Haze can be treacherous

I returned from my first involuntary flight into a soup kitchen today. The formal term is “inclement meteorological conditions”. To make things worse, this occurred while still within controlled airspace of a major city airport. If I had asked the tower to turn around, I could have done so–but for a better chance at keeping my license I would have had to lie about the nature of the emergency.

What disturbs me is that I didn’t do anything wrong before taking off. I called flight service to get a weather briefing, and the briefer advised me of lowering cloud base at the airport, but nothing worse than haze to the South. The lower base failed to materialize, and the automated weather stations at surrounding airports all reported high cloud bases and acceptable visibility, so I made a decision to proceed. It was between airports that I hit a wall of haze. Not thick enough for precipitation, so it didn’t show up on weather radar, but more than thick enough to make the windscreen look like it was painted white.

My mistake, if this had ended badly, was not immediately telling ATC I was in trouble and initiating a standard turn to get out into the open. Instead, I proceeded until the controller had cleared me from C airspace before thinking about how to get back safely. Now I know that there is a difference between basic instrument flight training, where all you’re doing is holding course and altitude by systematically scanning instruments, and real-world instrument flight when you need to do all kinds of stuff besides simply keeping the airplane flying. Stuff like finding out exactly where you are, dialing in frequencies, talking to controllers and trying hard not to let them notice that you’re flying blind.

I think they caught on, though. I was pretty close before I could truthfully answer that I had the field in sight. All’s well that ends well, and again the conditions at the airport itself were no worse than sunshine over a light haze. I was happy with my landing, but also happy to have landed. About half an hour later the fog had reached the airport and they’d switched to full-on instrument landing operations.

What will I do next time?

  • Solve the unanticipated situation as soon as it begins to develop, regardless of potential Tower/FAA reports or other consequences.
  • Treat haze with suspicion. It might not show up as a cloud base reading or VFR ceiling forecast, but if all the airports in an area report haze, I will take into account that this light haze may form into thicker banks in the space in between. Airports tend to be in built-up areas where the haze burns away sooner than over woodland.
  • Keep using 1-800-WXBRIEF, even when I can formally log an automated briefing over DUATS or whatever. Now I value the live weather briefers more than before: they might have been slightly off this time, but I most certainly didn’t learn about that bank of haze by looking at individual weather stations. The briefers would have notified me if there had been pilot reports in the vicinity.
  • Use modern technology. Always. Because this was only supposed to be a short hop using the plane’s own “steam gauges”, I left my GLONASS and tablet in the bag. I had to get the stuff off the back seat and boot it up before being able to tell the tower exactly where I was before re-entering their airspace. It was worth it. Today’s consumer-grade navigation equipment is excellent. I should have had it turned on from the beginning.
  • Submit a pilot report next time. I only thought about it much later today. I suppose it was iffy this time because of the way I had skirted the rules, but that’s all the more reason to bite the bullet and “go official” as soon as a situation begins to develop.

The experience has also strengthened my resolve to obtain my instrument rating. While I’m sure I won’t be able to fulfil the IFR currency requirements for very long, I think it will help me feel much more comfortable in those nasty “inclement meteorological conditions”.