Now and Then/Steve Poleskie
LOOPING IN A THUNDERSTORM
by Stephen Poleskie
It was early in the evening but the sun was already beginning to set, as it does in the middle of winter. Despite being at the altitude of 10,000 feet my passengers and I were not having a good view of the sunset as I was on an instrument flight plan and had been flying in and out of clouds for the past half hour. In the clear for a few moments, I could see that the clouds up ahead looked ominously like a building thunderstorm. Radioing the air traffic controller who was monitoring my flight, I identified myself, and asked for weather advisories. I told him that it appeared to me I was now headed directly into a thunderstorm, and would appreciate vectors around it. The controller replied in the negative, saying that he was “not painting any weather” in my direction, and that I should continue on course — “painting” in airplane talk meaning that he had looked at his radar scope and not seen any blips or whatever that looked like a thunderstorm to him. This, of course was in direct contradiction to what I was observing through my windshield in real time, but according to the rules of the game, I was obliged to continue on. Another reason I had to doubt the controller’s diagnosis was that the flight was taking place during the Ronald Reagan Era. Only last year, during the summer of 1981, President Reagan had fired nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers for going on strike. I had no way of knowing if the man I was talking to was a recent hire not fully trained, or perhaps even a temporary filling in.
Thunderstorms are one thing that all pilots are taught to avoid at the risk of their life. So what happens if you inadvertently find yourself in one? As I pointed out in an earlier article; the pilot is the ultimate responsibility for the safety of their flight. However, I also conceded that oftentimes the pilot lacks the information or even the equipment to get out of a dangerous situation that they have not brought on themselves.
We were returning from a trip to the Turks and Caicos, islands out in the Atlantic north of and between Puerto Rico and Haiti. We were in my twin-engine Piper Apache. I was doing the flying. In the right seat, serving as the co-pilot, as she had a pilot’s license, was poet and nature writer Diane Ackerman. In the rear seats were two novelists; my wife Jeanne Mackin, and Paul West, Diane’s husband. As we were at the time all employed by universities the trip, which was a business and pleasure kind of thing, occurred during a school break. We were all making drawings, writing articles and stories, and taking photographs, some of our products would even later appear in the New York Times. The trip down had not been much of a problem, as I recall most of the flight was in good weather. We had stopped in State College, Pennsylvania, to pick up Paul, and then gone on to get Diane, landing at a small airport near William and Mary, where she was a writer-in-residence.
After a pleasant time on Grand Turk, we were retracing our route home. We had overnighted in Nassau, and at the moment our airplane was over North Carolina, heading for Virginia. Keeping to the course I had been told to continue on by the air traffic controller, I found the clouds that now totally enveloped the airplane getting thicker and the ride more turbulent. The rain, which earlier had begun rather like condensed water vapor, now began to beat heavily and could be heard drumming on the wings. As always is my choice when things get rough, I turned off my automatic pilot, preferring to fly the airplane by hand. The clouds that had gone from white to light gray, were now becoming dark green. The airplane appeared to have slipped into a large hole in the mist and was climbing upward at a rapid rate. We were in the center of a building thunderstorm. I got on the radio and reported our condition to air traffic control, as the violent updraft that the airplane was now in was causing me to violate my cruising altitude restriction big time. I had no idea what other aircraft might be in the area also flying blind.
The controller replied that he still wasn’t showing any weather in my area. I asked him if he had an altitude read out on me. He inquired, rather excitedly, why I was climbing at 2500 feet per minute. I replied that I was quite amazed by this myself as this airplane could only climb about 1000 feet a minute with both engines running, and at present both engines were off. I heard a panic in the man’s voice when he realized the significance of my statement. He asked me to repeat what I had just said. Fortunately I was using a headset with a boom mike and a push to talk switch as at that moment my hands were quite busy flying the airplane in the turbulent updraft.
The power of the severe gusts had forced the nose of the airplane to a steep angle. The Lycoming 0-320 engines that drove my Piper Apache were equipped with carburetors, rather than fuel injectors, so the attitude the airplane was at had caused the engines to suffer fuel starvation, forcing them to stop. As I could feel my weight pressing against the back of the seat, I didn’t need to look at the artificial horizon instrument to realize that we were almost vertical. I could sense that slight vibration in the control handle that comes right before a stall. I had only a few seconds to consider my options.
To push the controls forward to lower the nose was not a choice; doing so would probably bring on the stall which would cause the airplane to fall off into an inverted spin. Being an aerobatic pilot I had experienced inverted spins and practiced recoveries, however, my Apache was not an aerobatic airplane and I had no idea how it would respond. Sensing that the airplane was about to fall backwards, I pulled back on the yoke; the airplane now went inverted, as it would be at the top of a loop. Our luggage, which had been stacked neatly on the floor next to the empty fifth seat floated for a second and then landed on the roof. I continued to hold up elevator and the airplane came around and started down the back of the loop. As the nose of the airplane was now pointing at the earth, the luggage came tumbling over on us. With the nose down the engines began to run again. We were completing the downside of the loop at about 190 MPH. My problem now was to recover from the dive and level the airplane without tearing the wings off. As I recall the “never exceed speed” on the Apache was around 235 MPH. I pulled back on the yoke very gently. We were riveted in our seats by the G force as the airplane pulled out of the dive. If the wings were going to come off this was the moment.
In level flight now, I took stock of things. Both engines were running and the airplane was holding together. Diane was picking up charts, pencils and flashlights from the floor. Jeanne and Paul were removing suitcases and overnight bags from their laps. My air traffic controller was calling to see if we were all right and what were my intentions. He even called me “sir” which made me think that he was glad that he hadn’t lost us. I told him that I would like vectors to the nearest airport and he complied. We flew along in darkness and mild turbulence for a few minutes and then were cleared for the approach. The glide slope led us down to the runway just the way it was supposed to. We didn’t see the lights until we were almost at decision height, but we had made it to solid ground, Stallings Field in Kinston, NC.
As soon as I cut the engines, Diane, Jeanne, and Paul leapt from the airplane to the ground and began kissing the pavement. They thanked me for saving their life, but swore they would never get back into my airplane again. Then they hurried off to the general aviation terminal to find a telephone to inquire about hotel rooms, and bus service back up north. I was left alone to take out my flashlight and screwdriver and remove the inspection panels in the bottom of my wing to determine if the wing spar had suffered any damage.
The next day the sun came out, and my passengers, who had found out how long a bus trip would take, got back in my airplane and we were off.
About the author:
Stephen Poleskie is a writer and artist. His artworks are in the collections of numerous museums, including the MoMA and the Metropolitan in NYC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Gallery in London. His writing has appeared in numerous journals in Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, and the UK, as well as in the USA. He has published seven novels, the most recent being Foozle Runs. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife the author Jeanne Mackin.
Web site: www.StephenPoleskie.com