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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

LogBlog - Learning to Fly IFR in Fire and Ice

An IFR business trip goes way past merely interesting when encountering an embedded thunderstorm, complete with hail, visible cloud-to-cloud lightning, and moderate to extreme turbulence, and to cap off the experience, St. Elmo's fire.

8/11/1982 - San Diego to Farmington New Mexico and return; one day business trip.

PA-28RT-201. N2057M. SDM - FDM - SDM. 7.9 total hours. (Night3.9, IFR 4.6) 2 VOR approaches.

I think it was the philosopher Nietzsche who said 'That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Words that fit for this flight! I knew we would have IFR on a business trip going to Farmington New Mexico. I worked as a computer salesperson for a small computer firm, and was taking our lead programmer over to our latest client, to complete an installation session.

We departed Brown Field near San Diego filing IFR from the start, and sure enough, we were in and out of clouds within the first 30 minutes, but it was early in the day, and they had not grown into anything menacing, yet. My plan was to wait until later in the evening for our return, knowing the forecast was for activity to die down after sunset. We were flying a Turbo Arrow III, a beautiful cross country aircraft. I noted on the way over that the AI made louder whining noises on start-up but quickly behaved normally after take off.

We stayed later than anticipated, with a programming problem, and left after 8pm for our return flight. It was dark and nearly solid cloud cover was expected for our return flight. I was concerned about remnant thunderstorms, so my plan was to monitor the other traffic, noticing who else was flying in our size range, and judge from that if I should continue or divert. Soon after contacting approach I heard several other small aircraft on frequency, one ahead of us, and the air was acceptable to them so I pressed on. We wre flying in the St. Johns area.

About 30 minutes after departure, level at cruise and in solid cloud, the controller asked if we would take a vector around a section in front of us he reported as showing 'heavy activity.' Gratefully I accepted and made the heading change. Within three minutes we hit our first 'whump' of turbulence, and it just kept getting worse. I recalled an older pilot telling me it's often better to push straight ahead under control than to lose control in a turn trying to avoid rough air,' so I pressed ahead.

The turbulence increased, then came the hail. Not just little bitty hail; hail so hard and loud I was terrified and in awe that the windscreen did not crack. Not that I had much time to look out, as I was very busy with my hands and eyes. I was making nearly full control deflections in all directions and up to 75% throttle adjustments, and just managing to keep airspeed in the green and altitude within 500 feet of of assigned. This was truly 'attitude flying' I remember thinking.

The hail grew louder. I was completely focused and time seemed to alternate between very fast and slower than normal. If the controller had tried to talk to me I don't think at that moment I would have acknowledged. Then everything got worse a notch, and I saw lightning flash to port of the aircraft and slightly behind. That was when I felt a cold sweat for the first time in the episode. Immediately after the lightning, the avionics began generating a strange clicking and humming, and the needles started to jump erratically and time seemed to slow down. In front of me, unbelievably, the tips of the propeller began to glow, describing a green arc, which intensified, and began moving down the propeller arc and started to flicker across the top of the cowling.

At that moment, for the first time, I was not sure of what I was seeing. Later I learned it was classic St. Elmo's fire, and the next incident was a stroke of true luck; we popped out of a wall of clouds into the most beautiful clear and calm night sky you could imagine, with a million stars twinkling over the desert sands down below. A moment later the controller came on the quiet frequency " Five Seven Mike, how is your flight?" "We're okay." I reported back, but it was pretty intense back there. "Glad I could steer you around the heavy stuff." he replied.

Twenty more minutes into the flight, the AI rolled over and died. I covered it with a piece of paper, told the controller, and we continued homeward, under mostly VFR conditions. The IFR approach through the thin marine layer at Brown field was anti-climactic even with the failed AI, after what we had been through.

The next day, examining the aircraft, all was fine except for the broken AI, and the paint on the leading edges of the wing in about a 1 inch wide stripe, was stripped to shiny aluminum. The rest of the plane was astonishingly clean, however.

Looking back, I can't believe I flew that IFR trip without onboard radar! In retrospect, on the plus side, I learned my training was good; it all worked for me that night. My judgement? In hindsight I would have picked up a motel room and left the next morning at sunrise under dewy clean sunlit morning skies.

The best advice I can offer: don't fly into embedded T-cells, period, even if you think they won't be a factor. The second best advice? If you do, just fly the attitude. Focus on keeping the wings level and the airspeed within reason and if you take care of these two issues, you'll stand a chance.

I know this sounds like a tall story, but somewhere out there, perhaps reading this and remembering, are a programmer who will never forget how nature displayed her use of charged electric particles, and a controller who probably still feels good about being able to help out a pilot just trying to fly home.

Onward & Upward! ~ rfb

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