Panhandle Weather – No In-betweens

When I started learning how to fly, I did so in the southeastern US. Then I returned to Texas for holidays and summers, and got to re-learn. One of the differences was weather, but not in the sense most people think. Weather in the Southeast varies from good to pretty good to “eh, not great but workable” to “grungy but not dangerous” to poor.  Weather in the Texas Panhandle ranges from fantastic to good to “oh look, the birds have their hitch-hiking signs out as they walk towards the interstate.” There’s no moderation in the meteorology.

We do get some “good” instrument flying weather, meaning a deck of clouds low enough that you need to shoot an instrument approach but high enough that you have very good odds of success, and with excellent visibility under the clouds. That usually lasts a few hours before the clouds go away and we are back to clear skies. Otherwise it seems to be severe clear with visibilities of at least 15 miles and no clouds within 250 miles (unless they are very high ice clouds and don’t really count). Or the weather is so low that the airlines and charter flights can’t even start the trip, the birds are walking, and the guys in the control tower need an instrument rating to climb down the stairs at the end of the shift. Or it is massive thunderstorms, hail, walls of rain, and you really don’t want to be in the air, on the ground, or otherwise close.

Why? Part of it is perception. We tend to remember the extremes, not the average. Part of it is topography. Winds coming from the east and southeast and south bring moisture and blow uphill. This is called orographic lifting, and it tends to lead to fog. We can get two-three days of pea-soup fog that won’t leave until the wind shifts. The air is lifted, cools, the moisture in it condenses, and foomp, fog. it happens locally as well, with wind blowing through the Canadian Breaks. The upwind side gets more moisture, not an enormous amount, but especially snow can vary from north to south quite a bit (1-2″, occasionally more).

Thunderstorms are their own beasts, and you can fly around the little popcorn showers, sometimes you can fly under them if you really know local weather and conditions. But a big honking nasty storm complex, or one of those fast-moving squall-lines? Nope, you land, tie everything down even if it is inside a hangar, and hide until it passes. Especially at night.

Back east, it was excellent weather I remember. We considered three miles of visibility as decent and five miles was great. In Texas, three miles was practically low-IFR and five miles seemed really marginal and not really safe. On the other hand, 8 knots of crosswind stopped flight training in Georgia, while it took 30 knots to make people think twice in Texas, 15 kts of crosswind. Only once do I recall hard-core clear weather in Georgia, and that was after a powerful cold front slammed through. The next day the unofficial official report was 50 miles visibility. They were right. I could see as far as Chattanooga from Atlanta once I got above 1000′ AGL.



6 thoughts on “Panhandle Weather – No In-betweens

  1. Oh so true! 🙂 At least the fog out here is not as ‘consistent’ as it is back east. They tend to get ‘regular’ periods of fog in Jan-Mar that stick for hours… It’s only 200 feet deep, but it’s peasoup!

    • Without fail every Thanksgiving at least ten percent of the students couldn’t get back in time for Monday’s classes because low weather had socked in everything from North Carolina to the Mississippi – Alabama border, if not into Louisiana. One year a [censored] fool managed to fly into a smokestack – a 70′ tall smokestack in an urban area. Ceiling was indefinite less than 100 feet. The guys in the shop had NOTHING charitable to say about him.

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