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Filing for fog island: don't let a report of 200 and 1/2 on an island scare you off. Proper planning can turn a pucker-factor flight into text-book IFR.

On Aug. 17th, 2007, over the island of Nantucket, Mass., a Cirrus SR20 contributed to the East Coast lore that the islands around Cape Cod are a dangerous place to fly.

Under rapidly deteriorating night weather conditions, the pilot reached for the red handle and turned his perfectly good airplane into a canopied cradle for himself and his six-months-pregnant wife. That alone wasn't enough to save the day. On the descent, he had to motor-glide his chute laterally and snag it on a 650-foot loran tower--the last appendage between here and Spain--to save the couple from a dicey rescue in 60-degree water roiled by heavy seas.

The mysterious part is that the weather was reported as 6000 overcast, visibility five miles, and 15-knot winds. I should know: I landed just 14 minutes before the Cirrus checked on with Tower.

Don't get me wrong, I had Plan B spring-loaded. After 10 years of flying to Nantucket, I could see the door marked WX was about to be slammed shut for the night. It was unfolding in technicolor on my XM weather display. Unfortunately for the pilot and his insurance company, island weather plays all in.

It's Not That Bad

"Nantucket" is an Indian word meaning "far away land," and for many East Coast pilots, Nantucket (KACK) and Martha's Vineyard (KMVY) are excluded when they tabulate their personal IFR limits. The idea of missing an approach while 30 miles out at sea is seen like a botched night carrier landing--more pucker than they care to endure. In truth, the islands are much more flyable than the post-JFK Jr. hand-wringing leads us to believe.

I'm a weekend commuter to the island, but I don't typically afford myself the luxury of scrubbing a weekend. Rather, I depend on my instrument rating, a well-equipped airplane and a good strategy to make sure my kids are fishing on Saturday, and I'm back to work on Monday morning.

Besides, where else can you shoot an ILS to minimums while your 10-minutes-away alternate is good VFR?

Fogged In, As Usual

The planning for my Friday-evening flight usually begins mid-week. In my mind, it's a giant exercise in risk-mitigation calculus: trying to find the optimal flight window to get on and off an island where nearly every car has a "Fog Happens" bumper sticker. My plan incorporates three high-level elements: Weather and timing, the best routing, and Plan B.

Fog is the signature element of Cape Island weather. KACK was used by the Navy as an instrument training base in WWII due to its "favorable" conditions. The island is surrounded by saturated air. During the day, there's enough surface heating to let a few hundred airport operations happen. But when the sun goes down, the gray curtain comes up, usually with alarming speed, and it's fogged in for the night.


The other island fog maker that doesn't get its fair share of blame is upslope fog that's created by a steady south wind of eight knots or more. The cliffs on Nantucket's south shore act like a ramp for the saturated air funneling up from Long Island Sound. Often you'll see this appear as a V-shaped cloud that perfectly covers the approach to Runway 26, and it's rarely mentioned in the morning TAF.

More than a few pilots have found themselves making a hasty departure when the south wind starts blowing fog across the island. It's tempting to hurry and try to beat the fog, but trust me, it's coming in at the speed of a galloping horse. When you're 30 miles off the coast, it's not the time for short-cuts. Once while exiting the active after one memorable low instrument approach, I flagged down a taxing Bonanza pilot and his wide-eyed wife to point out that their pitot tube cover was still in-place. No doubt the incoming fog preempted his walk around, nearly starting the chain.


My personal policy is to not depart the island unless an RNAV approach is above minimums. Why not the ILS minimums? I can't reliably test the ILS on the ground, and if a fast return becomes necessary, I want as much certainty as possible.

Playing Multiple Choice

I've got different routes for different conditions. Like most regular island pilots, I start with a desire to remain over terra firma for as long as possible. When arriving from my home base near Washington, D.C., I hug the Connecticut coast until Groton, then "walk" the islands over Martha's Vineyard to Nantucket.

Above 7000 feet, I'm always in gliding distance if Murphy wants a new cylinder for his collection. The normal IFR routing for aircraft arriving from the west is via DEEPO and CLAMY, which creates an arc around the southern perimeter of the islands. This routing scares me, as it takes me 10-20 miles offshore over cold water.

I've learned ways to hack the system. As I reach Groton, which is 80 miles west of Nantucket, I choose between three routes:

DEFCON 5: If it's VMC with ceilings above 7000 feet, I cancel IFR and request to stay on the code with flight following. The controllers seem to like this plan the best: They know where I am in busy airspace, but there's one less strip to worry about. The only trick here is to watch for summer traffic. It reminds me of the time I poked a bee's nest with a rake handle.

DEFCON 3: Ir the passage from Groton to the islands is VMC, but there's localized IMC at KACK, I'll take the DEEPO-CLAMY routing with a request to stay as high as possible. Normally the controllers want me at 3000 feet over CLAMY, which has a strange habit of making my engine sound different. If I beg politely, ATC will usually allow me to stay at 7000 feet, which smoothes the engine right out.

DEFCON 1: If the Cape and Islands are low IFR, I ask for a routing taking me around to the north, over GAILS, which essentially plops me over Hyannis airport for my hold'em or fold'em decision. If KACK is reporting less than minimums, I get a vector to the ILS at Hyannis and drink a cold beer on a pleasant $17 ferry ride. Conversely, if things are good, and my beer thirst is in check, I'm requesting vectors to an ILS at Nantucket--while chambering the Plan B bullet.

A Good Plan B

The last step in my risk-mitigation strategy is the formulation of my back-up plans. If HYA has a good METAR, it's far and away the best deal. It's a well-equipped airport while also being near the fleet of ferries that serve the islands.

In most cases I file Providence (PVD) as my ultimate backstop, given that it's substantially inland; thus, less affected by the oceanic weather. I know pilots who routinely file Boston Logan as their alternate, but KBOS ATIS is, usually, only updated on the hour and the last time I checked ir was a $250 ramp lee.

The good news is that PVD is a reliable failsafe; the bad news is that it's 70 miles away, requiring a bore into reliably stiff headwinds. When things are low at ACK, I start hoarding fuel the moment I launch. Ir I slow my Bonanza down by 10 percent, I can arrive over Nantucket with an extra five to seven gallons of fuel, which does wonders for my systolic pressure.

Of, Not So Good

Rather than a pithy summary, I'd rather share my own stupid pilot trick, lest you repeat my gaffe. On a recent summer flight I deftly executed my DEFCON 1 plan, and found myself over Hyannis making a fold'em decision. KACK was reporting 100 OVC, RVR 2000, and, well, I was thirsty. I asked the harried controller which airports had decent weather, and he advised that Martha's Vineyard was a good deal.

Ten minutes after I requested vectors to the ILS at The Vineyard I made it in with a dramatic catcha-light-and-flare fashion. I was the last arrival to the now fogged-in airport. Unfortunately, it was August, and there was only one hotel room left on the island. For a cool $900 I got to stay in the Laura Ashley Suite, rather than swilling beer with the locals on the ferry.

The moral of the story is that when Cape Approach asks for your intentions, the right answer is, "A cold one."

Rob McGovern enjoys East Coast IFR, Out never files Boston us un alternate.
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Title Annotation:IFR DIARY; instrument flight rules
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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