way to Oshkosh, because our lodgings there weren’t available until Saturday.

Friday morning I checked the weather early and found it was VMC to KDBQ, but with a 4000 foot broken to overcast layer—not bad, but worse than forecast. I filed IFR to cruise above the clouds, still thinking I might descend to visual conditions at Dubuque, fuel up and then fly visually under the clouds into Oshkosh. As I flew closer and closer to KDBQ, however my in-cockpit METAR showed that the clouds were lowering at Dubuque. Soon it became obvious I would have to fly the approach into KDBQ and I did, breaking out at about 900 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) for a landing in good visibility. Half a dozen Textron Aviation Oshkosh display airplanes were already there for the night with IFR reservation slots into KOSH the next morning. The ramp looked like Pensacola, Florida or Sweetwater, Texas in 1944, with dozens of North American SNJs and their Army AT-6 counterparts of the North American Trainers Association (NATA) waiting to go to Oshkosh as well.  I shared a cab with a retired Air Force officer who was weathered in in his RV-8, and took the hotel room I’d reserved. 

As soon as I checked in I took another detailed look at the forecasts for the next morning. The updated TAFs looked good—MVFR with good visibility, averaging about 1800 feet overcast along the route for Saturday morning. That’s not great, but it meant I could fly about 1300 feet AGL and still be 500 feet below the cloud bases, the minimum distance permitted for VFR. Sure, most of the route I could fly “one mile, clear of clouds” in Class G airspace below 1200 feet AGL, but I don’t play that game even without the traffic likely to be heading to KOSH at the same time. 

And, bands of brief but intense periods of rain swept repeatedly over Dubuque, taking the visibility and clouds in and out of IMC...none of which was in the day's forecasts.

Further, a look at other Graphical Forecasts for Aviation (GFAs, which have replaced Area Forecasts) showed the ceiling would be lower along the route. The terrain I’d overfly in western Wisconsin is about 300 feet higher in elevation than Oshkosh but the cloud bases were a constant altitude Mean Sea Level all the way.

In this world of immediately available weather data but the danger of sensory overload and good old pilot laziness, I’ve seen a trend in pilot behavior where they will check METARs, TAFs and the radar picture, make a decision and go. They apparently forget that METARs and TAFs are only valid for five miles around the reporting point, and radar shows rain but not clouds or other hazards.

So while a cursory check of the weather might tempt me to go, a more detailed look told me I definitely did not want to try a one-hour VFR trip beneath the clouds. And most importantly, the actual weather was already trending worse than the forecasts, and there was no approaching front or other weather disruptor expected overnight that would suggest it would do anything besides be as bad or worse than the GFAs predicted for morning

I went to the Oshkosh NOTAM, found the procedure for obtaining an IFR reservation, and made my online request. The system lets you name your requested airport, day and time, including alternatives. In seconds I had a 9 am arrival reservation (my first choice) at Appleton, Wisconsin (KATW, my second choice after KOSH…which the website said was unavailable). I filed using the reservation code with an alternate back at KDBQ…knowing I could probably divert somewhere closer if needed, but I had the fuel to get out of busy Oshkosh NOTAM-area airspace if I had to.

One of my co-workers (who drove as far as Dubuque in a cargo van en route to Oshkosh and stayed in the same hotel) drove me to the airport the next morning. Although the forecast the night before was for 1800 broken at my departure time, the reality was 1000 overcast in drizzle. The weather at destination (KATW and KOSH) was still 1800 overcast with good visibility. But the worse-than-forecast weather at KDBQ was slowly drifting east toward Oshkosh—a larger weather trend check said it was probably not going to remain MVFR at Oshkosh.

So my plan was this: 

  • Depart IFR toward KATW
  • Landing at Appleton, I would wait a while to detect any new weather trend. If the weather improved enough to take off for the visual procedure at Oshkosh I would do so.  If it did not in a reasonable time I’d call my co-worker and ask him to pick me up at KATW so I could help set up the display at Oshkosh, and get the airplane another day.
  • If approaching Appleton I broke out high enough to proceed with the visual approach to Oshkosh I would cancel my IFR clearance and go visually to KOSH
  • If I had to miss the approach at KATW I would return to KDBQ or some other airport where I could rent a car, drive to work at Oshkosh, and return for the airplane later.
  • Request to divert to Oshkosh en route if ATC permitted.

Any one of those options was equally acceptable. Deciding this beforehand, making the appropriate decision in flight would be a low-stress event with no temptation to second-guess or “make it up as I went.” I planned my flight; now I merely had to fly my plan.

The Textron display Cessna 182 took off ahead of me on its clearance to Oshkosh. Whether KOSH or KATW, the NOTAM preferred route starts as “Direct Madison.” Although I was cleared to my requested 5000 feet cruising altitude, that was his as well. So soon after handoff to Departure I was cleared to 7000 feet. I saw the C182 on ADS-B as I flew directly over him on the same course. As I approached Madison ATC directed me even higher for traffic, up to 9000 feet.

Meanwhile I tuned the #2 radio to the Oshkosh visual arrival frequency as found in the NOTAM—the printout of which I carried, with all my notes and tabs, alongside me in case I needed the visual procedure before landing. Sporadically I heard an airplane calling in on the visual approach, between the controllers’ standard soliloquy about how the NOTAM was in force and if you get too close to the airplane ahead of you “it isn’t going to work.” So at least a few airplanes were getting in visually. Also, the clouds beneath me were breaking up a bit, revealing narrow swaths of very-green Wisconsin farmland. Sucker holes, they used to call them. The KOSH METAR on my cockpit weather was still 1400 broken, 10 miles visibility. 

I was talking to Madison Approach. Appleton is in the Green Bay Approach area, while Oshkosh is controlled by Milwaukee Approach (you can see this on the applicable instrument approach charts).  I had printed hard copy of charts for both airports with me, and already briefed myself on the approaches to include all the note-taking preparation I teach and use for instrument approaches (I’ll cover that in a future FLYNG LESSONS). I rebriefed the Oshkosh RNAV (GPS) 27 approach, listened to ATIS (the field had gone IFR, 800 overcast) and got ready to load and activate it on the GPS because I wanted to try something. If it didn’t work I’d rebrief for Appleton—I wanted the most recent briefing to be the approach I was going to fly, so I wouldn’t mess myself up.

“Contact Milwaukee Approach 127.0.” Perfect! I knew my request wouldn’t work with any controller other than the one with a real-time eye on Oshkosh arrivals.  After checking in, then pausing for a moment to determine the sector wasn’t very busy, I asked with an intentionally humorous lilt to my voice, “Milwaukee, 4SJ request.” “Go ahead,” the controller replied, probably already knowing what I was going to ask. “Milwaukee,” I replied, “I know it’s highly unlikely, but is there any way I can change my destination to Oshkosh? I have Information Hotel.” A slight pause. Then, equally animated, the controller replied simply, “Wait right there!”

In retrospect that may have been holding instructions. I don’t know.

“Bonanza 4SJ, you’re cleared to Oshkosh. You’re five miles from IGVEW [the first fix on the approach], maintain 3000 ‘til established, you’re cleared for the RNAV (GPS) 27 approach. Oh, and if you could give me a good rate [of descent] through 4000 [feet] that would be helpful.”

I gave the controller a big “thank you,” threw out the rubber-coated speed brakes (extended the landing gear for drag) for an expedited descent out of 9000 feet with five miles to the fix, and activated the approach direct IGVEW. I could not have done all that if I didn’t already have the weather information, the approach briefed, the GPS ready for the switch and the paper chart  with my notes immediately available…not having to call it up electronically, because I was still heading for the ILS at KATW when I made my request, and I had my iPad ready for that even though I had an annotated paper chart for the ILS as well.

I’m not writing all this to boast. It’s simply my public debrief of what went right on this flight. This was an extremely rare flight when I can’t come up with anything that went wrong (give me time). It all comes down to preparation. I made it all click on this flight and as a result broke out of the clouds at about 800 feet over Lake Winnebago on a three-mile final for Runway 27 at precisely the place I wanted to be…knowing it was the least likely of outcomes on this trip, and I was just as ready to end up with any of the other equally acceptable options. I landed about 9:15 am and got the airplane towed into display position before several bands of showers began taking KOSH in and out of IMC later in the morning and afternoon.

The key LESSONS this week include:

  • Check not only the weather state (how it exists in the briefing), but the weather trend (is it getting better or worse?)
  • Part of the weather trend is not only checking which way the forecasts say the weather is going from now on, but also how the current state compares to previous forecasts for the current time. In other words, did yesterday’s forecast accurately describe today’s weather? If not, is today’s weather better or worse than was earlier forecast? If it’s worse, is there a front or other major weather feature to break the trend, or do you have to assume the forecasts for later on are inaccurate too? Forecasts and actual weather trend evaluation is something that happens over days, not hours.
  • Don’t be afraid to make requests from ATC. But don’t be disappointed or argumentative if you don’t get what you ask for. Sometimes, as they say, the answer is “no.” 
  • Before you make a request be fully prepared to execute it immediately. It’s bad form, at the very least, to ask ATC to do you a favor and then not be able to do it when granted. It’s even worse if you force yourself into a high risk, high workload condition because you aren’t ready to do what you initiated in the first place.
  • Brief yourself for as many options as possible, and realize that any number of outcomes can be equally acceptable as long as you are prepared.

Thomas P. Turner is holds ATP/CFI/CFII/MEI ratings. He is a National Flight Instructor Hall of Fame inductee with 4400hrs+ TT, 2600hrs+ dual given, and 775hrs ME PIC. He has been widely published in a number of aviation magazines and journals. He publishes FLYING LESSONS Weekly newsletter and maintains For questions/comments on this article visit his website.