June 1, 2003
Robert C. Holbert
I believe all active pilots will sooner or later have a serious close encounter with weather. Quite a few encounters, in fact — more than we would ever want.
Over a period of 10 years I had rented an assortment of light airplanes: Cessna 150s, 152s, 172s; and Piper Cadets, Warriors, and Archers. I also was given a key and placed on the insurance policy for our company-owned Cessna 182 based at Ohio State University Airport in Columbus, Ohio.
Then on December 7, 1990, I made a dream come true: I purchased a Cessna 182 and began to do some really serious flying. That next summer, I was involved in a flight into a serious, building storm.
I had made reservations for a weekend at a rental house at a resort located on Norris Lake, approximately seven miles from La Follette, Tennessee. My wife and I had stayed at this resort on two other occasions, but this was my first flight into the 3,100-foot-long paved airstrip. At 10 a.m. I called the resort to check the weather and to confirm our reservations. The person I spoke with said it was cloudy but visibility was good, as local pilots flew in and out when they could see a certain mountain approximately five miles to the south.
My wife and I arrived at Clermont County Airport, where we based our 182 and checked the DUATS weather to La Follette. The weather was VFR immediately south of Lexington, Kentucky, but questionable farther south with scattered showers. I elected to take off and check the weather out. This is where my inexperience caught up with me, as I thought I could fly over the dark, heavy-laden rain clouds that appeared ahead of me at an estimated 8,000-foot altitude. My lightning detection equipment was showing active storm cells approximately 90 miles to the left and to the right, but it was still clear at the 175-degree heading I was on. I had planned to fly at 5,500 feet but had climbed to 8,500 feet, staying above the broken cloud tops. I could see the terrain below, and as long as I saw the ground I thought I could maintain VFR conditions.
Then a wall of rain and wind came up directly in front of the airplane and we hit what seemed like a solid wall of water-it blew out the windshield air vents and drenched us. Before I could even think about turning the airplane around it was out of my control, climbing at a high rate of speed. The altimeter reached over 10,000 feet. The G forces were so strong that it was a difficult, almost impossible effort to take my right hand off the yoke and reach the throttle to reduce the rpm. My wife grabbed my arm to help me as she saw I was straining to reach the throttle. The entire airplane was vibrating so badly that none of the instruments could be used except the altimeter and airspeed indicator. Even if I had been instrument-rated, we were at the mercy of the elements.
I then made a second mistake: I made an abrupt left-hand turn in a panic, thinking I could get back to stable air. The airplane immediately went into a spin. With no visibility I could not ascertain in which direction I was spinning. I neutralized the controls, pushed right and then left rudder with no results. At approximately 800 feet agl I could see the ground and determine that we were spinning to the left. With the yoke pushed forward I pushed hard right rudder and the airplane straightened out. I immediately pulled back on the yoke, thinking we were going to hit the ground or lose the wings because of the G forces.
Fortunately, we came down in a valley between the mountains just below Stanton, Kentucky. As I leveled off, I saw trees on my left, on the side of a mountain. Almost immediately my wife saw a runway and told me to land, but when I took a closer look there were Xs on each end and I noticed a dragster on the strip of concrete. I punched the nearest button on the loran and the Stanton airport was approximately two miles away at a bearing of 49 degrees.
The winds at Stanton were gusting and I could not see the tops of the mountains. The windsock was straight out, indicating a strong crosswind. I circled the airport to land from the south, and as I came down final the winds became very calm.
After landing I did an inspection of the Skylane and noticed the top of both of the wings had ripples extending from the struts to approximately eight feet out on each side. Miraculously, when the airplane was repaired they found no internal damage.
Needless to say, I learned from this close encounter with Mother Nature. I vowed to never again take foolish, unnecessary chances by flying into hazardous weather conditions.
Robert C. Holbert, AOPA 1234791, is a private pilot with more than 900 hours. He owns a 1968 Cessna Skylane and has been flying since 1983.
Additional information on thunderstorm avoidance is also available via these links:
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