I Learned About Flying From That: Beware of the Super Cell

One pilot's encounter with nasty weather teaches him to trust his gut.

Barry Ross

Barry Ross

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
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It’s really weird how certain memories stick like fish in a hot iron skillet. So it is with a memory from my past, early in my flying career.

“Miserable” is the only description that fits for that Gulf Coast summer morning in July 1985. Don’t get me wrong: The sun was shining brightly, but the temperature and dew point were the same, and both were in the upper 70s. Anyone who is a pilot knows that, when those two numbers are in the 70s and low 80s, it is a recipe for boomers. I had a long day ahead, six legs and all single-pilot. I was to leave PNS (Pensacola, Florida) and fly to MSY (New Orleans, Louisiana) for the first leg, MSY to PFN (Panama City, Florida) for the second, then to TPA (Tampa, Florida) for the third, JAX (Jacksonville, Florida) for the fourth, back to PFN for the fifth and finally back to PNS.

The first leg is the only one that went as planned. It was to be a 12-hour duty day, long by today’s standards with two pilots, insane as a single pilot. I knew it would be difficult, but I also knew that it would be great PIC time that I desperately needed if I ever wanted to land an airline job. By the end of the day, there existed one very broken airplane that would more than likely never see the air again, and one frightened, young pilot who was very thankful to be on the green side of the grass!

High pressure off the coast of Florida dominated the Southeast, pumping in very wet air from the Gulf of Mexico. There was a fast-moving cold front extending out of a strong low pressure approaching from the west; the “bull’s-eye” was centered between PNS and MSY, my route for the first two legs.

The Piper Navajo Chieftain’s huge Continental TSIO-540s roared to life right on cue and right on schedule. A quick taxi to Runway 16, followed by systems and run-up checks, and my long day was under way. I had only five people, minimum luggage and a scant fuel load (IFR minimums plus reserves). But, even with this light load, I was surprised how sluggishly the airplane climbed in the hot and humid Gulf Coast summer air.

At my cruise altitude of 8,000 feet, autopilot engaged, I switched on the weather radar for a test. Test pattern … check! Tilt control … check! There’s already a cell 40 miles away at my 2 o’clock position. Using my tilt I’ll see how high this thing is. Hmm ... this radar will not paint that cell even at this distance. No maintenance in New Orleans; I’ll write that up when I get back to PNS.

I scanned the skies, where the cumulus clouds were rapidly becoming towering cumulus and still building, 30 minutes into a one-hour-and-15-minute flight, and I was already dodging the tops. By the time I descended into MSY there was a line of storms behind me, east of my position and west of my next destination.

Buildups were rapidly turning into cells and super cells, requiring wide deviations during the approach and landing. I called dispatch for a weather briefing, and to discuss the radar situation and negotiate the next route of flight to Panama City. Had I known at that time what I know now, I would never have left MSY with broken weather radar. I was young and st … uh … inexperienced, with just over 1,500 hours total time, just enough to exercise privileges of ATP, and just enough also to learn how nasty a super cell can be! My dispatcher was a person in an office with a telephone to Flight Service. Looking back, I should have called for a weather update myself from the company phone in New Orleans; I would have asked the right questions.

The line of building super cells extended from 100 miles into Alabama to 60 miles into the Gulf of Mexico and was building rapidly, already containing tops above 30,000 feet. My cruise altitude to Panama City was filed for 9,000 feet. I turned on the weather radar, more out of habit, knowing that it was a futile effort. It showed the same as the first leg, nothing but a test pattern. Lightning flashed to the north; there were rain showers out of the bottoms to the south. Houston Center frequency was busy with commercial airlines deviating and diverting for fuel. I should have done the same.

Gulfport, Mississippi, was directly below with gusty winds but still in the clear. Like a fool, I pressed on. I listened in on the company frequency; another flight from New Orleans to Pensacola was just a few miles ahead, in the building weather. The pilot on that flight said his routing was just light to occasional moderate turbulence with no precipitation. I asked ATC to vector me on the same flight path. This sounded like a good idea at the time, but due to my inexperience, I forgot to take into consideration the movement of the line. The few miles that separated my flight and the flight in front of me were enough to put me directly in the path of a building super cell.

The first downdraft hit like a giant hand pushing down on the top of the airplane. I need power! Mixtures full rich, props full forward, throttles … push, push, they’re all the way to the stops! I was still descending, 8,000, 7,000, finally stopping at 6,000 feet. Out the windshield was an ominous green color, about the color of a sprout of peas. As quickly as the downdraft stopped, an updraft started. No matter what I tried, I could not hold altitude. Throttles idle! Control yoke, push forward! Push, push, push hard! The updraft ended very abruptly, like hitting a ceiling. The altimeter started unwinding one more time, but this time the artificial horizon tumbled. The abrupt end to the updraft did internal damage, loosening the forward instrument panel. One male passenger was screaming, begging me to get him out of this storm. I was doing all I could just to hang on.

Without the attitude indicator, I couldn’t tell which way was up, although I knew I was descending rapidly. Something flew past my head, (I later figured out it was my Jeppesen binder). I managed a quick radio call to Houston Center. “Center, flight 142 going down!” Houston’s response was short but to the point, wanting to know the problem for my impending demise. I did not answer; I could not answer; I could just barely hang on to this wild ride.

As quickly as this nightmare started it ended, spitting me out the bottom of the cell at 1,500 feet, nearly bottom side up — I would estimate 100 to 110 degrees of bank to the left, nose pointing down. My attitude indicator was tumbled, showing only black. Out my windshield, looking up, I saw water and, quickly orienting myself, very abruptly righted myself with a violent control input. To my amazement, I noticed that PNS was directly in front of me and called the tower there, dropped the gear and landed. Never in my life, even to this day, have I ever been so happy to be back on terra firma.

The aircraft was damaged, with a buckled right-wing main spar and a twisted fuselage, but all the pieces were still intact. I needed to sit on the exit step for a few minutes before I was able to walk into the terminal. My knees had the consistency of melted butter, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating profusely. Fear had finally set in, especially when I realized how close I had just come to ending my own life and the lives of my passengers. As they exited the aircraft, they didn’t say a word, not to each other and not to me; they were probably just as frightened as I was, possibly more, although I find that hard to believe.

I learned several lessons that day: 1) Trust your gut. If your gut is telling you not to do something, do not do it! 2) If weather radar doesn’t test, don’t for a minute believe that it will work anyway. 3) If there is an airport that is clear and close and the weather in front is severe, land and wait. Thunderstorms always move or rain themselves out. 4) Never follow someone else into a line of severe weather. Remember, it’s building and moving at the same time. 5) If commercial airlines are deviating and diverting, and you are in a light aircraft, do the same.