Your eyes have the deciding vote—my thunderstorm encounter

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In 1978 I was working my way through my licenses and ratings and had achieved my instrument rating after about 150 hours total time. (Flight hours in this story are approximate, as I can’t find my previous logbook!) I then began training for my commercial pilot license and was fortunate enough to be able to fly regularly on business and build flight hours to get to the required minimum 250 hours total time.

As some of you know, one of the requirements for a commercial ticket is a cross-country flight of not less than 300 nautical miles total distance, with landings at a minimum of three points, one of which is a straight-line distance of at least 250 nautical miles from the original departure point. I chose to fly solo the route PDK – MEM – LOZ – PDK and filed IFR for each leg of the trip. Best I can remember is I used a Cessna 172 for the flight.

The PDK – MEM leg went without incident as did the MEM – LOZ (London-Corbin, KY) leg. The weather briefing at LOZ prior to returning to PDK did not indicate any significant weather along my route. However, shortly after taking off from LOZ, I observed a huge gray mass of clouds directly in front of me. As a relatively new instrument rated pilot with minimal actual IMC time, it looked pretty intimidating to me.

So I called ATC and asked if they were painting any weather along my route back to PDK. ATC advised that there was no significant weather between me and PDK. That gave me considerable comfort because even though I was a relatively inexperienced IFR pilot, I knew better than to challenge a thunderstorm.

As I got closer to the cloud mass, it got bigger and darker. And while I was apprehensive, I recalled ATC saying they were not painting any significant weather in front of me. After all, what did I know—my actual instrument experience was relatively limited.

Well, upon penetrating the cloud mass, I quickly found I had entered a thunderstorm which threw me and my airplane around in all directions. Lightning was visible in front and to the side of my plane. I slowed to VA and picked up the microphone to let ATC know what I was experiencing; however, it jumped out of my hand and landed on the floor. I then decided to forget about talking to ATC and just concentrate on flying the airplane straight ahead while taking whatever altitude the storm may give me.

After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably more like 5–10 minutes), I was safely through the storm. I retrieved my microphone from the floor, checked around the cockpit for anything unusual, took several deep breaths, and as calmly as I could, called ATC and gave a pilot report and described what I had experienced. ATC thanked me for the PIREP, and I continued on my way. The remainder of my flight back to PDK was appreciatively boring.

Lessons learned:

  1. Regardless of weather forecasts or ATC radar depictions, your eyes have the deciding vote on what weather is out there. Big, gray cloud masses can have thunderstorms in them.
  2. Use whatever tools you may have to assess your situation. At that time, my little 172, while IFR qualified, had no on-board radar, no NEXRAD weather info, and no GPS. And, of course ForeFlight was 30 years in the future. So my weather avoidance tools were limited to my eyeballs and ATC.
  3. When you’re in challenging weather, follow the time-tested formula: aviate, navigate, communicate

I know my story is more than 40 years old, but I hope it will be helpful to my fellow pilots.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

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