By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the December 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
As I write this column, I am sitting in a hotel room in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, following the first leg of my journey to the 50th National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, Illinois. The original destination for this leg was Lebanon, Tennessee (M54).
A group of us had originally planned to depart on Friday, but the weather forecast on Wednesday looked like we were probably just going to sit in the rain at Galesburg on Saturday. That didn’t seem like much fun, so two of us decided to wait an extra day at home, and one decided to leave on Thursday. While it rained a little in Galesburg on Saturday, the front was still between Galesburg and Atlanta, so on Saturday morning, we decided to wait until Sunday.
Sunday morning arrived. It again looked like the weather was not being cooperative, so we decided to postpone again until Monday. As Sunday progressed, I continued to watch the weather during the day while getting some maintenance done on my aircraft. I wasn’t upset about having an extra day or two at home.
As is my usual custom for long trips, I started watching the weather about a week in advance and compared the forecasted weather to the actual weather. This particular week, the forecasts were much gloomier than the actual weather — and Sunday was no exception. As the day progressed, it appeared that the weather was much better than forecast, and actually looked like it was improving. The forecast for Monday morning was now showing rain and 1,500-foot ceilings around Chattanooga, which was right on our route and surrounded by high hills. I don’t care to be in the hilly terrain with low ceilings, rain, and the associated poor visibility. It is a recipe for disaster.
By midafternoon, I decided that it might make sense to immediately depart for Lebanon, Tennessee, and remain there overnight, at which time the front should pass over us and it would be clear flying into Galesburg on Monday. I made a phone call to the other Stearman pilot, and he agreed with the plan. Since we were leaving from different locations, the plan was to meet up in Lebanon and then continue together for the trip to Galesburg, which is usually a one-day trip with about six-plus flying hours.
I departed within the hour and looked forward to an easy flight, given the forecast. The destination was calling for 2,500-foot ceilings, with rain in the vicinity. My flight time was going to be two hours and 20 minutes, with three hours and 15 minutes of fuel, and no rain between us. I got about 10 minutes out and had just settled into cruise and again looked at the destination. It was good VFR and forecast to improve.
A great feature of the Lynx transponder is that you can leave the destination weather up and it continually updates. About 30 minutes later, it was showing 1,200-foot ceilings and 2 miles’ visibility! Yikes! What happened? I started checking airports around M54, and they were all marginal VFR, but not quite like M54. I decided I would keep going, knowing there were some alternates.
As I had thought, it was an easy and enjoyable flight. I was cruising at 3,000 feet, with a slight tailwind. Tailwinds are really nice when you are flying a Stearman, and the actual time en route was matching the planned time. The outside air temperature was right at 78 degrees Fahrenheit, so it was just perfect for an open-cockpit biplane.
The weather updates for M54 kept getting better — first 1,300 feet and 10 miles visibility, then 1,600 feet and 10 miles. The forecast for improvement was right. Piece of cake! I did notice that the temperature was dropping as I went farther north and was now down to 74 degrees Fahrenheit about one hour and 45 minutes into the flight. In an open-cockpit airplane, it doesn’t take a temperature gauge for you to notice the change. I also noticed that the temp/dew-point spread at M54 was 2 degrees. My experience is that a 2-degree spread is not a lot of cushion and usually results in ceilings of 1,000 feet or less. I was starting to get a little concerned.
I also noticed that the forward visibility appeared to be dropping. It was clear that the cloud ceiling was lowering, as was expected. I was crossing multiple ridge lines and starting to feel like cheese in a sandwich as I crossed each one. I don’t like that feeling. I was now 20 miles south of M54 with one more ridge line to cross. I even texted my wife Carol to go ahead and confirm the hotel room in Lebanon.
What happened next is something I’ve never seen before, and hope to never see again. The weather deteriorated rapidly without any warning. It was like the ceiling fell down. I knew I would be close to 1,000 feet AGL on the last leg with the 1,600-foot ceiling, but now I got an audible 500-foot warning from ForeFlight. I had already made sure that there were no towers along this last stretch of flight if I stayed on the magenta line. The ridge line was coming up, and I could not see much past it at all. From experience, I know that can be an illusion as the ground drops away, but this looked different. Plus, now it was raining. I saw a “V” cut in the ridge line where a road went through it and decided I should take that route. About five seconds after that decision, I decided that was a stupid idea because I had not carefully checked for any wires that might be crossing the gap.
I immediately decided to make a 180-degree turn and get out of there. Let me tell you that nothing happens fast in a Stearman. Basically, climb, cruise, and landing speeds are all pretty close together. But making a turn in poor visibility with rapidly deteriorating conditions sure speeds things up. When I was 90 degrees into the turn, I was even more shocked at what I saw behind me, as it also had deteriorated. Luckily, I was between ridge lines, and in the valley was an east-west interstate highway, with Murfreesboro airport (KMBT) just 10 miles away and still showing VFR. I was showing 40 minutes of fuel, but that’s not a lot in a slow-moving airplane such as the Stearman.
Those last few miles to Murfreesboro seemed like the 10 longest miles of my flying career. Clearly, the weather was deteriorating fast, and none of it was forecast. I just hoped it lasted long enough for me to get there. I actually found myself looking at farm fields in case I decided to proactively set it down if things got worse. At the same time, I was also trying to warn the other Stearman pilot to not continue. He was about 30 minutes behind me. The direct route to KMBT was over one more ridge line. I decided to follow the interstate until clear of it and managed to visually locate the airport with 3 miles to go.
The landing was uneventful, and it never did rain at KMBT. The other Stearman pilot couldn’t get through and landed about 35 miles south with the same observation — that sure deteriorated fast! Even the people on the ground remarked about how rapidly the weather deteriorated.
So, we are all safe on the ground, and I just saw a beautiful sunset while walking back to the hotel from dinner. It was as if to remind me that the funeral would be on a sunny day, as that is what I tell everyone who pushes the weather. In this case, it was not about pushing the weather. It was about avoiding the potential for bad weather the next day.
I would make the same decision again based on the data I had. But it was surely a reminder that weather reporting is still much more accurate than weather forecasting! Hopefully, the rest of the trip will be fun. I know the National Stearman Fly-In is going to have a max fun factor.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848 and chair of EAA’s Homebuilt Aircraft Council, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more 9,500 hours in 72 different types. Vic also founded Base Leg Aviation and volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot and an Angel Flight pilot.