By Bob Simmers
What a gorgeous beginning to summer! I recently took an early morning flight up the Missouri River and was in awe of the beauty that was present in North Dakota. I cannot remember a spring where the greens were greener, the prairies more lush, and the river in contrasting colors. It was truly one of those flights that is etched into my memory. Spring got off to a trying start with late and heavy snows, cool temperatures, and high winds, all not lending itself to leisure flying. The last couple of weeks have turned around and we have had beautiful mornings, calm evenings, and last night another shot of moisture to feed the green of the hills. What a great time to be an aviator in central North Dakota!
This leads us into summer and the season of unstable air, which can produce severe thunderstorms, high winds, hail, and an occasional tornado. There are many factors that contribute to this severe weather. Early in the season, most of the terrain is the same color, whether it be the tan of early spring or the green of a wet spring. As summer progresses, there are contrasting colors on the earth’s surface that create uneven heating of the atmosphere, and that causes midday and afternoon lifting action. In turn, this causes rough air, which makes for uncomfortable flying conditions. Add a moisture source, such as a trough that can become the avenue to feed a system with moisture from either the ocean or the Gulf, and you start to have a recipe for isolated rain and thunderstorms. The greater the temperature differences and the higher the moisture content, the greater the risk of severe weather. Then add the conversion of a cold front and a warm front and you may experience some of the most violent weather.
So, what have I learned about flying and summer weather in my over 50 years as an aviator? Here are a few things:
It is better to be on the ground wishing you were up there rather than being up there wishing you were on the ground.
Early morning and evening are the best times to fly.
Thunderstorms are usually isolated and can easily be circumnavigated. Rough air is usually below the first layer of clouds.
Do not fly under towering cumulus clouds.
Give thunderstorms a wide area of respect (minimum of 25 miles.) Even then, you may get hailed on. Be aware of microbursts and stay clear of suspected areas.
If you see a roller cloud, do a 180, land and let it pass over.
Stay VMC when embedded thunderstorms are forecast.
Summer can also be a great time to fly the prairie if you follow the above advice. But always remember that Mother Nature has a mind of her own. She is not always predictable, but she does provide you with signs to which you need to pay attention! Happy flying!