Monday, June 6, 2016

Here There Be Monsters

Ancient mariners guided their ships across the sea by relying on crude charts depicting a limited and often distorted understanding of the Earth's surface. At the edge of human knowledge, the unknown was explicitly charted with dire warnings. Here there be monsters. Enter at own risk.

Modern aeronautical charts, displayed by the cold glow of a tablet computer's screen, make no suppositions of monsters lurking in the unknown. After all, there is little unknown remaining on a planetary surface that has been been surveyed, photographed, and digitized many times over.

In this age of science and technology, real monsters nevertheless exist for the aeronautical voyager. They do not resemble dragons and are not permanently inked upon navigational charts. Instead, they exist as transients on weather maps, thunderstorms dynamically forming and dissipating, their manifestations color coded for ready assessment of risk. These are the visible monsters that can be detected by radar or with the naked eye; dangerous, but generally avoidable.

Some monsters, however, are not so readily apparent.

Golden Hour Idyll

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
6 June 2016 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - D38 (Canandaigua, NY) - SDC 1.9 1550.8

Photographers call it the golden hour, those early moments after the sun's first appearance over the horizon or the interval heralding the sun's daily decline. Colors are warmer and shadows are longer, accentuating ground features in chiseled detail. On the right day, the golden hour is a wonderful time to fly and marvel upon the good Earth below.

The trees were active all day, swaying in a chaotic dance enlivened by gusty winds. Forecasts called for the air to go quiescent near 7:00 pm and, wonderfully, it did. It was to be a temporary calm overnight as thunderstorms were anticipated for much of the following day.

Hemlock, NY with Hemlock Lake in the background

The Warrior and I floated through still air, observing the lengthening shadows. I made my way to Letchworth State Park where areas deep within the gorge were already obscured in partial darkness.

Mount Morris Dam and the Genesee River

Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park

Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park

After sightseeing, I flew to Le Roy for fuel. In the distance, thunderstorms could be seen over Canada. Though the western clouds were foreboding, Foreflight showed the nearest thunderstorms to be over Toronto. They would not be a factor for us. The Warrior would be back in her hangar long before their arrival.

Still wanting to hone my landings, I turned final for runway 28 at Le Roy. I noticed the yellow Hummer parked at an angle by the airport office. Good, Ray was there. Returning to Earth, I eased the yoke back and rolled the wheels on with a single, quiet chirp.

Patron Saint

I was pleased to see Ray, whom I have often referred to as my own personal Patron Saint of Aviation. After fueling, we chatted a bit as I eyed the darkening sky. When I decided it was time to go, Ray shook my hand with a warm smile and wished me well. I did a single touch and go at Le Roy, my first since breaking in the new cylinder, and turned eastbound for home.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

After sunset, the lights of Rochester traced serpentine patterns through the darkness below. My hand on the controls was light as the air was absolutely still. Rochester Approach's frequency was silent until a Canadian commuter (call sign, "Georgian") arrived on scene. During a quietly perfunctory approach, the Rochester controller abruptly said something that caught everyone's attention.

"Georgian XYZ, we're getting a wind shear alert, anticipate a 30 knot speed gain on three mile final, runway 4."


The airliner's crew asked for details about the other runways and began working through a plan with the controller. "The readings are changing every fifteen seconds," commented the Rochester controller, sounding ever so slightly puzzled.

I was east of Rochester, floating in still twilight air. Once the approach controller switched the airliner to Rochester Tower for landing, only I remained on frequency.

The Warrior began a gentle climb. Automatically, I pulled the throttle back a bit and pushed the nose forward to hold altitude. Insistently, the climb continued. Smoothly, abruptly, the needle on the vertical speed indicator (VSI) swung clockwise and pegged in a full deflection climb of a rate exceeding 2,000 feet per minute. Tending to live in the 0 - 1000 feet per minute range, this was unexplored territory for the Warrior's VSI needle and it meant that I was in the grip of something far more powerful than the airplane itself.

I was still resisting the climb with forward pressure on the controls. I pulled the throttle entirely to idle, but nonetheless watched the airspeed increase alarmingly toward red line. In strong updrafts, such as those found in thunderstorms, the best course of action is to assume a level attitude and not fight the updraft. This avoids overstressing the airframe. Aircraft break when their airspeeds rise into the red. I relaxed the forward pressure and watched the airspeed indicator reassuringly sweep back into a safe range for rough air.

In seconds, I climbed from 3,000 to 4000 feet. Somewhere above 4,000 feet, the Warrior bucked in the first bout of turbulence. I fought to keep the wings level. One particularly nasty jolt was enough to throw my flight bag (which, among other things, contained a headset, a handheld radio, and a liter of water) from the back seat into the right seat beside me.

Then I entered a downdraft and plummeted to 2,500 feet in seconds. I restored power and stabilized the airplane. The turbulence abated and the Warrior hummed through the nighttime sky as though nothing unusual had just happened.

Rochester called. "Warrior 481, how's the ride?" Surely he already knew, having seen my altitude fluctuating wildly on his screen.

The entire incident, from initial climb to leveling at 2,500 feet lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Rattled, I could not parse my response into standard FAA jargon. "I just flew through some really nasty turbulence."

"We're getting reports of moderate turbulence at much higher altitudes." In fact, there had been an AIRMET warning issued for turbulence in the flight levels, but not for anything below 20,000 feet and I had ignored it during flight planning. Then again, there was no mention of wind shear in any of the terminal forecasts, either.

"Warrior 481, ten miles from Sodus, no traffic observed between you and the airport, squawk VFR, frequency change approved and ... be careful going in there."

Trapped in the Sky

I thanked him and switched to Unicom. On the number two radio, I tuned the automated weather station for the Williamson-Sodus Airport and allowed it to loop continuously in the background.

"Williamson-Sodus Airport, Sodus, New York, automated weather observation...wind calm..." droned the synthesized voice. I was relieved. All was calm on the home front.

I called five miles out, turned on the runway lighting, and began a descent. I was briskly shaken several more times by abrupt turbulence as the automated weather observation broadcast continued to recite the real time weather.

"...wind calm..."

Then, each successive broadcast changed.

"...wind, three five zero at five..."

I announced a 45 degree pattern entry for runway 28.

"...wind, two niner zero at seven..."

I called downwind for runway 28.

"...wind, three four zero at ten..."

"...wind, three zero zero at one two..."

I called left base.

"...wind, three five zero at one two, peak gust one seven. Wind variable between two niner zero and three five zero..."

In moments, the air surrounding the airport had gone from still to chaotic. I rolled onto final approach, fixated on the precision approach path indicator (PAPI) showing two white lights that indicated I was above the safe glideslope. Treetops stretched skyward, hidden in the dark like reefs beneath the waves waiting to gouge a ship's hull. I decided to ride the glideslope high, just in case. My hand clenched the throttle, poised to abort the landing if the turbulence became too severe.

I entered another downdraft, suddenly sinking through the visual glideslope toward the invisible trees. As first one, then the other PAPI light turned red, I fed the Warrior full throttle and leveled the nose to arrest the descent.

I continued to sink.

As airspeed increased, I eased the flaps out.

I continued to sink.

I pitched the Warrior into a maximum performance climb and was finally able to counteract the downdraft, struggling back into the chaotic sky at an anemic 100 feet per minute while being shaken violently.

I was stranded aloft, at least for the moment. There was no way that I would attempt another landing at home base until the weather changed again. It was a perfect example of the old saw that it is far better to be on the ground wishing to be in the air than the other way around.

Safe Harbor

Back at altitude in moderate turbulence, I pondered my next move. Clearly, something was moving into the area from the northwest. I suspected that it was a gust front of an early arriving thunderstorm, but did not know for certain.

My first thought was of Fuzzy, the Oswego Count Airport (FZY) to the east. Their automated weather broadcast indicated that the winds were calm. Perhaps, I thought, I could land there ahead of this weather, let it roll past, then backtrack to Sodus in calm air. But what if the atmospheric chaos resulted from the gust front of an approaching thunderstorm? I would be stranded at Fuzzy and very far from home.

Canandaigua Airport (D38), photographed 30 May 2016

Then, I listened to Canandaigua Airport's weather. As a Rochester area airport, Canandaigua was a more appealing alternate airport. I have diverted there before. Yes, Canandaigua is west of Sodus and back toward Rochester, but it was also farther south and the weather was clearly moving in from the northwest.

"...wind calm..."

I turned toward Canandaigua, occasionally riding through bouts of turbulence strong enough to upset the airplane into rather steep bank angles. Incandescent stars lighting towns and streets below rotated crazily in the Warrior's windscreen as I made my way to port.

"...wind calm..."

I was perfectly positioned to enter a left base leg for runway 13 and did so, flying an arcing base to final leg to expedite an arrival to the safe harbor of runway below.

"...wind calm..."

Chirp, chirp. I was rolling.

As I taxied to the ramp, I exhaled a shaky sigh of relief and maneuvered to an available tie down spot on Canandaigua's ramp. I had just shut down the avionics when I caught a stirring in my peripheral vision. The Warrior's landing light illuminated tall grass at the ramp's edge that had suddenly started moving frantically. I restored power to the radio.

"...wind, three four zero at one zero, peak gust one seven..."

The monster had caught up with me, but this time, I had thwarted him. I was safely on the ground. I finished shutting down the airplane and hurried outside to tie down the tough old girl, certain that a storm was coming in the wake of the crazy gusting. Opening the baggage compartment, I discovered that everything inside had been thrown about, a parting reminder of the significant turbulence I experienced.


At 10:22 pm, I called home for help. There was no answer because Kristy was already asleep. So I turned to my Patron Saint of Aviation. Not only did I know that Ray was a night owl, I also knew that he would exactly understand my situation. Ray could tell that I was rattled and generously agreed to pick me up from the airport. I later learned that paperwork and keys for rental cars are available for unannounced late night arrivals on the FBO desk, information that I filed away for any future diversions to Canandaigua.

I waited inside the Canandaigua FBO for nearly an hour. Over time, I stopped shaking and started working through the logistics of getting to work the next morning and eventually retrieving a car from Sodus and an airplane from Canandaigua.

I also contemplated the atmospheric monster with which I had just tussled. What was it? What created it? Was there anything in the forecast that might have warned me of its presence before I went aloft? Powerful updrafts and downdrafts are generally associated with thunderstorms or strong winds impinging on mountainous terrain. The initial updraft I experienced was reminiscent of riding ridge lift over Weston Pass in the Rocky Mountains. But I was over relatively flat country and, as Foreflight's weather radar revealed, there was no thunderstorm in the vicinity. My assumption about a coming storm was completely false. Even the storm that had been over Toronto during my visit to Le Roy had meandered eastward over Lake Ontario and dissipated before reaching Rochester.

So, what happened? I do not truly know. There was a cold front approaching the area and perhaps the atmospheric chaos I experienced was air being pushed ahead of a rapidly moving front, but I have not experienced anything so profoundly violent in fifteen years of flying. It was not the magnitude of the wind that was distressing, it was the strength of the turbulence, the variable direction of the wind, and combinations of updrafts and downdrafts unlike anything I have ever experienced over flat terrain.

This monster did not appear on the charts. It lurked silently, without the visual spectacle of torrential rain and lighting, and it struck without warning.

I stepped back outside into cool nighttime air sometime after 11:00 pm. Intense pinpoints of light marked the locations of stars sprinkled over a cloudless celestial dome. The atmosphere was still and all evidence of the monster's fury was gone. 

I checked various weather reporting stations around the region:

Rochester, wind calm. 

Sodus, wind calm. 

Syracuse, wind calm.

The most active weather in the region that I could find was a light rain shower somewhere over the middle of Lake Ontario, closer to the Canadian shore than to home.

When Ray arrived around 11:20, I talked through what happened. Ray noted that a few minutes after I departed Le Roy, the windsock there began thrashing about as though possessed. Evidently, the monster had been chasing me ever since I left my former home base.

I felt foolish for pulling him away from home so late at night only to have the weather go calm before he arrived. The most logical path forward was for me to climb back into the Warrior and return home. Ray agreed, though he was anxious about letting a spooked pilot return to the sky. I assured him that I was no longer rattled, that the hour spent waiting and thinking had expunged most of the fear.

"OK, but I'm going to stay right here," Ray insisted. Of course, he was. "If you run into problems, come back here. When you get back to Sodus, call me. If you don't call, I will be very angry with you!" he added with a smile.

We guessed the combination to the airport's vehicle gate and drove Ray's truck out to the Warrior where, in the glow of its headlights, I un-battened hatches so hastily battened down after landing (tie downs, cabin cover, cowl plugs, and gust lock). My fear that something even worse was coming seemed laughable in the now dormant night.

As I climbed away from the airport, I watched the lights of Ray's truck return to the airport parking lot where he waited for my call.

No longer stranded in a choppy, aeronautical sea, I made easy landfall at Sodus and called Ray to release him from his vigil. I cannot express how grateful I am to have such good friends.

Pushing Warrior 481 back into the safe confines of her hangar, I noted that she was severely splattered with bugs. Though it was midnight, I took the time to wipe her wings, stabilator, cowling, and windshield clean in a therapeutic post-flight ritual. With that completed, I patted her cowling and left her to rest. I reached home at 1:00 am nearly completely wrung out.


What did I learn?

In some cases, I reinforced things that I already knew:
  • The best way to manage a scary situation is to keep calm and fly the airplane. 
  • This experience reinforced that a dangerous airspeed can be reached quickly in a powerful updraft. When caught in a powerful updraft, maintaining a level attitude, rather than trying to maintain altitude becomes important. Because this recommendation is usually given in the context of becoming caught in a thunderstorm, it is not knowledge that I ever anticipated using. Ordinary summer thermals lack the kind of power I experienced on this flight.
  • Always be ready to abort a landing if the situation does not look right.
  • The weather is always changing. Pay attention.
Though my landing attempt at Sodus was performed with a healthy readiness to abort, I wonder if this unusual situation warranted an even more conservative approach. Considering the rapid development of chaotic conditions on the field, a better choice may have been to divert without trying to land.

Finally, this experience underscored the need to thoroughly brief the weather. This is not to say that I did not review the weather before going aloft. I did and saw nothing to foreshadow the monster I encountered over Rochester that night. This makes me wonder if my weather knowledge is adequate. Was there a sign that I missed or failed to recognize? Regardless, if the data are not gathered in the first place, discussions on what to do with it are entirely moot.


  1. Chris,
    I've read through your post for the third time. Each time trying to put myself in the moment and trying to picture myself in my plane. Thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate the chance to 'fly' the situation safely on the ground, a teaching moment for sure.

    1. Thank you, Gary. I'll tell you what, I have to go back to September 2015 to find a post I've written with more viewings than this one (and it hasn't even been posted for a week, yet).

      I am looking at working some connections to get time with people at NOAA/NWS in hopes of reviewing the historical data from that night and understanding if my experience could have been predicted from the weather indicators available at the time I went aloft. If so, I think that will truly turn this into a teachable moment and I will be certain to share anything that comes of it in a follow-up post.