The thunderstorm season is in full swing, and Oklahoma seems to be ground zero for the really bad ones, although they can occur anywhere, anytime as any pilot knows. For the first time, three storm chasers were lost tracking a big twister in rural Oklahoma. Storm chasing is a fascinating, frustrating, and potentially very dangerous business as the players attempt to get close to funnels, but not too close, to shoot pictures, measure wind speeds/pressure, and create memorable video for public consumption and awe. The three chasers were, by reputation, highly experienced and cautious. The details of the accident are sobering: The small Chevy Cobalt they were driving was hurled about a half-mile, end over end. Witnesses said it looked as if it had gone through a trash compactor. A nearby Weather Channel SUV was “merely” tossed two football fields, but there were no serious injuries.
The late Captain Bob Buck, a great aviation and weather pioneer, had once remarked to me that thunderstorms were “treacherous.” I’d never heard anthropomorphic characteristics ascribed to a force of nature.
The Washington Post article on the chasers noted that the fatal funnel, “Remained shrouded in rain and difficult to see. It was eccentric in its behavior, like many tornadoes. First it traveled southeast, then shifted due east in a track paralleling Interstate 40. When it reached U.S. Highway 81, the tornado made a sharp turn to the northeast, as if following a road sign.” Apparently that caught the chasers off guard and they could not escape.
This year, if the averages are normal, we can expect about eight fatal airplane/thunderstorm encounters, and there’s no way to guess about the close calls, but I’ll estimate they’re much higher than the disasters. Every week someone will get a rude education that avoiding the big clouds is more than just a good idea.
Unlike most other weather phenomena, a thunderstorm encounter will not have a relatively gradual onset like icing or getting into instrument conditions. Everything will be tolerable and then it will become awful in a few seconds. Use your imagination to feel the Force, Luke. It’s been described as the energy release of dozens of nuclear weapons.
There are many effective tools to stay clear: Our eyes, datalink, onboard radar, spherics, ATC assistance and perhaps most importantly, the willingness to delay, fly well out of the way, or land. Use as many of them as are available—do not depend on just one!
Most storms live and die quickly, but we’d like to have our lifespan greatly exceed the storm. The Air Safety Institute will be making a big push on thunderstorm education next week, June 9-16. On Thursday, June 13, we’ll have a live webinar at 8 p.m. EDT and will be joined by air traffic controller Andy Marosvari to discuss all things convective. Join us, won’t you?
These webinars and online courses from the Air Safety Institute are just part of what the AOPA Foundation does to help general aviation improve its safety record. And your support keeps those efforts alive. A donation to the Foundation goes a long way toward continuing these free educational resources for pilots everywhere.