Iffy Weather Between Livermore and Columbia [The Flying Gourmet]

Jim Jellison - The Flying Gourmet


Columbia, CA
With the drought in California, the last couple of years had great winter flying weather with hardly a weather front to content with. I got spoiled and sort of expected that anytime I found myself with a couple of extra dollars I could just schedule an aircraft. Well, welcome El Niño, and some careful planning needs to be made before heading off into the wild blue yonder.

Just last week I scheduled a Piper Arrow (low wing, 200 horse power, retractable landing gear, and constant speed propeller) for a local flight. I invited a friend of mine to accompany me, but that morning I found the weather to be a bit iffy. Now it’s easy to make a go/no go decision if the weather is flat out IFR (Instrument Flight Rules – visibility less than 3 miles and ceiling less than 1,000 feet) or it is a perfectly clear day with mild wind. It’s the in between weather that is a head scratcher. You might be able to depart the airport but many destinations are weathered in and the big question is, will you be able to get back? Based upon the latest weather report and my local weather experience, I decided to go.

As we climbed out from Livermore the clouds were at 2, 500 ft. broken 5,000 ft. scattered and 12,000 ft. overcast with visibility 6 miles. We maneuvered between the clouds at 2,500 and got above the layer at 5,000 and settled on a cruising altitude of 5,500 headed for Columbia. On our crossing of the Central Valley we were flying VFR on top (Visual Flight Rules) on top of an almost solid cloud layer that would require an Instrument Flight Plan to fly into or through. I am instrument rated pilot, just not current. The danger here is that if something should happen that would require us to make an emergency landing we would be forced to descend into some really lousy weather.

As predicted the weather at Columbia was clear with calm wind. After a short walk through the woods we were in town and sitting down to a nice lunch of hot pastrami sandwiches and tortilla soup at the Douglas Saloon.

The return trip was about the same except the cloud layer had lowered over the valley to where at a cruising altitude of 4,500 ft. we were well above it and there were numerous holes with the ground visible. However the weather hadn’t change much in Livermore and we had to reverse the departure procedure dodging clouds and ducking under the cloud layers to remain legal VFR.

If you read aviation accident reports, as I do, you will find that the majority of accidents are attributable to weather. I’m not a dare devil but there is a certain amount of satisfaction in completing a flight in less than ideal conditions and doing it safely.

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