Following the NTSB’s chilling recommendation for pilots not to put all their faith in the accuracy or timeliness of satellite-delivered weather, I’ve really started to rethink my flying in a way that is as profound as any change I’ve gone through since I started flying IFR seriously, that is to say, in order to get somewhere as opposed to practicing toward that end.
I like to think that from my home base in Austin, Texas, I fly in one of the most meteorologically challenging areas of the country, and there’s a lot to be said for that argument, though those pilots who live with ice and crud for a good part of the year are sure to disagree.
Where I live going flying in the summertime is tantamount to going flying with thunderstorms. There are occasional days when there are no CBs forecast, and on a few of those days the forecast is actually correct, and you get to enjoy hot, clear and often smooth skies, at least above 6,000 feet or so. It’s different than the great Southwest — look at a map; Texas isn’t in the Southwest; we’re Midwesterners with a twang. Over the real desert, which you begin to hit in West Texas, the power of the heat and the terrain, the wind and the general cantankerousness of the region create mechanical turbulence higher than light airplanes typically fly. On the worst days, and there are plenty of them, even the airliners and bizjets aren’t immune to the moderate chop, or worse, created by the brown on brown rock garden of the great American deserts.
Here in the central plains, it’s more like a rose garden, a breeding ground for gorgeous, gigantic cumulus nimbus, gigantic flowering towers of water vapor churned into visible convection by the power of the heat of the day upon the earth.
For years at Flying we’ve published what has over the years been the single most popular item in the magazine, a look at a close call and reflection on the lessons learned. Over the years we’ve featured many, many accounts of pilots wandering into thunderstorms only to go through the wildest ride of their lives. At the end of the ordeal the takeaway is always the same. They were lucky, and not in some casually off-the-cuff way; they were literally lucky to have escaped with their lives.
The NTSB’s recommendation that we take the advice of our satellite weather receivers with a grain of salt sounds like the same kind of facile advice that parents give their children all the time: “Be careful; you’ll put an eye out.” Until you realize why the board issued the alert: because there were crashes linked directly to how pilots were interpreting their satellite weather displays.
When the costs are quantified, when you can put names and faces on the otherwise abstract issue, it changes the way you think about it. It does for me. The cost, the lives of the pilots and passengers, are a stark reminder of the real stake for a natural mistake, that of not being skeptical enough of what our displays are telling us. When the Nexrad is 5 minutes old, according to the display, it might actually be much older than that. That’s no surprise. A decade ago Richard Collins wrote that very news in Flying. Even before that, you had to be crazy to think otherwise. It’s like getting a tweet that there’s a tiger on the loose a couple of blocks away from you. Regardless of where the reports place the cat, you need to behave as though it’s around the next corner, because tigers, like thunderstorms, are nothing to mess around with.
The answer to what to do is far from easy. If you have onboard radar, use it. It’s telling you not what the dishes saw a while back but what’s going on right now. If you can see the clouds, use your eyeballs. If it looks tall and dark and blown out, steer well clear. Avoid the overhangs; hail lives there. Avoid penetrating areas where storms are embedded, because you might only think you know where the storms are. Use the motion of the storm to inform your choices. Storms might stop in their tracks, but I’ve never seen one turn and head in the direction from which it came. Finally, talk to the controllers. What they are seeing on the scope might very well jibe with what you’re seeing on the display, but if it doesn’t you need to figure out why and do something about the discrepancy. I've never flown with any thought in mind other than the Nexrad images on my display might be wrong. Maybe after reading the report, I'm more aware than ever of how wrong they can be.
Above all, we need to be conservative. When it comes to dodging thunderstorms, if you’re hoping for leniency for your mistakes, you’re playing with fire.