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When Thunderstorm Planning Fails

A simple trip home in a rented Beech Baron turns into an epic mission.

When Thunderstorm Planning Fails
Art by Barry Ross

My husband, Dave, and I are both pilots and had been renting an aging but sturdy twin-engine Beech Baron 55. On a summer visit to his family’s condo at Lake Lure, North Carolina, the forecast was clear the whole weekend. However, a good pilot knows that unexpected weather can pop up any time. So, we weren’t surprised when our return trip forecasted thunderstorms, so we left early to stay ahead of the weather. Our pre-flight weather confirmed a front was moving up from the southwest, but we were confident that we’d get home before the front moved in.

We waved our goodbyes, picked up our IFR clearance and departed Rutherford County Airport in Rutherfordton straight into a beautiful twin rainbow. A good omen, I thought. Behind us, the sky was filled with those dense clouds that spring up most summer afternoons. Nothing to be concerned about, though, since they were behind us. Soon we were cruising at 9,000 feet MSL above a thin, blue-gray layer. For the first few miles, we experienced a light chop, but then the air began to get bumpier. Looking south, we could see white towers billowing up through the haze, like beautiful airborne icebergs. Beautiful, yes, but we knew they housed sharp vertical drafts, which could wreak havoc on any aircraft.

My husband pressed the push-to-talk on the yoke. “Charlotte Center, Baron 2-7 Bravo Alpha, request.” 

At the Charlotte controller’s response, my husband asked for a higher altitude. Charlotte approved, and we climbed to 11,000. Our climb took us into smoother air, and we cruised there for a while, moving in and around smaller buildups. But we also observed the developing storm. 

“It’s moving faster than forecasted,” my husband said, almost to himself. As a charter pilot with thousands of hours in jets and twin-turbines, he is used to flying in weather. However, he is also a cautious pilot. “We’ll just go back,” he said after a moment. “Charlotte Center, need vectors back to Rutherfordton airport.”

“Baron 2-7 Bravo Alpha. Be advised, Rutherfordton is below minimums with thunderstorms.”

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Dave drew in a breath and acknowledged Charlotte. “Below minimums? Already? So much for Plan B.” He went to the plane’s multi-function display to look for an airport. “Let’s see if we can set down somewhere and wait this out.”

I had my North Carolina Sectional in my lap and was looking for the same thing. I said, “There are a couple small strips down there. Or we could try for Greensboro.”

My husband was quiet for a second, then said, “I don’t want to go to an uncontrolled strip with this low visibility. Besides, looks like everything to the north is socked in too.” Again, he was quiet. “I think maybe we can weave our way through this up here,” he said, pointing to a green area on the radar screen, “and get ahead of it.”

I must have looked apprehensive. He smiled, “We go through stuff like this all the time.” Again, he contacted Charlotte. “2-7 Bravo Alpha, request.” After a few seconds, the controller responded. Dave asked for “a course change 15 degrees north; will try and get through. Have radar.” 

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The Center controller said, “Acknowledge, 2-7 Bravo Alpha. Turn heading 040; expect vectors.”

“Thanks, Center,” Dave said. 

We put away loose items, expecting a rough ride. I adjusted the radar to a 40-mile range, giving us a better picture. The storm was everywhere. I just said, “Dave.”

“Yes, I know. Nothing to do but keep going,” he said in a sober voice. 

Charlotte gave us another turn to the North, skirting a huge, black tower; once around it, the controller turned us more to the East. This Sunday afternoon, Center was busy redirecting a lot of planes around the storm. 

There was another large thunderhead in our path. “Charlotte, 2-7 Bravo Alpha, request turn 20 degrees to the North.”

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“2-7 Bravo Alpha, approved.” The controller responded curtly. We listened as he gave course changes to three other planes and then came back. “2-7 Bravo Alpha, report deviations as needed. Direct Person County, when able.” 

For the next few minutes, Dave, with the occasional direction of the Charlotte controller, steered the twin around the buildups. Charlotte finally handed us off to Washington Center, which meant we were halfway home. 

“Washington Center, 2-7 Bravo Alpha, with you at 1-1-0.” But just then, a downdraft dropped the Baron several hundred feet. It had me grabbing for the seat edge. “Make that 10,500,” he said to no one in particular. Pressing the talk button again, “Center. 2-7 Bravo Alpha, request?”

The Washington controller responded with her calming voice, “2-7 Bravo Alpha, go ahead.”

“Center, request vectors around weather,” said Dave as he climbed back to 11,000. The controller smoothly gave us one course correction after another. If possible, it got even more turbulent. Lightning ominously stabbed out from a boiling, greenish sky—some going down to the ground, some jumping to another cloud. One bolt crossed right in front of our plane’s nose. Despite the violent ride, my husband handled the plane skillfully. “We’ll get through this. Don’t worry.” I could tell he was trying to show a confident face for my benefit. As a low-time VFR pilot, I trusted his years of experience. We skirted around a nasty thunderhead and broke into slightly calmer air. It was still raining and dark, but it was clearly smoother and with fewer buildups.

“Looking south, we could see white towers billowing up through the haze, like beautiful airborne icebergs. Beautiful, yes, but we knew they housed sharp vertical drafts, which could wreak havoc on any aircraft.”

As we listened to weather on Raleigh ATIS, Dave made another change in our plans. “We’re going to RDU. I don’t want to chance Person County.” The small airport, where the Baron was based, had only one ILS-precision approach—Runway 06, which meant we’d be landing with a strong tailwind. And with low ceilings, we weren’t going do a visual to Runway 2-4. On the other hand, RDU’s two main runways had four ILS approaches, providing pilots with more options. 

“Washington Center, 2-7 Bravo Alpha, request,” Dave repeated for nearly the 100th time.

“2-7 Bravo Alpha, go ahead.”

“2-7 Bravo Alpha, need to amend flight plan for RDU.”

“One moment,” said the voice. When she came back, she gave the approach frequency and heading for the Buzzy Six Arrival, one of the Southwestern approaches to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Just before she handed us over to Raleigh Approach, she said, “Good luck, 2-7 Bravo Alpha.”

“Thanks for the help, Washington,” Dave said. He then dialed in 128.3. 

“Raleigh Approach, Baron 2-7 Bravo Alpha, with you at 1-1-0, have ATIS,” indicating we were aware of RDU weather. We could hear that approach was busy bringing in planes, so we expected a delay with its response.

“2-7 Bravo Alpha,” Raleigh Approach finally said after a few minutes, “cleared direct Buzzy intersection, then 057 degrees; descend to 7,000.” Then she responded to several other calls. The rain was pounding the windshield as we sunk into the cloud layer. When we were nearing the airport, RDU Approach put us into a series of controlled turns and descents as she guided us around for the 2-3R approach. We heard two aircraft land without problems, but they were airliners; they could land in almost anything. 

Finally, we were handed off to the Raleigh Tower for landing. “2-7 Bravo Alpha, cleared to land, 2-3 right; winds at 212, 25; gusting to 30.” 

Dave acknowledged. There was no need to say any more unless we had to do a go-around. 

“Dave drew in a breath and acknowledged Charlotte. ‘Below minimums? Already? So much for Plan B.’ He went to the plane’s multi-function display to look for an airport. ‘Let’s see if we can set down somewhere and wait this out.’”

I called out the final items on the landing checklist and was thinking, “A bit of good news. The winds are almost right down the runway.” But the ceiling was low—350 AGL. We had a 300-foot AGL decision height. If we didn’t see a visual reference before then, we’d have to do a missed approach. What plan would we be on then…plan D or E?

Finally, we heard the loud beep-beep-beep as we passed over the outer marker. 

On the parallel runway, we heard an Aztec report “no joy,” and the Tower gave it vectors to re-enter the pattern. 

“Call out if you see the ground,” Dave said.

I hadn’t said much for most of the way, except to read checklist items and monitor instruments. I was straining to see anything through the rain while monitoring our altitude: 2,000…1,200…900…400…

Then there they were—the rabbit lights scurrying their way to the runway. “I have them, I have the lights,” I said excitedly. The low ceiling still obscured the runway, but it was all we needed to get down.

“I have them, too,” Dave said calmly.

 “I called out the final items on the landing checklist and was thinking, ‘A bit of good news. The winds are almost right down the runway.’ But the ceiling was low—350 AGL. We had a 300-foot AGL decision height.”

The Baron broke out of the overcast with a couple hundred feet to spare. When the wheels squeaked onto the wet runway, I let out a shaky sigh. I was trembling with relief.

We steered onto the first available taxiway, contacted ground control, and, with clearance, taxied to the parking area. As we climbed out into a driving rain, a familiar lineman, who serviced Dave’s jets, met us with a huge grin and a large umbrella.

“Hi guys,” he said, laughing. “Fun ride?”

As we ran to the FBO building through the rain, the two guys began laughing. Inside, dripping wet, I looked at the two of them but finally saw the humor. Celebrate any victory when you can. Pilots know that all too often, Mother Nature wins—so no matter how many contingency plans you’ve got, you might always need another. On this flight, we got all the way to “E.”

Read “Long-Distance Weather Planning For Personal Flying”“We All Need To Be Weather Geeks Now”, and Plane Facts: Thunderstorms to read more weather-related stories.  

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