Flying, Learning, and Thunderstorms

The FSS flight specialist reported weather along our route with ceilings of 1,000 broken to overcast with tops about 12,000 feet. There was a chance of imbedded thunderstorms. It appeared as though the front was in the process of becoming stationary near Lake Okeechobee. He said that once we were past the Pahokee VOR, we would be in the clear. And of course, he ended the brief with the standard, “VFR is not recommended.”

“No problem,” I said into the phone receiver. “I’m rated and will file IFR.”  Of course, I did not tell him the ink on my instrument ticket was still wet. Really, wet.

His forecast was actually exciting for me; I planned on a professional flying career and I needed more actual time in my log. After telling me of the possibilities of turbulence along the route, I filed the route from Albert Whitted to Boca Raton. I would fly radar vectors to the Gibbs Intersection, and then along V97 into South Florida.

My passengers this day were three accountants who I will drop off for a couple of days of work on the other coast. They requested my return later to pick them up.

One of the passengers is in fact, a fellow CFI who worked part-time at the airport where I worked full-time. He took the right seat. The other two sat in back with their adding machines and rolls of tape and numbers. 

Steve, the other pilot, is as much a professional pilot as he is an accountant. He settled into the right seat with no assumptions and said, “I’ll back you up on the navigation and help out with the radios.”

“Sure,” I said tossing the mike his way. He was perfectly polite, but assertive enough for me to understand he did not want me flying any of us into the ground by accident.

Steve called ground and picked up our clearance. It was what we expected: cleared as filed, climb and maintain three thousand, expect five in ten, and the squawk.

By the time we leveled off at three thousand, the clerks in the back were happily crunching numbers on their adding machines. Steve and I hunkered down flying, navigating, and talking to departure. The outside world stayed gone most of the time as we flew through the inside of clouds.

Occasionally, we took a pretty good jolt, but for the most part, it was a fairly smooth ride. Approaching the Gibbs intersection, Tampa Departure gave us clearance to climb to five thousand. We broke through layers on the way up and after leveling off, we were pretty much in the clear—at first.

As we neared the area of the front, the cloud cover began increasing and we spent more time in the clouds than out. We also began being jolted a bit more by turbulence.

The bouncing did not seem too bad; I didn’t have much trouble keeping the airplane upright. From the backseat, the noise of the adding machines never let up—either the accountants had flown through worse, or they were hiding their fears in their work.

Right when I thought it was at its worse, we suddenly broke out into brilliant sunlight. I looked left over my shoulder, then over my right. What l saw was a classic textbook illustration of a stalled front. It really was an inspirational sight.

“Palm Beach Approach, 61 Mike is canceling instruments at this time.”  There no longer was a need to fly IFR and we could take miles off the route and 15 minutes off the time.

I felt good about the flight as I entered downwind. There was little traffic in the pattern and only light winds. Soon, I would be letting them out and drinking a cup of coffee as I filed for the flight home.

After the landing, Steve and I cleaned up the cockpit and the accountants in the back put away all their stuff. I turned off the taxiway toward the FBO and saw the lineman directing me in. He looked like he was ready to catch a possible fuel sale.

I noticed he was overly aggressive for trying to sell fuel. He was right up at the window before the prop even stopped. As I finished the shut down checklist, I looked out at him. When the prop did stop, he stepped forward with a piece of paper in his hand.

“Hey! The FAA called, described your airplane, and said for you to call this number before you even go to the bathroom.”

I don’t think I have the capacity to describe how I felt at that moment. I went over the entire flight in a half-heartbeat. I reviewed every vector, every heading, and every altitude assignment. I could not think of anything I might have done wrong to warrant a call to the FAA.

I looked at the number on the paper and then at the phone. I definitely had a sense of dread as I dialed the number. 

The phone began ringing and someone answered almost immediately. “Are you the pilot of 61 Mike?”

My sense of dread began to increase.

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Well, uh, … I, uh, I need to get a statement from you.”  He seemed preoccupied as he talked to me. Now I was really getting nervous. I started to stammer and carry on about not realizing I had made a mistake. He suddenly understood.

“Naw, you don’t understand. I need a statement about the weather.”  Now I was really confused and I think the controller sensed that. “There was a Piper twin at your altitude on your route ten minutes behind you. We think he ran into an imbedded thunderstorm or a tornado. He was torn apart in flight and spread across five square miles.” 

I was shocked. And silent. The controller gave me a moment to assimilate the information. “What I need is a statement regarding the weather you experienced in the area near Pahokee.”

My mind went back to Pahokee, to the moments just before breaking through the front.

“It was a little bumpy, but nothing too bad. I didn’t have any problems keeping the airplane upright and on altitude,” I said. I further described the conditions we flew through, reiterating the ride was not too bad—but then again, I wondered about the basis of my experience level to be reporting on the weather. Especially as relating to a fatal aircraft accident.

I felt funny; I felt bad about the pilot of the mishap aircraft, but at the same time, I had a sense of relief. I also thought that perhaps, I would wait for a bit before heading back. Maybe the weather would get better and the ride a little safer. 

One thing was for sure: I did not want to file IFR or fly in the clouds. As long as they were calling for a chance of thunderstorms with heavy cloud cover, I wanted to fly outside clouds where I could see the storms or tornadoes.

As I have told many students throughout my career, I may be slow, but I learn. And one thing was certain: if you do not have the ability to see storms by radar, or visually, you have no business flying in IMC.

In four decades of professional flying and teaching, I have lived by the rule of always being able to see thunderstorms. If you cannot see the storms by flying above the weather or below, or with radar (and stormscopes don’t count), then you should not be airborne. While I have lived by this creed, I have watched other pilots ignore it repeatedly.

I have also seen too many pilots die by breaking that rule.


©2011 J. Clark

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2 Responses to Flying, Learning, and Thunderstorms

  1. Harrison says:

    Good read, Joe. Mother Nature does not discriminate.

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