Storms Haven’t Changed, but Our Resources Have

Back in the 1980s when I worked in the Flying offices, I remember overhearing then-Editor in Chief Dick Collins talking with now-Editor in Chief Mac McClellan on the phone. "It's time for the thunderstorm article again. Do you want to do it this year, or is it my turn?" Of course, given the lead time for a print magazine, this conversation took place as snow was swirling outside the window in Manhattan. (Conversely, a similar conversation about icing would take place at a time when the walk down 34th Street was a sweltering ordeal.) But every year, Flying continues to perform its civic duty by reminding pilots that weather's challenges change from season to season, and usually offering a nugget or two of specific aviation wisdom that might come in handy when you think of it on a dark and stormy night.

With the tragedy of Air France Flight 447 fresh in our minds, it seems an equally appropriate time to remind readers, here, of the dangers of summer thunderstorms. Mother Nature can be violently cruel and unforgiving -- and she can show an equal measure of contempt for an international airline captain with 10,000 hours, 228 passengers and the most sophisticated modern equipment on board. Across North America, this year has been an unusually active one for convective weather; all the more reason to be on the alert.

Most pilots agree that in-cockpit weather is among the most profound additions to our arsenal. For the prudent pilot, it adds utility more than "safety." A flight that would have been cancelled or delayed due to the remote possibility of dangerous weather can now be completed. With a God's eye view of weather radar depictions, we can know so much more about what is safe and what is not. What we must guard against is pressing too closely; cutting our margins too fine.

I remember a trip back in the 1980s -- my first long IFR journey. The route was from New Jersey to Kentucky. It was summer, and I was flying a Beech Sierra with an early version of the Ryan Stormscope. All it could do was identify that lightning strikes were out there, somewhere, and define an approximate vector. But to me, it was the absence of any information on the display screen that spoke volumes. Knowing what was NOT embedded in the haze along the route of flight gave me confidence that I might not have enjoyed without the technology.

Even with XM Weather, I still make sure to combine what I learn from my screen with what I hear on the frequency and what I see out my windshield. And I'm always sure to add a wide buffer between what I think is going to happen and what could possibly happen under the worst-case scenario.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at We'd love to hear from you.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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