Do you have a “Torbay story?”
When teaching weather to pilot new hires, I ask the class who has a "Torbay story?" No, I am not prying for details of their George Street escapades, but curious whether they racked up weather stories flying in and out of the most weather prone Canadian airport. Incidentally, iconic downtown George Street is infamous for having the most drinking establishments per capita in North America. Usually a smile ensues for two reasons. Yes, they partook in the George Street festivities and they indeed have “been there weather stories” only YYT (St. John’s, Newfoundland) can forge. Why the name Torbay? Not only is the airport’s VOR named Torbay, but the airport is located in the town of Torbay — a wee bedroom community just north of St. John’s. Torbay takes the cake as far as weather labeled harsh, intense, dismal, depressing and variable to a “mainlander that comes from away."
So why does this airport get first prize for the cloudiest, windiest, foggiest and second rainiest airport in Canada? There is a multitude of reasons. If you look at the major tracks of low-pressure systems you would soon realize they tend to converge toward the East Coast, focusing on Newfoundland. These lows almost always intensify as they cross North America, so a wimpy low emanating from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina could explode into one ugly meteorological monster with hurricane strength winds by the time it enters the waters of Newfoundland.
This airport also has the distinction of being perched up some 460 feet on precipitous terrain. Inscribed on all St. John’s, Newfoundland Jeppeson approach charts: “Caution: precipitous terrain on approach. Moderate to severe turbulence, wind shear and downdrafts may be encountered.” The airport briefing notes also state, “Moderate to severe turbulence with wind shear and severe downdraft maybe anticipated.” This warning implies this level of turbulence occurs all the time and does not specify the cause. Plus, they assume a pilot knows what precipitous means. I had to look it up. In a nutshell, these “high or steep like cliffs” can kick off lots of mechanical turbulence and shear when the winds are strong.
As well, Torbay is nestled adjacent to the foggiest place in the world – the Grand Banks. There two ocean currents collide – the cold waters of the Labrador Current and the opposing warm waters of the Gulf Stream conducive to advection fog as warm moist air advects over the colder waters. That’s why a pilot will have a “there we were” tale of shooting the approach in gale force winds, getting rocked around as if they are riding a mechanical bull at a moderate to severe setting with an RVR of 1200 feet. Been there!
Many a day you will hear the radio DJs paraphrasing the public forecast by calling it another RDF (rain, drizzle, fog) day. And locals, with an accent so unique that the media must add subtitles to conversations/interviews when aired nationally, describing the thick fog as being “tick.” Many of flying partners chuckle when they hear the thick accents of the cab drivers as we are driven to the hotel. For me, I speak “Newfinese” as I was born on the other side of the island.
But there are more weather reasons why St. John’s is unique and why natives are proud of their climate vowing it is character building and weirdly invigorating. Tied with Gander, a city some three hours drive up the road, Torbay sees the most freezing precipitation in Canada. But we are not finished as to why it is on the top of weather uniqueness. As hurricanes wreak havoc in the Atlantic, they can brush by Newfoundland spreading heavy rain and high winds or downright slam right into the island
Learning to fly in Torbay will take tons of patience, as it is only VFR 65% of the time in the summer lowering to 62% in the winter — needless to say the lowest VFR stats in the country. That is excluding the persistent winds you will have to contend with. But if you persevere, it makes for some of the best pilots I have ever flown with.
But don’t think you will not find beautiful sunny days with light winds. You will. But every Newfoundlander knows weather is undoubtedly lurking so their weather appreciation for the great days are much deeper compared to most Canadians.
Many pilots flying across Canada will undoubtedly experience Torbay weather. You will hear of pilots that fly for Canadian airlines, senior enough to avoid Torbay simply because they don’t want to tackle the weather. But sadly they will also miss out on some of the best hospitality in Canada — especially on George Street.
Doug Morris has flown into YYT for four different airlines in the past 30 years. He has racked up many Torbay stories and even a few tales from George Street.
- Some facts: YYT is the windiest city both in the summer and winter and sees 127 days with winds over 40 km/hr.
- YYT is the foggiest city in Canada with about 120 days when visibility goes to ½ mile or less.
- Tied with Gander, it sees about 39 days of freezing precipitation.
- The Grand Banks southeast of Newfoundland is considered the foggiest place in the world. The area experiences 40 per cent fog in the winter and nearly 84 per cent in the summer.
- If you have a layover in St. John’s try to make the invigorating trek up Signal Hill. There is a walkway on the backside of the hill or you can walk the main road or even drive to the top.
- One perk of flying into Torbay during the spring and early summer is possibly sighting an iceberg.
- Flight attendants frequently comment of how laid-back Newfoundland passengers are. But they’ve been know to drink the onboard liquor supply dry as well.