(Ace had the opportunity, later that summer, to experience the frightening exhilaration of flight into a severe thunderstorm at 37,000 feet. The entire Midwest and Northeast United States was engulfed in an August heat wave that was accompanied by severe embedded thunderstorms. An inoperative radar during night flight resulted in an inadvertent adventure into a very intense mature thunderstorm. The severe turbulence was such that maintaining the aircraft in a controlled flight situation required Ace’s maximum effort. The loud noise of the heavy hail pelting the aircraft on the windshield along with the thunder and lightning was tweaking on the edge of being terrifying. During this nightmarish flight experience Ace had made a silent vow that if he survived this experience he would retire from aviation and sell insurance. This vow was soon broken when he very briefly considered the nature of real work. With today’s very effective and very reliable aircraft airborne radar systems, along with the air traffic control’s improved weather detection radar, it would be very unlikely that one would encounter this situation. A pilot’s healthy fear of entering a mature cell thunderstorm is an attitude that that will greatly enhance pilot and passenger longevity.)

As we get into thunderstorm season it is also time to discuss a few of the many considerations of these phenomena as it relates to both airline passengers and all pilots. The destructive power of the thunderstorms will get most peoples’ adrenalin flowing. The thought of being airborne in a turbulent thunderstorm will induce serious stress and anxiety—particularly for us pilots that have incurred the wrath of a level 5 TRW while penetrating it’s core. It is fear that breeches upon that same level felt by men in combat who are fighting for their lives.

As an airline passenger you want to be sure that your pilot has a healthy fear of thunderstorms. Unfortunately, there is no method available to determine such. If the pilot is a “gray-beard” it is likely that he has been at least severely nicked by a mature thunderstorm. Younger baby-faced pilots might not have outgrown the common affliction that often results in a mistaken self-perception of being immortal. It is also more likely that the less-experienced pilot had not yet had the pulse-racing experience of being in the middle of one of those “Level 5” TRWs. An additional note as a defense against exposure to that terrifying TRW; you can simply plan your trips so as to fly in the morning hours when the likelihood of thunderstorms is minimal.  If there are TRWs in the area, that suggestion to keep your seat belt “loosely fastened,” should be changed to snuggly fastened.

The airline pilot is prohibited to fly in an area of thunderstorms or to a destination with TRW’s forecast anywhere along the route of flight. FAR 121.0 (governs airlines) is very clear and empathic—operational radar is a must. The CONUS ATC is quite helpful in providing  vectors around areas of threatening weather but the functional radar installed in the aircraft provide the best insurance against banging into one of these “hard spots” in an airplane. A venture into a mature thunderstorm by U.S. air carriers is quite remote but if you on a third world airline the chance of getting whacked greatly increase. Avoid third world airlines— the safety quotient plummets.

For the general aviation pilots without onboard radar the pilot can get weather info on his IPAD or Garmin, but keep in mind that this weather can be more than 20 minutes old and the antiquated information could be counterproductive in its false presentation. The NTSB has just issued a warning that some firms that provide “real time” data to cockpit displays can be obsolete. They also mention that accident investigations have revealed that at least 2 fatal accidents were possibly caused by this delayed weather information. The common and best course of action is utilized by most pilots is to wait for the weather to improve, even it means waiting until the next day.


Also, keep in mind that the microburst that often occurs many miles from the actual storm can be devastating with gusts that might exceed 60 knots. The rapid change in wind direction, commonly referred to as wind shear can bring a large jet down as it did in DFW on August 2, 1985. Delta Flight 191, a Lockheed L-1011 was slammed into the terra-firma by a microburst that created a net loss of more than 40 knots airspeed. The often-unseen but unforgiving microburst is responsible for many fatal aircraft crashes. Aviation has become much safer in recent years but eternal vigilance regarding thunderstorms remains critical to maintain that high level of safety.

The severe weather that wreaked havoc across much of the Midwest and Northeast last week was caused by a very unique phenomena called derecho. An AOPA blog, with the following web address,, can provide a well-written description of what created this rare weather event.

This blog is prepared by Ace Abbott, author of The Rogue Aviator (


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