Never Again

Brush with a Level-3 storm

November 1, 2007

I headed off to Hawkins Field, in Jackson, Mississippi, where I worked flying Beech 18s and Beech Barons hauling everything from crickets to people to UPS cargo to U.S. Mail and sometimes checks. The morning was warm, with rain spitting from the smooth-bottomed overcast. November in the South can be that way. I had charter duty: Pick up a passenger at Hesler-Noble Field, in Laurel, Mississippi, and fly him to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I walked into operations, picked up my paperwork, and sat down at the computer to check the weather and file a flight plan. Weather along the route showed layered clouds up to 20,000 feet with mostly 4,000-foot ceilings and good visibility below the cloud deck.

There was a fly in the ointment though—a line of Level-3 thunderstorms was moving northeast from south Texas toward Baton Rouge, forecast to be in the Baton Rouge area about an hour after my scheduled arrival time.

My instincts were telling me that the trip might not work; maybe I should just cancel it. I stuck my head in the operations office and explained the situation to the director. He said the passenger's company would pay even if weather kept us from reaching the destination. He added if I was not comfortable flying the trip he could get someone else to do it. I told him I would do the flight, but I would call the customer to let him know about the weather situation.

I phoned my passenger, explained the forecast weather, and told him that if we left early we could make it to our destination ahead of the storms. He agreed. I cautioned him not to be late or we would likely have to divert because of weather, and he might miss his meeting. I preflighted the Baron in a drizzling rain and went back inside to take one more look at the weather.

The line of storms was steadily progressing toward Baton Rouge. I called my passenger again and left a message that I would be arriving in less than an hour. The IFR flight at 5,000 feet from Jackson to Laurel was uneventful in smooth air and light rain. I had the airport in sight about 10 miles out, landed, and pulled up to the hangar where I was to meet my passenger.

I did not expect him to be waiting; however I did not expect to sit for an hour and a half watching the rain rivulet down the windshield. He finally arrived, with a sheepish grin, ready to go. I admonished him again about the bad weather and that we would be cutting things close because of the now-delayed departure. I suggested he postpone the meeting until the weather had passed. But he insisted he had flown in rough weather before and could handle it. Again, my instinct warned me against the flight, but I ignored it. I figured I could always turn around to Laurel.

You can probably see where this is going. I had two opportunities to say "no" to the flight but didn't.

About 20 miles east of Baton Rouge things were not looking bad. Radar was showing heavy cells west of the airport. The field was IFR so an ILS approach was in order. I intercepted the localizer, crossed the outer marker and started down the glideslope. The localizer and glideslope bars were on mark, approach flaps were set, power was set, and I was flying a nice stabilized approach. The GUMPS check confirmed three green gear lights—gear down and locked. We were "looking good and feeling good" as my old instrument instructor used to say. I could already picture myself enjoying a nice meal followed by a nap in the pilot lounge.

But then, a little red flag appeared and disappeared on the instrument display.

"Baton Rouge Tower, this is Fifty-Two Alpha, what happened to the localizer?"

"Fifty-Two Alpha, we don't see any problem."

Then, two red flags appeared.

"Fifty-Two Alpha, we took a lightning strike. Our monitor indicates the ILS is down."

We were a mile out with no runway in sight; things were beginning to look ugly.

"Fifty-Two Alpha, what are your intentions? "

"Tower, Fifty-Two Alpha, is going missed approach."

"Fifty-Two Alpha, turn right to a heading of three-zero-zero, climb and maintain 2,000, contact Departure."

They had to be kidding—that was where the thunderstorm was. I turned to my now-green passenger and shouted, "Buckle up tight, it's gonna be a bumpy ride." The first indication of how bad it was going to be was when the microphone jumped out of its cradle and hit the ceiling.

"Departure, this is Fifty-Two Alpha, I am in heavy precip and turbulence, can you turn me away from this cell?"

"Fifty-Two Alpha, stand by."

That was not what I wanted to hear. At that moment the heading indicator began spinning like the Wheel of Fortune, and the flight director decided to die. Thank goodness for the electric turn and bank indicator. The compass had become useless, bouncing around as if it was having a seizure.

"Fifty-Two Alpha, turn right to a heading of zero-nine-zero, we'll get you out of there."

Great, how was I supposed to comply without reliable instruments?

"Departure, Fifty-Two Alpha is 'no gyro,' I repeat, 'no gyro,' please call my turns."

We made it out of the weather, flew to New Orleans, and landed. My passenger said nothing and headed for the rest-room at the FBO. When he returned I told him that as soon as the weather passed we could fly to Baton Rouge and he might still be able to make his meeting, or we could go back to Laurel. He decided to rent a car.

Six years have passed. The logbook entry only says "lightning strike."

What did I learn?

Even when you plan well, provide yourself with escape routes and stay proficient—fate can step in anytime and test your skills. It appears the gyro instruments had tumbled. But there had been no time to cover up the non-operating instruments as ideally one would. The saving grace was the electric turn and bank indicator.

And the most important lesson: Learn to say that one simple word—no. When your instincts are telling you not to go don't let the boss, the paycheck, or the customer say "go," and, most of all, don't let your ego have the last word.

Ronald E. Davis, AOPA 1313766, is an instrument and multiengine-rated commercial pilot, who has accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours during 45 years.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.