On the afternoon of June 29, 2012, I departed Red Lion Airport in New Jersey feeling confident about my flight to Columbus, Ohio (OSU), to pick up my daughter (who was on semester break). I had just completed another Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association Pilot Proficiency Program at Lovell Field in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was instrument-rated and current, but on this bright summer afternoon I decided to fly VFR. The trip would take three hours. I received a standard VFR briefing, and the forecast was VMC for the entire route. There was some convective activity west of my destination but it was not expected to be a factor for my flight.
I have not been a risk taker. I never hesitate to deviate to an alternate airport when the weather is deteriorating. On board my Mooney 201 I have a Stormscope and XM Weather to provide in-flight updates. I am a cautious pilot flying a well-maintained airplane in VMC. I requested flight following and received a squawk code. What could go wrong?
For the first two, hours nothing went wrong. About one hour prior to my arrival, I noticed a large cell west of OSU showing level six returns on my GPS. I checked the distance between the cell and my destination, factored in my groundspeed and decided I would make it to Columbus in plenty of time to avoid the bad weather. Just in case, I made plans to fly to another airport but decided as time passed that the alternate would not be necessary. I motored on blissfully towards OSU. Within 20 minutes of my arrival, ATIS was reporting winds from 280 degrees at 10 knots, gusting to 14 knots. The ceiling was broken at 5,500 feet. I expected an uneventful arrival.
Approach handed me off to OSU tower, and the clouds over the airfield were now a roiling olive green. I was number one for the airfield and cleared to land; number two was a cabin class twin. I was committed to landing. The twin broke off the approach after the first lightning strike on the airfield, but not me. I was on short final. The wind was increasing. The tower controller was reciting changes in wind speed like a tobacco auctioneer: “Fifteen knots, twenty knots, twenty-seven knots.”
Gusts of wind were straight down the runway. Fortunately, the landing was not difficult but the sky was cumulonimbus-green and the rainfall was torrential. There was thunder and lightning. White caps were forming on the flooded taxiway. I slowly made my way to the ramp and I felt the airplane starting to weathervane. I got to the ramp but there was no way I could leave my aircraft. If I had shut down and tried to exit in this storm, the wind would have blown my Mooney over before I could tie down. A Cessna single had already been flipped and was lying on its back 200 yards to my left.
The tower controller asked for someone to help me but all of the FBO staff were sheltering in place because of the storm warning. Part of the FBO roof had ripped open. I kept the engine running and turned into the wind. Tower kept me advised about the wind direction, and I pushed the yoke full forward. My usual rotation speed is 60 knots and the winds were close to that now. I needed to maintain a nose-down attitude.
After 20 minutes, the wind abated, the rain eased and I could exit and tie down the plane. I walked into the FBO, and the folks inside were slack-jawed at what they had just witnessed. I sat down rain-soaked. No one asked me what was I thinking.
According to the National Weather Service, “during the afternoon and evening of Friday June 29, 2012, an intense, long-lived line of thunderstorms raced eastward at nearly 60 mph from the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic coast. In its wake, these storms left behind a swath of destruction that killed at least 20 people, caused millions in property damage, and caused massive power outages in major urban areas along the storm’s path. Meteorologists use the term ‘derecho’ to describe this special type of violent and long-lived windstorm.”
In 1987, two forecasters with the NWS National Severe Storms Forecast Center (predecessor to today’s Storm Prediction Center), Robert Johns and Bill Hirt, published a scientific paper that revived use of the term derecho. In their paper, Johns and Hirt properly used the term derecho to describe a number of long-path, non-tornadic, damaging wind events they were studying.
This storm was racing eastward faster than I realized. I was not looking at real time radar information. I forgot about the latency of the NEXRAD radar display. The radar returns were 5-10 minutes old. Rather than relying on NEXRAD for a tactical solution, a timely call to Flightwatch could have made a huge difference in avoiding the storm.
I called my daughter to let her know I was OK. She was in a panic because of the destruction she had witnessed in Columbus. She was sure I had come to harm. She picked me up and on our way to the hotel we saw downed trees and debris on the streets. Many of the restaurants were closed due to power outages. We finally found a spot that had electricity. I was thankful I had come through the trip unscathed. Almost. We had toasted my arrival with a bottle of Malbec and a dozen oysters. The next day I awakened with a painful toe. I had developed gout.