With the thunderstorm season fast approaching, it's important for pilots to understand the characteristics of thunderstorms — and avoid them at all costs. On June 14, 2002, the pilot of a Piper Malibu and his two passengers were killed after the airplane entered an uncontrolled descent from 27,000 feet while trying to pick their way through convective activity near Osteen, Florida.
On the day of the accident, the pilot contacted flight service to obtain a briefing for a flight from Salisbury, North Carolina, to Raleigh-Durham, then on to Marco Island, Florida. The forecast for along the route predicted thunderstorms and cumulonimbus clouds with tops to 45,000 feet. The briefer focused on the weather in Florida because "that was where the activity was."
At about 1850 the pilot contacted Jacksonville Center and subsequently was cleared direct to Marco Island. At 2002, the pilot requested and was granted permission to leave the frequency and contact flight watch (Gainesville Flight Service). He was advised of cells east of St. Augustine moving east at 20 knots, as well as sigmets related to the convective activity over Florida. He also was advised that a routing toward Tampa-St. Pete area and then southward would help them avoid an area of thunderstorms.
At 2006, the pilot reported back with Jacksonville Center. At 2027, the pilot requested a deviation to the west to avoid weather. He said that he wanted to "fly through a little hole." The deviation was approved, and the Malibu turned about 20 degrees to the right. At 2029, the pilot was instructed to switch to the next sector controller. The pilot replied "Ok .... (unreadable).... and a little hole here." Radar plots showed that the Malibu was in the vicinity of both light and heavy intensity returns. At 2029, the pilot was trying to fly through a three- to five-mile gap between two thunderstorm clusters.
At 2035, radar contact was lost. Witnesses reported hearing the engine make a winding noise, then observed the airplane come out of the clouds about 300 feet agl in a nose-low spiral with the right wing missing. The wing was located about 1.6 miles from the accident site.
The NTSB determined the cause of this accident was the pilot's inadequate weather evaluation and his failure to maintain control of the airplane after entering an area of thunderstorms, resulting in an in-flight separation of the right wing and horizontal stabilizer, as well as impact with the ground during the uncontrolled descent.
The private pilot held an instrument rating with 2,800 total hours, all of which were in single-engine airplanes. His total time in a Piper Malibu was 380 hours. The pilot received his initial training in the Malibu in 1996. The CFI that conducted the pilot's initial training and subsequent refresher courses noted, ""The pilot pushed himself dangerously close when making weather decisions in this class of airplane. He seemed to lack a healthy respect for the destructive forces of thunderstorms, and seemed to take delight in how close he could come in pushing the envelope." The CFI had cautioned the pilot as recently as two weeks before the accident to exercise greater care when it came to flying around adverse weather systems.
This pilot proved that trying to "pick your way" through a weather system without the appropriate equipment can be deadly. According to Air Safety Foundation's Weather Wise Safety Advisor, pilots should stay at least 20 nautical miles away from a thunderstorm — any part of a thunderstorm. Wind shear, gust fronts, turbulence, and hail can all occur within this distance. Most small GA aircraft shouldn't be anywhere near these incredible forces of nature.
For more information about making good weather decisions, see Robert Rossier's article, Troubled Thoughts, from the April 1996 issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine.
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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