A fellow pilot recently recounted the harrowing tale of one of his early solo cross-country flights as a student pilot that inadvertently put him where no pilot wants to be: inside the bowels of a thunderstorm.
According to the pilot, the summer haze along his route had cut the visibility to less than five miles, making it hard for him to see the storm until it was too late. Before he knew what had hit him, he was being rocked by severe turbulence as lightning flashed around him.
Without an XM satellite weather receiver or onboard weather radar, he was left to rely only on what he’d been taught during his limited time flying under the hood. He slowed to maneuvering speed, began a scan of his flight instruments and started a 180-degree turn. Occasionally, he stole glances out the window, praying he’d see a glimmer of daylight before it was too late.
Because of the strong turbulence, the pilot said he was having a hard time turning to his desired heading or holding altitude. Finally, he was flushed out of the bottom of the storm, only to see rising terrain immediately below him — nothing but trees beneath the wheels. He fought the controls, flying at full power on the ragged edge of a stall as the downdrafts carried him to a mere 200 feet above the treetops.
Mercifully, a sudden updraft catapulted the airplane and its petrified occupant away from the earth, moments before certain disaster struck — either from the airplane pancaking into the terrain or stalling and spinning into the ground.
Spotting an opening between two storms, the pilot pointed the nose toward it and headed for his home airport, arriving minutes ahead of more severe weather. He said the landing was one of the worst he’s ever made.
It’s debatable whether this then-low-time student pilot ever should have been launched on a solo cross-country flight into reduced visibility and with chance of convective weather along the selected route. But nonetheless, the encounter offers some lessons for any pilot who has the misfortune of tangling with a thunderstorm.
The most important lesson, obviously, is to avoid flying into a thunderstorm in the first place. Your chances of surviving such an encounter are slim and once you’re inside one, all bets are off. Storm-generated gusts and wind shear have been recorded 18 miles from the center of powerful cells. That means you’ll want to give a wide berth – 20 miles is the accepted norm – when flying near any storm identified as severe or painting an intense radar echo.
If you find yourself in or near a thunderstorm, keep your eyes on your instruments and turn up the cockpit floodlights at night. Looking outside the cockpit can increase the danger of temporary blindness from lightning.
Once in rough air, don’t change power settings; select the setting for reduced airspeed and maintain a constant attitude; let the aircraft “ride the waves.” Trying to hold altitude can increase stresses on the airplane, potentially with catastrophic results.
If you’ve actually penetrated a thunderstorm, the general rule is you shouldn't try to make a 180-degree turn. The thinking is that a straight course through the storm hopefully will take you back out of it in the least amount of time. Also, turning maneuvers increase stresses on the airplane, so plan your course to take you through the storm as quickly as possible and hold that course until, with any luck, you emerge on the other side.