VFR on Top

Fog in Wickenburg makes for an interesting departure…or two.

On Saturday, I was scheduled to appear at the Buckeye Air Fair in Buckeye, AZ to give helicopter rides. This would be my fourth appearance at this great family event.

The weather on the days leading up to the event was overcast with scattered rain. While rain isn’t too common in the desert, it’s not unheard of. The weather forecast for Saturday was clear with temperatures around 65°F. That’s unseasonably cool, but I’d take it. Winds in Buckeye were forecast at 7 knots from the east shifting to 5 knots from the southwest. Nice.

Fog in Wickenburg?

What the weather forecast didn’t mention was fog. Fog is only slightly more common here than snow. While we can get snow about once every 3 to 5 years, we can get fog once or twice a year. This year’s first encounter with fog was Saturday morning.

I saw it when I woke up at 4 AM. (I’m a naturally early riser; its a curse of middle age.) It was still dark out, but I could barely see the lights from my neighbors’ homes and I couldn’t see the tower normally visible out the back of our house. I’ll fly at night or in rain or in high winds. But I can’t fly in the fog.

I went about my morning routine. The sky brightened. We were in a thick fog. Visibility was about 1/2 mile.

Mike woke up, had breakfast, and fed the horses. By then, it was 7 AM, time to head to the airport. But I still couldn’t see beyond the hills immediately around our house. It was definitely not flying weather.

We packed up a cooler with bottled water, soda, some snacks, and ice. We took the Jeep to the gas station and filled it up — not because we needed it for the event, but because I, as usual, had run it until the Low Fuel light came on. Then we headed over to the airport to load and prepare the helicopter.

The visibility there was the same, if not worse.

I did a good preflight, taking my time. Mike loaded the cooler, paperwork, signs, and other paraphernalia into the back seat area. There was no reason to rush. Even though we were going to be late, I couldn’t take off in the fog.

We towed the helicopter out to the fuel pumps and took on 12 gallons. Fuel is cheaper in Buckeye, so we figured we’d fuel up there. It would also be a good way to support the airport that was hosting the event. (I wound up buying 88.8 gallons of 100LL at Buckeye that day, coming home with full tanks.)

Playing the Waiting Game

Ed, one of my mechanics, came by. He has a classic Taylorcraft Sport airplane and planned to fly it down to Buckeye and put it on display. But he didn’t like the look of the weather, either. He, Mike, and I spent about 30 minutes standing near his hangar, chatting, watching the fog thicken and thin out and thicken again.

A helicopter flew by overhead, completely out of sight above the fog layer. That told me that the fog wasn’t very thick.Helicopters don’t normally make a habit of flying in clouds less than 1,000 feet off the ground. No aircraft does.

I went into the terminal to use the facilities and chat with the FBO guy, Roark. By now, it was 8:15 AM. I was supposed to be in Buckeye at 9 AM. Buckeye was about 40 minutes away by air. I made a few calls to let the people who were waiting on us know that we’d be late. I also called the automated weather observation system for Phoenix Sky Harbor, which is reachable by telephone, and listened to the recording. Visibility 10 miles. Scattered clouds at 1200 feet AGL; overcast at 3000 AGL. In other words, the weather down in Phoenix wasn’t bad at all.

While Roark and I were chatting, an airplane called in, coming from the north. His transmission was difficult to read, but what we eventually understood was that it was clear where he was. He wanted to know what the cloud ceilings were at Wickenburg. The way I saw it, we were in a cloud — ceilings were zero.

When the plane landed at Moreton Field, a dirt strip at a residential airpark three miles north of Wickenburg Municipal, I began to wonder whether the weather might actually be better than it looked. And that’s when I realized that the fog was lifting — I could actually see at least a mile and the dim outlines of the mountains 15 miles to the north were coming through the haze.

Our First Departure

I went out and started up the helicopter. Mike joined me as I was warming it up. We could see the full length of the 6050-foot runway and what lay beyond it when we took off.

At the airport, Roark and Ed were listening for reports. I climbed to just below cloud level — perhaps 400 feet up. When we got to the river, the clouds around us melted away. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day to the north. I reported all this on the radio.

Unfortunately, we needed to go south. I decided to follow the river and Grand Avenue until we broke out of the fog bank.

It was a tense few minutes. Visibility varied from more than a mile to about 1/4 mile. Every time visibility got low and I considered turning around, it would suddenly open up, giving me confidence about moving forward. I was flying at 2300 MSL — below airport elevation. We could never get more than 300 or 400 feet off the ground because the cloud level was right there. This was scud running, pure and simple.

Then, about 8 miles south of town over Grand Avenue, I suddenly realized that if I continued forward, I’d be in a cloud. I dropped the collective, pulled back on the cyclic, and started a slow, sharp turn. Clouds surrounded us, but I kept sight of the ground. The five seconds it took to make my 180° turn seemed like ten minutes. But then we were flying back the way we’d come.

It wasn’t until I was back in town that I could make another radio report to Wickenburg Airport. I was too low for my signal to reach them through the mountains south of town. We continued north along the river until the cloud bank opened up again. Then I climbed steeply to take a look at the situation from up above.

Low Clouds at WickenburgWe got above the cloud tops at 3000 feet. At 3200 feet MSL, the clouds looked like a fluffy blanket of cotton with Vulture Peak, Twin Peaks, and, far to the south, the bulk of the White Tank Mountains sticking out the top. It was absolutely beautiful.

Mike and I briefly discussed flying VFR on top. For those of you who aren’t pilots, this means flying using visual references, but above the clouds. The conditions for this were perfect — there were no other clouds above the ones we were already above, so there was no danger of flying into other clouds. There were ground references in the form of mountains poking through the clouds. But there were two problems with this:

  1. I’d never flown VFR on top and wasn’t very comfortable with the idea.
  2. If we had an engine failure, we’d have to drop through clouds that might reach all the way to the ground, making it impossible to find a suitable landing spot.

I descended back beneath the clouds. For a few minutes, I thought we might try heading west, but by the time we reached the airport again, I realized that visibility out that way wasn’t much better than at the airport. So we decided to land and wait it out.

Remember, there are old pilots and bold pilots but very few old, bold pilots.

More Waiting

On the ground, there was a man with a Piper Cub who was hoping to leave Wickenburg and fly to Tucson. He was in the same situation as us, since he needed to go south. I told him about the cloud tops and the nice day above them. He had an instrument rating, but his aircraft was not properly equipped for IFR (instrument flight rules) flight. So, like us, he decided to wait.

Time marched on.

I called Phoenix’s AWOS again. Still 10 miles visibility down there. Then I called Brad, who was working ground crew for us at Buckeye. He said it was overcast, but otherwise clear. The event was just starting to get under way, with lots of people coming in. I think he had a hard time believing that the conditions at Wickenburg could be bad enough to keep me on the ground.

At 9:15, I could wait no longer. The sky had brightened considerably and I was sure whatever clouds were left would burn off quickly. I was also sure that the VFR on top route we’d glimpsed would have plenty of holes with views to the ground. So I decided to give it another try.

Our Second Departure

While I warmed up the helicopter again, we heard radio calls from pilots coming into Wickenburg from the north. Some of them were on their way to Buckeye and, like us, were concerned about the cloud cover. They’d decided to stop in Wickenburg and wait it out.

The Cub guy had decided, like us, to go for it. He taxied down to the end of Runway 23 to depart. We took off, climbed out about 300 feet, and turned to the south. At first, I planned to follow Vulture Mine Road under the clouds. But when we saw how the clouds came down to the road level just south of Rancho de los Caballeros, I changed my plan. Instead, I made a 1300 FPM climb at about 60 knots right through the biggest hole I saw in the clouds. We popped out the top into the sunshine, will all the nearby mountain peaks clearly in view. Seeing the huge White Tank Mountains, which weren’t far from our destination, helped convince me that a VFR on top route would be okay.

I punched Buckeye into my GPS, adjusted our course, leveled off at 4000 feet MSL, and accelerated to 110 knots.

Mike took this excellent shot of Vulture Peak as we flew by it.

The cloud tops were about 500 feet below us as we moved south. There were plenty of big holes in the clouds offering clear views of the desert below us.

We reached the edge of the fog bank about 20 miles south of Wickenburg. I made a radio call to the Cub pilot to let him know the clouds stopped there. He was still on frequency and thanked me for the report. We descended to my usual altitude of 600 feet AGL and continued on our way with the low clouds behind us.

By the time we got to Buckeye, there were a few clouds scattered in a hazy sky. A cloud bank remained to the west and to the north through most of the day. But by the time we returned to Wickenburg much later that afternoon, the low clouds were gone.

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~ by Maria on February 20, 2008.

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