I remember the old “Star Trek” series, in which the communications officer would utter those famous words as she established contact with another vessel. “Hailing Frequencies Open, Captain,” Uhura would say, to indicate that the captain could talk to the other ship.
As summer approaches, so does a “hailing frequency” of a different type — that which develops from thunderstorms. Regardless of whether they are VFR or IFR, nearly every pilot knows that thunderstorms can throw hail out over some impressive distances. Worse yet, unless you happen to be lucky, if you encounter one of the hail shafts, your chances of survival are bleak at best.
Consider this: in your airplane, you are flying at around 100 miles per hour or more, (in some cases MUCH more). The hail is falling at its terminal velocity, which is around 20 to 40 miles per hour, depending on how dense it happens to be. Let’s add the vectors here, and see what comes out … why, lookee here, it’s smashed aluminum!
Since we all know that summer brings with it the usual impressive convective activity, you can pretty much count on the fact that flying in summer increases the likelihood of running into a thunderstorm. If you can get close to one, you can get close enough to encounter that damaging hail, and if you do…
HAIL AVOIDANCE 101
The best way to avoid a hail shaft is to give thunderstorms a W I D E berth. The best advice we have heard and used is to maintain at least 20 miles laterally from any thunderstorm. By maintaining 20 miles distance from any thunderstorm, you should be able to escape damage from the vast majority of storms. (We say should for a reason — the weather is unpredictable, and saying that something like a distance as a definite, 100% solution is akin to hoping it won’t rain on your picnic — there is always something that exceeds the rules!)
That 20-mile distance is from ALL storms, not just the one you happen to be looking at. As an example, if you are flying home, and your super lightning detection system spots two thunderstorms, if they aren’t at least 40 miles apart, you could be flying into harms way trying to thread the needle between them! While thunderstorms that are 30 miles apart may not build off one another, depending on the winds, they could BOTH be throwing hail your way, and since you would only have 15 miles of separation from either storm, you would be in both storms hailing range! OUCH!
Make a point of maintaining your visual scan when flying anywhere around convective activity. Those who have witnessed hail shafts, which is the description of the phenomena observed by pilots where the hail falls in a specific area, say they could see them visually, but didn’t know what they were. If you see something that looks big and white (or big and dark, for that matter) with convective activity in the area, then CHANGE COURSE TO AVOID IT.
FLYING INTO A HAIL SHAFT IS ASKING FOR SEVERE DAMAGE. Aircraft have had their windshields beat in, leading edges of wings have been reshaped, as have the skins of control surfaces. The radome has been stripped from an airliner’s nose, and the aircraft skin beat to a pulp.
Hail is serious business in the air. (It’s blocks of ice hitting you at a hundred or so miles per hour.) Whether or not your plane is deice equipped doesn’t matter — hail will kill you. Take these points into consideration, and avoid those thunderstorms and the hail that they generate. By doing so, you will avoid opening up any “hailing frequencies” while you fly.