Sunday, May 15, 2011

One Fine Day with a THUNDERSTORM!

Here comes my roommate along with other fellows, back from Melbourne beach. I wonder how they did, but according to him, they have managed to get wet by nothing but the ocean. The rain must have missed them. Lucky guys.

I was lucky, too, today; but not for making it home dry, but making it to land safe (or should I say “alive”? No, not that much). Actually, today was good for anything but flight practices; particularly landings. Me and my instructor, however, were in the air; unaware of trouble forming up ahead of us. The “METAR” (one of the weather information sources for pilots) was not looking bad. Also, since we were going to stay local; the scattered clouds at 1500 ft. with a 10-SM visibility would not be an issue for a dual flight (1). We took off under my control with good visibility, turned southbound and flew to the practice area, which is roughly 20 NM to the airport. I was, as usual, struggling to keep the horn beeping and stay coordinated during my slow flights, as well as remaining at the same altitude during steep turns. Common stuff for a student pilot, trying to convince his instructor to release him for the “stage check” exams.

It is also common for all VFR pilots, who use outside visual references during flight, to encounter clouds. Students are no exception for this. Depending on the airspaces they are in, it is usually ok for them as long as they keep certain vertical and horizontal distances from these seemingly innocent, puffy, white objects. On the other hand, what we saw in front of us while flying southbound was neither white, nor innocent. I asked my instructor about turning back and received a definitely positive answer. We were looking at a developing thunderstorm!

Thunderstorm - We were higher than that, though!
Broadly speaking; thunderstorms are, serious weather activities which are characterized by strong multidirectional winds (windshears), turbulances, lightnings and by their final stages, precipitation (rain etc.). Some thunderstorms can seriously damage aircrafts flying into or close to them with their strong winds and turbulences. What’s more, they are hardly detected by air traffic control facilities unless they rain. In some phases, they also send down very strong bursts of air which is called “microbursts”. These are also the nightmares for pilots, especially during landing; because some of them are almost invisible. A strong microburst can literally smash down a landing aircraft onto the runway before the pilot knows what's happening; if it strikes “properly”.

Microburst - Only if it were
as apparent as this...
I turned the plane toward the Melbourne Airport (KMLB) which is our base. We were lucky that the thunderstorm was not coming from that direction; otherwise we would probably have to divert to a nearby airport. We were also lucky to have remained outside of the storm, so the turbulences were even tolerable by me. What had seemed weird to me was the unusually increasing altitude. That turned out to be, as I have learned later on, another characteristic of thunderstorms: updrafts. In other words, the storm was trying to lift us a couple thousands of miles before swallowing our plane!

KLMB - Runway 27L
We landed on the long runway,
as the biz-jet used the shorter 27R.
First-come first-served, huh?
Alright, I’m not going to make this become a tabloid; but it is true that we did have a small weather issue, which could really turn into serious if we had not acted quickly out there. After quickly (as I could) completing the before landing checklist, I called Melbourne Tower and asked for landing clearance. Before clearing us for runway 27L, however, the tower gave us a brief wind info over the surface. He also warned us to keep an eye on the windsock, which meant that the already-gusty wind might change its direction anytime. Such a sudden change is called a windshear and is very dangerous especially for light aircrafts like our Warrior. Informed with the 26-knot wind gusting to 33; my instructor, Kyle, took the controls for final approach. Probably, the same thing has happened in the other two training Warriors nearby. Everybody was in a hurry to land, as the sky was getting darker each minute.

While we took the final approach to the airport, I saw some small particles whirling around in front of us, as the tower’s warning for a small tornado over the runway was heard on the radio. Right before Kyle decided for a go-around, the plane twisted 50 degrees off of its heading. Avoiding the aproaching traffic toward the 27R, we made a 180 turn to the left. The tower’s next transmission was the small tornado seemed to disappear. It was time for another attempt, which needed to be executed quickly, since the storm was getting close.

Reminding me about the wind correction and the gust factor to be applied during the final approach, Kyle kept the flaps at 25 degrees, throttle at around 1600 RPM and the airspeed at around 80 knots. He banked to the right a little during the approach, a standart crosswind landing technique called “side slip”. I swear, I barely noticed that we had actually landed while touching down on the right-main wheel first, the left one second and the nose finally. During breaking, he yelled like “right on the center line!”. A moment of celebration happened in the cockpit.

Over radio, the tower was chatting with a Delta Airlines jet which had just landed on our parallel runway, as all small airplanes were taxiing back the hell out of that weather. I wonder how Endeavor will take off tomorrow…

Edit: Endeavor's launch is scheduled for 16th of May, not on Sunday.


(1)    Flight with instructor.