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. " />

Night flying around thunderstorms presents a whole new set of problems. It’s possible to operate adjacent to thunderstorms at night, but experience and equipment requirements increase exponentially. Pretty obviously, flying in the black with clouds about demands an instrument rating and the experience to know how to use it. If thunderstorm country is VFR-only in the daytime, it’s the same, only more so, at night.

A Stormscope or Strike Finder becomes almost mandatory if you’re to have any hope of circumnavigating thunderstorms. Radar also can be of some benefit, but most of the radar energy may be attenuated by the first line of storms, seducing a pilot into assuming that all is clear on the other side of the forward squall line.

Stormscope and Strike Finder track electrical discharges generated by air masses moving against each other in the surrounding airspace (not just lightning flashes), and that can be invaluable for sensing turbulence and instability in thunderstorm country. Most pilots experienced in the use of both systems prefer Stormscope over radar. Obviously, the best of all worlds (for those who can afford it) is both.

Perhaps the most accurate real-time information regarding the surrounding weather is available through the recent proliferation of uplink products, from NEXRAD to XM. These allow a pilot to see updated depictions of dangerous weather as often as every six minutes. Contrary to what many pilots believe, it's sometimes possible to fly in the vicinity of thunderstorms, but only when conditions are right, the airplane is properly equipped and the pilot is smart enough to just say no if that becomes the only reasonable option.


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