March is upon us and Patrick’s Day is never far from an Irishman’s mind in this month. Patrick is the Patron Saint of Ireland and his holiday, a religious one in Ireland, is celebrated with a touch more alcoholic abandon here than there. As you know, luck is oftentimes associated with the Irish – although if you read Irish history all you’ll find are invasions by the Vikings and subjugation by the bloody brits … which doesn’t seem lucky to me at all. Add the potato famine and I see a race that was cursed, rather than blessed with the luck of the Irish.
Be all that as it may, luck is something some pilots rely upon and in the blustery month of March your luck can quickly change. “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” – or the reverse – is the saying about Patrick’s month. The seasons are changing, spring is waxing, winter waning. Weather can change quickly. (Of course, we la-de-dahs under SoCal Skies barely get a taste of real winter – but fast-moving winter cold fronts can kill us just as dead as the blizzards that harass the frozen climes.)
Blustery March winds blowing across rocky terrain can cause pilots serious grief. Wind moving rapidly across terrain is like a fast moving stream tumbling over rocks. On the back side of the rocks, the water tumbles, backfills, burbles and eddies – the same for wind over mountains. Severe turbulence and downdrafts can occur when the wind is 25 knots or greater – and the greater the wind, the worse the turbulence and the farther downstream the downdrafts can occur.
If you’re not familiar with flying near mountains, you need to grab an instructor who is, or start reading. Sparky Imeson wrote, among other things, “The Mountain Flying Bible”. Fletcher Anderson wrote “Flying the Mountains”. Both men wrote from experience and with some skill – both, unfortunately, died not practicing what they preached. Even experienced pilots can come to grief if they take chances they shouldn’t in narrow canyons or high winds. Perhaps their luck just ran out.
Blustery March winds can also bring fast-moving frontal systems which can lower ceilings dramatically and bring serious precipitation. Wind, low ceilings and rain can ruin a VFR pilots day. If you’re planning a cross country in the late winter/early spring, be prepared for changeable weather enroute and at your destination. Forecasts are worth the paper upon which they’re printed and can sometimes be seriously wrong. Always have an out on a cross country this time of year. Plan for alternates. Schedule extra days off work beyond the duration of your trip. If you absolutely, positively have to be there, take an airliner and save your stomach lining and, quite possibly, your life.
On a cross country this time of year, we sometimes trust on luck to get us through. If that’s your thinking, you might remember a quote from a famous Roman, Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” You might get lucky if you’ve overprepared for your cross country. Use multiple sources of weather information over multiple days prior to your flight. Carry a tablet or phone with a flight planner and weather sources. If you’ve got an iPad, Foreflight is the best flight planning software. If you haven’t drunk the Jobs Kool-Aid, Garmin Pilot is an adequate flight planning software substitute for Android devices.
Study your route on CURRENT VFR charts. Know the terrain, know how to avoid the terrain if the weather starts to change. Know a minimum of a half dozen airports that would work as alternates along and near your route of flight – as well as a couple that are well outside your route of flight. Study them, study the local terrain surrounding them. If you’re flying along the coast, choose a couple of alternates on the other side of the coastal ranges. If low clouds start moving in along the coastline, crossing a ridge line will take you away from the clouds and get you to a safe VFR alternate. Make sure that the GPS database in your aircraft is current.
If you decide to go, pay attention to the winds. John King always says that if the winds are wrong, the whole forecast will be wrong. If the forecasts tell you to expect a 10 knot crosswind, and your groundspeed shows that you’re bucking a 30 knot headwind, there’s a real good chance that the forecast you got will be wrong. And, if the clouds start heading your way, then start dropping, do the smart thing – turn around. More pilots are killed continuing VFR flight into IMC than in any other kind of flying accident. When the winds are wrong, the forecast turns wrong, and your job is to get the hell outta there. If it’s early in the flight, go home. If you’re half way there, find that airport you researched, that has fuel and multiple runways, is near a town with a good restaurant, perhaps with a nice hotel nearby. Then go there, land, and wait it out.
If you pay attention, plan well and leave yourself an out, you may not run into another saying associated another Roman – and with Patrick’s month: “Beware the Ides of March,” said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. Caesar trusted on his luck and his friendship with Brutus when he went to the Senate that fateful day. His luck ran out when his friend was one of the people who plunged a knife into his body, assassinating him. If you’re a wise pilot, you’ll not only beware the ides of March, but you’ll be aware of all the dangers Patrick’s month holds, and, if you plan well, maybe you won’t have to rely on t