Flying in Snow Showers

Learning from experience.

We plan to spend Christmas weekend at our “camp” on Howard Mesa. We wanted to check the place out to make sure everything was okay before driving up there. It’s a three-hour drive but only a one-hour flight by helicopter. So, with about 5 hours to spare on Sunday morning before I had to do a presentation for the local writer’s group, we planned to fly up for an hour or two then.

We started checking the weather forecast on Saturday. Howard Mesa is between Williams, AZ, and the Grand Canyon’s South Rim (closer to Williams). The weather for both didn’t look good. Temperatures in the high 20s, high winds, and scattered snow showers. The three weather forecasts we checked (National Weather Service, Intellicast, and Weather.com) each had a different story to tell. NWS was most optimistic. Weather.com was most dire.

When the sun rose on Sunday morning, it illuminated a cloud bank that seemed to be passing over Wickenburg on its way northeast. To the north, the clouds looked low over the Weaver Mountains. But we could still see the top of Antelope Peak. The weather forecasts showed a front moving through. Show showers, winds 20 gusting to 30. But DUATS, a pilot weather service, didn’t paint as bad a picture.

I figured it was worth a try.

We got off the ground at 8:45 AM with full tanks of fuel and a few odds and ends we wanted to store in our shed. The winds at Wickenburg were light, out of the southwest. We climbed over the Weavers about 500 feet below the cloud bottoms. Ahead, the sky was dark with clouds that hung low. But visibility was good and we could see our next mountain landmark — Granite Mountain, west of Prescott. And we had a whopping 25-knot tailwind. So we kept going.

By the time we reached Granite Mountain, the sky ahead was completely overcast. We could see the Mongollon Rim and Mingus Mountain to the east. But to the north, the top of Bill Williams Mountain was obscured and the clouds seemed to be drifting downward. To the west, it looked like rain was falling. But to the east of Bill Williams, the clouds were higher and the way seemed clear. We could detour that way. So we kept going.

By the time we’d climbed the rim and were approaching the southeast side of Bill Williams Mountain, there were showers ahead of us. But they weren’t rain showers. They were snow showers. We flew into them and tiny pellets of snow pelted the cockpit bubble and mast. There was a dusting of snow in the forest beneath us. When I looked out at the fairing for the helicopter leg closest to my door, I saw tiny bits of white ice accumulating on the leading edge. Not a good thing. If ice were accumulating there, could it be accumulating on my rotor blades.

I have no experience with icing conditions, but I know icing is not a good thing. Yet the engine was running fine, my power setting was low, and the blades were behaving nicely. No loss of lift. We seemed okay. So we kept going.

Ahead of us, to the east of Williams, AZ, there were scattered snow showers all over the place. The sky and ground was a mix of dark and light. Occasionally, we’d catch a glimpse of blue sky through the speeding clouds a few hundred feet overhead. When the snow stopped, the ice on the skid leg fairing disappeared. When it started again, more ice appeared. We moved from tiny spots of sunlight to the deep, cool shade of low clouds. According to the AWOS, the visibility at Williams airport was 3 miles. We could see farther, but only in certain directions. Things were looking dicey, but according to the GPS, we were only 6 minutes away. Sheesh. How could I turn back? I could still see where I was going and there were plenty of places to make a precautionary landing if I needed to. So we kept going.

The worst of the snow showers appeared to be between us and Howard Mesa. We were less than 10 miles away and couldn’t see it. We started flying between snow showers, real scud running. I wish I had a GPS to track our path. We probably drew a line like a drunken sailor.

The six minutes turned out to be 10. The showers parted and we saw Howard Mesa before us. Then our neighbor’s house. Then our shed. I put on the brakes as I passed our windsock. It was hanging straight out. I turned into the wind and came in for a landing as a fresh show shower pelleted us.

It felt good to be on the ground.

We spent about two hours there, checking things out. It was a good thing, because some pipes were broken and we’ll need to bring tools and parts up with us for Christmas weekend to fix them. But at least we know what to expect.

While we worked, the weather blew around and past us. The wind had to be blowing at least 20 knots. Snow came and went. Some of the hard little crystals accumulated on the ground around the shed. I wanted to wait until things cleared up a bit before departing, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. It was a constantly changing scene, with snow showers and sun, with visibility ranging from a mile to five miles.

Finally, we could wait no more. We climbed back into the helicopter — which had remained ice-free — and I started it up. The weather around us must have changed 10 times while the engine warmed up. I kept changing my mind about which way we’d fly after takeoff. Finally, we were ready to go. I picked up and the wind hurried us through ETL. I departed to the west, which had the best visibility.

Now we were flying into the wind, around one snow shower after another. The scud running lasted almost until we reached Granite Mountain. Our path took us farther to the west than we usually flew, west of Ash Fork, Paulden, and Chino Valley. Visibility never got really bad — certainly not enough to make me worry. It was just an inconvenience. It took us an extra 30 minutes to get home.

It was my third experience with scud running — we really don’t get much bad weather here in Arizona — and when it was over, I felt okay. I never felt worried or as if I were out of control. There were always several options for getting to a safe haven, whether it was a clear place out of my way or a precautionary landing in a field. I think Mike and I learned a lot from the experience.

Back in Wickenburg, the wind was light. Big fluffy clouds floated by in a blue sky. No indication of the stormy skies less than 100 miles to the north.

What do you think?