In Like A Lion, Out Like A Lamb… Still

Just because your lightning detector doesn’t see it, that doesn’t mean that the Level 5 thunderstorm isn’t there. If you listen to the conventional wisdom of lightning detection, you understand that the lightning detector, be it a Goodrich Avionics Stormscope ™, or an Insight StrikeFinder ™, is limited to what it can see. The problem is that a building storm may be invisible to the lightning detection system, until the storm begins to produce lightning, and that my friends, may be too late.

You are flying your lightning detection equipped airplane to your favorite vacation location. Unfortunately, a frontal system has stalled across your path, and the forecast is for widely scattered thunderstorms along your route. You dutifully note the display of your lightning detection system, and as prudence and conservatism would dictate, you turn away from any clusters of dots on the screen.

This is the same approach you have used for years without trouble, so you expect the same success today as you fly towards your destination. It has always helped you to avoid any encounters that might cause damage or risk to your airplane (read: you), while allowing you to get anywhere you wanted to go when the weather was less than perfect.

HOW IT HAPPENS: A Lesson In Maturity
Unfortunately, in the clear area between two cells that you were threading through with your airplane, a storm was brewing. The storm, while violent, was not producing lightning yet, and you fly blindly into them. After encountering severe turbulence that bounces you off the top of your plane — twice — you get clear of the storm.

After you call in to report the severe turbulence that you just experienced, ATC (always trying to be helpful) informs you of an area of rapidly developing storms. Apparently, the cells you tried to squeak between had gone from Level 3 to Level 5 as you passed between them. A Level 5 storm will peel the paint off your plane. Fortunately you got away with little more than an all-too-appropriate rap on your noggin… this time.


  • Know the Limits of Your Equipment.
    Weather radar is very limited once a plane enters precipitation and lightning detection systems can only detect lightning discharges… not a particularly helpful combination. They can’t see storms building that aren’t giving off electrical discharges, which means that you might just stumble into one of them when you least expect it.
  • Work With ATC
    While they are busy, they usually have equipment that can detect the storms while they are building, and provide you with vectors to avoid them. Just tell them what your instruments are telling you and ask them what they know.
  • Use Common Sense
    If you can see that the clouds are boiling outside and lightning on your detection equipment, consider requesting a deviation to avoid getting the snot kicked out of you.
  • Use Intuition
    We all have that little voice inside our heads that tries to keep us from killing ourselves with our own stupidity. The problem is that few of us are SMART ENOUGH to listen to that voice.

Lesson: If you think — even for a minute — that the weather is getting over your head, you’re right. Ask for a diversion to a nearby airport in a clear area, land and WAIT OUT THE STORM.

BOTTOM LINE: If you absolutely, positively, must get there… drive… or take a commercial flight. The key to survival as a pilot is simple: Don’t let ‘get there-itus‘ cause you to make a deadly mistake! After a thorough weather briefing, look at the weather and the clouds. Listen to what ATC has to say, and trust your instincts. You might end up late for your appointment, but you won’t end up late… as in deceased.