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 heavily 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 completely.

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. By the way, turning up the cockpit lights also tends to give you the illusion of safety; In that you can't really see what's going on outside and so you 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 least 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 thousand feet - about 10 seconds worth! - because I knew what was about to happen. 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 some of that speed to pull the nose up - I started to hand fly the plane with my head ducked down so I didn't hit it too hard - and probably purely by co-incidence the descent slowed over the space of a few seconds to a halt.

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 down a little on the normal running figure of 870° C. I bumped up the throttles anyway to get some more temperature into the engines, as I'd probably need the extra power at some point soon. When the rain stopped the engines would be a bit over-temped, but I knew that they'd take it ok. All the way through 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 to 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 northbound aircraft were taking to avoid the weather. He replied that there weren't 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 the 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 the last thunderstorm the air smoothed out quite a lot, and the flashes of lightning abated. I risked turning the cockpit lights down, as I've always been fascinated by St Elmo's Fire and wanted to see it before it went. All of the windows were framed in it, a delicate purple-orange spiderweb, and I found that I could get a small arc coming from my fingertip to the glass perhaps 1/8" long in places if I was careful. Looking outside at the ice again, I saw the amazing 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 thicker arc going to and from it to the fuselage. The tips of the spinner was also 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 was simply my old friend St Elmo's again, and so I put my hands around my face up against the glass to block out the light from the instruments so I could see it better. Incredible! It was just as if someone had put a brilliant spotlight inside where the radar went (And they may well have for all the good it was!) and through the chips in the fibreglass nose leaked out this 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 centreline.

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 think I might have even been happy with the landing I did in Sydney.

Copied from the NZ Flanker sim group

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