A Lesson in the Power of Thunder
In the 1970s, the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) was like college with airplanes. Over the 53 weeks of UPT, at least half of each day was dedicated to classroom academics—typically six-week courses in everything from aerodynamics and navigation to weather, or more properly, meteorology. It was that course, meteorology, specifically the section on thunderstorms, that probably saved us.
The first fact I found fascinating was that in the early 1950s, the Air Force sponsored the Thunderstorm Project that involved pilots intentionally flying into the most severe thunderstorms they could find in specially instrumented World War II era P-61C Black Widow radar-equipped night fighters
At the time, I thought that would have been a cool assignment. Well, let me tell you, the story goes like this….
My First Operational Assignment
After graduation from UPT, I was assigned to the 3535th Navigator Training Wing at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, California. At that time, navigator trainees flew in specially outfitted T-29 trainers, a military version of the Convair 240/340 commercial airliners.
The airliner could carry up to 44 passengers. The T-29s cabin was equipped with a dozen navigator training stations and a ground navigation radar (for advanced training).
A typical training flight had eight to ten navigator students and two navigation instructors on board. Flights lasted five to six hours. On training flights, the pilots simply flew the airplane: the navigator students had their own instructors in the back. Students tracked our progress and provided corrections along the route.
Pilot Transition Training
Most pilots who came to Mather went through transition training to learn specifically about this aircraft. That was important because the T-29 was a piston-powered propeller aircraft—not a jet like we flew in UPT. We had never encountered propeller speed controls, manifold pressures, or mixture controls. These controls must be manipulated in a specific sequence to avoid damaging the engines. The aircraft also required a minimum crew of two pilots—the aircraft commander and the copilot.
New pilots first trained for, and checked out as, copilots (right seat only). After 500 hours as a copilot, we were given additional training and checked out as first pilots (left seat qualified) and eventually as aircraft commanders.
When I was stationed at Mather, the United States was still deeply involved in Vietnam. We were training navigators at full capacity. We had 100 T-29 aircraft, and on any good flying day, there would be as many as sixty training sorties. Pilots were flying five and sometimes six days a week. It did not take long to build flight time and advance to aircraft commander.
My First Flight as the Aircraft Commander
I had just qualified as an aircraft commander and was assigned my first flight as pilot-in-command. This was also my co-pilot’s first operational flight since checking out in the T-29. And finally, it was the first flight for this group of navigation students. The navigation instructor, a captain, was the senior ranking officer on board.
The T-29 was actually an easy airplane to fly, once you understood the engine controls and the myriad instruments and systems that had to be monitored and managed.
Our assigned route was from Sacramento south to Los Angeles, then turn east and fly over Palmdale and Twenty-Nine Palms, turn around and retrace the route back to Mather AFB. After takeoff, Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigned us a cruise altitude of 16,000 feet.
It was a beautiful day, and the flight southbound went smoothly. We had made the turn back over Palmdale, just in time to see an SR-71 Blackbird starting its takeoff run as we passed the runway. The black aircraft accelerated quickly and was moving faster than we were before its wheels left the runway. It took off, continued to accelerate and climbed out in front of us—a rare treat for the entire crew.
Over Los Angeles, we turned north toward home. About 30 miles north of Los Angeles, we began to see towering cumulus clouds—thunderstorms—on the horizon. As we got closer, we could see a solid line of storms stretching from the slopes of the Sierra mountains west toward Oakland.
We contacted ATC. They reported a line of storms stretching west to Oakland. We continued hoping for a break in the line of storms. If we diverted around the line, it would add an hour to the already six-hour flight.
Twenty miles from the storms, we checked in with ATC. Again, the controller reported a solid line of storms. Then he hesitated, and said, “I can see two dense thunderstorm cells on my scope, but there appears to be a broad opening between them. If you would like, I can give you headings through this area.”
There I was…
I knew I should not, but I accepted his offer. I punched the intercom button and advised everyone to, “strap in tight and hold on.”
The Controller gave us a heading and within minutes we flew into the wall of clouds, and it immediately turned dark as night. The navigator instructor followed our track on the navigation radar and hopefully would be able to see some of the weather formations.
At first, we made good progress through the storms. It was raining and turbulent, but we had flown through worse routinely.
What both the ATC radar and we did not see was a third, equally large cell sitting directly in front of us, between and beyond the first two cells. We flew directly into the heart of this storm.
The intensity of the rain, mixed with hail, increased, sounding like rocks pounding on the aircraft. Lightning flashed around us as if we were under attack. The 44,000-pound plane was bouncing like a leaf in a Texas dust devil. I was watching the instruments and fighting to keep the plane upright. My copilot monitored every move. “We are climbing,” he said a little too calmly.
I checked the vertical airspeed indicator. It showed a climb rate of 2000 feet per minute. The T-29 was a good airplane, but it could not climb at that rate on its best day, plus I had the nose down trying to maintain our assigned altitude.
Then the image of a thunderstorm from our weather training manual flashed through my mind. We were in a strong updraft. That meant there could be equally strong downdrafts, and since we were flying in the vicinity of the foothills of the high Sierras, I decided to let the aircraft rise in the updraft. I would worry about altitude once we got out of the storm. That brief moment of “thinking” distracted me from my flying duties.
The intercom crackled. An irritated navigation instructor said, “I can’t find the ground.”
The attitude indicator showed that we were in a very steep bank. The belly-mounted “down-looking” navigation radar was looking off toward the ocean 100 miles to the west! I cranked hard on the wheel and leveled the wings. “How’s that?” I said.
“Yeah, that’s better,” he grunted.
Then he called back. “I think I see a possible opening in the weather about thirty degrees to our right.”
Before he finished the word “right” I was turning the aircraft. The turbulence and rain continued to beat on the airplane, but the climb stopped, and we rolled out on and held the heading the navigator suggested.
The passage of time slowed. What was no more than a minute seemed like 30 minutes. Then, literally, we “popped” out of a solid wall of clouds into the bright summer sunshine. Mather AFB was visible on the horizon. We contacted approach control and made a normal approach and landing at Mather.
As the navigators were deplaning, one student stuck his head in the cockpit and asked, “Is it always like this. That was really cool.” I hoped he would be disappointed.
Since we made it through safely, there was no damage to the aircraft, and no injury to the crew, no formal report was required. I did relate our experience to our safety officer with the conclusion that it was not a good idea to let ATC controllers provide directions through storms. ATC radar was not really designed nor equipped to show severe weather.
Two weeks later, during our regularly scheduled safety meeting, we had a fifteen-minute presentation that reviewed the structure of thunderstorms and added that we were not to let ATC vector us through known areas of thunderstorm activity.
As Richard Collins wrote on his blog in 2017, “Thunderstorms and airplanes and pilots: they don’t go together.” I could have told him that 35 years ago, but it is a lesson that bears repeating—often.