Real Scud-Running

Scud-running, defined.

In a recent post titled “Almost Scud-Running,” I recounted a flight through Snowqualmie Pass in Washington with low clouds and limited visibility. I said that was “almost” scud-running. But what we did on departure from Seattle’s Boeing Field (BFI) on Saturday was definitely scud-running.

So I guess a definition is in order here. This is my definition — other pilots might define it differently.

To me, scud-running is flying in weather that is so questionable that you’re required to alter your course to get around it. I’m not talking about an alteration planned before takeoff — we did that, too. I’m talking about multiple in-flight course changes to find your way around weather you can’t fly through. And that’s what we did on Saturday morning.

The original flight plan had us going through the pass again and, from Ellensburg on the other side, to Walla Walla and down into Oregon. But there were low clouds over Seattle that morning and a check with Duats and the Seattle FSS confirmed that Stampede Pass had just 1/4 mile visibility. Stampede Pass is one pass over from Snowqualmie and roughly the same altitude, so if it were fogged in, Snowqualmie probably was, too. (Stampede has an ASOS; Snowqualmie does not.) We could wait for the weather to lift – which might not happen that day at all — or take another route. Since I was suffering from severe back pain due to a possibly herniated disk, I wasn’t interested in waiting around. I wanted the flight over with. So we planned to go due south and find a path around the west side of Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens.

Louis was flying and would do 95% of the flying for the entire ferry flight from Seattle to Page, AZ (Lake Powell). He’s familiar with BFI and handled the radio communications with the tower there before guiding us through the narrow corridor between Renton and Seatle airspace. Then we were heading south with the clouds just above us. We had perfect visibility ahead of us, but the mountains were obscured to the east.

How I Run the Scud

I have a technique I use for scud-running in mountainous terrain. This is a technique that’s easy in a helicopter — which has the ability to slow down, stop, descend almost vertically, and make very tight turns. I do not recommend using this technique in an airplane. Actually, I don’t recommend doing any kind of scud-running in an airplane.

In my technique, I fly as close to the desired course as possible as long as I can see the next upcoming ridge or mountain top. When I get near that ridge, I peek over the top of it. If I can see the top of the next ridge, I cross over and continue. If I can’t see the top of the next ridge, I fly parallel to the ridge in the direction of clearer skies, which is normally opposite the direction I really want to go. As soon as I can see the next ridge, I hop over the one beside me and head to it.

Of course, if the skies aren’t clearer in any direction, I just look for a landing zone, preferably an airport where there’s a lounge, restrooms, and vending machines or a restaurant. I do not want to get boxed in by the clouds with no options except down in mountainous terrain. And I’m not stupid enough to fly my helicopter in clouds, even if I wanted to punch out through the top.

I’ve used this technique safely in an attempt to get across the pass at Tehatchapi at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. That attempt was not successful — the pass was completely fogged in — but it did allow me to get close enough to make an informed decision without putting myself in any danger. I subsequently crossed out of the valley at Grapevine after landing at an airport and talking to the local FSS.

On Saturday

That Saturday, I guided Louis on a scud run using the technique discussed above. I had a sectional chart with me and always knew exactly where we were. There were lots of valleys that looked promising, but in quite a few cases, the chart clearly showed that these valleys would simply climb up toward either Mt. Rainier or Mt. St. Helens, both of which were hidden in the clouds. Sucker valleys. It was a good thing that there were two of us up front. If I’d been alone and unable to really study the charts as I flew, I would have tried more than a few of them and wasted a lot of time.

Scud RunningMike took this photo from the back seat when we were nearly out of it. It was pretty bright at this point and easy to see that the cloud tops weren’t far above us. It was tempting to punch out through a hole to the top. But I don’t like flying when I can’t see the ground. If the engine quits I want to see my spot right after entering an autorotation — not seconds before we hit the ground.

The result of all of this was that we wound up going nearly due south to avoid the weather. Here’s the track from my SPOT Messenger; ignore the numbers and just follow the track from Seattle south and then east:

Scud Running in Washington

Bonneville DamAll this groping around added an hour to our flight for the day and shifted our flight path to the south. The weather was still iffy with low clouds in the Columbia River Gorge between the Cascade Locks and Hood River. You can get an idea of the situation in this photo of the Bonneville Dam that Mike took when we flew by.

But by the time we got to The Dalles, it was clear and sunny — another beautiful day on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. We left the Columbia River behind and headed toward our first fuel stop at Pendleton, OR.

7 thoughts on “Real Scud-Running

  1. I’ve always understood “scud running” as having a connotation of flying arguably too low to the ground under low ceilings (and often in limited visibility) over unknown and/or non-hospitable terrain in pursuit of satisfying another pilot syndrome, “get-there-itis”. This practice is often terminated in the most likely of helicopter crashes: collision with terrain or objects on it, usually power lines or towers.

    In my opinion, your practices were the responsible alternative to “scud running”.

  2. “I’ve always understood “scud running” as having a connotation of flying arguably too low to the ground under low ceilings (and often in limited visibility) over unknown and/or non-hospitable terrain in pursuit of satisfying another pilot syndrome, “get-there-itis”. ”

    Delete the part about get there itis and you have what I think most pilots would agree is scud running. All kind of pilots (beginners to highly experienced) make the choice to scud run for a variety of reasons.

    The photos posted on the blog do not appear to fit the definition of scud running as the ceiling and vis dont appear to be marginal. but its difficult to bve sure from these photos.

    Maria, you comment on pprune about flying under 200 ft ceilings suggests to me that you need more life insurance. Are you proficient and current in autos from 150 ft AGL or so? How much time and range will you have to to get to the best LZ in the event of an engine failure in a helo with a low inertia rotor system? Can it be done? Sure, sometimes. Is it a good idea? No way IMHO. I think you were way out of line for referring to the poster (not me) who took you to task for this as an asshole. Your aviation experience is pretty limited in terms of credentials, hours and years to be so arrogant.

    • Your definition of “scud-running” and mine obviously disagree. I define scud running as flying around and under low ceiling weather, often very low, sometimes into canyons with no way out. “Too low” is not part of my definition. “Too low” assumes you’ll hit something — in other words, you’re too low to be safe.

      As for the photos, please understand that when I’m flying a helicopter, my primary objective is to fly — not document the flight with photos. Aviate, navigate, communicatedocument isn’t part of that mantra. Photos are invariably snapped when I’m feeling safe enough to mess around with a camera — provided I have a camera with me. That might change now that I’ve got a GoPro that automatically snaps photos, but I don’t think any of the photos that appear on this site were shot with the GoPro while scud running.

      Before you make judgements about flying at 200 feet AGL, perhaps you’d better know the circumstances. I’ll stand by the safety of that flight and many others. If you were on board — there was another pilot and a passenger with me on that flight — you’d likely agree that what we did was okay. But you weren’t — so how can you pass judgement?

      And I’ll stand by my asshole comment as well. Apparently, he’s not the only one on pprune.

    • I don’t understand why you think I need additional information to save my life. You must think that my knowledge and skills are equivalent to or lesser than yours and are applying what you know to the way I fly. I have news for you: I’m not some 1,000 hour pilot who built that time flying traffic patterns with a student pilot manipulating the controls beside me. And I haven’t built my 2,600 hours under the thumb of an employer keeping a tight leash on how and when I fly. I have real-life flying experience in flying situations that many pilots never get. I find it absolutely insulting that you should look down your nose at me like I’m some newbie barely able to hover and project your own experiences on my flights.

      You seem to have a problem with me flying at 200 feet. I don’t understand why. Have you ever flown in the empty expanse of flat desert at the border of Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho? A place where there are no roads, no poles/wires, no tall trees, no buildings, no sign of human life — for miles and miles on end? A place so big and flat and deserted that the wild horse herds, sometimes over 100 strong, hear you coming from miles away and are in a full gallop when you reach them? I suppose that if you have flown there, you’ve missed it all, cruising along at 1,000 feet, just to be safe. But study the H-V diagram and you’ll find that autorotation at 100 knots is still possible 200 feet up. That leaves what to worry about? Wires? Other obstructions? Not an issue in these places. If they were, I wouldn’t be flying so low.

      My point: Not all terrain is created equally. Many pilots — maybe including you — who have never experienced a cross-country flight through the middle of nowhere don’t seem to get that. You think about where you’ve flown, with the terrain and obstacles you’ve experienced, and you think of the “safe flying rules” you’ve been taught or told to use in those places. You think those rules must apply everywhere. News flash: they don’t. Want another news flash? The FAA apparently agrees; they’ve assigned a minimum flight altitude for my Part 135 flights at 300 feet — not 500 or 700 or 1,000.

      You sending me links as if I don’t read what’s out there really pisses me off. Throughout this blog, I’ve presented dozens of articles about safe flying, including many posts that analyze accident reports. I read the NTSB reports regularly. I know what’s getting pilots hurt or killed and destroying aircraft. I’ve written about accidents or referred to them in blog posts extensively here. You want a few links? Here:

      Chasing Race Cars Isn’t for Every Pilot
      What If You Crashed a Helicopter and Didn’t Tell Anyone?
      The Challenges of Aerial Photography
      Not Ready for Solo?
      Airplanes and Helicopters Don’t Mix
      Going Around
      Autorotation is Not a Low Rotor RPM Recovery Procedure
      Reacting to Low Rotor RPM
      About the Cherry Drying Posts
      Pilot Flying Fears?
      Dangerous Flying: Abrupt Control Inputs

      But why would you take the time to look around this site and discover that? Why bother when you can just take the chatter from PPrune and confront me with it here? Why get to know the person you’re going to attack when it’s so much easier to assume she doesn’t know or care about safety.

      You have some fucking nerve sending me a few links as if I don’t know how to fly safe.

      So stop telling me how to conduct my flights. Stop sending me links. In fact, just stop coming here at all. This blog isn’t for people like you — or for helicopter forum participants who have nothing better to do with their time than gossip about pilots behind their backs.

  3. Right on Maria!

    @Rick…. Better not come to AK pal! I would give my left nut for the weather that Maria had on her route that day through the Gorge. This so called “scud-running” is a way of business in the far north. If it were left up to the flight schools in the lower 48 none of us could fly for more than 30 days a year and we’d all file for a Chapter-7 by the end of the year.

What do you think?