Dark clouds fringed the western sky when I departed Prescott. With appointments to make, I’d monitored the weather all day. Our home airport of Flagstaff expected gradually lowering ceilings after 6pm, and snow beginning after 8. I picked up Jean in Scottsdale at 4:30, later than I’d hoped, but a tailwind promised to hurry us home in under an hour.
Our destination still reported clear skies when we took off, as did all stations along our route, but those ominous clouds approached relentlessly from the west. Williams, 40 miles west of Flagstaff, reported visual conditions in light snow. In any case, we carried plenty of fuel to land at Sedona, Cottonwood, or Winslow, or return to Scottsdale.
Halfway home over the Verde Valley, I noted shades of green threatening Flagstaff on the datalink weather display. Little precipitation was likely reaching the ground, but this was unexpectedly early. Then the tint changed to pink. Snow! I told Jean we might be driving a rental car home from Sedona tonight.
“But we’ll arrive well before 6,” said Jean, taking the forecast literally. “Surely, we’ll beat the weather.” Maybe she was right. Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport still reported good visual flying conditions: clouds at 2,400 broken, 6,000 overcast, and 9 miles visibility in light snow.
Nearing Sedona, we heard Albuquerque Center clear an aircraft for Flagstaff’s instrument landing system (ILS). That’s a popular training approach, so I asked the controller whether he’d issued it for practice or for ‘real weather.’
“Flagstaff is still reporting VFR,” he replied, “but the last two pilots landing there thought a visual approach would be sketchy, so both shot the ILS.” These were turbine aircraft descending from the flight levels, however, so they’d need to penetrate the overcast while we approached from underneath. Sedona soon sparkled delightfully beneath us, crowned with a solitary snow flurry illuminated by the setting sun. Ahead the distant horizon bisected an inviting if faraway sliver of sky beyond the overcast.
It’s always a bit discomforting flying under a cloud ceiling onto the plateau. Here you are cruising comfortably under a high overcast, and the ground suddenly rises up to squeeze you. Confirming as we approached that the ceiling indeed floated a healthy 2,500 feet above the plateau, I took momentary leave from Center and radioed Flagstaff tower that I was 7 minutes south and requesting the trend.
“The weather’s definitely deteriorating,” replied the tower controller, “but we’re still decent VFR, especially to the south where you’re coming from. If it’s a matter of just 7 minutes you should be in good shape.” Retrieving instrument charts for backup, I advised Albuquerque that we’d proceed visually to Flagstaff with Sedona as our alternate. Topping the plateau, we intercepted Interstate 17, which would lead us directly to the airport and ensure terrain clearance. Flight conditions remained excellent, so I said goodbye to Center. “Be safe!” said the controller as we cruised blithely homeward.
“Shouldn’t we see the runway by now?” asked Jean a few moments later…
Photo: Sunset illuminates an isolated snow shower over Sedona, Arizona, on our flight home.
(This column first appeared in the April, 2014 AOPA Flight Training magazine.)
©2014 Gregory N.Brown