Weather or Not

Martha's encounter with bad weather.



If you don't venture on sullen skies,
You never come to sunkissed valleys.
If your palms have never been moist,
Your heart has never thrilled.
If you have never been afraid,
You have never been courageous.

Gill Robb Wilson,
The Airman's World

When my sister Mary and I started flying, we learned to check aviation weather by stopping at a little room off the terminal building lobby at Lunken Airport where a teletype machine spewed out reams of yellow paper with sequence reports and forecasts. Art and Bill, the “meteorologists,” could read and interpret all the funny-looking codes and abbreviations, and they were amazingly adept at forecasting local weather. “Amazingly” because Art and Bill were actually the building maintenance men who mopped and cleaned the old Work Progress Administration-era building and did basic plumbing and electric repairs. Later on, a Flight Service Station moved into a wing of the building and the little room was relegated to a storage area, but I’ll go to my grave seeing that teletype machine and hearing the “dit-dah-dit-dit, dah-dit-dah, dit-dah” from a monitor, signaling that the LKA low frequency beacon was still on the air. Not too many years before that beacon had been the Lunken Range Station, one of those four-course radio ranges that were the primary navigation aids in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

Even into the ’60s, it was common for the old pros who flew the “big stuff” — corporate Twin Beeches, DC-3s, Lodestars, Martins and Queen Airs — to call the tower “inbound over the range.” And that sounded so damn cool I was determined to do the same thing in Ercoupe N341 even though the only radio we had was a Narco whistle-stop VHF receiver. So Mary and I flew around Indian Hill, northeast of the airport, until we spied the distinctive broadcast station — four towers in a square with a small concrete building in the center. From then on, regardless of where we’d been or in what direction, we’d divert to fly in from the northeast so we could report “the range inbound” to Lunken Tower.

But back to weather ...

In the summertime, fog and convective activity are the big issues, and in the Ohio River valley the question is usually “How long will it be after the ground fog burns off before the thunderstorms start forming?” My freight dog and old Lake Central DC-3 pals have awesome tales about flying “thunderstorm alley” over the Allegheny Mountains. Military AT-6 and C-47 pilot manuals have some interesting and curious guidance on “Flight in Turbulence and Thunderstorms.”

The Air Corps AT-6 manual, for example, says that, while flying through thunderstorms should be avoided, “a pilot, using modern equipment and possessing a combination of proper experience, common sense and instrument flying proficiency can safely fly thunderstorms.” Set power and pitch attitude for the proper penetration speed before punching into the storm, turn on the pitot heat and adjust the carburetor air, tighten the safety belt and lock the shoulder harness, turn off any radios transmitting static, adjust the cockpit lights to full bright, lower the seat and avoid staring outside the airplane. Then it’s simply a matter of maintaining attitude, holding a heading, not making power changes ... and hanging on for dear life! (That last is mine.)

In the late ’40s, a couple of entrepreneurial guys in Cincinnati came up with a great scheme involving a surplus C-47 and loads of Maine lobsters. They contracted with several upscale restaurants in the area to supply them with these live New England delicacies on a weekly basis. On the maiden voyage, they loaded the old girl to the gills with crates of crustaceans and headed west over the mountains to Ohio. Now, the weather was less than ideal, but they’d invested everything they had in the airplane and its cargo; it was crucial that they deliver this first load of lobsters on time. IMC and without any radar, somewhere over mid-central Pennsylvania, they blundered into a real hummer — hail, severe turbulence and lightning ... lots of lightning. The airplane took a couple of strikes, but the good news was they came through unscathed and landed at Lunken in time to deliver the load. The bad news was that all the lobsters were dead, as in electrocuted.

And thus ended the grand venture.

Like many of you, I’ve been throwing myself into the air since pre-Flight Service Stations days when those teletype machines and “WAG” radio/TV forecasts were all you had for weather briefings. Today we enjoy vastly improved and more accurate forecasts, the magic of computers, panel-mount and portable GPS instruments with real-time satellite weather, ATIS/AWOS/ASOS broadcasts and valuable help from Flight Watch, centers and approach controls. So, with all that and a Garmin GNS 430, plus a panel-mounted Garmin 696 with satellite weather, there’s really no excuse for flying a 1956 Cessna 180 into nasty weather when aviating around the countryside. But ...

A couple of weeks ago I flew to Knoxville to give and take check rides in Remote Area Medical’s DC-3 — N982Z. Gene Christian and I keep each other current as Part 125 check airmen for this relief organization and then we conduct the required rides with RAM’s founder and pilot extraordinare Stan Brock, and copilot Jim Massengill.

It was advertised to be and looked like a great day; I’d filed IFR, but the Smoky Mountains were emerging from the early summer morning mist and fog as 72B (my 180) and I flew over the hills to Knoxville’s Downtown Island Airport. We did the orals, briefed the flight and then spent four glorious, sweaty hours roaring around eastern Tennessee in N982Z. On the final approach into DKX I, naturally, wowed everybody with a spectacular approach and landing on Runway 27 (translation: I planted it on the approach end and got it stopped before we rolled off into the Tennessee River). But just before turning us over to local traffic, Knoxville Approach had said something about a “convective sigmet for Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia — contact HIWAS, Flight Watch or Flight Service.”

When we shut down and I could leap out, I ran into the FBO for a peek at the radar and, sure enough, there was a nasty looking line of stuff to the west and paralleling my route home. This green-and-yellow thing snaked north from the Gulf of Mexico to, I think, Baffin Bay, and there were great big blotches of orange and red. Not good, but I was pretty sure I could do an end run on it. We expedited the paperwork and I mounted up and pointed 72B north, VFR so I could stay low and circumnavigate the showers that were forming along the route. All was well until I got north of Lexington and that encroaching-but-still-parallel line started curving to the northeast right over Cincinnati; CVG’s ATIS was reporting rainshowers with gusty winds and limited visibility. I picked up an IFR clearance from Cincinnati Approach, and the controller let me stay low at 3,000 feet. He was planning to vector me around to the northeast for the ILS 21L approach at Lunken Airport (LUK) but, seeing the rapidly advancing wall of gray-green off my left wing already obliterating the city, I requested and got a visual to 3R. Wind direction — unless it’s a hellacious crosswind — isn’t too important in the 180 with 6,100 feet of concrete.

Well, after 20 years and several engines, I figure I know 72B pretty well, but trying to land was like riding El Toro the turbobull at Bobbie Mackey’s country music saloon. It simply wouldn’t sit, and I was afraid of what might happen if I did get it on the concrete. The controller thought I was down and cleared me for a 180 back to the hangar, but I was already pouring the cobs to it and going around; I told her this wasn’t going to work. Then she said the wind had shifted just as I was trying to land and it was pretty steady out of 280 degrees at 15 gusting to something. Would I like to try Runway 25? Yeah, I’d give it one try and then turn tail and head off to the east to Clermont County Airport. I know ... first gusts, downdrafts and microbursts, and maybe I shouldn’t have tried. But it worked and I got it to the hangar as the skies opened up and that gray-green wall of rain enveloped the airport.

I’m not advocating anybody flirt around the edges of thunderstorms, and I’m not bragging about my skills or decision-making — there was an ugly element of “get-home-itis” in what I did. But I figured I had an “out.” And, OK, I have one of those “if you’re not living on the edge you’re probably taking up too much room” personalities. Not particularly desirable if you subscribe to the “no old, bold pilots” adage, but it sure beats pureed peas running down your chin in the old ladies’ home.