A long cross country (and a thunderstorm) teach some valuable lessons

New pilots: do you want to know how to learn a lot about flying in a short period of time? Plan a long cross country flight… I mean, a really long one. When I decided to fly my “new” ’63 Cherokee 180 most of the way across the U.S. to my summer vacation destination, at first I didn’t realize how valuable the lessons learned along the way would be. I would learn how to plan my flight segments to match my fuel range, how to cope with strange new airports, how to work with “flight following,” how to traverse unfamiliar Class B and C airspace, and how insignificant you and your airplane are when faced with towering cumulonimbus.

When I announced to my girlfriend and the kids that I was going to fly myself from Phoenix to Detroit for our summer vacation, I asked who wanted to tag along. I couldn’t imagine anyone would turn down such an opportunity for adventure, so I anticipated I’d have difficult decisions: who would accompany me and who would have to endure the long security lines at the airport and a boring commercial flight? Well, contrary to my expectations, they all opted to fly the airlines. “That’s ok, I’ll have a great time by myself,” I thought, unable to understand how they would make such a choice. In hindsight, though, it was better that I did this adventure on my own. I had a lot to learn… lessons better learned on my own, without distractions.

Stratus picture on ForeFlight
It’s almost like cheating.

As a newcomer to the ForeFlight EFB (Electronic Flight Bag) on my iPad, planning a trip across much of the U.S. meant total immersion in the software and the inevitable acquisition of a Stratus GPS/ADS-B receiver. Having learned to fly in the mid-80s, but having only recently returned to the hobby, the cockpit electronics scenario was all new to me. It seemed almost like cheating – no more paper maps to wrestle, and now I knew precisely where I was on the map, I had automatic distance, speed and fuel burn calculations, onboard weather, and many other features which made my job easier and, frankly, more enjoyable.

I was particularly excited about the onboard weather, which is a feature available if you have ADS-B data capability. The weather picture overlaid on my electronic chart gave me a sense of courage I’d never previously experienced as a VFR pilot. Now when I saw weather ahead, I’d have a far better picture of what I was up against. This was nice, because I’d always been ultra-conservative about weather and had often not pressed on in situations where it truly would have been safe to do so.

Early on an Arizona summer morning, after much preparation, a little nervousness, and a lot of anticipation, I eased the throttle forward and embarked upon my first “real” cross country. As the Southwest desert began to heat up during my eastbound cruise at 7,500 feet, I bumped up against some growing summer storms across New Mexico – typical for us in the Southwest (I’d seen them many times). Center pointed out the weather to me and recommended I make some minor course changes to avoid the young and growing thunder cells. The radar picture displayed on my iPad agreed with what I was seeing out in front of me – I was enjoying having such a source of weather information.

Rainbow from cockpit
The views are spectacular, as long as you give those dark clouds a wide berth.

Hours later, I used my new onboard weather to circumnavigate a massive 100 mile line of thunder cells hovering near Kansas City. Climbing to 11,500 feet, eking about as much altitude out of the Cherokee 180 as I could, I got up close to some towering clouds. No turbulence, no issues, just some breathtaking scenery and some great videos on my phone to prove it. It was a beautiful sight. I was getting comfortable flying close to, but staying clear of, some serious weather. This onboard weather stuff was really paying off!

A while later, compared to what I’d already been through, I came upon what looked like benign rainstorms. “These look easy! No way are these anywhere close to being as powerful as what I saw a while ago… it’ll be easy to slip through that wide gap right there in front of me… there’s got to be about 5-7 miles in between those cells, so I’ll be at least a couple miles from each of them.”

Never could a pilot be so wrong as I was, the moment I decided to fly in between those two cells. About halfway through, it felt as if my trusty Cherokee had become a paper airplane, and the weather gods decided to give me a toss downwards. My head hit the headliner a couple times while the altimeter began to aggressively and sporadically unwind. It felt as if my already-snug lap belt could not be tight enough. Why hadn’t I installed shoulder harnesses like I’d planned? I had not ever experienced such turbulence. My initial and appropriate response was to reduce power, remain under maneuvering speed (Va), and point the nose towards the best path out of there. What seemed like ten minutes was probably only a couple, but it frightened me terribly.

clouds from Cherokee cockpit
We’ll just slide past those buildups, right?

Once I was able to elude the overwhelming punishment dealt to me, I found the next viable fuel stop and made a beeline for that airport. After a careful inspection, I concluded there was no damage to the airplane. However, there was clearly some bruising to my ego and a newly found sense of humility. Thank goodness my girlfriend or my kids weren’t with me – there’s no doubt that after this experience, they would have thought twice about going flying with me again.

As a software industry veteran, I’ve developed the habit of doing a “post-mortem” to examine my experiences and to look for lessons learned. So, not long after nearly soiling my britches, I sat in silence, and began to contemplate the sequence of events.

What had happened to me? Well, it was pretty obvious that I had developed a level of comfort for threatening weather. Having a live weather picture in front of me gave me a false sense of confidence that I could skim fairly close to towering cumulus and pick my way around the stuff without any consequences. My new technology had given me a degree of courage which I had no business having. I’d begun to lose the healthy fear for such weather that was ingrained in me over the years by CFIs, my father (who is a well-seasoned pilot), and the multitude of aviation articles and accident reports I’d read.

I had allowed this new sense of courage to overrule my respect for weather. I did not expect what looked like a heavy rainstorm to reach out so far from its center, delivering such unstable air and shaking me silly. Remember, I was about two or three miles from the storm. At my level of inexperience, I couldn’t imagine that would have been much of an issue – after all, I had been much closer to a far more ominous storm back near Kansas City. I found out, though, that a thunderstorm can reach out quite a ways from its center.

Cherokee on ramp
Sometimes the best place to see storms is from the ground.

The FAASTeam’s Thunderstorms – Don’t Flirt … Skirt ‘Em safety publication suggests never going closer than 5 miles from a thunderstorm, and that you’re better off to keep a safe distance of at least 20 miles. It explains that a thunderstorm can produce hail and turbulence anywhere within 20 miles of a strong storm. The severity of a thunderstorm is a function of its maturity, and in a fully mature state, the thunderstorm can produce “…the most violent weather hazards that a pilot will ever encounter.”

Yeah, I read these types of things in the past, but until I got just a little taste of it on my own, I was thinking something along the lines of “that’ll never happen to me.” I even remember thinking that those articles are ultra-conservative, and that I could certainly push the limits a bit and not worry about it. I clearly had the wrong viewpoint in this case.

I finished out my long cross country trip with a new level of respect for weather, and also learned how to cope with a wide range of flight conditions. I became comfortable flying into unknown airspace and airports. I learned how to prepare for various phases of flight on short notice, getting what I needed quickly from my EFB at any point along the way. I became proficient in talking to the helpful ARTCC controllers as they followed me across the U.S.

It’s an exhilarating feeling for a pilot of lesser experience to build confidence flying into situations for which you may not have been fully prepared. If you’ve not had the experience, you’ll find that planning and executing a long cross country through unfamiliar territory will give you the opportunity to integrate a lot of new learning into a fun and exciting trip. So, get out there, plan your trip, and open up the opportunities to learn more!

3 Comments

  • Steve,

    Nice story, thanks.

    I had a similar experience when I purchased my Cherokee, after having been a licensed pilot for over three decades despite having fewer than 80 hours in my logbook. I bought the airplane out of state (in north Georgia), after doing the obligatory 1 hour check ride with a CFI to satisfy the insurance company, early the next morning I began what was supposed to be a 2-day, 1,150 mile ferry trip out to its new home in Albuquerque, NM. My longest cross country flight prior to then was my required solo cross country for the private ticket three decades earlier. I too learned an awful lot on that first long cross country!

    One thing I learned was that crop dusters (whom I’d never encountered before in my flying) often don’t use their radios, and they also tend to take off and land in opposite directions to save time taxiing. I found that out when I landed for fuel at an airport in Indianola, MS where during my takeoff roll I found myself hurtling headlong towards a crop duster coming the opposite direction towards me on his takeoff roll! I had made all the required radio calls for my intentions at this uncontrolled airport, but it didn’t matter.

    I also learned that other pilots don’t necessarily follow the published rules when it comes to altering course to avoid head-on traffic! Fortunately I waited just long enough in my takeoff roll to see that the oncoming cropduster banked hard to his LEFT, so I did the same as he and we passed each other maybe 50 or 60 feet apart somewhere near the center of the runway! I am thankful that I did not follow “the book” on right of way myself or neither one of us pilots would have survived that takeoff.

    Like you, I also had the benefit of cockpit weather on that trip, and it gave me the ability to see well beyond the nearest visible line of T-storms. I was forced to stop a little sooner than I planned, in Texarkana, AR, where I had to wait out a slow-moving west-to-east moving frontal system for another whole day before finishing my planned trip in New Mexico.

    There’s nothing quite like a long cross country flight to take a pilot out of his or her comfort zone, experience new stuff, and learn new things about flying. You learned that “the book” should be respected when it comes to avoiding T-storms. I learned that “the book” doesn’t always apply to every situation.

  • Good story. My first long cross-country in the trusty ’66 Skyhawk was from Rochester, MN to San Antonio, TX, with not much more than 100 hours total and maybe 25 in the Cessna. My wife insisted that I make the trip with an instructor, so I signed up a young CFI glad to add the hours to his own logbook. Similarly, I experienced many new airports, overflight of major commercial and military airfields, an overnight forced by a developing squall line, decreasing ceilings, Big Bumps, and an aborted takeoff. By the time I got home, my confidence– and knowledge– was greatly improved, and other long trips were pleasantly anticipated challenges. Oh, and I sent the CFI home commercial from San Antonio, and made the rest of the trip solo. I agree with Steve and Duane: young pilots should make a long, and if needed, supervised, long solo as part of their early flight experiences. I have known VFR pilots trained at uncontrolled airports who were afraid to venture out more than 50 miles or land at a controlled airport, sad limitations.

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