Never Again Online: Night storm

January 1, 2005

This was my third time around trying to get my night rating, which is an additional rating to the private pilot certificate in the Republic of South Africa. I'd received my private in 1998.

The summer weather around Johannesburg is predictable but fickle. In South Africa, the summer months are December, January, and February, and you can almost track the thunderstorms with a stopwatch: clear mornings, cloud buildups in the afternoon, then rain in late-afternoon or evening. When it's bad, it can chew you up, stomp on you like an angry hippo, and spit you out as a corpse. In a span of just a few minutes, a clear sky can turn to black ink.

So deciding whether to fly in marginal conditions can be tricky, because the wrong decision can either kill you or make you feel like a fool.

On this night, it's cloudy and threatening rain. We sit in a Cessna at the end of Runway 29 at Johannesburg Randgermiston Airport (Rand) lining up to follow the centerline into the air. I turn out to the southwest while climbing to 7,000 feet on my way down to the practice area. I then put on my foggles and for the next hour I do exercises that flight students all over the world perform on their way to getting night privileges or instrument ratings. I fly straight and level and make some medium and steep turns, practice slow flight, and do some climbs and descents. The steep turns aren't great but the rest of my flying shows improvement. Pleased with my performance, my instructor then throws in some radial intercepts. From the stations he chooses, I can see we're on our way back home.

I am too busy flying the airplane to worry too much about the weather. But all the while the weather is worsening. Even though I can't see outside from under the foggles, I can feel a fine mist coming in through the air vent. It feels like we are in a carwash, the rain is beating so hard on the airplane. When I eventually do take off my foggles, I am stunned to see how bad the weather has deteriorated. The lightning looks like jellyfish tentacles extending above and below our Cessna, and boy is it close, too close.

The usual route to the practice area from Rand airport is through a wide valley bordered on each side by mountains. The approach paths of the big jumbos coming in on their downwind leg to Johannesburg International Airport take them right over our usual route. Sometimes, on their descent, they come down to 8,000 feet just to the west of Rand airport, where light aircraft often ascend to 7,000 feet on their way to the practice area.

Tonight, however, the hills are a bigger problem. The weather is forcing us to fly low in order to stay out of the clouds. Worse yet, lightning is interfering with the ADF, which means that we can't rely on it. So where we see lightning we fly the other way, but try to stay on course to Rand. The hills are now just black holes. All in all, it is an extremely dangerous situation that calls for good airmanship, experience, a bit of luck, and most of all a calm mind.

Rising to the occasion, my instructor does something clever. He surmises that if we can see lights then there must not be any high ground between those lights and us. So this is how we fly: from one set of lights to the next, making our way toward the heaviest concentration of lights, all the while maintaining a zigzag route back to our home base. But the rain gets heavier and the lightning flashes more frequently.

Despite all this, I don't really start to worry until we are over the City of Alberton because I know that the ground elevation is higher than 5,000 feet. My altimeter reads 5,800, but that means little if anything with this drastic change in weather. I say that because we have no idea what the local altimeter setting is, and odds are it is a lot different from when we left. Flying low enough to stay out of the clouds but high enough not to hit any buildings, my instructor tells me to stay within 5 degrees of our course and within 50 feet of our altitude. The buildings in downtown Alberton are so close I feel that I can touch them. Here we are, two fools in the air on a night like this one, trying their best to join the dead pilots club. So when the instructor says we should backtrack, I start to get a bit more nervous.

One big lesson I have learned is that if you feel that there is any legitimate reason to declare an emergency, then do so. When lost in bad weather, you maintain control of the aircraft, climb, and communicate. Hesitating to do so could cost you your life, and that's exactly what we were doing. We were flying around the sky in a light plane in heavy rain at night in the vicinity of high terrain trying to figure out what to do. It was a recipe for disaster except for one important point. Clouds.

Just above us — in fact, less than 100 feet above us — was at least 20,000 feet of dark and dangerous cloud. But not to communicate? That didn't make sense. Rand airport is just north of the City of Alberton and just west of the Johannesburg airspace, in fact, less than five nautical miles. So I knew that if we were over Alberton, Johannesburg International wasn't far away. With my limited experience, it seemed to me that the best thing to do was get them on the radio, declare an emergency, and have them pick us up on their radar. Once that happened, they would simply give us an altitude and heading and over the threshold of one of their big runways we would go. My instructor disagreed.

First, he said he knew the area and could figure out where we were if given time to assess the situation. Besides, he said, we had no plates for Johannesburg International, so they wouldn't be able to give us an ILS approach. We were so low, too, it would be difficult for them to pick us up on their radar unless we went into cloud and we didn't want to do that. His thought was that they would route us north to Lanseria Airport, about 12 nm to the north. We both knew that between Lanseria and us there were several good-size death cells dumping rain on the South African landscape.

Lanseria's airport is 1,000 feet below Rand. So the weather there or between the two could be much worse than what we were facing and if it was, then what were we supposed to do — turn around and come back?

So I made a decision. I decided to give this instructor the benefit of the doubt. It did occur to me that he might be covering his ass, as the flying biggies would probably take a dim look at him taking a student up in this kind of miserable weather in this airplane. It also occurred to me that he had simply made an error in judgment that anyone could make and that all he needed was a couple of minutes to straighten things out.

Now, even though it was raining hard, the air was surprisingly smooth. All engine temperatures and pressures were in the green on the gauges. In terms of spatial awareness, even I could tell that we were indeed just to the south of Rand airport, easily within two or three nm of a nice, smooth runway. So the external factors were not as bad as they seemed, if one was cool enough to consider them. Sure, it was raining heavily and we were indeed a bit unsure of our position, but the airplane we were in was still flying and inside the cockpit everything was under control.

Putting impulse aside, I committed myself to doing what he asked me to do and not to argue, even if I thought we might fly into the ground. Shortly thereafter, he recognized a racetrack and then we saw Runway 11/29 at Rand. In reality it was just a dim strip of parallel runway lights on the ground. In my heart it was the most welcome sight I have ever seen, because I knew then for sure that unless we messed up the landing, I was on my way home.

So what did I learn? The most obvious lesson is that the best way to handle a situation like this one is to prevent it. If in doubt, don't fly. The second is that if you get into that kind of situation, do what it takes to get out of it. The last and perhaps the most important lesson is this: Be very careful who you fly with, as the person next to you could be called upon by fate to save your life. However, once you've made the decision to fly with that person, then accept responsibility for it and commit yourself to creating a cooperative environment in the cockpit. Chances are, if you keep your cool, so will the person next to you.


Andrew P. Jones is a senior writer and producer for Black Earth Communications in Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa.


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Posted Thursday, January 06, 2005 10:41:39 AM