New, But Not Improved

Brand-new airplane, brand-new radar, big problem

May 1, 2007

It was nigh on 30 years ago, I reckon. As an employee of Montgomery Aviation, then the Piper distributor in Alabama, I picked up a brand-new Seneca II at the Piper factory in Vero Beach, Florida.

I completed the lengthy new-airplane checklist (my boss was famous for those), testing the color radar by tipping it to paint the ground. Not much of a check, but it sufficed when there was no real weather to check. Or at least it always had sufficed, up to that point.

This was before poly paint became the norm. Enamel paint was never fully cured when we picked up a new airplane, so I smeared heavy wax over the leading edges in case of an encounter with rain. (To tell the truth, I'm neither sure how true the "cured" bit was nor certain that the wax worked, but we did it, anyway.)

Flying back to Montgomery, Alabama, I went through the suspicious first half-hour of a new-airplane ferry flight, during which time I fully expected that something would go wrong. Nothing did, and things were pretty relaxed by the time I reached north Florida. Here we always faced another potential problem. It was an accepted and time-proven fact that the weather near Cross City, Florida, was more likely to be bad than at any other point on the trip. We called it the "armpit" of Florida and approached it with caution, if not outright fear.

Sure enough, weather was visible near Cross City. I called Center, put on my best Chuck Yeager voice, and asked about the weather, letting the controller know that I was in a new airplane with new paint and wanted to keep it dry if at all possible. My words were carefully chosen to imply that I certainly had no fear of death, but would like to take care of the airplane (ho-hum). Center replied that a Beechcraft Baron had just flown through and reported the cells to be widely spaced. The controller figured that it should be no trouble if I had radar. Easy for him to say.

The Seneca's radar also showed the cells to be widely spaced. I picked out a path between them and entered the weather peacefully, if not totally relaxed. Little did I know what was to come.

The (unknown) problem was simple, but potentially deadly. The brand-new radar on this brand-new airplane was flawed. It painted everything very well, but 'twixt the antenna and the radar screen the signal was somehow reversed. Cells that were actually in the 11 o'clock position were depicted on the screen in the 1 o'clock position. This, as Rod Machado might say, was a "bad thing."

I entered the weather area blissfully unaware of my problem. Once in the clouds, I decided that the cell depicted in the 2 o'clock position might be just a skosh too close. (I was always bad about getting more cautious once in the clouds.) I turned 10 degrees left, and that's when everything hit the fan, big time.

I leveled out and saw something I had never seen before. According to the radar, the cell that had been at my 2 o'clock was now at my 1 o'clock! The thing was chasing me! Chasing me fast, too! I did the only logical thing. I turned slightly left again....

Now, folks, you can sit at your desk, firmly ensconced on the ground, with a pencil and piece of paper, and calmly chart this for yourself. You will quickly figure out that the more I corrected, the closer I got to the cell. The inevitable result was that I would end up flying through the dead center of that cell. I defy you to figure that out from the cockpit when every bit of evidence indicates that you are experiencing a weather phenomenon unlike anything you have ever seen. I would gladly have invited a witch doctor with a voodoo doll to take over, but none was available. I was sore afraid.

During the midst of all this frantic maneuvering, I called Center, turned my Yeager voice back on, and calmly explained that I was "experiencing some difficulty." Center strongly implied that if I could quit sobbing and screaming, he could understand me a lot better.

Well, I did survive. Some of the paint came off (there's a limit to that wax theory), and 10 years were removed from my life span, but I did live to be kicked out of the other side of that weather like a redneck spits out a watermelon seed. There was another cloud ahead, and I wasn't about to get back in the soup. I turned steeply to the right and — finally — noticed a strange happening. In a steep right turn the ground clutter appeared in the bottom-left corner of the radar screen! It hit me like a thunderstorm (pun apologetically intended) — the radar was depicting backward!

I didn't enter another cloud for the rest of the trip, no matter what it took to stay clear. When I taxied up in Montgomery, believe it or not, a Piper rep for our area was on the ramp. For years thereafter he entertained the multitudes with his imitation of me hopping around the ramp screaming about that radar.

That flight changed final inspection at the radar factory and at Piper. And it certainly changed my new-airplane radar check procedures.

Ralph Hood, of Huntsville, Alabama, is an aviation speaker and writer who has been flying for more than 34 years.