Tackling Weather in LSAs
In 20-odd years of doing aviation journalism, I have learned that the have and have-not syndrome applies as equally in aviation as it does in everything else. That's another way of saying pilot attitudes and preferences are strongly shaped by the experiences they've had, especially with regard to equipment. And those who've gazed down from the top of the equipment ziggurat—that would be airline pilots—tend to be not that interested in slumming down to something less if a little weather is in the offing.
I was reminded of this last week when I visited the owner of an LSA we're covering for Aviation Consumer. The owner is a retired military and airline pilot with thousands of flight hours, most of them in turbines. When we were discussing his equipment choices in the airplane, I asked if he had considered installing datalink weather capability. Not really, he replied, using a rationale that I'd heard before: If I had it, I might be tempted to use it. When sferics devices were the weapon of choice during thunderstorm season, that attitude was even more prevalent.
And when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If your frame of reference as a "have" pilot is megawatts of thrust pushing around a radar dish the size of a card table, getting by with anything less is going to be unappealing. Age has something to do with it, too. After you've beaten around in enough weather and had your butt puckered a few times, the notion of doing it when you don't have to or if you're not being paid for it wouldn't necessarily occur. Staying on the back porch and having a beer would make a lot more sense.
Being from the have-not set, I have just the opposite view. If I owned an LSA capable of 120 MPH or so, I'd use it for serious cross country and I'd definitely want weatherlink. In one of the more ludicrous turns of technology, I can actually have datalink in our no-electrical-system Cub. I have a 12-volt battery pack that will run a GPSMap 396 for hours. I wouldn't bother because the airplane is just too slow.
The sticky point for many pilots using weatherlink is the specter of penetration into and through convective weather. I have done this with both onboard radar and with datalink, but for this comparison, "penetration" doesn't mean the same thing. With onboard radar, you can reasonably pick a soft spot between cells that may be painting green or yellow and safely negotiate it. With datalink, because of image latency, you need to pick your holes a lot more circumspectfully, which is to say give cells the widest possible birth and stay clear of clouds and precip, if possible. In that sense, you're using datalink to refine and inform the eyeball method of weather avoidance.
And that's how I'd use datalink on an LSA cross country. You can look ahead for miles, perhaps making a minor course jink to avoid an area of weather or find a worry-free hole between cells. For $30 a month, that seems like a bargain to me.
Of course, if I had 8000 hours of 737 time, I too would probably leave the LSA in the hangar if weather threatened, contemplating the serenity of that decision over a cold one. Apart from running out beer, that option isn't as likely to turn scary.