Friday, May 28, 2010

Thunderstorm season, hooray!

Pepper and I went west on a charter flight a few days ago (Kitsch was still jet-lagged from doing an LA - Toronto redeye the night before, so Pepper pinch-hitted), taking some people to do some business in the midwestern US. For those of you who aren't familiar, summer in the great plains of the United States = thunderstorms.

I took a few vids to demonstrate some of them, let's have a quick boo!

We landed, and hung out for the day at a local Marriott - I collect hotel points and currently I'm concentrating on them - I have enough to last Lisa and I through our entire next vacation, even if we pick a classy hotel. Hotel / Gas card points are a perk of corporate travel that I really enjoy.

It was a 14-hour day, so we made sure we both had naps in the afternoon, so that we'd be fully alert for the return ride. A cold front was passing through, and the heat of the day was building some truly spectacular weather monsters.

Now I wasn't able to video this next part, mostly because Pepper and I were busy little beavers at the time. At Rogers, thunderstorms were building to the point that some of them in the distance were green, like dull emeralds. You know, booming emeralds with lightning. Most of us are used to seeing thunderstorms with black clouds, but green ones are more rare, and they usually indicate something far more apocalyptic, like hail and/or tornadoes, or perhaps clouds of winged monkeys come to take us to Oz. Either way, they were building all around the airport and it became clear that we had a limited amount of time to depart before they cut off all routes in and out of our destination. Now visualize this with me: Our home in Toronto was east of the airport, but the storms were such that 20 minutes before the pax showed up, I had amended our flight plan to head straight west, then north, then back east in order to go around one line, then head north, then mostly east to go around another line, then head south, then east to go around a third line.

Our pax showed up, we loaded up, and in those few minutes, the storms north and south of us had linked up to the west, creating an unbroken line of doom. There was a thin sliver east of us, and our on-board satellite weather system (may it live forever!) showed that some of the scary stuff had dissipated enough for us to be able to climb over it if we kept our groundspeed low and our rate of climb high.

We had already picked up our clearance to head west, but that wasn't going to happen so we had to negotiate with ground control for a new clearance that would keep us out of harm's way. It took a few minutes to get, presumably because the area air traffic controllers were very busy dealing with aircraft that were diverting all over the place in an effort to avoid the storms and keep their wings on, but we eventually got clearance to head straight east in an attempt to climb over the first line of thunderstorms.

Fortunately for us, the plane was relatively light and even in the heat of the day (it was about +30c, which is 86 in American heat units) she was capable of giving us a decent rate of climb if I reefed the nose back to 15 degrees nose-up - our climbout airspeed dropped by 40 knots, but that wasn't as important as getting up and over the smaller thunderstorms that were close-by the airport.

One of the fun things about lines of convective weather associated with frontal systems is that the thunderstorms are usually hidden by other clouds, so on the climb-out we are usually flying through clouds and can't see anything outside. Our weather radar shows us the bad stuff that's mixed in with the ordinary clouds, but I'm not gonna lie and say it's not disconcerting as hell for those few minutes that you are in solid cloud and it starts to get a little black outside, and rain on the starts to beat against the windshield and you wonder whether or not you made the right call, or whether you should be immediately turning 180 degrees to one side or another. We have lots of gadgets to assist us, but there is a reptilian part of our brains that softly whispers scary things for those few moments, and we really have to rely on our training and our experience and our technology to overcome that soft, nasty voice.

Anyway, I'm sitting here typing these words, so you can deduce that it worked out fine - we kept our eyes glued to our on-board weather radar as well as the satellite weather system, as well as looking outside and turning well away from any areas of cloud that looked particularly aggressive.

In cruise flight, in between dodging lines of storms, we watched a 757 pass by us at a closing speed of about a thousand miles per hour (1600km/hr). I admired the bird as it flew past, but then felt sorry for them because they were going to have to negotiate some of the strongest storms I had seen in a long, long time. I imagine that the conversations on the flight deck were similar to a recent post by Captain Dave - I assume you have already read it, but if you haven't, check it out.

One thing that I felt bad about was hearing the strain in the voices of the flight crews heading west, and hearing the stress in the voices of the air traffic controllers who were trying to keep them from hitting each other even as they diverted all around the countryside in an effort to avoid contact with the rumbling midwestern pilot-killers. It was a stressful day for a lot of people, and I was really glad that our flight was relatively uneventful.

Once we passed by the final line, the weather was great for the last few hundred miles all the way home. Due to our exceptional cunning and skill (read 'luck'), the air was smooth the entire flight, and the passengers remained blissfully oblivious to the amazing forces of nature we observed during our run. "Hey pilot, nice flight, I'm glad the weather was good" Oh, if they only knew the planning and plotting and scheming we had to do several times enroute to make it so - but I guess one of the things I get paid for is to attempt to bore the passengers to tears during the flight, even if I'm sweating a bit.


Tim said...

The only time I've seen a green sky was when a tornado ended up touching down a few miles east of here. I'd rather never see that color of sky again...


Unknown said...

Wow, nice post.

Sounds like you guys had your work cut out for you.

Glad everything went well.

Michael said...

Maybe the cloud feature you hoped was being captured on video was one of these "cap clouds"?

Wikipedia entry for Pileus cloud:

Love the blog, keep it up!

Sarah said...

Interesting, Michael. "Pileus", you say.. maybe moist air entrained or pushed up by very strong updrafts atop the cumulus or CB.

I was taught to give CBs a wide berth, of course, but especially to anvil clouds with overrun through the top of the anvil. This is evidence the updrafts, hence turbulence, is strong enough to punch through the trop. level.


kt said...

meteorology degree + career in ATC = a very weather-cautious air traffic controller. It's my first summer doing this and sometimes I am still like "WTF?" I am not used to this weather here in the midwest. I find it fairly ridiculous.

Thanks for the aerial view of something that looks a lot like a scene from Stephen King's "The Mist" from the tower!

Anonymous said...

I like your comment about stressed out controllers up against a wall of weather. Pretty much says it all...