The line of building super cells extended from 100 miles into Alabama to 60 miles into the Gulf of Mexico and was building rapidly, already containing tops above 30,000 feet. My cruise altitude to Panama City was filed for 9,000 feet. I turned on the weather radar, more out of habit, knowing that it was a futile effort. It showed the same as the first leg, nothing but a test pattern. Lightning flashed to the north; there were rain showers out of the bottoms to the south. Houston Center frequency was busy with commercial airlines deviating and diverting for fuel. I should have done the same.
Gulfport, Mississippi, was directly below with gusty winds but still in the clear. Like a fool, I pressed on. I listened in on the company frequency; another flight from New Orleans to Pensacola was just a few miles ahead, in the building weather. The pilot on that flight said his routing was just light to occasional moderate turbulence with no precipitation. I asked ATC to vector me on the same flight path. This sounded like a good idea at the time, but due to my inexperience, I forgot to take into consideration the movement of the line. The few miles that separated my flight and the flight in front of me were enough to put me directly in the path of a building super cell.
The first downdraft hit like a giant hand pushing down on the top of the airplane. I need power! Mixtures full rich, props full forward, throttles … push, push, they’re all the way to the stops! I was still descending, 8,000, 7,000, finally stopping at 6,000 feet. Out the windshield was an ominous green color, about the color of a sprout of peas. As quickly as the downdraft stopped, an updraft started. No matter what I tried, I could not hold altitude. Throttles idle! Control yoke, push forward! Push, push, push hard! The updraft ended very abruptly, like hitting a ceiling. The altimeter started unwinding one more time, but this time the artificial horizon tumbled. The abrupt end to the updraft did internal damage, loosening the forward instrument panel. One male passenger was screaming, begging me to get him out of this storm. I was doing all I could just to hang on.
Without the attitude indicator, I couldn’t tell which way was up, although I knew I was descending rapidly. Something flew past my head, (I later figured out it was my Jeppesen binder). I managed a quick radio call to Houston Center. “Center, flight 142 going down!” Houston’s response was short but to the point, wanting to know the problem for my impending demise. I did not answer; I could not answer; I could just barely hang on to this wild ride.
As quickly as this nightmare started it ended, spitting me out the bottom of the cell at 1,500 feet, nearly bottom side up — I would estimate 100 to 110 degrees of bank to the left, nose pointing down. My attitude indicator was tumbled, showing only black. Out my windshield, looking up, I saw water and, quickly orienting myself, very abruptly righted myself with a violent control input. To my amazement, I noticed that PNS was directly in front of me and called the tower there, dropped the gear and landed. Never in my life, even to this day, have I ever been so happy to be back on terra firma.
The aircraft was damaged, with a buckled right-wing main spar and a twisted fuselage, but all the pieces were still intact. I needed to sit on the exit step for a few minutes before I was able to walk into the terminal. My knees had the consistency of melted butter, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating profusely. Fear had finally set in, especially when I realized how close I had just come to ending my own life and the lives of my passengers. As they exited the aircraft, they didn’t say a word, not to each other and not to me; they were probably just as frightened as I was, possibly more, although I find that hard to believe.
I learned several lessons that day: 1) Trust your gut. If your gut is telling you not to do something, do not do it! 2) If weather radar doesn’t test, don’t for a minute believe that it will work anyway. 3) If there is an airport that is clear and close and the weather in front is severe, land and wait. Thunderstorms always move or rain themselves out. 4) Never follow someone else into a line of severe weather. Remember, it’s building and moving at the same time. 5) If commercial airlines are deviating and diverting, and you are in a light aircraft, do the same.