Thunderstorm at night
5 min read

“This should be a fast trip home,” I said to my three passengers. The twin-engine Navajo had reached 9000 feet crossing the western shore of Lake Michigan and was picking up a healthy tailwind. We had departed Green Bay, Wisconsin, 15 minutes earlier. Our groundspeed was 225 knots, which meant landing at Toronto Buttonville in only 90 minutes, and we were all happy about that. After a beautiful day amongst the 12,000 airplanes of the world’s largest air show at Oshkosh, it would be good to get home. Ahead the horizon was hazy in the late afternoon sun.

Charlie was beside me in the cockpit taking it all in and asking the occasional question. Ted and Wendy were in the back talking with their headsets off. I was looking at the Nexrad weather display on the two Garmin GPS units in the panel of C-GVIM and becoming quietly worried.


Looking for a hole.

As we crossed into Michigan, the satellite downlink picture beyond Lake Huron showed an irregular line of large thunderstorms stretching on a 35 degree angle from right to left across our path. A cold front had stalled over southern Ontario. There was a sigmet broadcast out for hazardous weather. I had been warned about scattered thunderstorms across Ontario leaving Green Bay but this looked more than scattered and I could not tell if there was a gap at least 50 miles wide for us to go through. Our destination weather was good for VFR with no severe weather forecast so it was safe to continue – for now.

Approaching Saginaw, we began to see huge pink thunderclouds ahead and to the right. They were the storms shown on the Garmins and they were still 200 miles away. A cloud layer appeared in front of us and I requested a climb to 11,000 feet and had everyone put on oxygen cannulas. Even though we had the satellite radar and a Stormscope which displays lightning, I wanted to be able to see any vertical clouds and not fly into an embedded area.

Once we had been handed off to Toronto Centre over Lake Huron it was time to develop a plan.

“Toronto, Victor India Mike we’re wondering about a route into Toronto, do you see a way we could deviate south via London and work our way in?”

“Victor India Mike I’m looking at that sir and I think your best bet is to head north by Midland then across Lake Simcoe, there seems to be room there. I’m now showing more weather near Brantford even if you got past London.”

“OK that looks good from here too, we’ll go direct to Midland.” 

As the sun sank behind us, the Navajo rolled twenty degrees left to track the Midland VOR. The Ontario farmland turned dark below. The storms grew nearer on our right and lightning pulsed inside the clouds. The towering cumulonimbus clouds changed from orange to grey-blue. All very beautiful, but I couldn’t enjoy sharing the sky with something terrible that would tear my airplane to pieces. It was like gazing through the glass of the shark tank at a seaquarium. You marvel at the aquiline majesty of the sharks but you know they are killing machines. You stand inches away from them as they slide past and feel very cold inside.

Wendy was beside me in the cockpit now working the storm track feature on the GPS. Ted said that there sure were a lot of red returns on the map display. The biggest storms were crawling northwest with us so we had to swing farther east over Georgian Bay, north of Midland. Airline flights arriving to Toronto were negotiating routes through the buildups with controllers. You could hear the edge in the voices of the crews on the radio. The centre was great with us; they called the storms as they saw them on their screens and said we could turn south whenever we were able.

Thunderstorm at night

Thunderstorms at night are beautiful – and frightening.

It was dark everywhere now and there was continual fork lightning spitting out of the clouds. At 7000 feet our destination was sliding by our right wingtip 70 miles south but we could not turn yet. We were past Lake Simcoe still heading east. The Navajo was in and out of clouds and now on the display a new red and yellow return appeared 40 miles off the nose and we could see lightning directly ahead. Did we have a safe gap between the new storm and the monster to the south? I began a gradual right turn.

We descended through 5000 feet and felt some strong bumps in the clouds but at 4000 feet we were in clear air. The lights of Lindsay slid by on our right and finally I could advise the centre we were proceeding direct Buttonville. The new heading was the exact reciprocal heading we had held crossing Lake Huron, and our 30 knot tailwind was now a headwind. We saw Rice Lake in the darkness below and someone in the back cracked we had crossed more lakes than land on this trip. The big weather was to the north of us now.

There had been no rain at Buttonville and we made a visual approach to landing. Taxiing in we saw the northern sky was still flashing. My passengers said their goodbyes and thank you’s on the ramp, and I sat inside the plane packing cannulas, charts and headsets away. I filled out the journey log by flashlight and noted that the flight from Green Bay had taken 2:30 instead of 1:50. I guess we call these quality miles. There was no one on the ramp when I locked the doors and placed the pitot covers on. Walking through the gate I could hear the distant thunder and I looked back at the Navajo sitting alone and still in the dark.

Colin Brown
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3 replies
    LARRY BAUM says:

    Wonderfully written! I too have had some circuitous adventures back from AirVenture to the Northeast US, much of it over southern Canada. “Quality miles” — very nice!

  2. Steve S
    Steve S says:

    Good write up and very interesting. Good or bad we face this stuff all the time, if one lives west of the continental divide, especially in the Southeast.

    You didn’t say what day you left OSH, but latter in the week, Thur/Fri/Sat there was quite a bit of activity and some IFR weather. Fortunately, very little of it was severe, and not fast moving, and could be circumnavigated. There were a few cells that one did not want to get near and I’m sure packed a punch.

    Did you have on board radar, and did you consider staying low, with the idea that if things lined up you’d be in the clouds anyway at 11? Often the ride at ~3 or 5 is better than at 11, if you end up in cloud. How high were your bases? Something visual beneath works well, too.

    When I left on Fri it was MVFR but elected to forego my IFR reservation and go VFR below, only going to Chicago. Over the lake was pretty void of any activity and that was a good out, but didn’t need it. Using XM and ADSB was enough to avoid the rain, but the radar was a nice back up. And little to no activity on the SS was comforting. It was smooth the whole way.

    However, after arrival in Chicago, the weather gradually got a LOT worse with lines of cells that would be hard to work around.

    When I had my Navajo, I did occasionally take it up to ~18 to 22 to get a better look at big cells and that worked well IF they were not grouped together or in a line.

    Very nice write up.. thx.

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