IFR, or, The Continuous Correction of Your Own Mistakes

How many times have you stared at the display of your lightning detection equipment, and questioned whether it was telling you the truth? The strange fact of the matter is that most humans have distrust of technology, and sometimes (for the worst reasons) tend to disbelieve what it is telling us.

I can think of a good example where the opposite was true, and the results were so clear, and so dangerous, that they are worth sharing. I was enroute on a return trip from London, Ontario, Canada, for the rollout of a new aircraft. The weather inbound had been entertaining — a thunderstorm knocked out the VOR as I was inbound on the approach. Fortunately, the controllers recognized the problem and shifted over to a radar approach.

The trip back looked a lot better … at first, anyway.

I had broken clouds as I made my way back to Port Huron, Michigan, where I had planned to clear Customs. After jumping through the hoops, I called up Flight Service for a brief on the rest of my route back to Illinois. The response from Flight Service was a surprise, for even as I asked for an IFR brief, the briefer told me that flight was not recommended.

I explained that I had weather avoidance on board, but the briefer was summarily unimpressed. He insisted that even IFR flight was not recommended, due to what he termed “extensive convective activity.” So, after some friendly conversation, I was finally able to wrangle a briefing out of the briefer, and in doing so, I was able to get a few facts out of him. After sitting down to at my lot, two factors played a vital role in my decision:

  1. There were scattered thunderstorms along my route, which translated to 1/8 coverage.
  2. I was IFR certified and current, and had a lightning detection system on board.

I pushed the briefer, who finally completed the brief and accepted my flight plan, and off I went.

As I launched out of Port Huron, the display on my Strikefinder lit up so vividly at the 200-mile range that I dropped it to 100 miles — after a few minutes I dropped it to 50-miles. There, I was able to keep an eye on the convective activity some sixteen minutes in my future, while assuring that the course I was following wouldn’t cause me to blunder into any cells.

I had just turned to the west, and was headed directly towards home when I got a hit, right off the nose. I ‘calmly’ noted that if I saw any more hits, I would request a deviation. A minute later, that first got company. Bang! Bang! Bang! The hits started building a wall, and it was directly between me and my destination.

I punched the push to talk button and requested an immediate 90-degree deviation to the south. Sixteen minutes isn’t much to play with, and I was fast moving into the 20 mile potential “hailing range” of the storm. The controller approved the deviation, and I started my turn. Quickly calculating my velocity, I noted that I would have to fly south for at least 10 minutes to get out of the 20 mile “hail tossing” range of the storm. I continued for the full 10 minutes, despite a few requests to turn back on course by ATC, and then requested and received permission to turn back on course.

As I steadied out on a westerly course, the clouds parted on the right side of the plane, and I had a clear view of what my deviation had allowed me to miss. There, stretching from as high as I could see, clear down to the ground was a vile, black cloud, streaked with lightning. It was what single engine pilots call ‘a small aircraft parts distributor‘ — if you happened to fly into it as an aircraft, you came out of it as small parts, distributed over a wide area!

Clearly, if I had not had weather avoidance on board with the Strikefinder, I doubt I would be here to write about this experience today. If I had been foolish enough to not believe the instrument, or to have tried this flight without lightning detection, I could have flown right into this plane-eating storm. Learning to trust your instruments and what they are telling you is one of the most important things they teach you in instrument training.

MORAL: When the chips are down, the last thing you want to try to do is second guess a device that was designed to give you bad news. Making the decision to go ahead against the better advice of your weather avoidance instruments can be a decision that can end your life. Trust your instruments — while an occasional breakdown has been known to happen, there has yet to be a piece of avionics that was designed to lie to the pilot.