March 25, 2013
I am an instrument-rated commercial pilot, and in the early summer of 2002 was training for my multi-engine rating, flying PA-44 Seminoles in the Daytona Beach, Florida area. Typical Florida summer weather involves fairly clear skies in the morning, and quickly developing thunderstorms in the afternoon. In the summer of 2002, a low-pressure system seemed to hover over the eastern part of the state for several weeks, bringing lots of large thunderstorms just as the sun came up each morning, which was opposite the usual pattern. All of my flights were also scheduled in the morning.
One early June morning as I walked over to the flight building, I could see the pink-orange morning sun reflecting off the tops of massive thunderheads towering out in the Atlantic. It made for a great sunrise, but I also knew that it would make for some difficult decision-making. I checked the radar, and my fears were confirmed - the thunderheads were about 20 miles offshore, with tops around 40,000 feet, and were moving from south to north, and very slowly, coming west as well. On land however, there was a high broken ceiling, which dissipated near the coast. Some pilots who had been flying earlier said the air was very smooth. So I decided to go preflight the aircraft. As I preflighted, I noticed several small, dark scud clouds rolling in from the ocean, and I looked to the east and saw that the thunderheads were gone, but it was very dark in that direction - the sun was gone.
My veteran flight instructor came out to the aircraft, and glared at the clouds, as if that would make them go away. We were planning on some VMC demonstrations and engine failures, and for that we needed fairly high ceilings and VFR conditions, which we still had at that point. He went back inside and checked the radar again, and came back to tell me that the big stuff was still well offshore. After several failed attempts at getting Pireps from the practice area, we decided to start up, taxi out, and see how it looked before we took off. Our large aircraft ramp requires us to taxi for about five minutes before reaching the regular airport taxiways. Just as we were about to call Daytona ground and taxi to the active runway, a massive black wall of clouds emerged through the overcast from the east, rolling over the airport at a good 30 knots, backlit by flashes of lighting. Needless to say, we taxied back to our parking spot. This was an omen of things to come.
We planned on trying the flight again two days later. This day started with a gray dawn, and once again there was an overcast ceiling around 12,000 feet. The radar showed some light rain to the north, over land this time, but no major storms. We do most of our maneuvers over the ocean, so the rain should not have been a factor. My instructor and I decided to go for it. We started up and taxied to the active runway. After doing our run up, we checked the weather one more time, and it still looked good in the local area. We had an Ocean North departure, which is a VFR departure that steers us to the north paralleling the Atlantic beach at 1100 feet, and automatically terminates once outside Daytona's Class C inner 5 nm ring.
Immediately after takeoff, we knew we had underestimated the weather. About 10 nm to the north, a solid gray wall of rain blocked our view, and some lighter rain was between the heavier rain and us. The heavy rain stretched in an east-west line from well inland out into the ocean, wrapping southwest toward Orlando in an unbroken line. Unfortunately for us, it was all moving east, and fast.
About three minutes after takeoff, we were in the light rain, still VFR, but barely so. We immediately asked approach for and IFR clearance for vectors for the ILS Runway 7L back into Daytona. We also asked them what was happening with the weather. They said Level 3 and 4 storms were popping up all over the region. A Level 3 storm was right over Deland and coming east towards Daytona, and approach planned on sliding us in just ahead of the oncoming storm. We hit several Level 2s on the way to the ILS, bumping us around quite a bit. The rain was pelting the windshield, so loudly that it almost drowned out the reassuring roar of the engines. I could also hear thunder occasionally. We got on the ILS, and to my relief came out of the clouds into some light rain at 1000 feet, and landed without any problems.
When we returned to the flight planning room, we saw a solid line of yellow and orange on the radar that ran from around Flagler, 20 miles north of Daytona, southwest all the way to Tampa, and the entire line was moving east, right in our direction. The wall of rain I had seen to our north had become a Level 4 storm after we landed.
This flight was just one example of how, using all available resources, a flight was able to remain safe. We used ATC to help us with the weather, and requested their help to get us back on the ground without hesitation when we saw the weather situation. My instructor said, "You fly the airplane, and I'll handle the radios and checklists," using a little Crew Resource Management to decrease my workload and letting me concentrate on flying in the bumpy conditions. If another pilot is flying along, by all means use them. If not, ATC is there to help.
Just a little reminder - never underestimate the weather - especially in Florida in the summer! Get Pireps and give them too, for the good of the pilots still on the ground.
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