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.
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!”)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org