Waypoints: Ahead of the storm

April 1, 2008

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines pilots his Beechcraft Bonanza A36 for business and pleasure.

As you may have noticed by now, we’ve themed much of this issue around thunderstorms—specifically, avoiding thunderstorms.

The instability of spring weather often churns up massive thunderstorms. Just when you think you have figured out how to read the weather charts to predict their behavior, Mother Nature moves on to summer, which gins up its own special brew of thunderstorms fueled by days on end of atmospheric heating.

Over the years I’ve flown in the vicinity of many types of thunderstorms and once even in one—more on that later. Flying my newly purchased Bonanza from California, my father and I breezed by several towering thunderstorms over the desert Southwest. Tall and isolated with high, flat bases, the storms provided a dramatic punctuation mark to the already breathtaking scenery below us. We easily maneuvered between them, allowing plenty of safety margins to keep us away from any downstream hail or turbulence. One large storm hugged the mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. As we passed over the Albuquerque International Sunport we could see by the color of the pavement that the north side of the airport complex was drenched; the south side, dry.

Later that day, as we approached Wichita, another isolated storm lit up the night southeast of Mid-Continent Airport. Although the storm was probably 30 miles from the airport and moving away, it seemed to tower above as we approached the field for landing. On the downwind for Runway 1L, I felt a thud against the airplane and then it suddenly rolled hard right. As I attempted to roll back to level, the airplane rolled hard left on its own; for a couple of seconds I thought we were going to roll all the way around. And then as suddenly as it happened, we were in smooth air again. Getting my wits about me and ready to call ATC to report the experience, the formerly relaxed controller announced in a frenzy a windshear alert and asked everyone to stand by while they maneuvered traffic to the opposite runways. Soon we touched down on Runway 19L glad to be on the ground and wondering what other invisible forces might be lurking as we taxied in.

The isolated Kansas storm was somewhat unusual for that part of the world. More typically I expect lines of embedded storms in the Midwest, especially through the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. I’ve spent plenty of time maneuvering on extended doglegs around ragged weather in that part of the world. And plenty more hours sitting on the ground at some friendly FBO waiting for things to improve, hounding the weather computer for minute-by-minute updates.

It is in the Midwest where I experienced my one date with near disaster—a trip through a thunderstorm. I was in the right seat of a Piper Saratoga, with former Executive Editor Seth Golbey in the left seat. Two more pilots sat in the back. We were returning from Oshkosh—back before they called it “AirVenture.” Golbey described the set up well in a “Safety Corner” article in the December 1990 issue: “A weak cold front stretched across the Ohio Valley, and while The Weather Channel showed a band of ‘strong storms,’ flight service had assured us that these were scattered.

“As we crossed Lake Michigan, Flight Watch was reporting heavy thunderstorms northeast of Detroit, well clear of our route. An undercast rose across Michigan, and by the time we reached the Michigan/Ohio border, we were in and out of building cumulus. The Stormscope, set on its maximum range, showed distant activity 45 degrees right and 30 degrees left of the nose. We cleared the display regularly to keep the data fresh. Everything was pretty much as expected.

“The first indication that all was not as it appeared came when Toledo Approach advised that a Center Weather Advisory for Level 3 to 4 thunderstorms had been issued for an area about 80 nm south of our route. Toledo told airplanes in that area, ‘All deviations approved.’ I asked the controller if he was painting any weather along our airway, and he said no.

“Haines then checked with Flight Watch, which reported no significant weather along our route all the way to Maryland and no pilot reports. We filed a pirep, returned to Toledo Approach, and were almost immediately handed off to the next controller, just as we crossed Mansfield Vortac in mid-Ohio at 7,000 feet.”

Feeling confident that we had clear sailing ahead, we punched into a dark, but not terribly ominous-looking cloud. Our opinions about that cloud were about to change. Almost instantly, the ride became turbulent and we entered an area of moderate rain. Despite a level attitude, the airplane started upward as if on an elevator. The intensity of the rain showers increased dramatically. The Stormscope lit up in all quadrants and seconds later we could see lightning all around us. As we passed through 7,700 feet, I asked ATC for a block altitude. Golbey hung onto the yoke, keeping the airplane in a level attitude. Fortunately, we had already slowed to maneuvering speed. We slammed into the top of the shear level and started back down again with the VSI showing 1,300 feet per minute downward. I’ve never seen such rain pummeling an airplane—it was deafening. As we headed back through 7,000 feet, ATC finally issued the block altitude to 8,000 feet and I reported we would need it down to 6,000 feet. The controller seemed a little perplexed. At the same time I asked Golbey whether he wanted me to extend the landing gear. He declined, preferring to save that weapon for later if needed.

The ordeal probably lasted less than three minutes, but it seemed an eternity. Finally, the rain quieted, the Stormscope cleared and we were spit out the front side of a menacing dark cloud into an area of scattered cumulus. I looked behind us at the wall of darkness and called ATC to advise them of what we had just experienced—my voice an octave higher than normal. “Don’t send anyone else in there,” I remember insisting.

As we tied down the trusty Saratoga that afternoon, water still draining from every orifice, we discussed what went wrong and right on that memorable flight. In the following days we consulted weather and flight experts attempting to assess the situation. In the end, we felt we had done a reasonable job of planning the flight. While there was certainly weather around, we had used the information available to us to plan a route that would keep us away from the worst of it, confirmed only a minute earlier by ATC. Golbey did an admirable job of keeping the airplane upright in the storm, which should always be the main objective. Forget the altitude and heading, slow to maneuvering speed, pitot heat on, and keep it level. If the airplane becomes uncontrollable, throttle back immediately and extend the landing gear to help slow and stabilize the airplane.

Some might advise attempting a 180-degree turn, but even attempting a turn in such turbulence and up and down drafts would be difficult. Unless you’re sure that the conditions ahead are much worse or ATC offers better advice, most experts now usually recommend that you maintain level flight and keep on going.

Of course, today—18 years later—we have better tools available to us. As Senior Editor Paul Richfield reports in “ Avionics: Thunderstorm Avoidance Tools,” on page 127, datalink weather and digital lightning detectors, for example, provide better tools for inflight planning. Meanwhile, as Associate Editor Ian Twombly reports in “ Weather Tools for Controllers,” on page 82, ATC also has better information than ever to help pilots assess weather inflight. You just need to know how to ask it. For those details, see the insert following page 150.

To understand how thunderstorms form and move, read Editor at Large Tom Horne’s “ Wx Watch: Storm Survey” on page 145. And to understand how quickly things can go wrong, read “ Safety Pilot Landmark Accidents: Always Another Dawn,” on page 74, by AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg.

ASF offers a plethora of information on AOPA Online about dealing with thunderstorms. Take advantage of this training as you head out for your spring flying. Thunderstorms are indeed menacing, but with careful planning, a flexible schedule, and using the tools available, you can often make flights in thunderstorm season without ever seeing the inside of a cloud.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.