Flying over the Smoky Mountains


On a recent round-trip to Lexington, KY (KLEX), from Florida, our route took us east of Atlanta and over the The Great Smoky Mountains.

The Great Smoky Mountains are beautiful, and their area covers western North Carolina and Tennessee as part of the Appalachian Mountains. The mountains are filled with scenic, winding roads, wildlife and a multitude of streams and rivers.

The 3 1/2 hour flight in my A36 northbound at 9,000 feet was uneventful, with ceiling and visibility unlimited. The air was crisp and cool as you would expect for early Fall. Northbound, we passed over Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokeys at 6,643′ MSL on our way towards the Volunteer VOR, (Knoxville). I have hiked Clingmans Dome many times, dating back to my childhood. The perspective from the air is completely different.

The next few days were spent with family members and driving the old limestone rock lined back roads in horse farm country. We visited Old Friends farm for retired thoroughbreds, poked our noses in some old antique shops, made a stop at Shaker Village and visited the family cemetery.

On the day of our planned departure for the return flight home, the weather forecast over the mountains was marginal at best. There was a wet, cold low pressure area over the Smokeys, with widespread Airmets for icing from 5,000 to FL 230, and Sigmets for thunderstorms. The front stretched from the Virginias to the Gulf Coast, effectively blocking our route home.

In a piston single without known-ice, it was an easy decision to cancel the flight home, and cancel we did.

Normally, icing conditions above 5,000 MSL would simply mean in a single engine aircraft that you stayed low, in above-freezing temps, to avoid the ice. With the mountains rising to 5,000 feet, that would not be an option. The MEAs were in the 7,000 foot range over the mountains. Later that day the system dumped a foot of snow on Snowshoe, WV, so canceling the flight was the right call.

The next day we awoke to sunny skies and cool temps, as the low pressure area moved eastward towards the coast of North Carolina. After getting our IFR clearance from ATC, we departed KLEX behind a Pilatus, a much more capable, deiced, single engine turbo-prop.

The Pilatus was bound for Naples, FL along a similar route as ours. I felt better about canceling our flight the previous day once I found out the pilot of the Pilatus had scrubbed his flight as well.

On our flight home, south of London, KY (KLOZ),  at 10,000 feet, we flew over an area of undercast and never saw the ground again until our GPS approach at our home airport. The view out the windows at altitude was like looking over an icy, featureless tundra for as far as the eye could see.

A quick check of the en-route weather on the Avidyne indicated the ceilings along our route stayed stubbornly low, with airports reporting 200-400 overcast and 1-2 miles visibility. Cloud tops were running 6,000 feet.

As we cruised along in the bright sunshine, the weather below us was solid, low IFR for hundreds of miles in all directions. In the back of my mind were those two new Continental cylinders I replaced at my last annual, and telling myself not to worry about the bathtub curve and infant mortality rates of recently installed engine parts.

Here are a few shots of our flight over the mountains in the same area. The northbound flight was clear, and the southbound flight had a solid deck beneath us:

(right click to enlarge any photo in a new window)

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One Response to Flying over the Smoky Mountains

  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing. And the fact that you had clear weather the day after canceling proves that sticking to your personal minimums is always the best decision.

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