Caught in a Thunderstorm

A glider is not an all-weather machine.

Monday dawns full of promise. I gulp down my coffee, zip out to the Rockton Aerodrome in Rockton, Ontario, grab a plane from the Southern Ontario Soaring Association, and head out on a 300-km adventure. The thermals are bad and the wind is strong. I fight my way to York Soaring, our sister club 60 km north, all the while watching a huge thunderstorm blossom to the west. It’s well downwind and not a danger, but very impressive. From York the sky north doesn’t look good, so I abandon the task and zip back to SOSA, then south to see if the Lake Erie convergence line is working. It is kicking up three big storms near the shoreline. No point in getting involved with those. I come back, get in a bit of a hole when the big cumulus cloud I’m working drifts into the Hamilton control zone and I have to abandon it. I manage to dig myself out, take a nice thermal street up to Cambridge and back while the cloud I’d abandoned at Hamilton moves on to rain on Waterdown. It backdrops the jets sequenced to Runway 6R at Toronto, always a pretty sight. Back on the ground I get a text from Gabrielle: “Call when you can, Eric saw a thunderstorm and is worried about you.” I call and reassure them both that I am not going anywhere near a storm, not now and not ever.

Tuesday morning. Wake up, coffee, out to the field. Paul greets me with “How’s the thunderstorm expert?” I look at him blankly. “You did 200 kilometres between all those Cbs yesterday,” he says.

“I did 200,” I acknowledge. “But I didn’t go anywhere near any storms. I want at least 30 kilometres between me and anything like that.”

I’m last in line for takeoff in C-GZCA, one of our SZD-51s. Just before I send Paul off I point to a bunch of towering cumulus to the west. “Today is going to be awesome.” I’m last to launch at 1240, without a wing-runner. I’m going south. If the Erie convergence line is working I can get to Niagara Falls.

Off tow I find a thermal, circle up to 3,300 feet and see raindrops spatter on the canopy. I look up. The cloud I’m under doesn’t look big enough to rain, but I abandon it and pick another one, just starting to develop. I manage to climb 200 feet before it starts to rain again. I look up and see blue above my little cu. It rains harder. Should I land? The sky south looks good, so like the song says — I don’t have to go home, but I can’t stay here. I set a course south. Though I don’t know it, those raindrops are harbingers of a full-blown thunderstorm that will track north of SOSA in just half an hour.

Heading south the ceiling isn’t high, and my zigzagging course is more about staying up than making distance. Over Brantford I catch a decent thermal. By now the storm cell north of SOSA is huge and obvious, but comfortably far away. Southwest toward Port Dover there’s another massive Cb dumping rain, but it’s not close to my intended path. Onward! I set course east and hit the first turnpoint at Oshweken.

I find and abandon an indifferent thermal there, and head up the Niagara peninsula. Very soon it isn’t looking good. I get low and start scanning for fields. I pick one more brown than green — maybe cabbages? It’s aligned with the wind, and every other field is full with 7-foot corn. I’m just about resolved to go into it, but as I get down to a thousand feet I find a little weak lift. I start working it, going up a bit, down a bit. Just stick with it, have patience. The air feels dead, the sky is completely overcast, but I’m not giving up until I have to.

As I work the thermal, I assess my field some more. A line of power pylons marches past, just about where I want to turn base for a right-hand circuit. I should still be several hundred feet above them at that point, but why come even that close? I’ll do a left circuit. Obstacles…wires…ground condition…All seem good. Patience.

All this junk overhead will cycle, if I can just hang on long enough. I focus completely on visualizing the thermal. The lift dies a little and I turn upwind to see if I’ve drifted out.

RELATED: Everything Explained: Thunderstorm Avoidance, Penetration and Survival

Bump! Four knots up! I roll back into the turn, come around, and get an incredible 8 knots. I smile as the altimeter rises. The air is vibrating, quite unlike the usual thermal turbulence, and I know exactly what’s happened.

The outflow from that big boomer down by Port Dover has outrushed the front. A hundred million tons of cold air has hit the ground at 20 knots, compression heated, and rolled 40 km, rocking trees and waving flags until it’s kicked up this lovely thermal, just in time to save me from outlanding. I’m going to center this little honey, hit cloudbase in five minutes flat, come home with an awesome story, and…what the heck is that?

That is a storm, not 40 km away but four — no, make that three km, and tracking toward me fast enough that I can see the rain line advancing. I haven’t hit a thermal kicked up by a distant outflow, I’ve been riding the upcurl from a downburst.

Forget climbing away, I need to get on the ground — now. I level out, scan north and west for something, anything, I can make it to that’s farther away from this beast. I’m acutely aware it can swat an airliner out of the sky, let alone me.

The rain line is coming fast and I visualize the absolute minimum circuit size I can get away with. I roll to the high key, which is unfortunately a kilometer closer to the onrushing storm. Just one little tweak to the circuit plan. I’ve flown exactly two flights in our aerobatics program, and on the second one I did a high-energy approach. OK, technically Scott flew it while I watched and took notes. I’m not exactly an expert, but speed and controllability are now paramount, and so this will be my first-ever high-energy circuit. Airspeed will be 70 knots, and if I have trouble with turbulence I’ll kick that up to 80 knots. Or more.

Just keep the stick forward, I tell myself. Everything will happen fast, just keep the stick forward. To add a little urgency the vario drops to 8 knots down. I’m not going to worry about coming in too high. Once I turn final it’s full spoilers, point the nose where I need to go, pull it out only when I have to. Easy. Check spoilers, they work. OK. High key, roll left.

The rain hits as I turn onto downwind, smacking the canopy like gravel poured on a tin roof. ZCA drops like a rock, vario pegged at the bottom. The streaming water makes it hard to see, but there’s no missing the ground coming up, so fast it feels like I’m landing the space shuttle. That’s still a glider, right? Extra height on final is not going to be a problem. Stick forward, keep the speed high. This will be a high-energy abbreviated circuit.

I roll onto base early and even then I’m low — too low. Also too tight to the field considering the hefty crosswind from the storm, now behind me.

Base leg is just the bottom of a U-turn, and as I transition to final, I’m below the level of the trees at the righthand edge of the field, with the inner wingtip just a wingspan over the ground. Nose up, keep turning … At all costs I have to keep that wing out of the dirt, but the trees are coming up fast, branches lashing like they’re trying to grab me out of the air, and I still have a lot of angle to get through before I’m lined up with the field.

Nose up, keep turning…The extra airspeed pays off now as I trade it for glideslope, but the crosswind isn’t helping. Finally I’m lined up, crabbed hard against the crosswind, and I get the spoilers open.

The crop isn’t cabbages, it’s tobacco, and it looks a lot higher here than it did from a thousand feet up. What’s the saying? Don’t land in corn because corn will kill you, and don’t land in tobacco because the farmer will kill you. Too late for that now. The furrows are deep, and I pick one and try to fly along it as I sink down, kick it straight, flare. ZCA bumps down and all I see are leaves and water, with a rollout so short it feels like a carrier trap. Down! Not a moment too soon as the torrent redoubles and thunder rumbles overhead. The storm is cursing my escape.

No point in getting out of the plane to get soaked, so I sit there, take a deep breath, let the adrenaline fade away. The radio crackles to life. It’s Malcom calling downwind back at SOSA. A less eventful downwind than mine, I hope. I consider radioing back to let him know I’m on the ground, but don’t because he’s landing. I text Gabrielle: “Down safe.” She texts back “Toronto has heavy rain and lightning.”

Here too, ma cher. Here too.

I call Bill and Malcom for retrieve, and then there’s nothing to do but wait. The rain pounds down, thunder echos. I eat my snack, drink some water. It’s kind of peaceful, really, until my thoughts turn to the swath of destruction I’ve just cut through this field. How much is a tobacco plant worth anyway? More dollars than cents, I imagine. The rollout was short, but it can’t be less than a hundred feet, and the wingspan is 15 meters. This is going to get expensive….

The rain stops. I get out. The air is cool, the wind is calm, everything has that fresh, after-storm smell. ZCA is nestled perfectly in the furrow, embraced by two rows of tobacco plants that reach just to the underside of the wings. Miraculously, not one is damaged. Disbelieving, I walk back a hundred yards and find no trace of my passage. Even the main wheel track is gone, erased by the rain. In all that chaos, I’ve somehow managed to land along this single furrow, wings level until I stopped. How is that even possible? The farmer won’t be angry after all.

Reviewing the flight data, I see what my maximum descent rate was when the rain hit at the start of downwind, 12.8 knots down at a groundspeed of 68 knots, for a glide ratio of 5.3, still somewhat better than the space shuttle’s 4.5. Maximum circuit speed was 76 knots. I turned to base at 150 feet and I finished rolling out onto final at 15 feet, ending up 1,000 feet into the 1,800-foot field and 125 feet from the trees on the right, though they felt a lot closer.

I do the math and learn I could have saved myself some low-turn drama by getting on base two seconds earlier, but three seconds would have led to some different drama as I ran out of field at the far end. Time elapsed from sighting the storm to relaxing under the canopy was 109 seconds. Wow.

A look at the weather radar shows that at 1350 I was about 18 km north of a small precipitation center, about 3 km in radius, which was tracking northeast at about 40 km/hr. This wouldn’t have worried me even if I’d known about it, but by 1420 it had grown to cover 300 square km, and the core, now about 9 km to my southeast, had quadrupled in intensity. This is about when the downburst triggered, which I felt at 1422. What I saw at 1424 was just the edge of this immense cell. The rain line didn’t move toward me, it expanded toward me, covering three km in the time it took me to fly one, for an apparent speed of about 210 knots. The rain hit at 1425, and I was on the ground listening to the thunder at 1426. By 1430 the storm had doubled in intensity again, and it kept right on growing.

At 1450 Environment Canada issued a severe storm warning and by 1530 the beast was putting four inches of rain on a belt from Hamilton to St. Catherines, with gusts to 60 mph, nickel-size hail and a whole lot of lightning. Also wow.

The bottom line is, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. If you can fly the aircraft again, it’s a great landing. I walked away; ZCA wasn’t hurt. This was a great landing, but that wasn’t me, that was luck. The radar registered just one mm of rain per hour where I was. In the core, it was 100 mm. Somewhere between one and 100 the loss of visibility and the power of the downdraft would have made controlled flight impossible.

I learned a lot, about weather, about the plane, about how quickly an emergency unfolds, but the real lesson is about my own character. Two days ago I promised Gabrielle and Eric I would never go near a thunderstorm. Yesterday I was in one. Today I’m looking up at another sky full of towering cu and massive Cb. My feeling isn’t “Never again,” but “I want more.”

Not more flight in thunderstorms, that would be crazy, but more flight, more surge and lift and kilometers sliding beneath my wings.

I was lucky. I am lucky still.


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