I intended to leave for Chicago from my home base just north of Philadelphia at about nine in the morning. The weather was basically clear, but with the typical summer forecast of a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. And of course I would have a headwind on the way west so the trip in my Cessna 172 Skyhawk was going to take a long time. The plan was for me to drop my neighbor’s 16-year old daughter, Lori, off in northern Indiana so she could visit her grandmother, and then I would continue on to attend my business conference in Chicago.
Somehow we just couldn’t get going that day. By the time we finally got off it was nearly 2 p.m. about the time I should have been leaving Indiana for the short second leg up to Meigs Field. The weather was still good as we left Collegeville, but a couple hours later out in western Pennsylvania we started to encounter buildups. At first they were widely scattered so I pressed on. But the further I went west the buildups got closer together, the tops higher, and the color darker. Pretty soon I was doing some enthusiastic maneuvering to remain clear of the clouds. Then the inevitable happened; there was no place to go but into a cloud. I tried to time-honored 180-degree turn but I was too late. The clouds had closed in behind me.
I was a relatively new instrument pilot and had little real-world IFR experience at the time. But I knew flying in building, dark, towering cumulous clouds was a bad idea. About the time I finished fumbling around with my charts and found the frequency for ATC, things really got bad. It started to rain very hard, the hardest I have ever seen in my entire flying career. Water ran into the plane seemingly everywhere. It was as if it had turned into a sieve. The view out the windscreen, through the water, was an ugly dark gray/green color that I had never seen before or since. The engine ran rough from ingesting so much water, so I turned on the carburetor heat.
Then we started up. The vertical speed indicator pegged at 2,000 feet per minute. We went from 8,500 feet to 11,000 in the blink of an eye. The time was very short, but I remember it seemed like slow motion. I had time to think, “There is going to be hell to pay when this switches to a downdraft.” Then it switched and we were going down like a runaway elevator. The VSI abruptly pegged at 2,000 fpm down. At least I knew from my instrument training that I should not worry about holding altitude. Just keep the wings and pitch level, slow to maneuvering speed and let the altitude vary as the air currents carry the airplane. I flew out of the downdraft at about 7,000 feet. The whole bad encounter lasted less than two minutes. During that time I saw the VSI pegged both ways, and changed altitude a total of 6,500 feet. That’s an average of over 3,000 feet per minute—pretty abrupt for a Skyhawk.
Somewhere in there, I don’t really recall at what point, I was able to get in touch with ATC. I told them I was in trouble and asked for a heading that would provide the shortest distance out of that mess. I guess I sounded pretty scared because the first thing the controller asked me was if I wanted to declare an emergency. I distinctly recall squeaking back to him the words, “No, I’m trying to prevent one.” After the usual identification routine he told me to turn north and I would be out in about 20 miles, with altitude at my discretion.
That 20-mile ride took around 10 minutes, but it was the longest 10 minutes of my life. When we popped out into clear, bright sunshine, we were very close to the airport in Franklin, Penn. I asked Lori if she wanted to land (she had been stone-quiet through this ordeal) and she said yes. We landed and both made our way to the bathroom.
I am very thankful for what didn’t happen on this flight since it is probably the only reason we survived. In spite of my worst fears, we never had anything worse than moderate turbulence. Why there was no violent wind shear when we went abruptly from updraft to downdraft I will never know. Just luck, I guess. The airplane remained controllable at all times. And there was no hail. Large hail can be very damaging, even to the point of breaking the windshield in a light plane.
Since that time I have never gotten myself into a thunderstorm situation again. Once was more than enough. When I started to fly more IFR I bought a Stormscope for my 172. I have been a CFI for many years and I often tell part of this story to my instrument students. I want them to know that if they ever get into a cell they should keep the wings level and pitch for level flight. Don’t worry about holding altitude, even if that is contrary to what ATC has assigned. Trying to maintain altitude could well cause either a stall or excessive speed and in-flight breakup. ATC helped me, but I waited way too long to contact them. Especially today with weather overlaid on their radar, calling ATC at the first sign of build-ups along your route can get you helpful vectors around the weather. That certainly would have worked in my case, with the edge of the convective activity only 20 miles away.
Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, Ind., FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor as designated by the National Association of Flight Instructors and has over 6000 hours in more than 60 types of aircraft. He may be contacted at [email protected].