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Friday, July 22, 2005

I crouched miserably behind the instrument panel of the shuddering, heaving Aztec, listening to what sounded like a million BB's being shot against my windshield. I was reviewing my options as well as my sins, and I took what comfort I could from an observation that I remembered by someone who had been there; that when you're really flying in hail, you won't wonder if that's what it is. I was still wondering, so this must still be rain. But rain like this, I'd never seen. This was like being inside a garbage can that was being shot with fire hoses. I wondered how the engines could continue to run, since they seemed to be under water. Lightning was streaking on each side of me and almost at the same time the deafening crash of the thunder would for an instant, block the noise of the rain and even the engines. I was smack in the middle of a thunderstorm and I was not a happy young aviator.

It was the early 70's and after surviving almost 5000 hours of VFR flying, doing flight instruction, banner towing, VFR charter and whatever other flying there was to do, I had at last, a brand new instrument ticket. No more sitting on the ground waiting for the weather to clear. No more scud running to stay VFR. No more scheduling my trips around the weather. I was now a cloud dancer, and I could run with the big guys who made the airplane noises come from the inside of clouds. This was more like it.

I'd made a few tentative forays into mild IFR conditions and everything was working just as it was supposed to. The flight plans were accepted, the clearances were issued and I took my place with all the other murk lurkers and experienced no surprises. I even sounded like I mostly knew what I was doing, and most of the flights were smooth and the minimums high. I was a real IFR pilot, and I was gaining confidence in myself, the equipment and the system. I liked IFR flying. Life was good.

The never-to-be-forgotten trip that changed forever these warm, fuzzy feelings about instrument flying was across the mountains of West Virginia, to a mid-sized airport in Virginia.

It was summer, and the forecast contained the usual 'chance of scattered afternoon thunderstorms' warning, but the weather looked good to me when I checked in at Flight Service. This was well before internet accessible radar and also I believe, before Flight Service had a radar repeater, or at least before they let you look at it. You were simply read the teletype information pertaining to your flight, while you took frantic notes and tried to assemble the jumble of facts and numbers into something you could use. I did this, as best I could, and it looked to me like this day would be just another good IFR experience.

The Aztec was almost new, and one we were using in our charter service. It was well equipped for it's day, but lacking radar, and of course the Stormscope was still locked up somewhere in Mr. Ryan's brain and yet to be born. I'd built up my multiengine time flying VFR, so I was quite familiar with the airplane and its systems. I remember I was happy and proud to file IFR in the PAZT, and was soon issued a clearance to my destination airport. With my nose wheel on the numbers, the throttles came up smoothly and the fat-winged and lightly loaded Piper levitated smartly into the summer sky.

The air was warm and smooth and the Aztec climbed quickly, with just the fuel and I on board. Soon I was closing the cowl flaps, adjusting the trim and setting the props and mixtures for cruise at 9000 feet, just above the scattered clouds that dotted the landscape below. For a time we skimmed the scattered tops, then the clouds began to thicken and rise, and soon I was on instruments. I asked for and received 11,000, but by the time I got there, the clouds were there too. Well, I thought, this is why you get an instrument rating. I remained at 11,000 feet and soon the ride grew choppy and it started to rain lightly. I was just starting to think about doing something else but hadn't yet decided what that might be, when the rain intensity increased to moderate, and the clouds grew darker inside. Washington Center came alive with requests to divert for weather, some by AIRLINERS, and the rain intensity increased again to heavy. At this point I was belatedly attempting to call center to tell them I would like to divert too, but didn't know in what direction, and did they have a suggestion? By now the frequency was completely filled with moaning pilots and static, and the transmissions that I could fit in didn't seem to be getting through to center, since they certainly weren't answering me. I remember feeling quite at a loss for what to do, for without clearance from center, I felt I could not deviate from my flight plan. Just then I flew directly into a mature thunderstorm.

All my worries about being off my flight plan and running into another airplane evaporated, for suddenly I realized I was the only idiot in this very dangerous part of the sky. The one thing I did right was keep the wings level and let the altitude take care of itself. I throttled way back and tried to keep the airspeed reasonable. Other than that, I just hung on for several of the longest minutes of my young life and tried not to panic. I recalled reading reports from pilots who had done this very thing and lived to write about it. I fervently hoped I could do the same. I also remembered a large rock by the Tygart River just in front of my parent's home, where as a boy I would sit and watch the airplanes pass high overhead and project myself into their cockpits. I wished I were there right now, watching this thunderstorm.

Suddenly the clouds around me brightened and in an instant I was back in the clear blue summer sky and smooth air. The contrast was startling and I turned and looked back at the monster that had just spit me out. It was a brilliant, growing cumulus, stretching to over 20,000 feet; something that no pilot in his right mind would ever enter, but I had. I had come in the back door, which had looked to me benign and inviting, and because of my own ignorance been led down it's hallways to a chamber of horrors.

When I arrived at my destination, I checked the Aztec for signs of damage, but missing paint on the nose was all I could find. I finished my business at the airport and once again I checked the weather. It was still calling for a chance of afternoon thunderstorms, but now there was a chance that they could form in lines or clusters. My flight home was VFR, contritely done by a much wiser and very humble instrument pilot.

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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