This is the first in a series of articles about bad experiences I have had in flying, some of them while instructing. My intention is that my stories will highlight certain teaching points or tips you may want to employ as you work with your students. I passed 40 years of flying in 2013, and at age 70 I’m well beyond being embarrassed by past errors in judgment. I share these stories so that others can benefit from my mistakes. I’m thankful that I had the training, experience and good luck to deal with the situations and be here to tell you about them.
Back in the late 1970s, I was planning a flight to Chicago from my home base just north of Philadelphia at about 9:00 in the morning. The weather was basically clear, but with the typical summer forecast of a chance of thunderstorms after 2 pm. And of course I would have a headwind on the way west so the trip was going to take a while in my Cessna 172. The plan was for me to drop off my neighbor’s 16-year old daughter, Lori, in northern Indiana so she could visit her grandmother, and then I would continue on to attend my business conference in Chicago.
Somehow we just couldn’t get going that day. By the time we finally took off it was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon; about the time I should have been leaving Indiana for the short second leg up to Meigs Field (this was back when there was a Meigs Field). The weather was still good as we left Collegeville, but a couple hours later out in western Pennsylvania we started to encounter buildups. At first they were widely scattered so I pressed on. But the farther west I went, the buildups became closer together, tops higher, and the clouds uglier-looking. Pretty soon I was doing some enthusiastic maneuvering to remain clear. Then the inevitable happened; there was no place to go but into a cloud. I tried the time-honored 180-degree turn, but I was too late. It was all closed up behind me.
I was a relatively new instrument pilot back then, so I had little real-world IFR experience. But I knew this much: flying in building, dark, towering cumulus clouds is not a good plan. About the time I finished fumbling around with my charts and found the frequency for Center, things really got bad. It started to rain very hard, the hardest I have ever seen in my entire flying career, before or since. Water flowed into the plane seemingly everywhere. It was as if it had turned into a sieve. What I could see out the windshield, through the water, was an ugly dark gray/green color that I had never seen before or since. The engine started to run rough. I remembered reading an article by Richard Collins where he suggested that if a Skyhawk was ingesting enough water it might be necessary to turn on the carb heat, so I did that.
Then we started up. The VSI pegged at 2,000 fpm. We went from 8,500 feet of altitude up to 11,000 in the blink of an eye. The time was very short, but I remember it seemed like slow motion. I had time to think, “There’s going to be hell to pay when this switches to a downdraft.” Then it switched, and we were going down, like the bottom had fallen out or we were in a runaway elevator. The VSI abruptly changed to pegged at 2,000 fpm down. At least I knew from my instrument training that I should not worry about holding altitude; just keep the wings and pitch attitude level, slow to maneuvering speed and let the altitude vary as the air currents carried the plane. I flew out of the downdraft at about 7,000 feet. The whole bad encounter lasted less than two minutes. During that time I saw the VSI pegged both ways, and altitude fluctuated a total of 6,500 feet. That’s an average of over 3,000 fpm; pretty abrupt for a Skyhawk.
Somewhere in there, I don’t really recall at what point, I was able to get in touch with ATC. I told them I was in trouble, they needed to make me IFR, and I asked for the heading that represented the shortest distance out of that mess. I guess I sounded pretty scared because the first thing the controller asked me was if I wanted to declare an emergency. I distinctly recall squeaking out the words, “No, I’m trying to prevent one.” After the usual identification routine he told me to turn north and I would be out in about 20 miles, with altitude at my discretion.
That 20-mile ride took around 10 minutes, but it was the longest 10 minutes of my life. Then suddenly we popped out into clear, bright sunshine, and just off to our right was the Franklin (Pennsylvania) airport. I asked Lori, who had been stone-quiet through all of this ordeal) if she wanted to land and she said yes. We landed and both had to run for the bathroom. Although it didn’t occur to me at the time, I guess we were pretty close to wetting our pants out of fear.
I am very thankful for what didn’t happen on this flight since it is probably the only reason we survived. In spite of my worst fears, we never had anything worse than moderate turbulence. Why there was no violent wind shear when we went abruptly from updraft to downdraft I will never know. Just luck, I guess. The plane remained controllable at all times. And there was no hail. Large hail can be very damaging, even to the point of breaking the windshield in a light plane. If that had happened I would have surely lost control.
There are several teaching points in this story that are worth noting:
- If a pilot ever flies into a cell, he or she should keep the wings level and control pitch for level flight. Don’t worry about holding altitude, even if that is contrary to what ATC has assigned. Trying to maintain altitude could cause either a stall or an over-speed and in-flight breakup.
- Don’t wait until too late to get help from the outside world. Especially now, when ATC’s radar is much better at painting weather, controllers can overlay weather on their radar and vector you around areas of bad stuff. Call early; avoidance is good. In my situation, diverting just 20 miles to the north would have kept me out of the whole mess. I waited way too long to call.
- Small airplane engines don’t run well on water. If your engine is carbureted, and therefore has a carb heat control, apply carb heat in heavy rain. When carb heat is applied the intake air comes from under the engine cowling, off to one side by an exhaust manifold. There isn’t nearly as much water in there. Some fuel-injected engines have manual alternate air controls, and some, like “restart” Cessnas, are automatic. You can select alternate air if your engine runs rough in heavy rain. Pilots of planes with automatic alternate air just have to take what they get.
- It is worthwhile to have thunderstorm detection and avoidance information right there in the cockpit with you. Today, the best solution is satellite radar images. You can buy a weather receiver and a portable GPS to display it on for $1,200, or you can put it on an iPad. Seeing the big picture for yourself really enhances the decision-making process.
Since that exciting encounter back in the 70s I have never gotten myself into a thunderstorm situation again; once was more than enough. I make very sure my instrument students know and understand what to do if they fly into a cell. However, I would much rather they use all the information available to avoid a ride like mine.
Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, Indiana FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7,000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at LBothe@comcast.net.