Regional Pilot Attitudes

Posted on

I have worked as an air traffic controller and pilot briefer in most parts of the continental United States and each area has its charms and its challenges.  There are truisms about the pilots who fly small private aircraft in each area, for instance, in the southwestern part of the country pilots just plain will not fly if there is any kind of low to medium cloud deck.  They are accustomed to bright clear skies…maybe some scattered cirrus.  In the late summer they do have thunderstorms to dodge, but the monsoonal storms are always very high based and not terribly organized, so a lot of pilots just go around.  Their trepidation is understandable – the mountains up here reach for the clouds like sirens flirting with a lover, and when they are entwined a pilot can quickly be enticed into cumulous granite.

On the other hand, pilots in the far northwest and on the east coast challenge the clouds at all altitudes.  They have to, otherwise they would never get their wheels up.  There are, of a necessity, far more general aviation pilots with Instrument ratings in those areas which allow them to fly through cloud decks. Their Achilles’ heels are the winds. I am not talking gentle breezes.   East coast pilots as a rule will not take off or land with more than 25 knots of cross wind, and they are very concerned with turbulence. 

Western pilots dance with dust devils daily.  Cross wind landings are commonplace where mountains deflect wind patterns.  Most western pilots research the passes to find those best suited to that day’s wind patterns.  They take the aircraft as high above the peaks as it is capable of flying and prepare to battle the downward flow on the lee side.

As a pilot briefer I could usually tell a “flat land” pilot – he’s the guy who asks for information on forecast winds at 3,000 feet MSL  (mean sea level) through Colorado.  I don’t think there is a square foot of Colorado at or below 3,000 feet!  

Flat landers from Texas northward deal with more tornados and huge chunks of hail than other places.  What’s more, they do not have to be anywhere near the storm!   I was driving down I-40 in the Texas panhandle one day.  Bright clear skies with what looked like anvil tops on the horizon far to the south.  Suddenly huge chunks of hail – grapefruit sized – were bombing the highway.  One of them hit my windshield.  Luckily its integrity had softened on the trip down through 85 degree weather, so it just splattered like a slushy. 

Pilots in the Great Lakes region are very concerned about icing and freezing levels.  I would be too.  I have seen Lake Effect icing clawing the sky for the unwary like some rabid beast.  No matter how good a pilot you are, this monster SHOULD scare you. 

I try to advise flight instructors to go the extra mile when teaching new kids how to fly an airplane.  They do commonly discuss weather patterns in their local area, but many won’t do an overview of other regions.  Density Altitude (DA) is an atmospheric condition not given much consideration east of the Rocky Mountains, but heat and the height of an airport above sea level can cause incredible stress on aircraft attempting to land or depart.   Add even a little extra weight and an aircraft will not climb break out of the ground effects.

I knew a pilot from Indiana who wanted to fly to Flagstaff Arizona.  From there he and his family were going camping up at the Grand Canyon.  He was all excited and mentioned that they had the plane packed full of camping gear, food, drink and bear repellent.  (It was as though he figured there would be no Walmarts west of the Mississippi)  Luckily I was not the only person he talked to about Density Altitude.  After speaking with me he did some research and decided that he could get beer in Arizona.  After he got back I had occasion to speak with him again.  He told me that even with the plane lightened he was amazed at how long it took the aircraft to land. 

One of the funniest stories I’ve heard about “unprepared” pilots concerns one who was flying through the desert with pontoons only.  He was from the northwest and was of the opinion that any waterway will do for landing.  That is until he actually saw what constitutes a river in that region. This intrepid soul was flying in southeastern Arizona where there are no lakes, and no waterways wider or deeper than two feet.  He called Tucson Flight Service asking for help as he was getting low on fuel.    Tucson did give him a heading to the only place he could land – the wastewater treatment plant.  

Seasons have a lot to do with how many pilots in any area take to the sky.  Snowbirds are not just elderly RVers in Arizona trailer parks, they are also New England pilots spending February in Florida.  Texans head to Montana to shake the heat in July, and whether there is snow or not, every Learjet in the country of Mexico is parked in Colorado over Easter. 

These are just a few personal observations. As always in any generalization there are exceptions and I know that every pilot who reads this is not afraid of a few clouds, snow, mountains, ice or turbulence.  All of you are brave, wise, and fun to be around!