Sweaty Palms Over California
I suppose in order to really appreciate the utility of datalink weather, you have to fly 600 or 700 miles without it on a day when the weather is bad enough to be annoying, but not so bad as to get into a soiled underwear situation. And that's exactly what colleague Marc Cook and I did in his fine Glastar Sportsman last week.
We periodically strike out on weeklong photo/video safaris in the Sportsman, whose rear door can be removed affording me a perch to aim a camera and Cook the opportunity to annoy me by asking if I remembered to bracket. In a marathon of installation hours, Cook just installed a pair of Garmin G3X EFIS boxes, all nicely interfaced with the autopilot and with the new engine monitoring software. So now we're doing what you can't in a certified airplane: Flying IFR without benefit of iron gauges for backup. I'm perfectly happy with this, by the way, considering the redundancy in two G3Xs. More on that in another blog.
Unfortunately, despite this riot of EFIS excellence, the XM datalink refused to work, spitting out stingy little strings of text weather, but no NEXRAD imagery. With showers and cloud cover on the route, we needed that, although not with the same kind of desperation you'd feel flying into an Oklahoma cold front in March. (Other than icing, California "weather" matches the social climate: soft-edged, lots of warm hugs and a reluctance to offend. Sometimes, it makes you long for half-inch hail.)
Our blinded XM link produced a cockpit atmosphere composed of equal measures of tension and irritation—no, I'd say more irritation. Cook built the airplane, did a superb job of it and is understandably annoyed when things don't work. I'm amused by this because hey, it's not my airplane so I don't have to crawl under there with a multi-meter and jumpers to figure out what's wrong. If I remind Cook of this, say every five minutes, I can sort of play his bile level like a $2 harmonica.
As for the tension, it arose from not knowing what was out there. So we did it the old fashioned way. We called Flight Watch who replied with the usual from 40-miles-west-of-Deadwood Canyon-to-30-miles-east-of-Buzzards Gulch…an area of coverage…etc. Even if you know the fixes, it's hopeless to frame a useful picture of the weather. It's like someone telling you how to perform an appendectomy over the phone.
So we motored forward, following my suggestion that we just keep going until something scary loomed, then turn. Other than a few whiskers of ice, it never did. On our last trip or maybe the one before that, the XM's soothing stream of negative PIREPs and freeze levels lured us into enough icing to end the day in a diversion. That doesn't happen much these days.
But it did to Cook again on the homeward bound leg, again XM-less. He had dropped me off at Boise for an airline flight home and called a little later to say he had diverted into Fallon, Nevada to duck out of icing. When I called up the track on FlightAware, the weather was still plotted and there it was, plain as day: With XM aboard, he could have circumnavigated the showers and maybe flown past the diversion point into clearer air to the south. Without it, blunder on and hope you chicken out before the #$@% gets too deep.
If you're beginning to sense that I think datalink earns its keep, you're right. Just on this one trip, it could have saved both one diversion and a little agita. You can't necessarily say that about every product pitched as the greatest thing since lift.
I'm not quite there yet, but I can envision the day when I'll cancel a trip entirely because the datalink isn't working. At that point, I will have fully matriculated into the school of wimphood.