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. " />

The destructive forces associated with a thunderstorm include tornadoes, hail, wild updrafts and downdrafts, and even lightning, though the latter is, by far, the least dangerous of the four. Tornadoes are a formidable concern, but they’re relatively rare unless atmospheric conditions are just right. The greatest risk is from severe turbulence that can tear an airplane to pieces in a few seconds. Lightning, certainly the most spectacular manifestation of a thunderstorm’s power, is also the least likely to cause damage or injury. National Transportation Safety Board records suggest few airplanes have crashed as a direct result of lightning strikes, although many have been damaged.

It’s important to understand a little about thunderstorms before you try to analyze the best way to negotiate them. A combination of moisture, unstable air and heat, a thunderstorm is one of the most dramatic and changeable powers of nature, with at least three defined stages: youth, maturity and old age. Rod Machado’s Private Pilot Handbook provides all the detail you’ll ever need on the birth, maturity and death of a thunderstorm, so we’ll leave it to him to define the type in detail. For our purposes, a thunderstorm is simply the most violent force of nature you’re ever liable to encounter.

Certainly, the most simplistic advice regarding operation around thunderstorms is...don’t. That’s fine for the West Coast or the Northeast where nasty summer storms are rare, but it’s not a practical approach in other parts of the world. Severe weather is severe weather, no matter where you live, but much of the American Midwest must contend with thunderstorms on practically a daily basis for at least four months a year. From Texas and Louisiana to Minnesota and Wisconsin, June through August can be a turbulent, unstable period. For that reason, Midwestern pilots learn to make do with weather that the rest of us wouldn’t even consider.

No, that doesn’t mean aviators in Wichita, Kan., or Oklahoma City go charging off into conditions that most pilots would regard as unflyable. It does mean they have a stronger incentive to study thunderstorms extensively and try to arm themselves with knowledge.

Alex Unruh is a CFIIM with perhaps the ultimate teaching credential. He’s a senior instructor pilot with Cessna Aircraft Company in Independence, Kan. Unruh has spent most of his flying career in the Midwest, having instructed at the Aviation Division of Kansas State University in Salina before joining Cessna.


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