Your eyes have the deciding vote—my thunderstorm encounter

In 1978 I was working my way through my licenses and ratings and had achieved my instrument rating after about 150 hours total time. (Flight hours in this story are approximate, as I can’t find my previous logbook!) I then began training for my commercial pilot license and was fortunate enough to be able to fly regularly on business and build flight hours to get to the required minimum 250 hours total time.

As some of you know, one of the requirements for a commercial ticket is a cross-country flight of not less than 300 nautical miles total distance, with landings at a minimum of three points, one of which is a straight-line distance of at least 250 nautical miles from the original departure point. I chose to fly solo the route PDK – MEM – LOZ – PDK and filed IFR for each leg of the trip. Best I can remember is I used a Cessna 172 for the flight.

The PDK – MEM leg went without incident as did the MEM – LOZ (London-Corbin, KY) leg. The weather briefing at LOZ prior to returning to PDK did not indicate any significant weather along my route. However, shortly after taking off from LOZ, I observed a huge gray mass of clouds directly in front of me. As a relatively new instrument rated pilot with minimal actual IMC time, it looked pretty intimidating to me.

Gray clouds
If it looks ugly, it probably is.

So I called ATC and asked if they were painting any weather along my route back to PDK. ATC advised that there was no significant weather between me and PDK. That gave me considerable comfort because even though I was a relatively inexperienced IFR pilot, I knew better than to challenge a thunderstorm.

As I got closer to the cloud mass, it got bigger and darker. And while I was apprehensive, I recalled ATC saying they were not painting any significant weather in front of me. After all, what did I know—my actual instrument experience was relatively limited.

Well, upon penetrating the cloud mass, I quickly found I had entered a thunderstorm which threw me and my airplane around in all directions. Lightning was visible in front and to the side of my plane. I slowed to VA and picked up the microphone to let ATC know what I was experiencing; however, it jumped out of my hand and landed on the floor. I then decided to forget about talking to ATC and just concentrate on flying the airplane straight ahead while taking whatever altitude the storm may give me.

After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably more like 5–10 minutes), I was safely through the storm. I retrieved my microphone from the floor, checked around the cockpit for anything unusual, took several deep breaths, and as calmly as I could, called ATC and gave a pilot report and described what I had experienced. ATC thanked me for the PIREP, and I continued on my way. The remainder of my flight back to PDK was appreciatively boring.

Lessons learned:

  1. Regardless of weather forecasts or ATC radar depictions, your eyes have the deciding vote on what weather is out there. Big, gray cloud masses can have thunderstorms in them.
  2. Use whatever tools you may have to assess your situation. At that time, my little 172, while IFR qualified, had no on-board radar, no NEXRAD weather info, and no GPS. And, of course ForeFlight was 30 years in the future. So my weather avoidance tools were limited to my eyeballs and ATC.
  3. When you’re in challenging weather, follow the time-tested formula: aviate, navigate, communicate

I know my story is more than 40 years old, but I hope it will be helpful to my fellow pilots.

Editor’s Note: This article is from 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.

5 Comments

  • The Outside World Indicator may be the most important flight instrument. It does take time and effort to use.
    To apply a computer term. WYSIWYG. The radio and ATC c a n be helpful.
    But ATC really means Air Traffic Advisors. No
    ” controller” has ever died in an aircraft loss of control or crash.
    The Instrument Rating does NOT require you fly into evil, ugly Thunderstorms. It just makes it legal to do so.
    Even a Cessna 172 is fast enough to deviation around Tstorms. If it is moving too fast to fly around everybody will be deviating and ATC will be busy.

  • I can sympathize with the author. In 1980 I was flying my Cherokee 180 back from Indianapolis to Bridgeport CT. I had stopped at AGC to refuel and do a needed pit stop. I checked the weather before leaving and nothing significant was mentioned. I flew happily along IFR until I suddenly was immersed in heavy rain. It seemed like the water was coming into the cockpit from every opening. It was starting to get bouncy so I called ATC which had been very silent on the frequency and asked them what they were painting? The controller casually told me I was flying into the back of a line of T-storms across the Allegheny ridges! I immediately asked for vectors and return to AGC. I landed w/o incident stayed overnight and had severe clear beautiful weather the next morning to complete my trip to BDR.

  • Three stories here: Based at Chico, CA, I was company pilot on a KingAir C-90A. I took a load of VP’s to Oakland, waited a few hours and on the way back we were in and out of clouds in the low teen altitudes. The last cloud ahead looked darker than usual and I could see Oroville to the right, but before we got there I could see all the way to CIC. Later found that a strip of orchard had been ripped up with a sprial-shaped debris path; small tornado?
    Similar situation, coming back to CIC, but this time with the #2 boss on board and I landed at Oroville and waited a few minutes; Had small hail at CIC during our original time of arrival.
    Last one: Went to southern CA to pick up a director for a big meeting. The trip down was nice with but a few clouds and a forecast for something small moving in, so I was IFR on the way back. We were in clouds and started the descent over east Sacramento but around Marysville at about 10,000 feet I noticed we were not coming down very much. As I reduced the power more, we started climbing and the com radios turned to static; Oh-oh, storm cell!! I pulled the power to idle, started a course reversal, set 7600 in the transponder, and rolled out the oposite direction at 19,000′, still at idle power! Only light turbulence, but I don’t recall looking at the vertical speed indicator. SAC Approach said they saw it the whole time and knew what was happening. We were clear of clouds shortly so went to the west side of the valley around the weather and the director was only a little late for the meeting.

  • In Nepal, once I was flying from Kathmandu to an airport to the east. Kathmandu airport sits at 4400 feet MSL and surrounded by high terrain. I was flying that sector as I had given the previous sector to my newly released First Officer. We took-off runway 02 and just about 1.5 NM from the VOR, I made a right turn and setup a heading to intercept and track outbound radial 115 from the VOR.
    On the British Aerospace HS 748 airplane, setting climb/cruise power after take-off is to bring back the power levers to give 14200 RPM. There is a Fuel Trim switch that a pilot uses to increase or decrease fuel flow very minutely to set the the TGT for the climb and cruise and landing conditions. Increasing or decreasing fuel trim also increases or decreases the engine torque. However, the power lever not touched during climb and cruise unless required.
    I was on the intercept radial and tracking out, with after take-off checklist completed. All seemed nice and comfortable. Then our aircraft entered IMC with cloud and rain. Radar did not pickup and echoes. All at once, frightening GPWS warning started.. “Terrain..Terrain..Pull Up…” On this radial you never get GPWS unless you are low. I stretched and looked outside my side window and to my horror I saw trees around hundred feet below me. I looked at the engine parameters and saw torques on both engines were very low. I looked down at the fuel trimmers. When I asked to set climb power, my first officer had brought the trimmer to zero. Hence low torque. I increased the fuel trim to 100 percent immediately. Power increased. Climb rate increased. After a 12 seconds, GPWS kept quiet. That was one of the biggest fright of my life in flying airplanes.
    No matter is who is sitting with you on the right seat, do not acquire the ‘Dependency Syndrome’. Be on your guard. Always.
    This First Officer lacked knowledge, cognitive skills and poor education. He possessed below average flying skills that we noticed during his training and line flying. Last I heard of him was, after flying as a copilot for fifteen years, he had left flying for good. It took him many years to make a good decision.
    Happy Landings !
    S. K. B

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