Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Weather that will kill you

Heavy weather is the nemesis of the VFR pilot. When I finish my private pilot's license, I will be authorized to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), meaning that the visibility and cloud cover must meet certain parameters or I am forbidden to fly. This is because flying in poor visibility can be disorienting, and without special training and a good amount of experience, pilots can become disoriented very quickly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC.)

VFR into IMC flight is not just a leading cause of accidents in the general aviation community, it is a leading cause of fatal accidents in the general aviation community. As such it is imperative for pilots to check, cross-check, and double-check the weather before flying. And even if you do, the weather can catch you off-guard.

So it happened that the other day, my instructor and I were debating whether to leave the ground. I was scheduled for a solo flight, but winds aloft were gusting at 20 knots or so and winds on the ground were pushing 10 to 15 knots, which in a Cessna 152 is significant. We checked the weather and saw a storm cell South of us that was moving Northwest, and it looked as though it would track away from us. Wanting to take advantage of the challenging wind conditions to practice ground-reference maneuvers, we took off and flew North, finding a field to practice turns around a point on.

As we descended to 800 feet and began our turns around a point, I noticed the wind stiffening. It felt like we were in a kite; as I turned around the southern point of the circle the wind rudely shoved us North, and as I turned around the northern point of the circle the we skidded and weathervaned with the wind. It was definitely a struggle to keep the maneuver going within the Practical Test Standards, but I somehow managed to keep the plane more or less within the tolerances.

As we transitioned from left turns to right turns, Bryan looked towards the airport and said, "We better turn back." I looked out the window towards the field, and all I could see was a wall of clouds towering into the sky. There was visible rain pouring out the bottom of the clouds, and it was clearly moving toward us.

This was a decision point. The storm was still south of the field, but it was obviously moving over the airport. We could race the clouds back to Winter Haven and hope for the best, or we could stay aloft and wait out the storm, or we could divert to another field, probably Kissimmee. The storm was closing fast and we decided to head for Winter Haven, only two miles away.

That two miles took a loooong time to fly in our tiny 152. We made an abbreviated traffic pattern, entering on a left base for runway 5. I was descending through 800 feet and I knew this was going to be close; the rain was on the other side of a lake that sits off the end of runway 5.

As we turned base to final, it hit the fan--literally. The rain began slamming into our tiny plane, and I went from seeing the runway numbers and being lined up on approach to having zero visibility in strong wind and driving rain. Bryan took the controls and we managed to wrestle the plane to the ground, smacking into the pavement in one of the less graceful landings I've encountered and skidding fast down the runway toward the turnout.

We made the turnout and taxied to parking in the torrential rains. The wind was blowing rain almost horizontally. We tied the plane down and ran back to the FBO, soaked but alive.

Almost as fast as it hit us, it was gone. We walked into the FBO and I paid for the airtime, and in the five minutes it took me to do that it went back to being sunny and clear outside. The storm pushed through and left a wake of peaceful and calm weather behind it.

At the time, I felt lucky to have cheated the weather...not scared, not worried, but simply lucky. We had made a few bad choices and could well have paid the price for it, but luck was on our side. If I has gone solo that day, I probably wouldn't have been so lucky, and while I might have made it, I also might have been another student who encountered the deadly power of VFR into IMC and met an unfortunate and early demise. I could well have been a smoking hole in the ground.

The more I think about it the more I learn from it. Here are the takeaway lessons:

(1) If there is any doubt at all about the weather, don't go.
(2) Even if that storm cell looks like it might miss you, don't take the chance...wait it out.
(3) If you are stupid enough to get aloft in these conditions, don't race the weather back to the field. If we had diverted we probably would have been able to make a more controlled, safer landing in Kissimmee.
(4) While it is important to learn to fly in suboptimal conditions, it's important to learn good judgment so you can avoid those conditions in the first place.

Every pilot makes mistakes, and every pilot should learn from them. I'm glad things went the way they did, and I'm glad that I have the chance to learn and grow from this eventful 0.4 hour flight.

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