Living with Thunder

June 23, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

Thunderstorms_ATC_Splash2-2We’ve been told, ad nauseum, about the dangers of thunderstorms. Most pilots heed the advice but, on average, there are about 5 accidents a year involving the big sparking clouds. Most, but not all, involve aircraft on IFR flight plans. Staying clear is essential and how do you make the decision to fly?

ASF has a new Thunderstorms and ATC course that launched last week and it’s recommended for all including VFR pilots. We don’t spend a lot of time on “This is a thunderstorm and there are three stages” but rather discuss the hows and whats of dealing with air traffic control. There are two accident case studies, one involving a data-linked aircraft.

My most recent thunderstorm experience involved a 40 minute trip in a Bonanza in the Baltimore area. There were some widely scattered boomers and the destination airport was just in the corner of a convective Sigmet  box. I’d looked at the radar in the hotel and it all seemed flyable although there was one big cell SW of the destination that was moving due east.

Since internet was not easily available to  file IFR I spoke to an FSS briefer. The briefer was predictably over-conservative in describing what seemed like a non-issue. As the conversation unfolded and he was describing the big cell that was moving at 25 knots , I mentioned to him that it would be at least an hour before I got to that patch of airspace and a lot could happen  – good or bad – by then.

We parted on friendly terms and the flight turned out to be easy IFR:  well on top of lower clouds at 6,000 and what CBs were around could be easily seen. All the heavy action was South. Here’s what was a bit troubling.  The briefer being very careful to describe what was there perhaps added more caution than was needed under this circumstance.

When I said that weather was South,  he responded that new cells might develop. When I asked about an end run around to the north that was also greeted with caution.  The problem with dealing with pessimists is that after awhile we tend to stop listening. If you understand weather – that’s fine. The trouble is that way too many pilots have only a cursory knowledge and that gets them into difficulty after many successful flights of hearing doom and gloom that doesn’t materialize.

I don’t have an easy answer for this because the government often gets sued whenever unforecast unpleasantness occurs. The converse is never true. That is, nobody gets in trouble on a forecast for nasty things that don’t happen. As we’ve said many time – ya gotta know the territory (understand weather) or be prepared to really divert when deciding it’s OK to take a look.

What I’d really like is truth in forecasting and pilots who understood what PIC really means (it’s not somebody else’s fault).

Note: there will be a live webinar on June 30. You can join us by registering online.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Marc Olson

    “What I’d really like is truth in forecasting and pilots who understood what PIC really means (it’s not somebody else’s fault).”

    I think the bigger problem is that the families of the PIC and juries in the trials need a better understanding of what PIC really means.

  • John Roberts

    I’m amazed at how close your ideas and opinions are to my own. WXBrief is usually as you say, pessimistic and very conservative. This is why 95% of the time I self-brief through I wish every REAL pilot would explain to his/her family that he/she takes full responsibility for the safety of all flights.