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When the Cold Wind Blows

When the Cold Wind Blows


Kansas Army National Guard
Topeka, Kansas

Most aviators have experienced quick weather changes during a flight. Those experiences, both good and bad, can affect the way you fly for the rest of your career. I’d flown in the clouds with zero visibility during flight school and was grateful for the instructor pilot in the next seat. I’d also flown medical evacuation missions in low-visibility conditions in Iraq. However, nothing had prepared me for the phenomenon known to forecasters and residents around the Great Lakes as lake-effect snow.

We’d been back from Iraq for eight months and were transferring aircraft one at a time to Fort Drum, New York. We were on the final leg of our trip to Fort Drum, where we’d take a day off before flying back to Kansas. Up until this point, we’d had an uneventful trip. The weather had been great, there hadn’t been any complications and we were looking forward to a trouble-free mission.

But that was about to change.

We were within 30 miles of Fort Drum, flying around the south shoreline of Lake Ontario, when we noticed the visibility dropping. What had been almost 10 miles of clear weather rapidly shrunk to five miles. We tuned in to the weather information for Watertown airport, our planned alternative to Fort Drum, trying to figure where the weather was coming from and where it was going. With weather information from both Watertown and Fort Drum airfield, we were hoping to sidestep into clear air and continue. However, the more information we received, the more confused we became. Both airfields, which are only about 15 miles apart, were reporting 10 miles visibility and no ceiling.

As we discussed our options, visibility and ceilings continued to worsen. We slowed down and decided to continue under visual flight rules, staying below the decreasing ceilings to avoid icing conditions and potential aircraft maintenance problems. We contacted Fort Drum tower to advise them of the situation and ask for weather updates. The response we got was puzzling, with the controller claiming three miles visibility and 1,500 foot ceilings. Any attempt to speed up was frightening and several times we nearly outflew our visibility. Only by staying low and slow were we able to see and navigate appropriately. Fortunately, with coordination from the tower (and no other traffic in the area) we spotted the airfield from two miles out and landed safely, successfully completing our mission.

Lessons learned
After we landed, we talked with local pilots and the airfield crew and they explained the lake-effect weather phenomenon. No one had briefed us about this before the mission, so we were caught totally unawares. As it turns out, often during the winter months a cold wind blows across the warm water in Lake Ontario and causes an inland rain or fog to settle on parts of the coastline. Even with prior planning, weather updates and local information, crews can find themselves unexpectedly caught in bad weather. Add to that the fact the information observers provide from the ground may not accurately reflect what is in the air and you have the makings for a truly hairy flight.

The best advice I can suggest if you’re unexpectedly caught in rapidly decreasing weather conditions is to follow standard operating procedures, slow down, communicate effectively as a crew and use risk management to decide your best course of action. Others may question the decisions you made and some will argue that you could have done things differently. However, it’s a lot easier to play armchair quarterback on the ground than to be in the cockpit facing danger in the air.

  • 1 December 2017
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 1342
  • Comments: 0
Categories: On-DutyAviation