Five mornings a week the alarm clock rings at three thirty, and it sounds the same no matter what the weather. I rise from my recliner chair and look around the dim room to see that all is normal; none of the pilots that should have left has overslept, and the pilots who are still sleeping are the "usuals". Really it makes no difference to me, but it's just part of the waking routine. I leave the room quietly and return with a cup of vending machine coffee.
While the coffee cools, I type a request for the current weather and a forecast, and the clunky dot- matrix printer shortly commences its buzzing. Weather forecasts are issued four times a day, at one and seven, and the 1AM forecast for Elmira was the same as it had been for the last 12 hours, ceiling 1500 overcast and four miles visibility in intermittent light snow, becoming 800 feet overcast and 2 miles visibility in continuous light snow and blowing snow about dawn. Cloud tops were predicted to be a comfortable 8000 feet until the storm worsened, at which time they rise out of my reach, to 15,000 feet.
Weather forecasts are just guesses. They tend to be a bit more pessimistic that what really happens, but there is no guarantee of anything. Personally, I like to watch and see how the weather forecast changes as it comes closer and closer to flight time. A forecast that backs away from difficult weather reassures me, while a forecast that is consistent or worsening, is cause for concern. As I read this forecast, I started thinking of a flight where enroute icing was likely, as well as an extended period of icing while maneuvering for the landing approach.
The forecasts had been consistent for the previous 24 hours, but none of the forecast snow had ever showed up. Moreover, I could not see where the storm was going to get enough moisture to be a threat. It had moved straight across the northern states to the Great Lakes, and was not energized by a flow from the south.
A look at the previous 3 hours of weather radar showed what the forecasters had in mind. As the low pressure area, currently centered over Indianapolis, spun its snow and clouds counter- clockwise, it had just started to pull moisture up from a band of rain that stretched along the Gulf Coast. This new moisture had run northeast along the back of the Appalachians, well ahead of the storm itself, and was just reaching into western Pennsylvania.
At takeoff, Newark was reporting a ceiling of 15,000 feet, but on my climbout, northwest of the airport I entered a layer of clouds at only 6000 feet. I had drawn some comfort in the idea of climbing unfettered to my normal 8000 feet and then having the chance to look over the sky ahead. I was pleased when I broke through the cloud tops at 8000 feet, into a vast cavern of clear air below higher clouds.
With no lights below and no stars above, it was easy to see a long parade of airliners arriving from the west, on the Williamsport arrival path, which crosses just south of Wilkes- Barre. This assured me that there was clear air for almost the first half of my trip, since I pass just north of Wilkes- Barre. Fifteen minutes later, I could see that the lights of Wilkes- Barre and Scranton in the distance were making a bright spot in the cloud deck below me, and also brightening the clouds above me. This told me that the clouds below were not too thick, but that the clouds above me were not as high as they had been.
As I flew closer to the lights, I could see more brightness, but everything beyond was black. Had the leading edge of the southern moisture moved across my path, or was it dark only because there is so little light in the countryside beyond Wilkes- Barre? I could do nothing but sit and wait for an answer.
I was barely past the brightness, still unable to tell what might be ahead, when I caught the distant twinkle of light from a plane that carries canceled checks from Buffalo to Teterboro. We pass through at about the same time and altitude every night. Just like the lights of the airliners before, his lights told me that the way was clear ahead. Things kept getting better.
I was soon able to receive Elmira's automated weather broadcast which noted a ceiling of 4000 feet and 10 miles visibility, and I was able to see the dim smudges of light in the undercast, marking the locations of Binghamton, then Towanda, and eventually Sayre, straight ahead. I now knew for certain that this trip would be a cakewalk from start to finish, with only a quick descent through the clouds and an informal visual approach to the airport.
I arrived ahead of the bad weather that was forecast, but it turned out there was no rush, because it never got here. The thrust of moisture never moved further north, and never joined with the low. It simply moved out to the Atlantic well ahead of the storm. Around four that afternoon our area experienced a brief snow squall and a shift of wind from southwest to northwest, and that was all.
I had spent the previous 24 hours watching this weather. I spent extra time before this flight to gather all the information I could about it, and planned an "escape", should normal routes or altitudes be impassable. Like most nights, I had peered anxiously ahead of the dimmed instrument panel, searching the night sky for hints about the weather ahead.
And also like most nights, my noisy little bubble of warmth and light droned effortlessly over the sleeping countryside. All my carefully considered plans were tucked away safely, saved for the next "rainy day".