Friday, August 04, 2006

This post is about the one and only time I flew into a thunderstorm.

This was a few years back. I was flying a Cessna 441, Conquest II. The 441 is a great turboprop. It'll go to FL350, it'll do just over 300 knots and it can carry a huge load. On this particular occasion, I was single-pilot. This charter leg was returning to Toronto from Teterboro (Teterboro is right by New York city and is the business jet hub for New York), taking a full load of 9 pax. My passengers were returning from the Academy Awards, in which they had received some award for technical achievements. This wasn't the big Oscar ceremony, it was the smaller one that takes place a few days before the main televised one, where they hand out the awards that John Q. Public doesn't care about so much.

Anyway, my pax had a LOT of gear - they had their overnight bags, their tuxedo garment bags and their Oscar goodie bags. The plane was full of stuff, and bags were stacked in every available nook and crevice of the airplane. The pax boarded and it was a snug fit, but everything was within limits. Even back then I didn't mess around with overloaded airplanes - I just couldn't see the advantage to taking off over my allowable aircraft weight under any circumstances.

Weatherwise, there was a strong, fast-moving warm front extending north-south right in between Teterboro and Toronto which I would have to go through on the way back. The cloud conditions were such that there was pretty much solid cloud all the way home, from a thousand feet above ground extending up to maybe 30,000 feet. It would be solid IFR all the way back, but that wasn't a big deal as I had weather radar on board as well as a nifty new item that I hadn't used before - a strikefinder. A stormscope detects electrical discharges in the area, presumably lightning, and lets you know what clouds are the dangerous thunderstormy ones and what clouds are just your normal rain/precip mixture. I hadn't used a strikefinder before, but I was very familiar with the weather radar unit, a decent Bendix one that I had used on many previous flights.

We fired up and took off, and climbed up to 30,000'. For a relatively short trip like this (just over an hour) the controllers prefer to keep the aircraft at 30,000' or less, even though I could have climbed up another 5,000' without problems. It was bumpy and rainy all the way up, but nothing too serious. I set my weather radar to sweep 80 miles ahead of us so it could let me know if there was any significant precipitation that we should avoid. The radar showed nothing, which was fine by me. We levelled off at 30,000' and cruised along. There was a trace of icing, nothing serious, so I inflated the wing boots once in a while to keep it under control. One of the passengers, the guy who was paying for the charter, was sitting in the copilot's seat and I gave him a quick tour of the cockpit. "This is the artificial horizon, this is the airspeed indicator" etc. After about half an hour of solid cloud, I noticed that it was getting a little bit darker. I again checked the weather radar and it showed nothing. I tilted it downward so it would paint the ground, and it reflected the ground, so I was happy that it was working correctly. The turbulence became a little worse, and we started seeing heavier rain hit the front cockpit windows. I put on the passenger seatbelt light and we continued. I noticed that the strikefinder was showing a lot of little + signs around the airplane, but I figured that it hadn't been calibrated properly as the radar was still showing nothing significant in front of us.

The clouds around us went black. The rain became very, very heavy and we started to experience some moderate turbulence. I turned on the ignitors, hopefully to prevent engine flameouts while they were trying to breath water instead of air, and disconnected the autopilot. I heard a few moans from the back, and the passenger seated next to me said "My wife is getting sick, where are the airsickenss bags". Well, the airsickness bags were underneath all of the passengers' goodie bags from the Oscars, and underneath their garment bags. Clever me, I hadn't even thought of that before we departed for Toronto.

We then hit a brick wall. I hit my head on the ceiling even though I was strapped in firmly. The airplane shook violently, so much so that the instrument panel became a blur. I don't know if you have ever been in a car accident, or perhaps skidded out of control on the highway, but if you have, have you experienced the sensation of time slowing down to a crawl? Well that's what it was like for me; things started to move in slow-motion. I could see that we were climbing at 6,000' per minute. I called Air Traffic Control and said "We are unable to maintain altitude, do you see anything in radar in front of us". "Yes, you are penetrating a level 4 area of weather, it's about 15 miles wide and 60 miles long. You are cleared to deviate as required, there are no other aircraft in your area". Of course there weren't other aircraft, nobody else was dumb enough to be around a thunderstorm. I could hear screams in the back, and from the corner of my eye I could see my 'copilot' passenger sitting rigid in his seat, his hands holding the side of the cabin for grip.

I fought to keep the wings level and a general nose-up attitude. I pulled the power back to slow to 180 knots, which was our manoeuvering speed - in theory a huge gust of wind should stall the wing and unload it rather than ripping it off. We started to descend and I watched the blurry altimeter unwind from 33,000' to maybe 28,000' in a blink of an eye. The rain became more solid, and I think some of it was hail. I knew that it was below zero outside, so we were most likely icing up on the wings. I was scared to press my face against the cockpit window in case another huge jolt mashed my face into it, but I knew the icing was out there, adding to our general misery. I set the boots to auto-inflate, hoping that it would keep up with the ice accumulation. The noise was incredible, it was like being inside a drum at a military procession, with the rat-a-tat noise of the precip striking the aircraft so quickly I couldn't count the beats. More screams from the back as we were lit up by lightning that was so close it felt like it was inside the cabin. And my weather radar showed nothing.

It's funny what goes through your brain when you can hear the angels singing. Because everything was in slow-motion for me, I had a relatively long time to think about the circumstances that had brought us there, and what the possible consequences to my actions were. It wasn't particularly comforting.

We were now at around 25,000' and still in the crap. That's when the hail came. We were pounded by golf balls fired from a cannon at 200 miles per hour and the people in the back started to completely freak out. I smelled vomit. I was using all my strength to keep the wings level as we were tossed violently in every direction, and the little man in my head started to ask me what the strength of the control cables were and if they might in fact snap. I told him to shut up and continued to fight the thunderstorm. I am not a religious man, but I decided to cover my bases and send a general prayer that our windshield would hold against the hail.

Then it was over. We exited the far side of the cel and it was wide open, with just a few wispy clouds beneath us and the sun shining in front of us. I reconnected the autopilot and sat for a few seconds, just breathing. I could hear crying from behind me, and the smell of vomit was strong enough that I knew it wasn't my imagination. I told ATC we were through the weather and let them know we were okay. The person on the other end didn't seem particularly concerned, and in a way that made me feel a little better. I might have nearly killed all of us, sure, but at least I hadn't caused a big ruckus on his end.

The windshield had held, thank Jebus. I looked out the side window and saw we had a nice thick coat of clear ice, so I blew the boots one more time and watched it mostly fall off. We started our descent into Toronto, and I finally got the courage to turn around and ask if anyone was injured. Two of the women were still crying, but nobody had been hurt. That being said, it looked like every single passenger had vomited. We landed in Toronto and shut down. My pax shakily deplaned without a word and I told them I was expecting them to call my boss, and that I would be calling him also. Most of them had stains all over their clothes. I called over a line guy who wrinkled his nose as he loaded up the barf-encrusted luggage onto a cart, then pushed it into the FBO for the pax to recover at their leisure. "What the hell happened?" "I guess they had some bad food at the award ceremony." I wasn't in the mood to discuss it.

Fortunately Canada Customs hadn't shown up and we were cleared in over the phone, so they didn't have to wait to get searched by Customs and I didn't have to explain to customs why my pax were so very bedraggled. They left and I went back to the aircraft.

I did a quick walkaround of the airplane. None of the metal skin had wrinkled as far as I could tell, but 2 of the antennas on the aircraft belly had been ripped off, as well as a few static wicks on the wings. The right wing deice boot was in shreds, with most of it hanging from the leading edge of the wing, but I hadn't noticed that until after we landed. The inside of the airplane smelled like wine and digestive fluid, and there was barf EVERYWHERE.

I called the boss and told him I flew through a thunderstorm, and he could expect some angry calls from the passengers. I told him about the strikefinder and said perhaps I should do some formal training on it, and then told him that the weather radar painted the ground, but it hadn't painted anything on the flight.

"Oh yeah, it's been broken for a few days. Didn't I tell you that? Sorry."

Yeah, no problem. I called maintenance and told them to get their haz-mat suits on and start working on restoring the airplane to flyable condition, then drove home, drank 4 beers in a row and went to bed. I was exhausted. In my dream, I was fishing for sharks. I nearly caught one.


Anonymous said...

Thanks. Nice story. I like the detail you include. Is this something that all pilots will experience at least once in the career?

thanks again and keep them coming.


Sulako said...

I would hope not.

Thunderstorms can easily kill you, and it was through my own stupidity that I allowed myself to completely trust the radar and ignore the other indications of trouble.

This isn't a "I saved the day" story at all, it's an "I was a complete tool and nearly exited the planet as a result" story.

Anonymous said...

You lived to tell the story. I know a couple of people that wouldn't have made it out. You were still able to control the situation and bring the plane, yourself, and your pax back safely. If that isn't i saved the day i am not sure what is.

Anonymous said...

If I were your mother and I would dream about this story for a long time, sharks, vomit and struggling to hold the controls included. You also posted your happiness about life as you experience it right now. And so I have to trust that you taking a personal inventory about how you have come to this stage in your life despite or perhaps because of the difficulties you have faced and overcome. It seems that you are writing a lot lately about significant matters Good for you. Good for us too

Aviatrix said...

"Is this something that all pilots will experience at least once in the career?"

I bloody hope not. We all have our own stories of stupidity to relate.

david said...

I flew into a cell in my Warrior two summers ago. Fortunately, it wasn't as violent -- there was lightning, but the tops must have been under 20,000 ft, and there was no hail or ice. I did have the experience of seeing the VSI peg in both directions, and of dealing with uncommanded 60 deg rolls in both directions.

The thing that got me the most was your comment about not believing the StrikeFinder. I had the same problem -- I had started out on top, and the high cumulus ahead didn't look so bad, so I didn't believe the little marks appearing around me on my newly-installed StormScope. I also forgot that I had set it for 25 nm instead of 100 nm.

Fortunately, we all came through fine, and neither my family nor my dog threw up. I personally had no idea of how long it lasted, because everything went into slow motion, as it did with you -- I remember feeling unnaturally calm, as if time had stopped and I had more than enough time to think, plan, reflect, etc.