Edging around the storm

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clouds

Name withheld by request

As someone who grew up in south-eastern Queensland, I will always remember the strong summer storms that would blow through: the intensity and sheer power of these storms always had me sitting on the verandah mesmerised by the sight of horizontal rain, wind gusts that would double over the big gum trees and lightning that sounded like it was mere metres away.

Many years later, after several seasons of flying commercially, I was well aware of just how destructive these storms could be. Aviation is littered with tragic tales of the destructive power of these impressive feats of nature, and as a pilot I always felt it was important to take heed of these stories and not end up as a statistic.

This day in November I was about to see the true power of a summer storm that would etch itself into Brisbane’s recent history.

The flight was straightforward enough; departing Brisbane I would be tracking to the Gold Coast, to pick up guests for an aerial real estate inspection before dropping them off and returning to Brisbane, Archerfield. Forecast weather was typical for this time of year, hot clear conditions with TEMPO TS to affect the area and aerodrome in the afternoon. Fuel planning was no issue as I had plenty of capacity for trip fuel, holding and an alternate to the north if I got boxed in.

The first half of the flight went as planned. The ride was slightly bumpy from thermal activity, but apart from a slightly delayed departure from the Gold Coast as a result of late arriving passengers, nothing was abnormal. On return to the Gold Coast to drop the passengers off I could see the weather building, a large CB (cumulonimbus) was visible on the other side of the range. This one looked different though—instead of tracking east as most of the storms do, this one was tracking north. I did a quick check of the forecast and apart from TEMPO being added to the TTF (trend type forecast) at Brisbane there was no change. I looked at the radar and could see it was a fairly intense storm. Doing a quick calculation, I worked out a rough ground speed it was travelling at and concluded I could make it back to Brisbane before the storm hit.

Fuelled up, I departed the Gold Coast, and immediately on getting airborne and climbing through 1000 ft I could see just how intense and large this storm was. It literally filled my entire field of view to the west and had tops well over 30,000 ft. While tracking northbound from the coast, I could see I was going to be able to get in front of the storm before I would eventually have to track west for Archerfield. With such a violent storm off to my left, I was actually surprised with how smooth the conditions were; I feel this lulled me into a slight sense of comfort, though.

Once I turned west I could now see just how large the storm front was. It was as black as night and filled the valley from the Gold Coast to Boonah. While there was lightning and I knew that I didn’t want to be within 10 nm of the front, I still felt at this stage that I could make an attempt to Archerfield: it was clear weather to the north and I knew that if conditions worsened I could head to Brisbane or Redcliffe. Tellingly perhaps, there was no one else in the pattern at Archerfield as I arrived into the zone. Everyone on the ground knew just how intense this storm was going to be and they were busy getting aircraft into hangars. Approaching from the southeast I joined a base for runway 04R—and the turbulence finally started to hit. The storm front was now less then 10 nm from me and I was seeing large fluctuations in wind direction, and rain that was reducing visibility by every minute.

On turning final I estimated I was within 5 nm of the rain curtain and I had to use full range of throttle movement to establish a constant airspeed as I struggled to maintain wings level. I managed to touch down and quickly raised the flaps and slowed as rapidly as possible to reduce the risk of having a wing raised by wind gusts. The storm was literally at the edge of the airfield as I shut the engines down. I got the aircraft under cover as the rain hit.

This storm would go on to destroy tens of millions of dollars of property as one of the worst hailstorms to hit the Brisbane area in decades. Many aircraft at Archerfield were torn from their ground anchors and destroyed.

It took a few weeks for me to properly reflect on what had occurred. In retrospect, I should never have turned west while tracking north from the Gold Coast. I had had a great view of the storm and its intensity and also had the luxury of multiple aerodrome choices to the north. Although I had been successful in getting the aircraft home safe and sound, it could easily have been a very different story. One strong gust of tailwind on final could have spelt disaster.

I had always felt I had a very strong respect for storms, but it wasn’t until I flew so close to one that I realised why severe weather should always be given a wide berth. No matter what your skill level or your hours, you have to set yourself limitations and parameters that you and your aircraft can manage safely. And if the weather impinges on this in any way, then go to your alternate, or delay your departure.

Watching a storm’s beauty from the ground will always be better then being in the air and wishing you were somewhere else.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. A rule of thumb I was taught in South Africa where we also had these intense thunderstorms, was that you had to avoid them by 10 nautical miles for each 10,000 feet in height. That is a good rule of thumb and sometimes hard to put into practice if you need ATC approval to divert 30nm left or right of track to avoid a storm cell.

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