Plane & Pilot
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Thunderstorms: Managing The Risk


Day or night, how do you fly responsibly?


It was June 1977, and I had climbed out of Reading, Pa., in a new Rockwell Commander 114, heading for Bethany, Okla. The weather was characteristic June gloom, hot, hazy and humid, typically unstable for summer in the Northeast. " />

Thunderstorms: Managing The RiskIt was June 1977, and I had climbed out of Reading, Pa., in a new Rockwell Commander 114, heading for Bethany, Okla. The weather was characteristic June gloom, hot, hazy and humid, typically unstable for summer in the Northeast.

As I drifted southwest at 8,000 feet, the clouds thickened and finally closed in on me. Looking straight up, I could see occasional patches of blue flashing by above, but I knew the winds were stronger up high, so I elected to stay at 8,000 feet.

Radio reception was poor, and center’s secondary radar was out. Paul Ryan was still in the process of inventing Stormscope, so there was no way of finding out how the weather was developing. Not good. Regardless of a reasonable forecast, I was becoming more uncomfortable as I droned southwest in the thickening clag, wondering what might lie ahead.

The ride became progressively rougher, so I finally asked for 10,000 feet and started uphill just as I crossed into Missouri. Within a minute or two, I popped out into the clear at just over 9,000 feet. Straight ahead was a huge thunderstorm threatening to eat St. Louis. The cumulonimbus (CB) looked like an aberration of a nuclear explosion, a monster with a classic anvil shape stretching east and cloud-to-cloud lightning flashing throughout its middle levels. It took a 45-degree course correction to fly around the monster. If I hadn’t elected to climb….

Whether you’re test pilot and aerobatics aviator Bob Hoover, aerobatics extraordinaire Sean Tucker or a lesser pilot, thunderstorms are almost universally regarded as the great equalizers. No amount of experience or skill can overcome the violent forces inside a thunderstorm. Those few aviators who have survived a close encounter with a fully developed wooleybugger have done so more by luck than skill.





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