Never Again: Under pressure

April 1, 2008

My mission was to pick up a job candidate and his wife and bring them back to Des Moines, Iowa, in our company’s Cessna 340 twin. The trip was to be a first-class experience to entice him to join our company.

But low pressure was centered over the Midwest and the destination airport in Altoona, Pennsylvania, was at IFR minimums. To make matters worse, a line of thunderstorms was forecast to block our return to Des Moines.

I made the call and canceled the flight. But the word from my boss was “go,” and if I could not make it back to land, to wait out the weather and continue when able. This kind of pressure was unusual and I recognized what it could mean. We all have read how aviation accidents begin from a sequence of events that might start well before takeoff. As pilot in command, I still had the choice and the obligation to make the right one.

Considering the possibility of sitting out the storm if I needed to, I decided to launch. We were in the clouds almost immediately after takeoff, but the air was smooth and I was soon on top at 15,000 feet, turning to the east and positioning the visors to block the blinding morning sun. My apprehension over the weather was fading quickly and soon I was preparing for a fuel stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the weather was forecast to be good. This went as planned and soon I was back in the air feeling fat with fuel and looking forward to another smooth leg.

The approach into Altoona was as predicted; I broke out at 200 feet and could just make out a drizzle-soaked runway and PAPI lights. I was a little surprised to discover not much turbulence on the approach. The crosswinds were strong, but not a big deal.

After a check on the weather, loading the passengers, and topping off the tanks, we were soon underway again. I seemed to be getting used to 200-foot ceilings on the takeoffs now and was climbing at 1,500 feet per minute.

We broke out into the clear again and the return to Fort Wayne was uneventful. Once on the ground, I took time to get a good look at the weather to see if the line of forecast thunderstorms had appeared. Sure enough they had, in an almost solid line from southeast Texas to Canada. Level two, three, four, and occasionally fives were there, tracking rapidly to the northeast along the line. Talking with the briefer, I decided to fly to a pretty big break in the line between St. Louis and Kirksville to cross there.

Once on the backside of the line I expected it to be pretty bumpy, but we’d have a clear path into Des Moines. I filed the flight plan, negotiated the clearance and was soon underway again in smooth skies. Near a fix just north of the St. Louis Class B airspace, I called flight watch to see if the conditions had changed. I checked the onboard radar, and set it to on, and soon we entered an area of cumulus clouds, with some good bumps and then smooth air.

As we approached the line I could see areas that were dark with rain and steered towards the light. It was about nighttime as we started to hit the line. The radar was on, but I was not painting any weather. Now I was flying in complete darkness and IMC. So far, so good.

Then a flicker of what must have been lightning appeared off the right. I couldn’t be sure—it was too quick. A few minutes later there were two more flashes. No doubts this time. I called center and asked if they were seeing anything. They were, and recommended a turn to the southwest to avoid a cell three miles dead ahead.

Still there was nothing on my radar. I checked the antenna tilt again and it seemed to be working. I checked to make sure the radar was set to WX mode—it was. Now, more lightning flashed, this time on the left side of the aircraft. I called center again. Yes, another cell had popped up at my 12 o’clock. “Now turn 30 degrees right,” they instructed. Rain was starting to rattle on the windshield.

Turbulence that had been slight was now occasionally causing grunts among the passengers and headsets to hit the ceiling. More lightning. This time I’m in it—it surrounds the airplane. But still nothing on the on-board radar!

Turbulence is increasing. Slow down! Rain is now pounding on the windshield. I powered back to 22 inches and raised the nose, airspeed to 150 knots. The ride is getting rougher and the wings are visibly flexing; the rain is so loud on the windshield I can hardly hear the side tone when I broadcast. The lightning is almost continuous now.

I wait for the big bump that will take the airplane apart. Altitude is reasonably steady at 10,000 feet; sometimes up 200 and down 300. Airspeed is down to 120. Just trying to keep the airplane together now, not trying to hold altitude. Some of the rain has subsided; are we on the backside? I glance at the groundspeed and see 195 knots. Big tail wind! Airspeed is still 120. The cells are popping up and dissipating rapidly and tracking to the northeast at 50 to 70 knots. Center is still trying to help, but we are in northern Missouri where they just cannot see the weather very well.

Lightning again. As quickly as we got out, we are in it again. Rain is beating on the windshield. The instrument panel is dark for a few seconds until my eyes adjust after each lightning flash. Turbulence is moderate; the airspeed needle is bouncing plus 20 knots to minus 15. Then we break out into clear air and see stars up high and lights on the ground. We land in Des Moines.

Inspection revealed the 340’s radar to be broken, but that had nothing to do with my weather decision-making. Penetrating a line of fast-moving cells without radar was not a good choice. It would have been much better to wait out the storm and finish the trip the next day. Even better would have been to stick with the position of not making the trip at all. As for the job candidate, he found the ride a little rough, but not too bad. He didn’t take the job.

Steve Davis is a Des Moines, Iowa-based aircraft salesman and Gold Seal flight instructor with more than 9,000 flight hours logged.