Last week was the Air Safety Institute’s annual Storm Week. We only do it once a year despite some TV channels celebrating atmospheric mayhem weekly, gusting to daily and sometimes hourly. The webinar that we recorded for posterity was attended by over 900 pilots who had some interest in learning more about boomers from a controller’s perspective, and with some guidance on datalink thrown in. An area we did not spend much time on but deserves more attention is gust fronts. This phenomenon, which does not accompany every thunderstorm, can really make a hash out of your arrival or departure.
To misquote Forrest Gump, “Thunderstorms are like a box of chocolates…”, etc. What looks the same may not be, and benign can turn ugly really fast. The gust front is on the leading edge of the storm and forms when the storm hits maturity. A ripping good downdraft descending at, say, 3,000 feet per minute, has nowhere to go when it hits the ground—except out—usually to the front of the storm. The winds can go from practically nothing to 40 knots in the blink of an eye.
I was in the back seat of a Cessna 172 some decades ago with a new private pilot up front as PIC and an Air Force pilot friend, who was getting his checkout at McConnell Air Force Base in the F105 (affectionately known as the Thud). We’d flown to an airport east of Wichita and it had begun to cloud up, so we decided to return to Cessna Field on the east side of the city. On the west side, about 15 miles away, a pretty healthy thunderstorm had set up shop and shut down operations at the airline airport.
The winds were five knots or so from the northwest as we lined up on short final to Runway 35 but rapidly increased to about 15 -20 knots from the west—close, if not beyond, the demonstrated crosswind capability of the Skyhawk and well beyond the demonstrated crosswind capability of the pilot. We were about 10 feet off the ground when my Air Force friend strongly suggested a go-around. It was a good call! We headed out east and he turned to me, as senior Cessna driver, and said something to the effect of, “You get your posterior up here and land this thing!” I’m still not quite sure how we managed the seat transfer, but he came aft, I went forward to the right front seat, and we came back around for a second try. By that time the gust had passed and the winds were fairly steady from the west at about 12 knots. I’d like to say it was a heroic save on my part, but it wasn’t—just a normal Kansas crosswind, and that’s what Cessnas are built to handle.
But there were several good lessons: Don’t judge a thunderstorm by its looks, sitting in the back seat makes it a long stretch to the controls, and when in doubt—go around! I remember all three to this day.
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