It was a typical July afternoon in Georgia when I strolled into Aviation Atlanta to spend several hours working on my instrument ticket. My flight instructor (let’s call him Jason) met me as usual with his excited and energetic attitude, ready to get to work and get into the air as soon as possible. We sat down and began going over the coursework that had previously been assigned and then we started to look at the flight planned for that afternoon. Then we both went to look at the weather. We planned to stay in the local area and shoot various approaches with a final ILS approach back into Peachtree-DeKalb International Airport (PDK).
It was not unusual to have pop-up thunderstorms in the area. The storms are a regular part of summer in the Southeast, and convective activity forced lots of flight cancelations. But one thing that had impressed me about my instructor was his desire to expose his students to real-world training. Some instructors would cancel at the slightest hint of adverse weather, but Jason wanted his students to get as much actual instrument time as possible. He was a young, eager pilot willing to do almost anything to gain experience, and I liked his willingness to find the clouds and fly in them.
Jason was a very skilled instructor with a couple thousand hours in the cockpit and lots of actual instrument time. His knowledge about the airplane, its systems, and the environment in which it flew made me comfortable whenever we went flying. But that balmy afternoon was going to test his skills as a pilot and as an instructor. The radar and the weather forecasts showed pop-up thunderstorms as well as a front moving from west to east with a line of powerful cells. Jason and I read all of the forecasts and decided that we would have time to get at least one hour of good training before the bad weather arrived. All the other instructors had canceled their flights that afternoon. I was young and bold at the time and I had confidence in Jason’s ability to navigate us out of any situation. “If any bad weather pops up,” he said, “we’ll land at the nearest airport and wait it out.”
We headed out to the flightline and I looked up at the gray billowy clouds in the sky. The winds were calm, the sky around PDK was clear for the most part, and I was ready to fly. The first part of the flight went as usual with me making typical student mistakes and Jason calmly correcting me. But near the end of the flight the clouds in the area were getting dark and building quickly. The air had begun to get pretty bumpy and Jason decided to call it quits for the afternoon and head back to PDK.
The sky around us became very dark and rain began pelting the windshield of our Cessna 172. We made a beeline for PDK and listened intently as the controller told us that a cell was descending on PDK very quickly. Jason told me to go to full throttle and said he thought we had time to get on the ground before the storm arrived in force. I pushed the throttle to the firewall. I was young, stupid, and willing to go along with whatever my instructor was willing to attempt. A black wall was in front of us, and as we entered it I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Jason decided to take over the controls as things became very bumpy. The airplane began rocking back and forth and gaining and lose altitude rapidly. Jason talked about techniques for how to fly in rough weather, but his calm voice belied the look of intensity on his face as he did his best to keep the airplane level. The controller had no problem clearing us for an ILS approach as no one else was stupid enough to attempt it in this weather. As we began the approach it felt like someone was batting the aircraft around with a tennis racket. I had to tighten my seat belt as tight as it would go to keep from hitting my head as we descended down the ILS. Rain was hammering the windshield, and I believe we might also have hit some hail. Lightning was flashing all around us, but Jason maintained his composure and continued to instruct the entire way.
I will never forget the sound of that controller’s voice as she asked us if we were OK once we were on the ground. Jason quipped that we’d check the airplane for missing rivets, and then we headed back to the ramp. The maxim that “there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots” never rang more true than that day. I learned the importance of making decisions for myself and not accepting decisions made by others, and I learned a valuable lesson about thunderstorm avoidance that day. Never again.
Jeff Swartwood is a U.S. Army pilot who learned to fly at age 17 and has type ratings in multiple military helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. He has about 1,500 hours flying experience and is currently deployed to Afghanistan.