Real Flying Experiences
Bill "Wingnut" Sherwood
To coin a cliché, it
was a dark and stormy night in Melbourne, a Thursday night to be exact.
And I had to be back in Sydney by the next
night at the latest to catch a flight north to Brisbane so that swayed
in my decision to do the freighter run that night.
The weather forecast indicated heavy storms all the way to Sydney, but
thankfully not much icing. The Metro 2 I was going to fly is not the
world's greatest ice carrier, and so I'm always reluctant to get into
heavy icing with them.
The departure of Melbourne was uneventful, but about 50 miles out,
after using the radar to get around some of the larger paints, the rain
must have gotten through a hole in the nose cone because the radar died
Normally this isn't too much of a problem as the radar in the Metro is
notoriously unreliable and so the pilot has to visually navigate the
aircraft around the worst of the weather. You see, typically most of
the weather of the sort I was in has clear area that you can fly
through and so visually avoid the build-ups. So I normally wouldn't be
worried, except that when I
reached the planned cruising level of 13,000' I still couldn't see
outside and so had to simply point the plane in the right direction and
cross my fingers.
Quite soon flashing started. I lowered the seat as far as it would go,
tightened the seat belts so I could hardly breath, and then turned up
the cockpit lighting as bright as it would go so in case lightning
struck the plane I wouldn't be blinded by the flash as much. The
lighting outside the plane couldn't actually be seen because the
aircraft was in cloud and rain, which often dulls the flash so as to
give it no discernible direction from the aircraft. So, whilst I could
see plenty of lightning flashes happening I couldn't really get which
way they were coming from. Plow on straight ahead was still the plan.
The icing wasn't too bad so far, perhaps 1/2" or so on each wing, a 3"
conical cap on each propeller spinner, and 1/4" or so
on the front windscreens. Not enough to really worry about - Yet.
Strange spider-web patterns of St Elmo's Fire were running all over the
windows, and were quite visible even with the cockpit lights full up.
the way, turning up the cockpit lights also tends to give you the
of safety; In that you can't really see what's going on outside and so
don't worry about it so much. I guess it's like the difference between
watching a scary movie in the middle of the day Vs in the middle of
the night in
a spooky house. The brilliant flashes of lightning around the plane
somewhat dulled that feeling though.
Maybe a minute or so after the St Elmo's started up, it started getting
rough. By getting rough, I don't mean the constant bumps, shaking, and
lurches the aircraft was giving up until then, I mean that the plane
was starting to shake so badly that I couldn't see the instruments
properly from the
shaking the cloud was passing on. Or should I say, Thunderstorm cloud -
I was inside one now and there was not a lot to be done about it, at
in the short term.
I had the autopilot controlling the plane, mainly so I could monitor
what was happening to it without the added distraction of hand flying
it as well. A good thing, as now I needed both hands under the seat to
stop me from being thrown up against the ceiling. The autopilot was
making hard work of keeping the plane at 13,000', so in a brief second
of non-violent atmosphere I turned off the altitude hold so it could
simply keep the wings and nose fairly
level. A few seconds later the plane started to climb rapidly, no doubt
due to an updraft in the thunderstorm cell. I let it go up a good
feet - about 10 seconds worth! - because I knew what was about to
Another violent shake had the plane going down equally as fast.
I had let the speed build up in the drop just in case I had to try to
stop the descent, and as the plane was dropping through 12,000' I used
of that speed to pull the nose up - I started to hand fly the plane
my head ducked down so I didn't hit it too hard - and probably purely
co-incidence the descent slowed over the space of a few seconds to a
The rain at this point was incredible - It drowned out the sound of the
engines, which are normally very loud anyway. I had been keeping an eye
on the turboprop exhaust gas temperature to make sure they weren't going
to flame out from water ingestion, but to my surprise they seemed only
a little on the normal running figure of 870° C. I bumped up the
anyway to get some more temperature into the engines, as I'd probably
the extra power at some point soon. When the rain stopped the engines
be a bit over-temped, but I knew that they'd take it ok. All the way
the thunderstorm I was moving the controls to make sure that the hinges
weren't welded up by a stray bit of lightning.
The elevator ride was going uphill again, and this time I fought it by
keeping the nose down to slow the ascent. When that part of it was
over, the plane was only 500' or so past the planned cruise altitude.
The more violent bumps also stopped, so I clicked the autopilot back on
and selected 13,000' again. Time for a breather, and some ice
accumulation assessment. I scraped away enough ice from the inside of my
side window to see the leading edge of the wing, and to my surprise I
found that there was little extra ice
at all, though the propeller spinner was almost completely covered up
the blade roots. That would explain some of the higher frequency
vibrations going through the airframe, I thought. The windows were not
as bad as before, and I could actually see forwards a little now. A
quick glance at the outside air temperature indicator showed that it
was slightly above freezing outside, so that would explain it.
I radioed the air traffic controller, and asked him which track the
aircraft were taking to avoid the weather. He replied that there
any except me. Great. There were a few southbound commercial airliners,
but they were well to the east to avoid the build-ups. I turned the
lights down again to see if I could find a way visually through the
weather, but it was still solid outside. I decided to go back to the
heavy weather set-up again,
seat lowered, lights up, autopilot to pitch & heading hold only.
When everything had settled down, I called him up and asked him what he
wanted, thinking that he wanted me to call another aircraft or listen
for an emergency beacon or the like. No, he wanted to know if I was
maintaining 13,000' - I had to let him know that at that point I was in
a thunderstorm and so the plane was going where ever it liked at the
time. He had no reply. There was a gap of a good ten minutes or so
until the St Elmo's started
in earnest again, and so I started to pick up all the maps & other
documents that had been throw around the cockpit. I stuck everything
back into my
nav bag, which I then tucked firmly under the spare seat behind me. By
third trip through a thunderstorm, I was almost getting used to it, and
this one wasn't as bad as the last two. Perhaps I didn't go through the
centre of it - I'll never know, of course. Very quickly after leaving
last thunderstorm the air smoothed out quite a lot, and the flashes of
abated. I risked turning the cockpit lights down, as I've always been
by St Elmo's Fire and wanted to see it before it went. All of the
were framed in it, a delicate purple-orange spiderweb, and I found that
could get a small arc coming from my fingertip to the glass perhaps
in places if I was careful. Looking outside at the ice again, I saw the
sight of the tips of the props marking a bright purple ring
in the air, and the point of the ring closest to the fuselage had a
arc going to and from it to the fuselage. The tips of the spinner was
making a small glow. It all looked so, well, friendly.
About then I noticed a bright glow coming from the front of the plane.
I loosened the seat belts so I could move my head closer to the front
windows to have a better look. The entire nose cone was lit up, just as
if I had left the under-belly landing lights on. I thought that this
was possible, as it got pretty rough at times and so it was possible
that I'd inadvertently hit the switch to extend them and so turn them
on. I checked it and I hadn't, but I clicked it out of the 'off'
position and put it in the 'retract' position anyway, just to make
sure. I guess I must have been fairly tired - certainly the adrenalin
rush was fading quickly - But I couldn't work out why the front of the
plane had such a bright light coming from it. I mean, as far as I
could remember it didn't have a light there ... I then realised that it
simply my old friend St Elmo's again, and so I put my hands around my
up against the glass to block out the light from the instruments so I
see it better. Incredible! It was just as if someone had put a
spotlight inside where the radar went (And they may well have for all
good it was!) and through the chips in the fibreglass nose leaked out
amazing light. So beautiful ...
I was riveted by the sight, and ... Then. It. Came.
Time almost stopped for me - I felt that I could have undone my seat
belts, gotten up and then walked back to the stairs and left the plane.
But I couldn't, I was glued to my seat, with my hands and face hard up
against the glass.
Without the slightest warning, a bolt of brilliant electric light
slipped from up above and then under the nose of the plane. It lit up
the cockpit, I think, with its corona as the plane flew through it. The
actual core of the lightning was a twisted length of thick purple
barbed wire, and seemed to be about 10' below the nose and right on
Shortly after that, when I was sitting back in a cockpit that was
brightly lit with floodlights and clamped to the seat by overly tight
seatbelts and madly wriggling the controls to see if I still had any,
the ride became as smooth as silk. Even against the cockpit lights I
could see Canberra was
totally clear of weather, as was the rest of the trip to Sydney. I
might have even been happy with the landing I did in Sydney.
from the NZ Flanker sim group
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applicable © Bill Sherwood