Saturday, May 12, 2007

Tiptoe Through The Thunderstorms

Saturday, mid-day; forecast for metro Atlanta - "40% of early thunderstorms."

1:30 pm: I check the local METAR and radar, and everything is better than forecast. Some puffy clouds and a few building cumulus around 5500 feet, no echoes. I need to go to Aircraft Spruce at Falcon Field (FFC) to buy oil, an oil filter, and a new rudder NAV position light, so I pack my stuff in my car and head out to Covington.

Dennis, another local pilot who I often see hanging around the airport, offers to ride with me. On top of being a generally nice guy he's both more experienced and has more ratings than me, so it's always a pleasure to have him along. We depart into a gentle 5 knot wind under building (but not menacing) cumulus clouds with a planned stop at Tara Field (4A7) for gas. (I hadn't refueled after flying back from Clearwater, FL recently because it was late and I was tired.)
We encounter some light rain en route, but visibility is decent in the rain and even better than when we departed once we're beyond it. We refuel at Tara, hopped over to FFC, and catch a ride to Aircraft Spruce.

After picking up the supplies and getting dropped back off at FFC we notice that the clouds have become remarkably more menacing looking in the 45 minutes we spent on the ground. So we pack into the plane and head out without delay. A Diamond Katana departs runway 31 ahead of us and also turns to the East.

Ten minutes after departing we encounter an isolated segment of heavy rain in our path, this time too heavy to penetrate VFR. I maneuver to the North to avoid it, being ever mindful of the nearby class-B airspace shrouding Hartsfield-Jackson Int'l Airport. Looking back, we notice that the rain has engulfed FFC completely. "I guess we got out of there just in time!"

Visibility in the vicinity of Falcon Field and Tara Field was good, so avoiding the now-developed thunderstorms wasn't a problem, but we did encounter a couple of "a little too close for comfort" cloud-to-ground lightening strikes in the process. Dennis and I talked about how we had always heard of people who had dealt with direct hits by lightening in small planes, but didn't really want to experience it firsthand. Besides, where there's lightening there's turbulence, rain, and often hail.

After some more circumnavigating around developed storms we pass Berry Hill airport, over half way to Covington and the last airport we'll encounter en route. I make a note of the conditions around it in case we need to turn back. Ahead there is less indication of storms - no clearly defined sheets of rain or lightening bolts - but visibility is also not as good and the sky is notably darker. Visibility where we are has come down to about six miles and rain is streaking the windscreen. We are both diligently scanning the sky for other evidence of hazards.

I dial up the new AWOS at Covington. It reports "Wind 130 at 5 knots, Visibility 5 - Thunderstorms, Lightening Detected in all quadrants." Ha! "In all quadrants" indeed. I guess it doesn't matter which direction we approach from then! The good news is that the wind has shifted to favor 10, and we're coming from the West so a straight-in approach is feasible. I remark on this to Dennis and he agrees, the less time we dawdle in the air the better, as these storms seem to be building all around us with breathtaking speed.

10 miles out, I call my position and advise I'm inbound for runway 10. My ground speed indicates a tailwind, but Covington's AWOS still indicates 5 kts wind out of the East. Actually, given the conditions, my ground speed could be the result of me fighting updrafts - looking at the clouds there are obviously no shortage of those. Visibility is now a consistent 5 miles. The sky is a darkish gray-green.

6 miles out, visibility is between 4 and 5 miles, still VFR. I have descended to 2500 feet. It is raining. I still can't see the airport, but recognize landmarks in the area.

4 miles out, the runway becomes visible, as does the ridiculously bright VASI lights. I'm a little South of the field, so I maneuver for a 3 mile right base and call my position.

2 mile final, the rain increases, as does the wind. I decide to make this a "no-flap" approach, the wind certainly doesn't need any assistance tossing us around. The winds are gusty and variable in direction, but managable. I keep my speed up.

Crossing the perimeter fence I increase bank into the wind and slip the plane to increase drag and reduce altitude without gaining any more speed. I add 10 kts of flaps as we come over the numbers to help slow us down. We touch down just beyond the 1000 ft marker effortlessly and make the mid-runway turn-off. Not bad, given the conditions, I think to myself.

We taxi to the tie down. While tying the plane down the rain becomes a downpour and lightening moves into the area. Once again, we were damned lucky with our timing.

Radar 2007.05.12I prefer to not have to be "damned lucky" with anything involving flying. Sometimes it's just in the cards. 40% chance of scattered storms became the radar picture you see here. It turns out that temperatures got above forecast today, so the storm development happened much more rapidly (and consistently) than anticipated.

I wonder if the decision to press on from Berry Hill to Covington was a foolish one, but the conditions ahead didn't look as bad as the conditions where we were, and we were only 10 minutes away, so turning back was an option too... and we arrived uneventfully. The potential for trouble was just greater than I like it to be. Certainly a helluva way to remind myself to be ever mindful of the potential for "pop-up" thunderstorms as we enter the Summer storm season.

Happy Flying!
- K.C.

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