Stormscope vs. Nexrad – I Know What I Like

I am partial to spherics receivers for thunderstorm avoidance. There are two of these airborne lightning detection devices in common use today, the Stormscope and the Strike Finder.

About five years ago, I wrote a detailed essay comparing the Stormscope to radar in general and NexRad in particular. It can be found in the “Members Only” portion of the SAFE website under “Weather.” Here, I will focus solely on the spherics receivers since I believe a lot of instructors and pilots are unfamiliar with these boxes. Has this capability become “the red-headed stepchild with bad breath” when it comes to weather avoidance? I’ll use “Stormscope” the same way my Mom used “Frigidaire,” that is, as a generic term for all spherics receivers.

Consider the thunderstorm environment, with three co-mingled thunderstorm considerations: turbulence, lightning, and rain. Very strong up and down drafts (turbulence) are needed to produce the electromagnetic conditions for a lightning stroke. Rain of varying intensities is generally associated with thunderstorms but clearly we can have rain with no lightning and we can have lightning with no rain. So, there is a very close correlation between turbulence and lightning but less so between rain and turbulence or lightning.

Therefore, I believe the Stormscope gives much more helpful thunderstorm avoidance information than either airborne radar or Nexrad. To set the stage, here are a few personal stories. Ten years ago I was going from Huntsville, Alabama, to Atlanta in classic warm front conditions: light to moderate rain but a smooth ride. Huntsville Approach was being very helpful and advised of Level 2 to 4 weather (the terminology then) ahead of us and offered vectors around it. The Stormscope was clear, so we pressed on through the rain and continued to have a smooth ride. On another occasion I was heading east on an early morning flight and there were buildups all around. There was one right in front of me that was black as the ace of spades with the sun directly behind the cumulus; but the Stormscope was clear. I kept going and had one small bump as I went through it. More recently, I was going from New Orleans, to Dothan, Alabama, and there was a weak tropical disturbance over the Gulf that had generated thunderstorms and rain all along the Gulf coast and for some distance inland. As I neared Mobile, Approach advised me that there was moderate to heavy thunderstorm activity at my 12 o’clock and suggested deviating north or south. The Stormscope was clear ahead, but showed a little activity to the north and south so I advised Approach I would proceed straight. He really got insistent and at one point asserted that my Stormscope was broken. I encountered light to moderate rain and a smooth ride except for one moderate bump.

Operating here in the southeast U.S., I have had many opportunities to see the Stormscope screen become very active. With its 200 nm range, I use the Stormscope’s capability to make strategic decisions on whether to go left or right – or land and wait.

Technical Points

I believe the physics of the situation favors the Stormscope for thunderstorm avoidance. It obtains all its raw data at near the speed of light via a simple low frequency receiver and then applies clever on-board processing. The old Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) low frequency radios typically pointed to the biggest thunderstorm (lightning strike) around. So, knowing the direction of the strikes was the easy part. The cleverness was in figuring out how to determine how far away the strike occurred. Each lightning strike puts out a tremendous amount of electromagnetic energy. If a device could determine the energy given off by the “average” strike, it could make an estimate of how far away that strike was by measuring the energy received at the airplane’s antenna. I apologize to Paul Ryan and Nicholas Spitzer who patented the Stormscope in 1976 for my gross simplification of their elegant work. Over the years since ’76, electrical and computer engineers have greatly improved on the original box, but the principles remain the same. Today’s WX-500 “. . . detects the electric and magnetic fields generated by intra-cloud, inter-cloud, or cloud-to-ground electrical discharges that occur within a 200-nm radius of the aircraft and sends the resulting ‘discharge signals’ to the processor.” The operating handbook recommends using the cell mode instead of strike because the cell mode employs an algorithm that aids in identifying the locations of storm cells rather than individual strikes.

By definition, then, if there are no lightning strikes, there is no thunderstorm. Perhaps almost as important, where there is no lightning there is also little significant turbulence. The up- and downdrafts within the cumulus are what stirs up the electrons that then produce an electrical discharge. Thus, if there are no large up- and downdrafts, there will be no significant turbulence. Those of us who fly in hot and humid places know that even without thunderstorms, it will probably be bumpy when you are below the haze level or below the bases of the “fair weather cumulus.”

ATC Precip Levels

Still, rain can matter. When the weather starts getting interesting, ATC will generally advise of precip levels of Moderate, Heavy, and Extreme. The location of these radar echoes may or may not correlate with thunderstorms and/or turbulence. The Stormscope will tell you where the really bad stuff is. However, even if the ride is pretty smooth, if you are in heavy or extreme rain you can expect paint erosion on the leading edges of the wing, tail and cowling. Think $$$ even if it’s not a bad ride.

A Decision Tree For Consideration

Overall Situation
Days in advance of a flight, start becoming aware of the overall weather patterns and get a notion of the environment to be expected. There is truly no good reason to be surprised by a squall line or a hot juicy air mass!

When VMC
Advise ATC and deviate around the more impressive buildups.

When IMC
See a squall line? Avoid it at all costs! Be on the ground!
Air Mass Thunderstorms: Take advantage of the Stormscope’s 200-nm range to make strategic decisions. Remember the 60:1 rule. Each degree of course change will generate on nm offset in 60 nm. Use this to deviate around cells when they are well out in front. ATC reports of heavy and extreme precip will come when you are much closer and will require larger heading changes to avoid them, if you so choose.

Concluding Thoughts

Thunderstorms can hurt you and/or your airplane. Like Texas, don’t mess with them! I would like to believe that all instrument pilots are a bit timid. If you are like me, I nibbled at cloud flying a little at a time and over the years have become comfortable with flying in most (but not all) types of weather. I tell folks that I don’t do ice and I don’t do lightning! I was also blessed to have a great flying buddy and mentor, Mike Scroggins, who provided me with a lot of Stormscope practical in-flight knowledge. I reflect from time to time about the fact that in the “olden days” unpressurized DC-3s and DC-4s of Delta and Eastern Airlines plied these same skies at the same altitudes I do on a regular basis. The guys up front had no Stormscope, no Nexrad, and no ATC guidance, but they knew the weather, how to read weather reports and forecasts, and how to go around the worst of it.

Today, if you want to stay out of thunderstorms, but don’t mind a few bumps and rain, make sure you are using the Stormscope information.

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