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Most of the country is starting to heat up for summer, and along with summer heat comes summer thunderstorms.
On May 16, 2003, the pilot of a Lancair IV flew into an area of known thunderstorms and severe turbulence while en route from Portland, Indiana, to Columbia, South Carolina. The pilot and his three passengers were killed, and the airplane was destroyed.
The flight departed Portland at 2:52 p.m. Central Standard Time on an IFR flight plan. At 5:30 p.m., the pilot checked in with Jacksonville Center and was level at 17,000 feet. He requested a turn to the left to deviate around weather.
The controller told him to stay on his present heading until clear of traffic and also asked if the aircraft was radar capable. The pilot replied that his stormscope was not working. He was then informed of a broken line of weather extending from the northwest to the southeast, and the controller suggested a deviation to the right heading 200 degrees for about 30 to 40 miles, or left heading 125 degrees for about 70 miles. The pilot elected to deviate to the right and was subsequently cleared to descend to 13,000 feet.
At 5:49 p.m., the pilot was cleared to descend to 11,000 feet. Over the next six minutes, the Lancair's altitude varied between 11,000 feet and 11,700 feet. The last radar hit was received at 5:55 p.m.
A witness that was sitting in his yard said that he heard an airplane flying in his direction but couldn't see it because of the cloud cover. He also noted that he heard thunder but that it had not started to rain. . The engine sounded like it was operating at full power and then idle. He heard what sounded like an explosion and then saw the cabin area of the plane fall out of the clouds with the wings falling behind the cabin.
The pilot had received numerous preflight briefings via the DUAT system. Thunderstorms were forecast along his route of flight, and there were also convective sigmets and Center Weather Advisories to alert the pilot of developing thunderstorms over South Carolina.
Thunderstorms in the area were intense, with one storm just to the east of the accident producing 69 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the 15 minutes prior to the accident. Charleston radar also depicted rapidly developing echoes in the area, which would be characterized by strong updrafts.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating. He had logged 834.8 total hours, with 84.2 hours of pilot-in-command time in the Lancair IV.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to be the pilot's inadvertent flight into adverse weather and thunderstorms.
Accidents like this one are preventable. The pilot knew about the severe weather along his route, but instead of landing behind the front and waiting out the storms, he continued. Since the aircraft's stormscope was not working, the pilot was flying blind into the thunderstorm, and as a result, he and his three passengers died.
For more information about how to avoid an in-flight encounter with a thunderstorm, take the AOPA Air Safety Institute's free online course, Weather Wise: Thunderstorms and ATC. Also visit the Education page for a complete listing of training resources.
Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.
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