By CELIA VANDERPOOL
From old European proverbs, people remembered seasonal weather cautions with rhyme:
March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
No weather is ill, if the wind be still.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
As pilots, we know how to interpret these traditional sayings. We can relate and try to recall our basic weather lore learned with a private pilot rating.
Red sunsets with or without cowboys riding off are a result of high atmospheric pressure conditions. This indicates that good weather is west of the colorful skies.
Debris particles such as dust, ash and pollutants are trapped within the air molecules when the wind blows, and then scatter along the color spectrum.
So, the beautiful, lingering red colors in the sunset sky are just dirt. Think of the number of people (mostly on the west coast!) who stop at the end of each day to photograph and text to friends the sky hues of reds, oranges and yellows, sometimes purple and pinks.
Amazingly, simple dirt in the air can capture the attention of so many. Light passing through the shorter blue wavelengths in the atmospheric layer are scattered before the longer red wavelengths. Since the blue color is disturbed first and broken apart, the red color dominates.
This phenomenon is known as Rayleigh scattering, which explains how we see colors in our sky. This is most noticeable in the low angle, low light atmosphere of morning or evening. It could be a good day to fly the morning following a glowing sunset.
Sky sailors, beware! A red sky in the morning to the east generally indicates an approaching low-pressure system. The high-pressure system has already passed.
Since March is named after the Roman war god Mars, and Mars is the red planet, could it also refer to war within the atmosphere? For general aviation pilots flying in March, that may seem very true.
March signals time changes, longer days, and the beginning of the spring season. Our weather shifts from winter patterns to regional spring patterns.
It is a time of year when airplanes yawn and stretch, coming out of winter hibernation and rusty pilots start dreaming of flying excursions in the months ahead.
Pilots who have trained and flown in the same geographical area are hopefully familiar with the trends and alert to the seasonal patterns that are commonly referred to as “local knowledge.”
Atypical regional winds are given names to warn of opposite directional flow: Chinook, Nor’easter, Sundowners, Washoe Zephyr, Santa Anas (also known as Santana’s), Santa Lucia’s, Sou’wester.
Days on either side of these often-ferocious winds can present challenges for any pilot, but especially an unprepared pilot. Careful research of local weather knowledge at destination airports for cross-country trips may prevent a humbling arrival.
Historic weather records show pressure gradients are often closer together over an expansive geographical distance in March, signaling increased wind velocity over a wider area.
Even if you do not intend to fly above 12,000’, studying forecast altitudes above your expected cruise altitude reveals valuable information, including possible wind shear, turbulence, and perhaps opposing wind direction and wind speeds in the air above your route.
Spring Training for Pilots
Just as Spring Training for sports teams is necessary for maximum performance, pilots can benefit from seasonal skill practice. Grab a fly buddy on a calm day with light wind in the forecast and find a low use airport in your vicinity. Simulate landing in gusty conditions with power on, no flaps or reduced flap approaches.
If the wind is even mildly gusty when you arrive, set up for a go-around just for the practice. Review and practice crosswind landings and takeoffs.
Spring cross country pre-flight planning should include a few considerations. Intended departure and arrival times should avoid local spring weather phenomena or the increasingly unpredictable late afternoons. Expect stronger gusty winds or even the possibility of thick fog at sunset or just after sunrise.
Often in March, the runway approach end windsock and the mid-field windsock will not agree, especially in mid-afternoon. Airfield windsocks making oppositional suggestions from approach to mid-field is common during the spring.
After refreshing your limits and reviewing the aircraft’s limits, a safe practice for spring pilots is to plan to be on the ground by noon each day and keep flying fun as you knock the rust off.
For the prelanding phase of flight, there is a useful tailwheel pilot acronym that may be used in addition to GUMPS (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop and Seatbelts or Speed). It is WART: Windsock, Airspeed, Rudder, and Trim. This mental reminder sets parameters in place for a successful landing.
It’s easy to remember since no one wants warts on them or the plane, which may happen if we mess up a landing on a windy day.
Even rusty nosedragger pilots may benefit from applying WART to the pre-landing checklist, especially in unfamiliar places. This establishes a mental process to increase focus for the important task ahead.
Tailwheel pilots are used to dancing on the rudder pedals and keeping their feet active, especially on a windy day as a precautionary action.
If all pilots maintain readiness for surface wind shifts, gusts, and possible low-level wind shear (LLWS), they can welcome spring with alert anticipation, competence, and confidence!