Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"On little cat feet"

Sunday evening it all looked good for a Monday morning flight from the DC area to Connecticut. Temperatures aloft were going to be warm enough for me to file for an altitude of 7,000 feet – fairly unusual for December. The Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) for Bridgeport issued at 9:00 PM (02Z) suggested that the weather on arrival at KBDR would be reasonable:
KBDR 050209Z 0502/0524 VRB04KT 1 1/2SM BR SCT030 BKN250
   TEMPO 0502/0505 3SM BR 
   FM050500 20005KT 2SM BR BKN025
   FM050800 VRB03KT 2SM BR SCT005 OVC010 
   FM051400 22005KT P6SM SCT010 OVC040 
   FM051600 22007KT P6SM SCT040 OVC150
   FM051900 22008KT P6SM OVC040=
The plan was to depart soon after 7:00 AM (12Z) for the roughly 2 hour trip. For a 14Z arrival I could expect good visibility, scattered clouds at 1,000 feet and an overcast at 4,000. And conditions were forecast to continue improving. I turned in feeling good about the flight.

My first indication that all might not be well came when, on arising at oh-dark-30 (actually 5:00 AM), I checked the METAR at KBDR:

METAR KBDR 050952Z 00000KT 1/4SM FG VV002 07/05 A3036 RMK AO2 SLP279 T00670050=
This was not good. The fog, without being in the forecast, had come to KBDR "on little cat feet" and with the wind calm (0000KT) it could well sit "over harbor and city on silent haunches" for an unpleasantly long time. And 1/4 mile visibility with an indefinite 200 foot ceiling (VV200) was well below minimums for the Runway 6 ILS approach. Still, the forecast continued to call for improving conditions so I headed for the airport.

By the time I'd pre-flighted N631S, taxied to the fuel island and topped off the tanks, the 12Z TAF was out:

TAF KBDR 051120Z 0512/0612 VRB03KT 2SM BR OVC006
   TEMPO 0512/0514 1/2SM FG OVC002 
   FM051400 22005KT P6SM SCT010 OVC040 
   FM051600 22007KT P6SM SCT040 OVC150 
   FM052200 22008KT P6SM OVC040 
   FM060200 19007KT 5SM BR OVC020 
   FM060700 19008KT 4SM -RA BR OVC015=
Now, in the TEMPO group, the forecaster at least acknowledged the presence of the fog. But conditions were still projected to improve after 14Z (9:00 AM).

But I've been flying in and out of Sikorsky Memorial Airport for quite a few years now, and I've seen fog before. The phenomenon could be very persistent, lingering for hours beyond the time when things were forecast to improve. So I wanted to see an improvement at KBDR before I'd launch in that direction. I'd wait a while.

Things improved a bit at KBDR just before 10:00 AM as the following METAR's show:

METAR KBDR 051452Z 00000KT 1/2SM FG BKN004 OVC008 10/09 A3038=
SPECI KBDR 051459Z 00000KT 1SM BR BKN004 OVC008 11/09 A3038
Visibility had improved to a mile and the ceiling was up to 400 feet. These values were adequate for the ILS approach. In addition, an amendment to the TAF had issued that seemed to promise continued improvement:

KBDR 051347Z 0514/0612 VRB03KT 1/4SM FG VV002
   TEMPO 0514/0515 2SM BR OVC006 
   FM051500 22005KT P6SM SCT010 OVC040 
   FM051600 22007KT P6SM SCT040 OVC150 
   FM052200 22008KT P6SM OVC040 
   FM060200 19007KT 5SM BR OVC020 
   FM060700 19008KT 4SM -RA BR OVC015=
If I got underway, I'd be at Bridgeport a bit after noon (17Z) and the forecast suggested that visibility would be good and the ceiling would be, by that time, overcast at 4,000 feet. Neat! So I fired up N631S and we were off the ground at 1522Z, headed north.

Of course, a forecast is just a forecast. A "guess" – a highly educated guess, but... So as soon as N631S was settled down in cruise at 7,000 feet I checked the new METAR at KBDR:

SPECI KBDR 051515Z 00000KT 1SM BR OVC002 11/09 A3038 RMK AO2=
Rats! The ceiling was back down to 200 feet. This was not what I wanted to see. So I did two things. First, I slooooowed N631S down a lot. Prop RPM down to 2100, fuel flow down to 10 gallons per hour. Perhaps some extra time would allow the happier parts of that forecast to materialize. And second, I started looking for another place to land.
SPECI KDXR 051544Z 22003KT 8SM SCT007 OVC055 11/09 A3037
With eight miles of visibility and a high overcast ceiling, Danbury (KDXR) was a good option. With that Plan "B" in hand, all that was left was to go to KBDR and see what I found there.
To cut to the chase, conditions at KBDR did not improve by the time I got there. N631S and I flew the ILS Rwy 6 approach, advised by the tower that the ceiling was at 200 feet with 1/2 mile visibility – well below minimums. At 300 feet on the glide-slope there was nothing to see but gray. I reported on the missed approach, tower switched me back to New York approach and the controller there said, "Say intentions."

I requested a couple of turns in the hold to figure things out. While the Garmin 530W GPS worked with the S-TEC 50 autopilot to fly N631S around in the hold I checked the METAR's at nearby airports. Waterbury-Oxford (KOXC) was only about 12 miles north and was VFR so that's where we went. N631S and I landed there at 1746Z. (The clip above shows the approach to KBDR, the hold and the flight path up to KOXC. Click to enlarge, if you like.)

So there I was in Oxford and there sat the fog at Bridgeport. I checked the 18Z TAF, which had just been issued:

TAF KBDR 051733Z 0518/0618 VRB04KT 1SM BR BKN003 OVC060
   TEMPO 0519/0523 6SM BR SCT005 BKN060 
   FM052300 21005KT 1SM BR BKN003 
   FM061500 22008KT 4SM BR BKN008=
The forecaster was now suggesting that prevailing weather for the balance of the afternoon would be a mile visibility and 300 foot ceiling, with brief periods of good visibility and a 6,000 foot ceiling. I'd watch the METAR's and hope for a break in the weather that I could use to sneak into Bridgeport.

The break came (I thought) at about 2:00 PM (19Z), when the visibility rose to 3 miles and the ceiling lifted to 400 feet:

SPECI KBDR 051859Z 00000KT 3SM BR OVC004 12/10 A3030 RMK AO2=
OK, that was good enough. I quickly called Flight Service and filed an IFR flight plan for KOXC to KBDR, direct.
In short order, N631S and I were back in the air and headed for KBDR. The New York Approach controller asked if I had ATIS "November" at Bridgeport, which I quickly picked up. It was consistent with the last METAR I'd seen. So far, so good. The controller began to issue vectors to me for the ILS Rwy 6 approach (see clip above, at left). About then I heard another aircraft on the frequency mention "Tango at Bridgeport". Uh-oh. That could only mean a later ATIS incorporating a change in conditions. I went back to the Bridgeport ATIS frequency and heard, "Visibility one and three-quarter miles, sky condition overcast 200 feet." Back below minimums. This wasn't my day.

The controller asked me if I had gotten "Tango" and I said, "Yes, and it's depressing." She said, "A King-Air just missed there...do you want to try it anyway?" I declined and asked for a vector back to KOXC, which still enjoyed excellent visual conditions.

That wrapped up aviating for the day. I arranged with the FBO to park N631S overnight and, with another pilot who'd diverted from KBDR, rented a car for the short drive to Bridgeport. That turned out to be a good choice, as for the rest of the day the ceiling at KBDR never got above 200 feet. The weather at this writing (Tuesday evening) continues to be poor. But this weather system will pass through tomorrow and Thursday is forecast to be VFR. That's when I'll find my way back to Oxford to retrieve N631S.

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