March 25, 2013
I have been flying for about 33 years with about 4500 hours in both rotary and fixed wing military and civilian aircraft, I do not consider myself a bold or risk taking pilot. However, I have had a variety of weather experiences, of which a couple of instructive ones come to mind. I am cautious by nature with adverse weather, and my "experiences" tend to be light brushes that tend to make me even more thoughtful.
My wife and I were flying from Akron to Oshkosh in the first week of June a number of years ago. There was a southwest to northeast line of stormy weather that cut across the northwest corner of Ohio directly across our intended flight path. After studying the weather at the FBO and talking to FSS I decided to go. We filed IFR, but the weather was mixed IMC/VMC with varying ceilings along the route from 800 feet to about 2,000 feet. It appeared that a nice wide corridor was opening through the weather directly along our flight route. As we approached the area the conditions still looked good and I was talking to Toledo Approach. As the sky darkened somewhat ahead (no stormscope at the time) I asked Approach what they saw and what had been the experience of other aircraft ahead of us. Their response was that they had nothing "showing" in that area and several aircraft had safely preceded us. We continued. Soon we were in much denser IMC but no problem; I've been there before. As we continued along my wife said, "what was that" as she looked out her window. "What was what," I said as I looked to her side and saw a very bright lightning flash followed by another in front and then all around. The turbulence and rain increased substantially and I knew we were in or on the edge of a cell. We were at 6,000 feet and interestingly I also saw a large looming hole open up in front and below us.
I informed ATC of my situation and my intention to descend immediately to 4,000. They cleared me to do so and we descended straight ahead beneath the system and continued on safely from that point VMC. By comparison with many other thunderstorm experiences about which I have read not a tough one, but it reminded me of a few things.
Another experience I had was in Vietnam. I was flying a UHIB Helicopter Gunship and we were returning from a mission. The aircraft would get quite dirty during the day and it was routine to find a small dark cloud and fly through it to sort of wash the helicopter off to help out the crew chief. That particular day the crew chief spotted a nice dark rain cloud nearby our route, so we closed the doors and cruised into it. Usually we experienced some moderate rain and a little turbulence and then we were out. This time the rains were extreme as was the turbulence. That nice little cloud turned us every which way but loose. We managed to keep generally upright and emerged cleaner and wiser. The Chief said, "Sir, I don't mind washing it in the future".
Weather and Seasons
Thunderstorms didn’t get their fearsome reputation just from the extreme conditions a pilot can encounter by stumbling into, or too close to one. The reputation also hints at the speed at which thunderstorms can grow from puffy cumulus clouds into giant, opaque cumulonimbus.
A single thunderstorm can contain almost every weather-related hazard to pilots--high winds, limited visibility, hail, microbursts, and icing just to name a few. The Air Safety Institute just completed Storm Week, its weeklong education campaign to raise awareness of thunderstorms. Now is the perfect time to hold a club safety seminar and utilize the many ASI tools to help understand how ATC and weather briefers can steer you clear of the storms or help pilots make the decision to stay on the ground.
If a VFR pilot’s worst nightmare is to blunder into solid clouds, armed only with basic instrument flying skills, a similarly scary scenario awaits the instrument pilot who bets on sneaking through a stormy sector, and loses.