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. " />

These days, Unruh’s job is teaching transitioning pilots and owners to deal with the Garmin G1000 and other systems in Cessna’s hot-selling Skyhawk, Skylane and 206 Stationair. He also teaches other instructors in the Cessna FAA Industry Training Standards Accepted Training program.

“Most of my rules for operating around thunderstorms are just common sense,” says Unruh. “I wouldn’t consider IFR flight near CB activity, so if we can’t stay VFR, we don’t go. When we do fly, we use flight following religiously so we can get the help of a controller with a radar screen. An approach or center controller has ready access to the big picture and can see how things are developing along your proposed course.

“Sometimes, it’s possible to fly beneath a thunderstorm, but only if there’s plenty of clearance underneath, the storm isn’t too large, and there’s no rain or virga coming out the bottom,” adds Unruh. “Hail sometimes hides in virga, and by definition, there will nearly always be significant downdrafts in the rain shafts.”

Cessna’s senior instructor pilot says it’s possible to fly most days during thunderstorm season, as long as you’re willing not to. “We like to get our flying done early in the day whenever possible, usually before noon. Independence is right in the center of Tornado Alley, so we’re always on the lookout for severe weather developing during the summer afternoons, and we stay out of any storm cell, no matter how small the cell or how big our airplane.”

Unruh has the right idea. No matter what the size of your airplane is, there’s no consistently safe way to fly through a thunderstorm. That leaves under, over or around. Operating underneath a CB usually isn’t wise because of the chance of encountering hail. Even a light hailstorm can do considerable damage to a typical general aviation aircraft, especially if cruise speed is over 170 knots.

Thirty years ago, while flying from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Lock Haven, Pa., in a new Navajo Chieftain, I crossed the Rockies and came up against a solid line of thunderstorms I was told stretched at least 100 nm north and south of Colorado Springs, Colo. I saw what I thought was a light spot in the rain beneath one of them, tried to cross at about 3,000 feet AGL and was rewarded with a staccato, machine-gun assault of hail. I reduced power and reversed course, but it was too late. I came away with a seriously pockmarked wing and stabilizer. Typical of its kind, the tough Navajo still flew fine, and I continued to Lock Haven, happy that the airplane was insured.


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