Racing to Columbus

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?

Derecho
It’s alive!

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.

What happened?

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.

Derecho

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.

8 Comments

  • I was also flying VFR in Ohio that afternoon. I saw the approaching storm clouds, and landed at Akron Fulton just ahead of the storms, in time to tie down and ride out the wind and rain in the FBO. On the departure after storm passage, I learned an important lesson about the variability of wind direction on the backside of a strong storm system

  • I was nearly half way across the Porcupine hills when a tall grey cloud materialised between me and my destination at Cowley. I turned tail and had an easy glide to Ft. Macleod with enough altitude to take a tour of the town.

    On base the wind was 45 kt. I stopped on the first centerline stripe and sat in my glider with spoilers and brake on and stick forward holding wings level until the wind died down some 15 minutes later.

    On landing I phoned my retrieve buddy that I was afraid to get out of my glider.

    Clear blue sky, but amazing wind.

  • Dear Tom: As a fellow orthopedic surgeon, I’m reminded of a saying I was taught during residency and which I still share with my residents, referred to as the “six P’s”. PROPER
    PRE-OP PLANNING PREVENTS PROLONGED PROCEDURES”. There is also a 7th P, which is the pee running down your leg and when you don’t do the first 6. You knew one hour prior to arrival about the level six returns and “a large cell west of OSU.” IMO you developed a case of “getthereitis” and your good training with a lot of luck thrown in, prevented a tragic outcome. Both you and your airplane are not designed for that type of wind and turbulence.
    IMO once you were aware of the conditions along your route of flight, as well as at your destination airport, the proper decision would have been to land at first opportunity, rent a car and call your daughter that you were safe and enroute. In closing I repeat the oft used
    phrase, ” THERE ARE OLD PILOTS AND BOLD PILOTS, BUT NO OLD BOLD PILOTS.”

    “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.

  • Tom, A lesson in get there itis, and what could have been tragic. And as luck would have it, nothing blew into the plane and it didn’t flip.
    I doubt the landing was a commitment, but wasn’t there. However, the decision to get the hell out of there should have been made way prior to short final.
    Sometimes the lesson isn’t learned until we take the final exam, and you luckily passed, but barely!

  • Reminds me of an event my CFI brother shared from decades ago. Seems a student pilot in a C172 came taxing past the FBO office just as a storm front arrived. Upon jumping into the aircraft to assist in hangaring my brother and the student found themselves upside down in an aircraft on its back. The student still had the elevator positioned up so that the strong winds did the damage. Glad you had a successful outcome to your flight, and learned a valuable lesson.

  • Tom:

    It’s easy to see AFTER the fact that a derecho event occurred but this seemed to catch EVERYONE off guard. I think you handled the situation fine – especially once you were on the ramp. Don’t let the railbirds beat you up too much (they weren’t in the plane with you).

  • Tom,

    It was great to come across this story. Thanks for sharing! I think you handled yourself quite well and were able to keep your wits about you when being confronted with some very challenging conditions.
    It was great to come across your name! It’s been years since I used to spend summers hanging out with your kids. I recently got my pilots license (finally) a little over three years ago and now have a Grumman Tiger. I’m up in southern CT and just became partner in my Maxillofacial surgery practice. I hope you and the family are all well. – Joe. josephaperrone@gmail.com

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