Preparation and Risk Management
This February, we planned to visit Park City, Utah to go Skiing. We planned on flying ourselves in our Cirrus SR22. Our plane has a "weeping wing" system using TKS, which gives us some icing protection but isn't certified to fly in known icing. As a result, We have to be pretty risk averse when it comes to the weather, especially in the winter. The system performs amazingly well, but it's only useful for getting out of ice, not getting into it! Because this is one of those "gotta be there" situations, where we have reservations to worry about, we booked two sets of one-way tickets from Portland, OR to Salt Lake City, UT, and back. These tickets were setup so that if we couldn't make the flight Thursday the 18th we had a commercial ticket ass-early on the 19th. The second set of tickets was something like 5 days after the planned return date. My reasoning there was that I'd be willing to just camp out in Park City for several days waiting for a weather window. After 5 days, I would have had just about enough of that and would pack it in and go home. I'd have to fly back sometime later to pickup the plane. Of course, these contingencies would also be useful for mechanical issues.
This was also the first time that I've tried using Flightbridge.com to interact with the FBO and rental car company. It was really cool to land and have the rental car waiting at the FBO. I don't know why exactly, but have a particular disdain for the long-winded discussions at the rental car counter. What could possibly be so important that they can't just hand me the keys and send me on my way? This process avoids all that, I'm a fan.
Flight out: (KCVO-U42) on Feb 18 2022
Starting about two weeks before the planned departure, I checked the weather, every day, as if I was going to fly that day. The goal was to get a feel for what percentage of days would be flyable versus not. The weather in Utah was great, but Corvallis had its typical winter "month of fog". Late in the day, the fog typically burns off enough that you could get out. (A quick word about what I mean by that... Flying Part 91 doesn't require any minimum weather to take off, these are called zero/zero, or zero visibility, zero feet of ceiling, departures. Legal doesn't imply safe, though, and I don't know of anyone that would actually depart in those conditions. My "personal minimums" are the same as for a precision approach, or 3/4 of a mile of visibility and 200' ceilings.)
While it's great that I can get out in the afternoon, the problem is that it's a 4-hour flight, and mountain time is 1-hour earlier. Additionally, the VFR routing around the large Salt Lake City airport hugs the Wasatch mountains east of I-15. My wife refused to fly into the area at night because it feels like you can reach out and touch the mountains along this route (she's very smart). The latest we could depart, therefore, was 1PM.
On the day of the trip, we had thick fog in the morning, as usual, but it was forecast to clear about noon. We had originally planned to depart at about 10:30, so we kinda took it easy in the morning and got to the airport without stressing about it. It was still between 1/4 and 1/2 mile visibility when we got there, but we just loaded up and preflighted like normal. After spending about 45 minutes at the airport, the weather lifted enough for us to depart (10 miles of visibility and 500' ceilings).
This flight was entirely uneventful, even routine. The most interesting part, if anything, was that it was my third time into the Salt Lake area, so I knew they were going to ask me whether I really had to go to South Valley Regional (U42) IFR. I got to feel like a pro and tell them that I could cancel IFR, travel direct to Lagoon (an amusement park, and VFR waypoint) and remain east of I-15. They told me to expect that, cleared me into the Bravo, and I was on my way in.
Once at the airport, the rental car was waiting for us. We were allowed onto the ramp with it, and that made loading our stuff so easy. It should be obvious that Utah in the Winter is cold, and I was worried about how cold the engine would be when we wanted to leave. I asked at the FBO whether they had a way to preheat engines. They said no, but that they could put it in the hangar for a "warm up", which is half the cost of a night in the heated hangar. Ordinarily, the heated hanger is about $120 a night for an SR22. That's a little expensive for a pre-heat, but it was awfully nice to not have to get all the snow off the plane, preflight, and load up in the cold and snow!
Flight back: (U42-KCVO) on Feb 23 2022
I spent a lot more time worrying about the flight back. It's one thing to depart commercial, where you just have to get yourself and your stuff to the airport. It's another to fly yourself, where you have your plane sitting on the ramp weighing on your mind for your whole trip. "Is it covered in snow?" "Has the tail struck the ground?", "Will the FBO remember to bring it in on departure?" "Has it gotten hit by a truck of something?" We had planned to come home on Wed the 23rd, but we technically had lodging arranged through March 3, and commercial tickets March 1st. We were even willing to split up, where Katie and Emma go home on the 1st and I could wait it out longer for a weather window, or for something to be fixed.
Essentially the day we arrived, I started checking forecasts for the return window. I use the WeatherSpork app quite a bit, but its forecasts only go out 3 days. To get a route profile further out in time, I've had pretty good luck with Windy.com. Windy's route profiles aren't very good, but they're something. The IFR route profile only has difference in temperature versus ISA (I still struggle to understand why I would care that much about that), and the VFR route profile only goes to 10,000 feet. What I really want from the IFR profile is icing likelihood and severity.
It appeared fairly early on that I'd have to deal with clouds and ice in the Salt Lake region on Wednesday, it also looked like Thursday would be clear. I started making noises to Katie that we should start thinking about Thursday as our departure day. Eventually, though, Thursday's forecast changed completely. Thursday became a much worse day, with ice forecast along the entire route. Meanwhile, Wednesday's ice forecast started looking increasingly manageable. In particular, there was only "light" ice forecast by Foreflight, which based on my experience really means there's a "chance" of ice. Furthermore, the risk should be over by about Ogden to the north. I felt fairly comfortable with this risk, and we kept our planned Wed. departure time.
Tuesday night we packed up all of our bags, except for the clothes we'd need Wednesday morning. That morning, all we had to do was load up the rental car, check out of the hotel, and make our way to the airport. It bears noting that it was -1℉ outside while loading the car 🥶. I called the FBO again to ask whether they brought my plane in for the "warm up" in the morning. They said they had. I also asked if the had icing fluid (TKS) in a sprayer available, but they didn't. I was hoping to pre-wet my wings with TKS because I was concerned that my warm plane would melt the falling snow, which would then refreeze. This turned out not to be an issue. After loading our bags and preflighting the plane, the line personnel towed us over to the pumps. Their fuel truck had been broken the whole time we were there.
Salt Lake City TRACON are awesome.
This is the third time that flown to this airport, and each time I've tried to depart IFR. Every time, Salt Lake TRACON has audibly sighed and convinced me to depart VFR and get my clearance once I'm a little further away from the major airport. This time, that was not an option.
I tried to contact them on their usual frequency of 127.0, but each time my call went unanswered. It was evident I was going to have a hard time getting out because there was a constant flow of commercial aircraft right above me being flow-controlled into SLC. Eventually, I called the TRACON phone number. The guy who answered said "Yah, this is a really bad time. Can you stay on the line and I'll see when I can work you in?" I said "sure!", then he hung up 😑. I called back and said "I think you accidentally hung up, and he said "no, I meant to." He went on to explain...
"I'm just not sure how I can get you out right now. --long pause-- Well, I guess there's a gap coming up. I'm going to give you a clearance now, but you're held for release. Then I need you to be completely ready to go, and I'll give you a short clearance void time. Ok, Cirrus 5123Y, you're cleared to the Fairfield VOR via the south valley one departure. Climb and maintain 9000 feet. Expect further clearance approaching the Fairfield VOR. Contact departure on some frequency, and squawk some code. Held for release."
I read that back, and waited. I had also completed my run-up by then, and had taxied up to the hold short line. He also asked me what the visibility was, and whether I could see the planes coming in overhead. I had to guess at the visibility, and couldn't see the planes. I could see the outline of the sun, though, so I knew the cloud layer was relatively thin (this is a good thing!). Finally, he said "Cirrus 5123Y, cleared for release, clearance void if not off in 1 minute." I practically yelled into the phone "Taking off now, bye!".
Once in the air, I started flying the South Valley One departure, which is a pretty simple RNAV departure. Basically, you fly directly to a waypoint off the end of the runway, then make a right turn direct to the Fairfield (FFI) VOR. You hold south of the VOR until you reach 9000'. I had just turned south direct to FFI by the time Departure started giving me vectors. They turned me northwest directly over the SLC airport, then eventually cleared me direct to
CORIN then "own nav". What was interesting to me is that I was never actually given a route clearance, or even a clearance to Corvallis. So, I just assumed that I was cleared, and I was cleared via my "Expected" route (which was basically what I filed). Maybe someone who understands the nuance of being cleared to a waypoint on a victor airway and "own nav" means can clarify for me 😉.
I was in and out of the clouds from takeoff until about Burley Idaho, and we never ended up getting any ice. The rest of the trip was sunny, but cold. The outside temperature was -15℃, or 5℉. For the whole trip, ATC seems perfectly happy with me continuing to fly to my destination, so I didn't push it. Eventually, when I reached Boise, Idaho, I was vectored off the airway for traffic, and rather than being cleared direct to the Boise VOR
BOI, I asked to be cleared direct Wildhorse
ILR. Big Sky Approach (which serves the Boise airport) gave me this, but sometime after I checked back in with Salt Lake Center, they asked why I was off course. I told them that Big Sky gave me a short cut, and they were satisfied with that.
Much later, when I was getting close to the Cascade Mountain Range, and the Deschutes VOR
DSD, Seattle Center gave me a routing change. I had filed
U42 TCH OGD MLD BYI ALKAL BOI ILR DSD KCVO, which was more-or-less what I got, except
OGD was replaced by
V21. This was no material change in routing, as it's the same path. What Seattle Center wanted me to do was fly
V536 instead of
DSD KCVO. I thought this was pretty weird, because
V536 is just
DSD CVO. I ended up asking about it, and she said that I had to fly the airway, because there was terrain in the area. The most cross-track error you could get between
CVO (the VOR), and
KCVO (the airport) is 900', and that's right above the VOR. I assume that's not the real reason, but that it was technically off-airway, so I would have needed a higher altitude. Either way, it made no difference to me, so I just added
CVO in the flight plan before
KCVO and went on my merry way.
I was gradually descended into the Willamette valley, which was clear and gorgeous, to an uneventful approach and landing. The Corvallis airport was busy as usual, but I'm used to that. I'm glad I departed when I did, and I learned a lot from the trip. I even called Salt Lake TRACON when I got home to tell them how much I appreciated their help.