March 25, 2013
It was the month of February in 1983, and the weather front started on the North West Coast, as most do. The major difference with this one was that it was bearing down on the North part of Texas with a speed and intensity like no other I had seen or heard of.
I had been flying for 12 years, and thought I had flown in my fair share of bad weather. I felt I could hold my own when it came to making my way in and around bad weather. I was flying a Navajo Chieftain in a FAR Part 135 operation, and it was the only business out of three that I had that was still making money.
This flight started in Louisiana with two passengers, and made its way down to Houston and picked up two more who were headed for a bird hunt in northern Oklahoma. In Houston I questioned the weather and told the passengers that it would be a rough flight. They assured me that if I could handle it they could, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and more importantly the danger I was exposing my passengers to.
We departed Houston in the late afternoon with the sun still trying to make its way through the clouds, and climbed up to 8000' while struggling against a quartering head wind. The Navajo Chieftain had its original 1977 un-stabilized Bendix Black/White radar, and anyone that has ever used this unit knows it's better than nothing, but that's not saying a whole lot.
As we made our way north, the radar began showing some description of the line of weather at 80 nm out. We use to joke that it wouldn't paint very far passed the nose, and it was showing something this far out? As I continued flying toward our destination, I commented to the passengers that I didn't know if we would try and pick our way through it. It was much too large to go around it. I said I would go up to the line of weather and see what it looked like, but we might turn around and go back.
At the 40 nm range, I had the line well defined and could feel my pulse starting to pick up. I called Houston Center, and asked to be turned over to Fort Worth Center ASAP to ask for some assistance on working the line of weather. A little while later he advised to contact Ft. Worth Center, and commented "I hope it works out for you, have a good evening".
As I made the switch over to the Ft. Worth frequency, I heard constant chatter; a very busy air traffic controller was trying to work this weather with a very busy sector Southeast of Dallas. The last thing he needed was a guy in a Navajo at 8000' trying to pierce a severe line of weather. None the less at 20 nm from the line of weather he was trying to do his best to respond to my questions, and advised that a King Air 90 had just come through from West to East @ 13000' at my one o'clock position. As I looked at the radar, and I could see what appeared to be the point of exit he was telling me about, the biggest "sucker hole" you could ask for.
I made the 15 deg turn to the right and headed for the spot where it appeared to me that the King Air had come out, but still remaining in the safe zone about 10 nm outside the line. I told the passengers I was going in a little ways for a look, and we might go for it.
It was dark by the time I approached the first point of entry of the line of weather, with the very tops of the towering cumulous clouds carrying just a hint of light. At the same time in the depth of the blackness where I was heading, the white and blue flashes of lighting were picking up. I asked Ft. Worth if my point of entry was the other aircraft's exit and he confirmed it was, adding that he had picked his way through. I decided I could do the same and told my passenger we were going for it, and they responded with "whatever you think."
At this point I had stupid written across my forehead. I was confidant, but just not comfortable that I could make it. If I couldn't get through it, I would just turn around and come back out. Yeah, right!
I hadn't gone in very far - maybe three miles or so, and I was finding myself in a canyon once again, asking Ft. Worth for help with something they really couldn't help with. I would make a 25 Deg. Heading change, say to the northeast, roll level and take a look with the radar range set to 20 and then 10 nm. If I had an opening I would head around the cells all the while getting deeper into the mountain of thunder cells.
Within just a short period, I had managed to bury myself into the line of weather. I would go around a cell with the appearance of the situation being better on the other side, only to find bigger monsters once I got around the first one. I was at the end of the road, and I didn't know it yet. I had just gotten between two large cells and was suddenly surrounded by storms. As I made several 25 to 40 deg turns allowing time in between each move for a good paint of the radar, I realized that I had nowhere to go.
I pressed hard on the mike button, calling Ft. Worth center and asking if he could see a better direction for me to get through. I took note after several seconds of no response, that I was still pressing the mike button down and blocking his response. As I got his reply that he could see no openings, I felt an increasing need to flee and nowhere to go.
Once again I pressed hard on the mike button stating we were going to make a 180, and got the reply 180 approved deviate as necessary. I immediately started a left turn, believing that was the right way to go from my previous moves. For the first maybe 20 seconds or so of the turn things were looking well, and then I paused for one swipe of the radar screen on the 10NM range. It was right there no more that a mile out front. It looked big, it was big, and continued to show up on the screen as I paused for a moment longer, moving the scale up to the 20 mile range seeing nothing but black.
It was a dark night, black as black can get and the situation was starting to get as tight as tight can get. I went turned back to my left and increased my rate just past a two minute turn rate, preparing in my mind and gut for what might happen if I hit one of these things. We were into the turn about another 15 seconds or so with a heavy bump now and then. At that moment things got real smooth all of the sudden, followed by a very hard rain to the point that it drowned out all the other noise, and then as black as it was it got much blacker. I was focused on my instruments and kept saying to myself, "No matter what, fly the airplane."
It was only a moment away as I continued my left turn that I felt the windshear hit, and I blinked in amazement to find that we were thrown inverted. We have all heard the term "scared to death" many times, but at that moment I was giving complete meaning to the term. In a flash I had a numbness that started in the groin area, and shot up in my gut, chest, and through my neck. I was extremely frightened, but would not lose control.
Things happened in microseconds. I turned the control wheel hard left to roll through to right-side up, I pulled all the power off of the engines, and I pressed the mike button to the point of making my finger bleed while screaming into my Plantronic headset that I was loosing altitude fast. Even with all the power off the engines, I watched the airspeed climb to more than I wanted as I pulled out of the "split S" losing close to 2000 feet. As I pulled back on the yoke, trying not to pull the wings off the Navajo, I slowly applied power back in and climbed back to 7000'.
As I recovered from the upset, all I could think of was that I still had to get back out. I had no way of knowing which path I had taken to get to this position, and more than likely it had changed or closed up anyway. I was still in control, but badly shaken by what had taken place and had to fight to keep from losing it.
I started to pick my way back out and all the while wondering how in the heck I was going to do it without being thrown inverted again. They say that once you are confused by a maze you're not sure which way is out. Well, I knew which way to go, but with all my turning and being flipped I was totally surprised when I popped out in about one quarter of the time I spent trying to get through. Apparently with all the zigzagging I had flown more of along the line then into the line.
As I tried to regain my composure, I informed the passengers that we would stop in Lufkin TX to look at the weather, but more importantly I wanted to check the airframe. To my amazement they didn't believe we had gone inverted and rolled completely through to level. We had come through without permanent damage to man or machine although I was considerably more shaken than they were, for I knew just how close we had come to losing it. We ended up parking it for the night, and the next day brought beautiful blue sky. It's amazing the difference that only 8 hours made with this front.
It took me years before I could fly in just the lightest shower without starting to tense up. Later while flying for the airlines, and once again flying heavier weather than I wanted to, I finally got to the point where I was OK. But I never lost my new gained respect for the power of a thunderstorm cell or the negative appeal of a sucker hole.
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