Friday, July 2, 2010

The Thunderstorm and the Pope

I read with interest and great sadness the report on AOPA's website ( of a Piper Apache that broke up in a thunderstorm. The pilot was an airline captain with thousands of hours flying his newly purchased private plane home with his 200+ hour son.

The author of the article mentioned the differences between flying a passenger jet around thunderstorms and a low-powered, normally aspirated twin, in terms of power and equipment. No doubt the pilot was more confident at the outset than what was good for them; an over confidence that has dealt with high-time jocks of many stripes. When the poor Apache rained from the sky in pieces, the monster of the skies had its fill, taking a father and his son with it proving that time in the cockpit is no guarantee who makes it out alive or not.

I can understand if a pilot is caught unawares by clear air turbulence but deliberately flying in and around severe thunderstorms shouldn't break up your ride, in my (not always) humble opinion. When I was much younger and less prudent, a few times I would deliberately fly into a thunderstorm to see what's inside. Curiosity didn't get this cat, by the grace of God. Curiosity wasn't the only motivating force, either. The rough air maneuvering speed of a light aircraft seemed awfully high to me, ordinarily just less than twice the stall speed. Which means going into rough weather at, roughly, 130 mph in an Apache. That speed already makes for a stiff ride, which means a 50fps gust would give the pilot and pax a serious jolt and even perhaps injury. With two engines hanging onto the wings to boot, I'd hate to subject the airframe to those stresses.

My first CB experience happened in a single Comanche with 250 hp. I flew along a squall line trying to either go around it or find a hole through which I could sneak. When I realized it was no use, I thought I'd poke my nose into its white fluffy side and peak inside.

The Comanche's rough air speed was 138 mph, if I remember correctly, which didn't appeal to me at all, so I slowed down to 90 mph, kept the wheels inside with no flaps. I figured I can recover from a stall but I cannot grab the wing as it goes by.

The results were instantaneous and very educational to say the least. One thing that I instinctively knew was not to fight the controls but make small control inputs and stay aware of the aircraft's (unusual) situation rather than try to fly straight and level. Even pointing the nose down till the AH would almost be brown all over at 90 mph IAS, still produced 6,000 fpm plus ascents. And when the Comanche went through the updraft column and hit the adjacent down draft, it was the same with the nose as high and power as much as I could and it would still dump me down at 6,000 fpm descents.

Until the ascents won and coughed me up in perfectly calm and clear air at around 14,000' there wasn't much else to do but ride the beast. I ended up not on the other side of the squall line, but back where I came from. I can see that it will easily kill one by either throwing the plane against the ground or rise above one's oxygen level, pass out, and then lose control completely. Without hail, the airframe shouldn't break.

That flight into severe weather taught me valuable lessons, which proved later to have saved my life. For one, to stay out of these suckers.

Once I got sucked into a thunderstorm at night flying below cloud in West Africa. Terrain flat, elevation not more than 3,000' with no cloud below 8,500' made for a pitch dark night VFR flight of about 1.5 hours. About 45 minutes into the flight things suddenly went wild, which I immediately recognized and flew the Seneca II through the storm yo-yoing up and down between 7,000 and 12,000' before gaining more moderate skies.

Incidentally, I had a hitch hiker with me as my sole passenger. It happened sometimes that folks needing a ride would sit in the control tower and listen to where folks are headed and then ask if they have a seat open. It so happened that I picked this guy up for a ride to my destination. It was a blessing that he was in the Seneca, because I didn't know that the Seneca's pax seats are clip-ons and during our roller coaster part of the flight some of the seats became adrift. He was very helpful in keeping them behind the cockpit. I guess we exceeded the "clip-limit" of the seats.

When we landed he bowed down and Pope-like kissed the ground and said he will never, ever get into one of these again. Eh. Lost one for general aviation, I suppose.

But, I gained one for GA at another occasion. A brand new Mooney 231 was in South Africa (perhaps the first one) and the owner wanted me to fly it from Lanseria to Wonderboom for reasons I cannot recall any longer. I had to ferry it back to Lanseria that night.

A business associate was at Wonderboom when I had to fly it back and I invited him along. Having never been in an airplane before, he flatly refused and especially not at night. My car was at Lanseria, so I promised to bring him back to his car. After a lot of people employed mob-tactics on him, he relented but said he wanted to get his briefcase in the trunk of his car. He didn't see me following him a few minutes later to his car (I truly thought he was going to bolt) and I saw him writing his last will and testament in his notebook in the light of the trunk's light. I knew I shouldn't laugh at him so I said I did the same before I got into a plane the first time, too. :-)

We had a wonderful flight taking a few turns over Johannesburg and he marveled at the beauty of the city at night and the stillness of the air. I must admit, the air was especially silky smooth. He later took up flying and became a very passionate commercial pilot. So, I guess the Seneca's mess was redeemed by the Mooney's perfect flight.

I got to get back to work.



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Seeking the truth until I find it.