The weather briefer told me there’d be ‘nothing‘ between me and home for the 2.5 hour flight — so why am I seeing towering cumulus up ahead?
I was flying my family in the Beech Sierra from near Dayton, Ohio, south across central Kentucky and crossing the Cumberland at Crossville, TN (home of Trade-A-Plane) before descending into the Chattanooga area. At least the skies looked clear around Cincinnati. South of Lexington, KY, though, I noticed some high cirrus clouds covering the entire southern horizon, blowing off numerous towering cumulus clouds. They were widely spaced, but ominous. I called Flight Watch, providing first a PIREP (Pilot Report) noting the ‘Cu’s‘ to the south, then asking for an update on radar between home and me. ‘There’s a line of Level three to Level five thunderstorms from about 50 miles northeast of Knoxville (Tennessee, itself about 40 miles east of my route) to 20 miles northeast of Nashville (a point roughly 30 miles to my west), nearly stationary. We’ve just got a new Convective Sigmet for this line of storms, some approaching Severe levels. Over.‘
Decision Time. ‘How solid is the line?‘ I radioed back. ‘Are there gaps big enough to get through?‘
‘You may be able to get through a little to the west of your route of flight,‘ was the helpful return from the specialist. I thanked her and reported back to Approach. ATC cleared me to deviate right of course as necessary.
THROUGH THE LINE
The little Beechcraft has neither radar nor lightning detection equipment. I was ‘flying blind‘ in the sense that my storm avoidance was almost entirely dependent on visual observation. Go IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions, or in the clouds) for long periods of time and I’d have no way to know if I were about to plunge myself, my family and my airplane into a tumultuous storm. I developed a safety STRATEGY.
- Avoid storm cells by at least 20 miles. This would keep me away from the worst of the turbulence, and avoid the possibility of hail that might be thrown out the sides of the clouds.
- Stay VMC as much as possible. Deviate as necessary (with ATC’s blessing) to avoid all but the wispiest of clouds. Don’t go into a cloud unless I could see it was a small one, without significant vertical development.
- Fly high. Generally, I’ve found that it’s easier to stay in VMC by going higher.
- Turn right at the first sign of trouble. In this particular instance, things were generally better to the west. That’s the way I’d go, then, if conditions started to worsen.
- If turning right wouldn’t put me back in VMC, I’d turn back. A quick decision to go back the way I’d come would quickly put me in better weather — even if it meant having to land somewhere to wait out the storms.
- Keep two ears open. One radio was of course tuned to ATC. The other channeled Flight Watch. Both frequencies were ablaze with requests for information and deviations. By listening closely and visualizing the positions of other airplanes, I could determine if my chance of deviating my way through was worth the effort. I also heard larger airplanes (often equipped with lightning detectors or radar) ahead of me, so I could in some way benefit from their high-dollar equipment.
- Keep an eye on the build-ups. Mentally plot the position of cumulus clouds, so during those short excursions into IMC I’d know I wasn’t stumbling into one of them.
I ended up deviating almost 20 miles to the right of my original course, in and out of smooth scud and light rain surrounding the bigger cells, and delighting my son with a circular rainbow and our shadow on the tops of some stratus. I always had a smooth path available to the nearest airport as I traced our position with my finger on an enroute chart. When the gap appeared I steered southeast through it, in moderate rain (and only occasional light turbulence) for a short while. That last moment in the cloud gave the hardest rain, then one of those truly magical moments in flight when I popped out into the clearest blue skies, visibility 50 miles or better, with a dark wall to my left and right, a gray patch behind, and the setting sun beckoning us to fly on home.
BOTTOM LINE: You can do it, too, if you go with a clear strategy and don’t allow yourself to get in over your head. Your instincts are probably good; if you feel uncomfortable, exercise your option to land and wait it out.