Caught in a thunderstorm

I have several cardinal rules of flying: Don’t fly in freezing clouds, don’t fly IFR in the mountains, don’t fly with less than one hour of usable fuel in the tanks, and don’t fly in thunderstorms. I have been conscientious about following these rules in my years of flying.

Until one day over Pennsylvania.

Grumman
Grummans have a reputation for being tough airplanes. This one would be tested.

I was returning to 6B6 in Stow, Massachusetts, after several days at the American Yankee Association convention in Blue Ash, Ohio, the annual gathering of Grumman American aircraft from all over North America. After a morning of intense, and exhilarating, formation flying with some Grumman “hotshots” I reviewed the radar charts and forecasts. They suggested that the route east to Parkersburg, then northeast to Altoona, then direct to 6B6 would keep me clear of the severe convective activity that was north, west, and south of Cincinnati. There was a small buildup in Central Pennsylvania, but that was forecasted to move eastward by the time I got there.

I departed ISZ in Blue Ash just after 1 pm in hazy conditions and about six miles visibility. We’d flown earlier in the week with less visibility, so I was accustomed to keeping my head on a swivel. I picked up Flight Following from Cincinnati Approach and headed due east to Parkersburg. The haze remained, but the air was smooth, though hot – about 90 degrees on the surface. I stayed low, about 3500 feet, to maintain good ground visibility.

Turning northeast before reaching Parkersburg, I climbed to 7500 feet to get above the white puffy clouds, then to 9500 feet as they rose from afternoon thermal heat. Southwest of Altoona, I decided I was not going to keep up, and descended back to 3500 feet to stay under the cloud bases, and soon was flying under dark overcast skies. Hmm, it’s better on top, I reasoned, so called Flight Service and entered an IFR flight plan to 6B6.

Back with Indianapolis Center, they picked up my flight plan, cleared me to Hancock VOR, then direct, but first vectored me back northwest, climbing to 9000 feet, so New York Center could see me. This was back into the dark clouds, but it was still pretty smooth with no precipitation. When handed to New York, I was again back enroute, but the weather was now starting to get worse. It had been solid IMC for a while now, and the center controller was vectoring aircraft all over to avoid new buildups.

All of a sudden, my plane started climbing — rapidly. My vertical speed indicator goes up to 2000 ft/min, and the needle was pegged. I watched the altimeter winding up, and I went from 7000 feet to 9500 feet in less than 30 seconds. Then the rain came, I mean whammed, into the windshield as if I was being pressure-washed.

Then the real fun began. 60 degree left bank. Correct. Down to 8000 ft. Throttle back to 110 knots, just below maneuvering speed. Now going south, now east, now north. Rock and roll. I called Center, “Grumman 26280 request!” with distinct urgency. “Go ahead,” was their quick reply. “26280 request deviate south to get out of some really bad stuff,” I quickly replied. “It’s worse to the south,” he fired back. “Suggest you continue east.”

“East it is,” I conceded, and hung on. By now I saw some lightning flashes around the plane, but just concentrated on my attitude indicator (“Keep it level, keep it level.”), my heading indicator (“Keep it going east.”), and my altimeter (“Get as close to 9000 feet as you can. Good luck!”)

Dark clouds
Are those darker clouds bad news?

I was remarkably calm during this entire ride. I was too busy to be frightened, but also had an inherent trust in the structural integrity of my Grumman American Tiger, Bluebird. But I did experience something new in the severe turbulence and rain. The yoke was literally shaking in my grip, shaking hard. The ailerons wouldn’t dare fall off — would they? Nah, this is a Grumman. And being a Grumman, it responded instantly to my attitude and directional corrections in even the most severe turbulence.

So we just rode it out. And sure enough, the turbulence weakened, and then — voila! — there we were out in the clear. We made it. Mr. Toad’s wild ride! Disney World was never like this. The entire experience lasted only about 10 minutes (I think), but perhaps that’s why the Disney World rides are only about 2 minutes long!

So what did I learn here? My cardinal rule of not flying in thunderstorms is a good one. I sure am thankful that there was nobody else in the plane. At least I had control of things; a passenger would have been helpless. My guess is that I had penetrated a level 3 cell; you know, the ones painted yellow on the radar pictures. I would not want to think about a level 4 or 5.

The Grumman Tiger is one tough bird. I went over it carefully on the ground and saw no evidence of any ill effects from the experience. I was reminded later that aileron problems are not uncommon when flying in heavy rain. I guess some water gets inside the ailerons and upsets the damping balance.

A Stormscope or datalink weather is a good idea, maybe essential if flying IFR with passengers in summer weather east of the Mississippi. Or else, get a motel room and wait it out.

And lastly, a quote from Aviation 101: “Remember, you’re always a student in an airplane.”

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

6 Comments

  • I didn’t think Indianapolis Center’s airspace stretched to Altoona, or even into Pennsylvania. Cleveland Center last time I was by there.

  • Sure enough, I was probably in Cleveland airspace when they picked me up between Parkersburg WV and Altoona PA. Indianapolis ends just east of Parkersburg. My recollection, a bit dim at this point, is that is why they vectored me northwest. Even so, I was definitely in Cleveland airspace during some of this wild ride, though I distinctly remember talking to New York. However it was, my hat is off to ATC; they did a great job of helping me keep my head on straight. Very observant of you, by the way, regarding Center boundaries.

  • Glad you made it thru safely.

    For others contemplating IFR thru convective areas in GA, my rule is if I can’t stay VFR (with clear escape paths to a divert) then I don’t have the weather to transit convective activity. Staying under allows you to see rain/hail shafts and prevents getting wedged above and below. Commit to a divert (in any direction) before using up your options. Link weather is useful to minimize surprises beyond what you can see.

    Heavy iron IFR has the luxury of altitude and airspace to avoid relatively fewer build ups that make it to flight levels. Even they will take knocks in terminal areas, and if they allow themselves to get routed thru it, hail will do a number on aircraft and career!

  • I know that the fact you stayed calm in this situation Keith saved your life.. I had the same problem a long time ago that I described here in Air Facts under the name “My encounter with a thunder cloud”. Congratulations!

  • I admire Keith skills as well as his confidence in the Gruman. I have been thru a similar situation here, in the province of Santa Fe, Argentina (Piper Archer – same engine ) and promised myself not to ever be close to something like that. I was able to watch hail coming into the windshield and wondering how much would it be able to take .
    GA single engine small aircraft simply do not have the power and resourses to fly close to convective activity.
    Completely agree with Rich, his rule is mine too.

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