Spring started on Saturday- March 20; Summer arrives in Solstice style on Monday- this June 21. My usual reminder to beware of Storm Season tends to come with the first letter of the season’s name: if we’re in a season that starts with an “S”- it’s Storm Season. Spring and/or Summer = Storm Season. It’s that simple.

Dave Higdon  |  01st June 2010
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Duck & Cover:
Cold-War relic remains a good call when storm season meets flying.

Spring started on Saturday- March 20; Summer arrives in Solstice style on Monday- this June 21. My usual reminder to beware of Storm Season tends to come with the first letter of the season’s name: if we’re in a season that starts with an “S”- it’s Storm Season. Spring and/or Summer = Storm Season. It’s that simple.

That means- by the time you read this just before Summer rolls around- we’ll be halfway through 2010’s Storm Season.

So far- only the usual news has been received of the occasional errant pilot misjudging conditions or failing to heed a stern warning against flying. Sadly- they happen every year – sometimes only a handful- sometimes into double digits…and too often fatal.

There have been plenty of opportunities – a bounty of them in 2010 alone - and as of this writing- we were only into month five. According to a preliminary count for 2010- the U.S. has seen more than 260 tornados just between March and mid-May. Add in to the mix January and February’s tornados and the tally edges past 300.

In case you miss the significance- tornados represent the worst-case manifestation of thunderstorms in particular- and large bands of convective weather in general. And we’ll likely see plenty more than the 308 already recorded before the year’s out. In a typical year the United States sees more than 1-000 tornados – and thousands more storms that rise to just short of spawning twisters… but still producing airplane- breaking conditions.

As this piece was being penned- just such a band of weather pressed toward the Wichita area and a corridor of the American Midwest stretching from New Mexico and West Texas north and east to near Minneapolis.

Hurricane season also equates to tornado season since hurricanes often spawn scores of twisters when they pass over land. And the hurricane season is predicted to be a robust one. Hold on to your briefcases folks. It’s going to be a bumpy Summer.

The phenomenon is well known and highly respected in meteorology circles: the convergence of a large swath of chilled Canadian air colliding with an equally massive arc of warm air moist with evaporated water absorbed while it crossed the Gulf of Mexico from points in the South Atlantic. All along the line of collision- where the fronts meet- Mother Nature can get violent.

We in aviation prefer to have an airborne airplane nowhere near the sky where the collision will occur. Thunderstorms- frontal and isolated- along a band of localized development have a nasty way of mistreating airplanes and those unfortunate enough to be inside one during such a meeting.

And weather threats aren’t limited to tornado or turbulent weather. Straight-line winds- wind shear- micro-bursts- downdrafts and lightning from these events can all play into a bad scenario for anyone caught in – or merely near – the action. Just take a look at any news footage after a tornado swipes down the structures in its path and try to imagine the discomfort of experiencing even a fraction of that force.

But this summer- maybe only a few- maybe a couple dozen- will by decision or obliviousness fly themselves into weather they immediately wish they hadn’t. Sometimes the best decision is to make a new decision – and just stay put- right where you are- until the storm passes you by. F


The Mississippi accent of the Flight Service Station briefer could not have been more colorful – or more convincing – in the response he gave a pilot’s briefing request one late- Spring Sunday afternoon. The Part 91 business flight from Florida to Wichita managed to deviate around weather in Lower Alabama and made it uneventfully across Central Mississippi.

Near the Mississippi River at the scheduled fuel stop the pilot made a request for a weather briefing covering Greenville Municipal to Wichita Mid-Continent – complete with all the specifics. The response went thus:

“Son- I don’t care if you’ve got weather radar- Stormscope- of a direct line to the Almighty. I just want to tell you we’ve got a thousand-mile-line of weather ahead of you with tops at sixty-five-thousand-feet. We’ve got airline captains across the south looking for a place to wait it out- and a line of lights blinking on the phone waiting for me to tell other pilots the same thing.

“Anything else I can do for you?”
“Yeah- one thing-” the pilot replied. “Can you recommend a good hotel in Greenville?”

The briefer jumped in with recommendations for hotels and nice restaurants- as well as directions to the riverboat casinos- adding- “The weather won’t hit you for a while- so you can get out. But tie her down good – you’ll know why when it comes.”

The images on the FBO’s weather display graphically emphasized the message from the man at FSS. This was “don’t-even-thinkabout- it” weather.

The pilot who asked the briefing took the advice. About 10 hours later- in the small hours before dawn- the hounds of hell descended on Greenville- Mississippi (or that’s the way it sounded in the hotel- according to the pilot).

One of the pilots awaiting a briefing apparently came away with a slightly different instinct than our subject who overnighted in Greenville. A couple of days later he learned of an accident only a few miles off his planned route – a plane coming from the opposite direction disappeared at just about the exact time and place where the pilot would have been.

The accident report later noted that the pilot received a weather briefing during a fuel stop still well west of the storm. The storm was blowing up from the southwest and northeast – essentially moving toward a center from the opposite ends. The ill-fated pilot apparently believed he could get through the middle of the line before the weather erupted- at night- over unfriendly terrain.

The lesson for many pilots: weather briefings and weather avoidance gear only work when heeded.

Second guessing the briefer is second nature to many pilots. And the urge to “go take a look” can be overwhelming when the pressure to fly is on. Frankly- ignoring the information from good technology- and instead using it to try to outmaneuver weather is a little like trying to beat the railroad train to the crossing- or weaving around the cross-bucks once they’ve come down. Too often- the dare loses.

Every year a few pilots make the mistake of pressing ahead into convective weather – a tragic call- too often- when the statistics and aviation legend tell such a discouraging tale. Weather-related accidents- in general- are a significant percentage of the whole – mostly pilots flying into conditions outside their abilities or ratings.

Among business aviation crews- the category of flying VFR in IFR conditions is as close to non-existent as it can get - but the instances of convective weather and turbulence contributing to an accident remains at about one-fifth among weather-related events – and they are fatal about half the time.

There are so many opportunities to know the conditions these days. Cell-phone applications can download forecast information- current conditions at specific airports- and even provide the user with live weatherradar images.

On-board weather radar is common to business jets and increasingly available on turboprops. Even a $1-000 portable GPS can be used to receive subscription-based weather services – providing digital Doppler weather-radar graphics on its little screen… Yes- it’s a six-minute-old snapshot of the entire continent’s radar map- delivered right to the device in your cockpit.

And still those few pilots who see the dark-red regions on the screen persist in “taking a look”! Operators- employers and passengers can do themselves a big favor this time of year by making sure their flight crews know that no mission is so important that it can’t take a stop- a deviation or a delay when the stay-on-schedule alternative risks run high.

The equipment exists to inform the pilot; it can be equally useful informing passengers. There should be no excuse.

Many parts of aviation hold little-to-no appeal as experiences to experience. The highest on most pilots’ avoidance list: weather you instantly regret encountering.

Thunderstorms produce air so violent that an airplane structurally fails from the encounter. Air can be rising at thousands of feet per minute – 50- 60 and even 80 mph vertically – immediately adjacent to air moving downward even more violently.

The shear line at the boundary can expose the wings and tail surfaces to forces beyond their ability to endure. Rapidly changing air movement can deprive a wing of flying speed one second and send it into redline territory the next.

The impact sitting inside can feel like the entire airplane hit a speed bump at 200 mph; or it can make you instantly weightless- the seatbelts dragging you with the plane as it plummets toward the ground.

Speaking of the ground…imagine any of the above encounters while trying to land or during a take-off attempt; the margin for survival would need a micrometer to measure. Such encounters may add to a pilot’s wealth of hangar-flying tales; they may provide a demonstration of the strength of the airplane- BUT they will certainly reveal weaknesses in the pilot’s thinking.

Such events teach a pilot something they never- ever- want to repeat. They also can reveal limitations in the endurance of the airplane.

As we should have already pushed home: Flying in stormy weather is no fun for the pilot. Obviously- it’s dangerous and potentially deadly.

Seasoned pilots may seem immune to the everyday bumps and sways of typical turbulence- even the rougher skies of something as benign as rain. Yet no pilot who’s survived an encounter after questioning the decision to be in those conditions is likely to repeat the exposure under any circumstances.

Passengers endure such experiences with even less comfort than pilots. Logically you would think that no passenger who’s endured a discomforting encounter would urge a pilot to press on- knowing of a likely encounter ahead with similar conditions… but those with no prior experience to weigh their thinking against sometimes do – and so do their colleagues- supervisors and managers.

Of course- the pilot-in-command is ultimately responsible for the airplane and the safety of its occupants – flight crew included. But the pilot may not always feel like the call is the pilot’s to make – not in the face of pressure to fly for the good of the business or the personal needs of the passengers.

Savvy- enlightened flight departments make this issue moot by vesting flight crew with the right to say- “No. Not this time.”

For those facing a situation of secondguessing and “why-this” questioning- a few tips that could help sway your critics follow.

Second-Guesser #1: The Gadget-driven Expert: The question starts as a statement: “My [iPhone/Droid/BlackBerry] says it’s fine there. Why aren’t we going?”
Your answer:Conditions along the way…in between…as in- we can’t get there without flying through here. Don’t be bashful about pulling out your own electronic device to show the doubter the weather at issue.

Second-Guesser #2: The Weather Channel Expert: “Well- last night Alexandra Steel [or Jim Cantore- if you will] said it’s supposed to be good there – only a 30 percent chance of bad weather.”
Your answer:Sometimes that 30 percent hits and makes it 100-percent bad. And when we get there it’s going to be really bad.

Second-Guesser #3: The Home-Field Advantage: “I just talked to my [wife/husband/ neighbor/secretary/boss] and they said the storm just moved out and it’s clear - so why aren’t we going?
Your answer:If you can get them back on the phone- tell them they’re about to get wet again – or maybe tell them to head for the shelter- because that pause was the quiet before the twister hits.

Second-Guesser #4: The travel veteran: “I’ve seen worse than this and we flew…it was uncomfortable at times- but we got through OK…
Your answer:You’ve probably used up all your weather luck- because you should not have flown that time – and you got lucky. I’m not counting on luck happening twice.

Second-Guesser #5: The Yeah- But: “You say you wouldn’t fly- but I heard you…”
Your answer:If I did what you said I did and you hired me for a pilot- I must have an idiot for a boss – because only an idiot would do what you heard I did…

More than 300 tornados already this year; some of those twisters hit airports – and the airplanes on the ground fared badly for the encounter.

But as seasoned- experienced pilots know- it’s always better to be down here on the ground- wishing you were up there making mileage- than to be up there in the weather – and wishing you were on the ground- safe and sound.

It’s best to be enjoying a beverage- on the phone- rescheduling appointments that you’ll live to keep another day- unworried about the third dimension of mobility Mother Nature has to play with when one of her stormier children get their hands on airplanes that ignore their power.


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