Storm Week : Lightweights vs. a heavyweight

June 13, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

This week is proclaimed Storm Week by AOPA, and we’ll look at all things convective in order to encourage, educate, and eventually eliminate encounters with thunderstorms. That’s a tall order because on any given day there are hundreds of these storms on the prowl. When aircraft are matched up directly with CB, the overwhelming winner is Mother Nature. Pilots have been warned about thunderstorms since the earliest days of flight, and with the exception of a few research aircraft that have deliberately gone looking for trouble, you are advised to stay well clear.

The photo is of a special T-28 Trojan built in 1949 and modified to withstand hail up to three inches in diameter, severe turbulence, icing, and lightning. It was armor-plated on the wing’s leading edges and tail. The canopy was reinforced with bulletproof Lexan and extra metal. Research was funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D. Our aircraft are not equipped, nor are we trained, for such penetrations –the pilots were wearing helmets and 5-point harnesses.

A Bonanza A36 pilot at the end of last month tangled with a severe thunderstorm over Macon, Miss. According to the NTSB preliminary report,” …The center controller advised the pilot of extreme precipitation at the airplane’s 12 o’clock position and 85 miles away, extending north and south. The pilot acknowledged the information and added that he was looking at it, and evaluating if there was any way to get through it. At 1626, the controller advised the pilot that there was a break in the extreme precipitation, but still moderate to heavy precipitation, on a heading of 330 degrees at 115 miles. The pilot stated that he saw that as well, and thought it would be the best location to fly through the line of precipitation (emphasis added). The pilot subsequently received permission to deviate to that location. At 1633, the controller asked the pilot if he had weather radar onboard, and the pilot replied that he had ‘Nexrad Composite.’ At 1636, the pilot requested a lower altitude to remain below the freezing level, and he ultimately descended to 12,000 feet. At 1653, the pilot advised the controller that a cell had ‘filled in,’ but there was still a gap about 10 miles north, which he planned to fly through. The controller acknowledged the pilot’s intentions. No further communication was received from the accident airplane and radar contact was lost at 1656:27.”

Whenever operating near severe thunderstorms, all precip should be avoided. Remember that datalink/Nexrad does not show turbulence.

This accident bears some similarity to the A36 accident written up in the June AOPA Pilot.

We’ll be doing a special thunderstorm webcast on Thursday, June 14th at 3pm and 8pm EDT. I will be joined by Dr. David Strahle, one of the fathers of datalink, and by Matt Sullivan, a controller at the Potomac Tracon to discuss what we see in the cockpit and how to get the best advice from ATC.

Lightweights should avoid heavyweights at all costs, and don’t be there when the punch comes! Hope you can join us. If you miss the live broadcast, it will be archived on AOPA Live.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Doug Hansell

    Every time I read one of these stories all I can think is, “have you lost your mind?” When flying I am terrified of T-Storms. I simply can’t comprehend why any GA pilot would attempt to tangle with this force of nature…

  • Kim Peck

    It would be very instructive to have the Wx radar tapes around the time of this accident. Many pilots now fly with Nexrad radar on board. This certainly reenforces the advice that Nexrad should only be used “strategically” not “tactically”. Seeing the data which the accident pilot used for decision making would be a lesson for all who use (and pay for) this service. Knowing when you are over matched is imperative for survival.


  • Jeffrey Burl

    I am actually writing about a different topic, still related to thunderstorms. What do you think about the advise that is usually given to pilots to: Keep the wings level, maintain Va, and fly straight if you enter a thunderstorm. This may be good advice if you actually enter a thunderstorm, but most pilots, especially less experienced pilots, will note the turbulence increasing before getting into the thunderstorm and should turn around and stay out of the thunderstorm. Anyway, I always thought this advice is a mistake, because it will keep pilots plowing ahead into deteriorating conditions.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    There is some debate about whether even the continue straight ahead advice once inside is valid. Here’s the objective: To get out of the storm as quickly as possiblle – without losing control. In the example you state – obviously, it would be good to trun around before actually penetrating the cloud.

    This is a potentialy catatrophic situation so the best advice we can give is to stay out of convective weather because your life depends on it.

  • Private Jet Hire Direct

    Flew through a thunderstorm in a light aircraft and can honestly say it was the scariest thing I have ever done

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