My encounter with a thunder cloud

It was the end of August 1981.

Mazzei in front of 337
Ready to blast off from Miami – next stop Brazil.

I was returning from my journey to the United States. Due to a general FAA controllers’ strike in that month’s first days, I couldn’t fly to that year’s EAA convention in Oshkosh. So I left my plane (a 1968 Cessna Skymaster, PT-BBQ) in the hands of Red Aircraft, Fort Lauderdale, to install new equipment. I rented a car and drove to Oshkosh. After Oshkosh and the strike’s end, I flew with my friends all over United States with a Braniff full pass.

My new equipment was installed and everything checked so on August 24, I flew to Tamiami airport (KTMB) for a weather briefing along my returning route. I wanted to stay two weeks more in United States, but was advised that a strong tropical storm would be forming in the next two weeks with a possibility to transform in hurricane – later Hurricane Emily. My only options were IFR flights if I departed within the next two days.

Miami to Brazil map
A long flight in a 337, made harder by a developing hurricane.

I made a final flight check in KFLL and took off on August 26 at 6:00 am in heavy rain. Stopped for fuel in MBGT (Grand Turk Island). I arrived in TIST (Saint Thomas) after 07:40 hours of IFR flight that day. The following day, I flew to TTPP (Piarco) with a stop in TKPL (Santa Lucia).

After a good night’s rest, I wanted to sightsee in Trinidad and Tobago, but was advised that all departures and arrivals would be suspended by 12:00 local time (16:00 UTC) due to a severe tropical storm expected at that airport. My accepted flight plan was IFR at FL130 direct to SBBV (Boa Vista, Brazil). Therefore, at 15:50 UTC, I took off with a friend as a companion after we lashed all our suitcases and miscellaneous things in the rear seats.

Straight away I was in solid IFR. I leveled at FL130 still in clear clouds, but no turbulence using oxygen. After the first hour, my friend asked if I could take a photo of him using an oxygen mask. So I did (see right). Within a few seconds of that photo, my plane entered a pitch dark cloud. Instinctively I took three rapid steps: reduced velocity below VA; turned on the instrument and panel lights; and put the oxygen valve on full demand.

Pilot with oxygen mask on.
So far so good. Until it wasn’t.

Soon hell’s doors were open.

We were in severe turbulence which had the shock-mount panel in a blur. I tried to maintain my plane in level flight and nose attitude with minimum use of control despite the ups and downs and managed ailerons to wings level with crisp movements. The stall warning horn sounded three or four times in this violent roller coaster. Sounds outside were deafening. No engine sound. I knew that my engine was still running looking at the blurred engine instruments.

Suddenly the turbulence ceased and a steady updraft of over 8,000 feet/minute began. My plane was ascending fast inside the TC. And soon I was simply out of that cumulus. I glanced at the altimeter, which was indicating 23,000 feet. The plane couldn’t sustain that altitude and began a slow descent in clear air.

Thunderstorm cloud
What did we just fly through?

Looking ahead, I saw three more TCs above solid overcast in my path. I tried to contact Venezuelan air traffic control to inform them that I was now at FL150 above overcast. But in vain. So I continued on at FL150 in clear air, barely above the overcast, making a detour of TCs ahead. Finally near the Brazilian border, I made radio contact with Brazilian ATC and returned to FL 130 knowing now that the TCs were behind. I made a successful approach to SBBV.

After a complete aircraft checkup, no damage was found. How did we survive this encounter? I think by my rapid actions before the turbulence arrived. I concentrated on flying the plane without any distractions. I used a VA of 120 mph, well below the published 155mph in the Cessna 337 manual.

I didn’t try to maintain an altitude; rather I let the altitude change with the elements. Only ailerons were used vigorously. My plane stalled three or four times without any structural damages.

3 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing this eye opening event.

    Very few are fortunate to fly into a thunderstorm and live to tell the story.
    Every instrument rating student has to hear and accept my warning : Never fly into/ in the vicinity of a thunderstorm or between thunderstorms,you get the rating only to learn how to survive by staying clear.
    Very glad you made it, I hope the acquired knowledge kept you out of harms way the rest of your flying carer.

    Fly safe !!!!!!

  • Good story, Fernao. Yes, I can empathize with you. I know what it’s like – that helpless feeling when you’re sitting in a twin, throttles closed, gear down, nose down, and the VSI pegged at maximum rate of ascent. You’re just along for the ride at that point, huh? Glad you made it. I don’t intend to get trapped again either.

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