Shelter From the Storm(s)

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The crack of thunder was ear splitting and air clearing; you could smell the electricity. Though the rain had diminished from its torrential pace, there was little doubt that this thunderstorm was directly above us. Not one second of interval between flash of lightning and thwack of thunder was detectable. How pleased I was that I'd made arrangements for our airplane to be hangared on this stormy night.

No sooner had I thought these thoughts than the lights went out in this New Hampshire cottage. Water was no longer available, as electricity was required to run the well pump. The rain picked up again, sheets of it sprayed the windows as if buckets of water had been hurled at the house. Rivers of water cascaded off the roof, but our Cheyenne was safely tucked into one of the new hangars at Lebanon, New Hampshire. We had arrived just in time. The next day we learned that a woman had been killed in a neighboring town. A tornado had removed her house from around her as she sat in her living room.

The new hangars towards the south end of the field were a welcome development for us. Jay Fitzgerald, Lebanon's operations supervisor, was just putting the finishing touches on getting the hangars occupied as our week in New England rolled into view.

Our hangar was a big one. Jay had contacted Michael Nolan of Washington, D.C., and arranged for us to borrow his electric tug so as to put our airplane in the hangar. Michael spends lots of time in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River and rents a hangar full time at LEB and one at Gaithersburg (KGAI). He flies a Baron.

As we taxied up just ahead of the storm clouds, Jay was standing there, tug in hand. Together we got the Cheyenne towed around to our temporary hangar and pointed her backwards into the sheltering building gated with a huge bifold door. The construction was so new that there was a two inch difference between the hangar floor and the ramp. You can guess which was higher. This necessitated the placement of three plywood wedges to allow the tug to push the airplane (now weighing about 7,400 pounds, I'd guess) up the hill into the hangar.

You can not imagine how slow an electric tug moves when it isn't attached to an airplane and how fast it seems when you are propelling three-plus tons of pride onto three very small appearing plywood ramps. I had not yet heard about the owner who missed and damaged his Cessna 182 when it careened into the hangar wall. Safely tucked away, I thanked Jay, called Michael Nolan to thank him and headed for shelter.

I was to repeat this feeling of earnest thanks for five straight days. Though our power was restored and the water got pumping again, it was a very soggy week. Without Jay and the folks at LEB, I'd have been constantly fretting about the airplane and its safety.

To make things even better, Greg Soho at Signal Aviation at LEB agreed to tug us in and out, once the appropriate asphalt had been put down to make the plywood wedges unnecessary. Since we're in a community hangar at Signature in Tampa, it was fun to visit the airplane in its own "house."

The next week I headed for Oshkosh, St. Louis and South Bend. Each trip featured classic summer flying, with lots of convective activity and lots of deviation, but for the most part I got to where I wanted to get when I wanted to get there.

Until late August, that is. Hurricane Fay got downgraded to a tropical storm but it still managed to wreck havoc on the state of Florida. One of the principal reasons for its negative effectiveness was that it hung around over various parts of the state for days on end. Rain, in some places over two feet of it in two days, made for floods, power outages and frayed tempers. (I sometimes wonder if the tempers are a result of the rain and humidity or the actual barometric depression.) On the day I had planned to fly my trusty Labrador retriever, Corbett, from Tampa back to New Hampshire, the storm squatted squarely in our path over the northern part of the state. My wife, Cathy, was waiting eagerly in New Hampshire to see us; actually, mostly eager to see the dog.

The night before the proposed trip I phoned two consultants whom I know to be consummate airmen and wise souls in general. Not only that, but they know me and my limitations, both as an aviator and a man. I called Rob Haynes, head of standards at Southwest Airlines, Cessna 210 owner and a calm presence in general, and asked for his advice. Go or no go? He sent me SWA's hurricane update, which sounded ominous as hell. Rob and I agreed to talk the next morning. So did Doug Commins. He was my simulator partner at Higher Power Aviation in Dallas a couple of years ago when we got our 737 type ratings. Doug now flies for NetJets and was on a seven-day trip flying important people around, with the occasional dog himself.

On the eve of the proposed flight, both men said that the flight could be possible, but that up to the minute information would steer the decision. I slept fitfully.

Next morning, I awoke to whipping winds and dark, uneven skies. The storm was now tracking westward from Jacksonville towards the panhandle. A flight westward over the Gulf of Mexico would circumvent the storm. But what a deviation, hundreds of miles out of the way. What about contingency planning? Rob and I discussed losing an engine and having to divert to Mobile or back to Fort Myers, well south of the storm. Plenty of fuel for either, we decided, even if I had to drift down to a lower altitude and burn more gas in the remaining engine. Doug called with similar thoughts; head west around the westward side of the system, put up with the headwinds, avoid the nasty stuff to the eastern side, stay well away from precip. Little did I know, I was to ignore both advisors.

I drove to the airport in a wary mood. I loaded the airplane with some luggage and the dog in a light rain. The wind was out of the west at 18 gusting to 25 knots. The pitot tube covers snapped erratically. I filed to head west to Panama City, then reverse course back towards the northeast once clear of the weather. I selected 20,000 feet. Not too high where the airplane's performance starts to fall off, not too low where she burns too much fuel. A quick stop in the men's room; a furtive look at the radar. The rain had already engulfed Panama City. I would be going even further west.

Topped off, I started up and headed out to Runway 18L. Cleared for take-off, I lifted off and turned right to 310 degrees. This path would suffice for only a few minutes according to Nexrad and onboard radar. It was rocky. I was step climbed to 11,000 then turned over to Jacksonville Center. The first bands of red were showing about 20 miles straight ahead.

JAX said, "Five Eight Whiskey, I know what you are trying to do, you know, by going west and all, but we've had several airplanes go through this thing." I was stunned. A quick glance at the Nexrad did show an alley with no precip at all -- all the way to Taylor at the top of the state.

"Airplanes like me? In the mid-20s?" I asked. "Yes," came the answer.

"Okay, then, we'll give it a shot," I said."Cleared direct Taylor when able, climb and maintain Flight Level 200," he replied. I turned to find the dog asleep on the floor, just behind the wing spar, oblivious.

In and out of cloud at FL 200, we suddenly burst in the clear. We were in the "eye," if that's what you call it, of a tropical storm. It looked like I was in a huge white porcelain bowl. I couldn't see the ground, but the sides of the storm were obvious. There was light chop only. So far, so good.

I could see ahead and it almost looked as if I could top the north wall at 25,000 feet. I asked for, and got, Flight Level 250, contact JAX center on the next freq. "Good morning, JAX, Five Eight Whiskey, Level 250. How are the ride reports ahead at our altitude?" Image: © FlightAware.com / Not for Navigation

"I don't know. I haven't had anybody go through there recently." WHOAA! I was in the eye, it looked like I could see ahead pretty well, there were bands with more red on the radar, but there were breaks. In some places there was no precip at all. I decided to carry on. The dog sensed this was not a time for canine communication. He just looked up at me.

At 250 I was again in and out of cloud. This time there was ice. I had turned on the windshield and pitot heat and neither was overwhelmed with ice accumulation. Thirty minutes later I was in the clear.

I landed for fuel in Suffolk, Virginia. When I called Cathy she said, "Where are you?" "Haven't you been tracking us on FlightAware?" I asked. "Oh, no, I forgot." "Well, you might want to look it up," I said. "I'll be there in a few hours."

Cathy met Corbett and me at LEB and we tucked the airplane into that gorgeous hangar. That night the drinks and dinner were especially good. When I turned on the e-mail, I saw this from Rob Haynes: "Hurricane Hunter: Why go around a storm when you can go through the eye? Well done, lad." Attached was the track you saw at the top this story.