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Lesson 2: Thunderstorm Hazards to Aviation

This week's lesson looks at how the thunderstorms impact aviation and operations. This lesson will be heavy on the practical side. To introduce the lesson, our "guest speaker" is the Director of the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Aviation Operations Center located at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. He is literally a pilot close to the weather as he flys and directs the aircraft that carry research scientists up close and personal to thunderstorms, hurricane's, and other weather phenomena.
On March 2, 1984, my aviation career entered into a new phase of reality when we unintentionally flew our NOAA Shrike Commander (AC-50) into a thunderstorm near Lake Charles, Louisiana. In what can only be described kindly as an "E" ticket ride, our aircraft suffered numerous severe updrafts and downdrafts coupled with extremely heavy rain and lightning. As a crew, we were very busy keeping the aircraft in a level attitude and trying not to "chase" an airspeed indicator that was oscillating from red line to stall. Believe me, when you hear an aircraft wind up like that and you see your airspeed indicator approach Vne, it’s hard not to pull back on the throttles. Every object that was not secured in the cabin went weightless, moved forward and eventually landed in the flight deck. The aircraft went through several iterations of positive and negative "G" loads that even further disorientated us. We had entered this small embedded cell at 13,000 feet and were ultimately ejected from the storm at 4,700 feet, in spite of the fact that we were trying to maintain our IFR assigned altitude of 13,000 feet! Some of our navigational equipment failed due to the turbulence, but we managed to make an emergency landing in Gulfport, Mississippi. I felt like I had been given a second chance at both life and flying – we could have easily been killed… Fifteen years later, at 41,000 feet, I would experience a very similar, although less violent, ride in a NOAA G-IV on a flight out to probe the beginnings of what would eventually be Hurricane Dennis. We were trying to get over the top of a cell but we didn’t quite make it. In Hurricane Lenny, we saw thunderstorm tops that exceeded 60,000 feet! We could never get high enough to fly over those cells, and certainly would never try to penetrate through them.

Nearly everyone I know in aviation has experienced a near departure in a thunderstorm. None of us were intentionally trying to fly through a thunderstorm, and we all had a game plan that we thought would keep us well away from trouble. Nonetheless, events beyond our direct control (the weather system developed in a manner that we didn’t anticipate, ATC constraints, etc.) pushed us into corners where we eventually got trapped. It is not a good feeling, as an aircraft commander, to run out of options. At that point, you are forced to head the aircraft toward the weakest part of the storm that you can identify on radar (if so equipped), brief your plan of attack (power settings, attitude, air speeds, etc.), tighten your straps, stay smooth, and hope for the best. Not terribly professional.

The power of a thunderstorm is truly awesome and totally indifferent to your presence. The potential for placing your aircraft and crew into a hazardous situation is very real. The chapter you are about to enter will teach you more about the harsh conditions that exist in and around these storms and will underline the importance of avoiding any close contact with these weather systems.

Fly Safe,

Bob Maxson

Captain, NOAA
Director, NOAA Aircraft Operations Center

In our first lesson, you reviewed, and hopefully learned something, about the basic meteorology behind thunderstorms and their life and processes. From our registrations, we have students from very diverse backgrounds flying aircraft from B-747 to small General Aviation aircraft. To make this course relevant, we have to take the broad approach to the topic of the hazards of flying. Each of you will still have to know the limits of the aircraft you are flying or responsible for.
You learned terms to describe the large scale thunderstorm systems...these include the Mesoscale Convective Complex or MCC, supercells, squall lines, and derechoes.

There is another term you should be familiar with. This is the concept of the "Bow Echo." We will deal with bow echoes in at least one accident in lesson six.

We asked you to prepare for this lesson by reading from the Aeronautical Information Manual about flying near convective weather. Before we review the thunderstorm sections of that work, let's use another FAA publication as our overview of the topic of hazards to aviation. There is only one study question that is really important to this lesson...HOW CLOSE WILL YOU GET TO A THUNDERSTORM IN AN AIRPLANE?.
AC 00-24B - THUNDERSTORMS
Department of Transportation
Federal Aviation Administration

1/2/83





1. PURPOSE. This advisory circular describes the hazards of thunderstorms to aviation and offers guidance to help prevent accidents caused by thunderstorms.

Sections 2 and 3 are deleted here.

4. GENERAL. We all know what a thunderstorm looks like. Much has been written about the mechanics and life cycles of thunderstorms. They have been studied for many years; and while much has been learned, the studies continue because much is not known. Knowledge and weather radar have modified our attitudes toward thunderstorms, but one rule continues to be true - any storm recognizable as a thunderstorm should be considered hazardous until measurements have shown it to be safe. That means safe for you and your aircraft. Almost any thunderstorm can spell disaster for the wrong combination of aircraft and pilot.

5. HAZARDS. A thunderstorm packs just about every weather hazard known to aviation into one vicious bundle. Although the hazards occur in numerous combinations, let us look at the most hazardous combination of thunderstorms, the squall line, then we will examine the hazards individually.

a. Squall Lines. A squall line is a narrow band of active thunderstorms. Often it develops on or ahead of a cold front in moist, unstable air, but it may develop in unstable air far from any front. The line may be too long to detour easily and too wide and severe to penetrate. It often contains steady-state thunderstorms and presents the single most intense weather hazard to aircraft. It usually forms rapidly, generally reaching maximum intensity during the late afternoon and the first few hours of darkness.

b. Tornadoes.

(1) The most violent thunderstorms draw air into their cloud bases with great vigor. If the incoming air has any initial rotating motion, it often forms an extremely concentrated vortex from the surface well into the cloud. Meteorologists have estimated that wind in such a vortex can exceed 200 knots; pressure inside the vortex is quite low. The strong winds gather dust and debris and the low pressure generates a funnel shaped cloud extending downward from the cumulonimbus base. If the cloud does not reach the surface, it is a "funnel cloud"; if it touches a land surface, it is a "tornado."

(2) Tornadoes occur with both isolated and squall line thunderstorms. Reports for forecasts of tornadoes indicate that atmospheric conditions are favorable for violent turbulence. An aircraft entering a tornado vortex is almost certain to suffer structural damage. Since the vortex extends well into the cloud, any pilot inadvertently caught on instruments in a severe thunderstorm could encounter a hidden vortex.

(3) Families of tornadoes have been observed as appendages of the main cloud extending several miles outward from the area of lightning and precipitation. Thus, any cloud connected to a severe thunderstorm carries a threat of violence.

c. Turbulence.

(1) Potentially hazardous turbulence is present in all thunderstorms, and a severe thunderstorm can destroy an aircraft.

Strongest turbulence within the cloud occurs with shear between updrafts and downdrafts. Outside the cloud, shear turbulence has been encountered several thousand feet above and 20 miles laterally from a severe storm. A low level turbulent area is the shear zone associated with the gust front. Often, a "roll cloud" on the leading edge of a storm marks the top of the eddies in this shear and it signifies an extremely turbulent zone. Gust fronts often move far ahead (up to 15 miles) of associated precipitation. The gust front causes a rapid and sometimes drastic change in surface wind ahead of an approaching storm. Figure 1 shows a schematic cross section of a thunderstorm with areas outside the cloud where turbulence may be encountered.

Figure 1. Thunderstorm Cross Section

 


(2) It is almost impossible to hold a constant altitude in a thunderstorm, and maneuvering in an attempt to do so produces greatly increased stress on the aircraft. It is understandable that the speed of the aircraft determines the rate of turbulence encounters. Stresses are least if the aircraft is held in a constant attitude and allowed to "ride the waves." To date, we have no sure way to pick "soft spots" in a thunderstorm.

d. Icing.

(1) Updrafts in a thunderstorm support abundant liquid water with relatively large droplet sizes; and when carried above the freezing level, the water becomes supercooled. When temperature in the upward current cools to about -15 °C, much of the remaining water vapor sublimates as ice crystals; and above this level, at lower temperatures, the amount of supercooled water decreases.

(2) Supercooled water freezes on impact with an aircraft. Clear icing can occur at any altitude above the freezing level; but at high levels, icing from smaller droplets may be rime or mixed rime and clear. The abundance of large, supercooled water droplets makes clear icing very rapid between 0 °C and -15 °C and encounters can be frequent in a cluster of cells. Thunderstorm icing can be extremely hazardous.

e. Hail.


(1) Hail competes with turbulence as the greatest thunderstorm hazard to aircraft. Supercooled drops above the freezing level begin to freeze. Once a drop has frozen, other drops latch on and freeze to it, so the hailstone grows - sometimes into a huge iceball. Large hail occurs with severe thunderstorm with strong updrafts that have built to great heights. Eventually, the hailstones fall, possibly some distance from the storm core. Hail may be encountered in clear air several miles from dark thunderstorm clouds.

(2) As hailstones fall through air whose temperature is above 0 °C, they begin to melt and precipitation may reach the ground as either hail or rain. Rain at the surface does not mean the absence of hail aloft. You should anticipate possible hail with any thunderstorm, especially beneath the anvil of a large cumulonimbus. Hailstones larger than one-half inch in diameter can significantly damage an aircraft in a few seconds.


f. Low Ceiling and Visibility. Generally, visibility is near zero within a thunderstorm cloud. Ceiling and visibility also may be restricted in precipitation and dust between the cloud base and the ground. The restrictions create the same problem as all ceiling and visibility restrictions; but the hazards are increased many fold when associated with the other thunderstorm hazards of turbulence, hail, and lightning which make precision instrument flying virtually impossible.

g. Effect on Altimeters. Pressure usually falls rapidly with the approach of a thunderstorm, then rises sharply with the onset of the first gust and arrival of the cold downdraft and heavy rain showers, falling back to normal as the storm moves on. This cycle of pressure change may occur in 15 minutes. If the pilot does not receive a corrected altimeter setting, the altimeter may be more than 100 feet in error.

h. Lightning. A lightning strike can puncture the skin of an aircraft and can damage communications and electronic navigational equipment. Lightning has been suspected of igniting fuel vapors causing explosion; however, serious accidents due to lightning strikes are extremely rare. Nearby lightning can blind the pilot rendering him momentarily unable to navigate either by instrument or by visual reference. Nearby lightning can also induce permanent errors in the magnetic compass. Lightning discharges, even distant ones, can disrupt radio communications on low and medium frequencies. Though lightning intensity and frequency have no simple relationship to other storm parameters, severe storms, as a rule, have a high frequency of lightning.


i. Engine Water Ingestion.

(1) Turbine engines have a limit on the amount of water they can ingest. Updrafts are present in many thunderstorms, particularly those in the developing stages. If the updraft velocity in the thunderstorm approaches or exceeds the terminal velocity of the falling raindrops, very high concentrations of water may occur. It is possible that these concentrations can be in excess of the quantity of water turbine engines are designed to ingest. Therefore, severe thunderstorms may contain areas of high water concentration which could result in flameout and/or structural failure of one or more engines.

(2) At the present time, there is no known operational procedure that can completely eliminate the possibility of engine damage/flameout during massive water ingestion. Although the exact mechanism of these water induced engine stalls has not been determined, it is felt that thrust changes may have an adverse effect on engine stall margins in the presence of massive water ingestion.

(3) Avoidance of severe storm systems is the only measure assured to be effective in preventing exposure to this type of multiple engine damage/flameout. During an unavoidable encounter with severe storms with extreme precipitation, the best known recommendation is to follow the severe turbulence penetration procedure contained in the approved airplane flight manual with special emphasis on avoiding thrust changes unless excessive airspeed variations occur.

Since this Advisory Circular was written, several more hazards became part of the vocabulary of all safety-minded aviators and operators.

The first additional hazard is the microburst and macroburst. We already studied this phenomena in Lesson 1. You can use the lesson notes of the University of Wisconsin's internet course of pilot weather for a good review. The second hazard is that of the gravity wave, a turbulent movement of the atmosphere around thunderstorms.

There is one more hazard which we must address. That is the very heavy precipitation amounts that fall from a thunderstorm. Question: How much of a rainfall rate can YOUR runway shed before it is considered flooded (covered by over one-tenth of an inch)? You may have to ask your airport manager to find this answer. Then compare the number to the amounts of rainfall in the FAA chart. The very best runway designs with grooves, crowned surfaces, and a texture cannot handle the over 7.1 inches per hour rate of rainfall that can come from the strongest storms. So even if you successfully overcome all the airborne hazards of the thunderstorms, your runway may have a pool of water waiting for you when you touchdown.
6. WEATHER RADAR.

a. Weather radar detects droplets of precipitation size. Strength of the radar return (echo) depends on drop size and number. The greater the number of drops, the stronger is the echo; and the larger the drops, the stronger is the echo. Drop size determines echo intensity to a much greater extent than does drop number. Hailstones usually are covered with a film of water and, therefore, act as huge water droplets giving the strongest of all echoes.

b. Numerous methods have been used in an attempt to categorize the intensity of a thunderstorm. To standardize thunderstorm language between weather radar operators and pilots, the use of Video Integrator Processor (VIP) levels is being promoted.

c. The National Weather Service (NWS) radar observer is able to objectively determine storm intensity levels with VIP equipment. These radar echo intensity levels are on a scale of one to six. If the maximum VIP Levels are 1 "weak" and 2 "moderate," then light to moderate turbulence is possible with lightning. VIP Level 3 is "strong" and severe turbulence is possible with lightning. VIP Level 4 is "very strong" and severe turbulence is likely with lightning. VIP Level 5 is "intense" with severe turbulence, lightning, hail likely, and organized surface wind gusts. VIP Level 6 is "extreme" with severe turbulence, lightning, large hail, extensive surface wind gusts, and turbulence.

d. Thunderstorms build and dissipate rapidly. Therefore, do not attempt to plan a course between echoes. The best use of ground radar information is to isolate general areas and coverage of echoes. You must avoid individual storms from inflight observations either by visual sighting or by airborne radar. It is better to avoid the whole thunderstorm area than to detour around individual storms unless they are scattered.

e. Airborne weather avoidance radar is, as its name implies, for avoiding severe weather - not for penetrating it. Whether to fly into an area of radar echoes depends on echo intensity, spacing between the echoes, and the capabilities of you and your aircraft. Remember that weather radar detects only precipitation drops; it does not detect turbulence. Therefore, the radar scope provides no assurance of avoiding turbulence. The radar scope also does not provide assurance of avoiding instrument weather from clouds and fog. Your scope may be clear between intense echoes; this clear area does not necessarily man you can fly between the storms and maintain visual sighting of them.

f. Remember that while hail always gives a radar echo, it may fall several miles from the nearest visible cloud and hazardous turbulence may extend to as much as 20 miles from the echo edge. Avoid intense or extreme level echoes by at least 20 miles; that is, such echoes should be separated by at least 40 miles before you fly between them. With weaker echoes you can reduce the distance by which you avoid them.
7. DO'S AND DON'TS OF THUNDERSTORM FLYING.


a. Above all, remember this: never regard any thunderstorm lightly, even when radar observers report the echoes are of light intensity. Avoiding thunderstorms is the best policy. Following are some do's and don'ts of thunderstorm avoidance:

(1) Don't land or take off in the face of an approaching thunderstorm. A sudden gust front of low level turbulence could cause loss of control.

(2) Don't attempt to fly under a thunderstorm even if you can see through to the other side. Turbulence and windshear under the storm could be disastrous.

(3) Don't fly without airborne radar into a cloud mass containing scattered embedded thunderstorms. Scattered thunderstorms not embedded usually can be visually circumnavigated.

(4) Don't trust the visual appearance to be a reliable indicator of the turbulence inside a thunderstorm.

(5) Do avoid by at least 20 miles any thunderstorm identified as severe or giving an intense radar echo. This is especially true under the anvil of a large cumulonimbus.

(6) Do circumnavigate the entire area if the area has 6/10 thunderstorm coverage.

(7) Do remember that vivid and frequent lightning indicates the probability of a severe thunderstorm.

(8) Do regard as extremely hazardous any thunderstorm with tops 35,000 feet or higher whether the top is visually sighted or determined by radar.

b. If you cannot avoid penetrating a thunderstorm, following are some do's BEFORE entering the storm:

(1) Tighten your safety belt, put on your shoulder harness if you have one, and secure all loose objects.

(2) Plan and hold your course to take you through the storm in a minimum time.

(3) To avoid the most critical icing, establish a penetration altitude below the freezing level or above the level of -15 °C.

(4) Verify that pitot heat is on and turn on carburetor heat or jet engine anti-ice. Icing can be rapid at any altitude and cause almost instantaneous power failure and/or loss of airspeed indication.

(5) Establish power settings for turbulence penetration airspeed recommended in your aircraft manual.

(6) Turn up cockpit lights to highest intensity to lessen temporary blindness from lightning.

(7) If using automatic pilot, disengage altitude hold mode and speed hold mode. The automatic altitude and speed controls will increase maneuvers of the aircraft thus increasing structural stress.

(8) If using airborne radar, tilt the antenna up and down occasionally. This will permit you to detect other thunderstorm activity at altitudes other than the one being flown.

c. Following are some do's and don'ts DURING the thunderstorm penetration:

(1) Do keep your eyes on your instruments. Looking outside the cockpit can increase danger of temporary blindness from lightning.

(2) Don't change power settings; maintain settings for the recommended turbulence penetration airspeed.

(3) Do maintain constant attitude; let the aircraft "ride the waves." Maneuvers in trying to maintain constant altitude increase stress on the aircraft.

(4) Don't turn back once you are in the thunderstorm. A straight course through the storm most likely will get you out of the hazards most quickly. In addition, turning maneuvers increase stress on the aircraft.
There is a second FAA document to reference and that is the Aeronautical Information Manual,

Chapter 7-1-26. Thunderstorms

a. Turbulence, hail, rain, snow, lightning, sustained updrafts and downdrafts, icing conditions-all are present in thunderstorms. While there is some evidence that maximum turbulence exists at the middle level of a thunderstorm, recent studies show little variation of turbulence intensity with altitude.

b. There is no useful correlation between the external visual appearance of thunderstorms and the severity or amount of turbulence or hail (see the video) (read this more advanced tutorial) within them. The visible thunderstorm cloud is only a portion of a turbulent system whose updrafts and downdrafts often extend far beyond the visible storm cloud. Severe turbulence can be expected up to 20 miles from severe thunderstorms. This distance decreases to about 10 miles in less severe storms.

c. Weather radar, airborne or ground based, will normally reflect the areas of moderate to heavy precipitation (radar does not detect turbulence). The frequency and severity of turbulence generally increases with the radar reflectivity which is closely associated with the areas of highest liquid water content of the storm. NO FLIGHT PATH THROUGH AN AREA OF STRONG OR VERY STRONG RADAR ECHOES SEPARATED BY 20-30 MILES OR LESS MAY BE CONSIDERED FREE OF SEVERE TURBULENCE.

d. Turbulence beneath a thunderstorm should not be minimized. This is especially true when the relative humidity is low in any layer between the surface and 15,000 feet. Then the lower altitudes may be characterized by strong out flowing winds and severe turbulence.

e. The probability of lightning strikes occurring to aircraft is greatest when operating at altitudes where temperatures are between minus 5 degrees Celsius and plus 5 degrees Celsius. Lightning can strike aircraft flying in the clear in the vicinity of a thunderstorm.

f. METAR reports do not include a descriptor for severe thunderstorms. However, by understanding severe thunderstorm criteria, i.e., 50 knot winds or 3/4 inch hail, the information is available in the report to know that one is occurring.

g. NWS radar systems are able to objectively determine radar weather echo intensity levels by use of Video Integrator Processor (VIP) equipment. These thunderstorm intensity levels are on a scale of one to six.

REFERENCE-

Pilot/Controller Glossary, Radar Weather Echo Intensity Levels.

EXAMPLE-

1. Alert provided by an ATC facility to an aircraft:
(aircraft identification) level five intense weather echo between ten o'clock and two o'clock, one zero miles, moving east at two zero knots, tops Flight Level three nine zero.

2. Alert provided by an AFSS/FSS:
(aircraft identification) level five intense weather echo, two zero miles west of Atlanta V-O-R, two five miles wide, moving east at two zero knots, tops Flight Level three nine zero.

7-1-27. Thunderstorm Flying

a. Above all, remember this: never regard any thunderstorm "lightly" even when radar observers report the echoes are of light intensity. Avoiding thunderstorms is the best policy. Following are some Do's and Don'ts of thunderstorm avoidance:

1. Don't land or takeoff in the face of an approaching thunderstorm. A sudden gust front of low level turbulence could cause loss of control.

2. Don't attempt to fly under a thunderstorm even if you can see through to the other side. Turbulence and wind shear under the storm could be disastrous.

3. Don't fly without airborne radar into a cloud mass containing scattered embedded thunderstorms. Scattered thunderstorms not embedded usually can be visually circumnavigated.

4. Don't trust the visual appearance to be a reliable indicator of the turbulence inside a thunderstorm.

5. Do avoid by at least 20 miles any thunderstorm identified as severe or giving an intense radar echo. This is especially true under the anvil of a large cumulonimbus.

6. Do clear the top of a known or suspected severe thunderstorm by at least 1,000 feet altitude for each 10 knots of wind speed at the cloud top. This should exceed the altitude capability of most aircraft.

7. Do circumnavigate the entire area if the area has 6/10 thunderstorm coverage.

8. Do remember that vivid and frequent lightning indicates the probability of a strong thunderstorm.

9. Do regard as extremely hazardous any thunderstorm with tops 35,000 feet or higher whether the top is visually sighted or determined by radar.

b. If you cannot avoid penetrating a thunderstorm, following are some Do's before entering the storm:

1. Tighten your safety belt, put on your shoulder harness if you have one and secure all loose objects.

2. Plan and hold your course to take you through the storm in a minimum time.

3. To avoid the most critical icing, establish a penetration altitude below the freezing level or above the level of minus 15 degrees Celsius.

4. Verify that pitot heat is on and turn on carburetor heat or jet engine anti-ice. Icing can be rapid at any altitude and cause almost instantaneous power failure and/or loss of airspeed indication.

5. Establish power settings for turbulence penetration airspeed recommended in your aircraft manual.

6. Turn up cockpit lights to highest intensity to lessen temporary blindness from lightning.

7. If using automatic pilot, disengage altitude hold mode and speed hold mode. The automatic altitude and speed controls will increase maneuvers of the aircraft thus increasing structural stress.

8. If using airborne radar, tilt the antenna up and down occasionally. This will permit you to detect other thunderstorm activity at altitudes other than the one being flown.

c. Following are some Do's and Don'ts during the thunderstorm penetration:

1. Do keep your eyes on your instruments. Looking outside the cockpit can increase danger of temporary blindness from lightning.

2. Don't change power settings; maintain settings for the recommended turbulence penetration airspeed.

3. Do maintain constant attitude; let the aircraft "ride the waves." Maneuvers in trying to maintain constant altitude increase stress on the aircraft.

4. Don't turn back once you are in the thunderstorm. A straight course through the storm most likely will get you out of the hazards most quickly. In addition, turning maneuvers increase stress on the aircraft.
FINAL EXAM QUESTION: HOW CLOSE WILL YOU GET TO A THUNDERSTORM?

We've covered some very basic things in this lesson and depended on the tried-and-true lessons to remind us of how we need to avoid thunderstorms for our aviation careers.

The next lesson begins a intense study of the aviation weather system. Here you will meet the people and watch the processes of creating your thunderstorm observations, warnings, forecasts, and information dissemination. We will review ALL the thunderstorm products you will see now, and possibly in the future.
Study Questions:

1. What defines a thunderstorm?
2. What are all the thunderstorm's hazards for YOUR aircraft?
3. How far away from a thunderstorm has turbulence been reported?
4. How far away from a thunderstorm can a gust front extend?
5. What temperature spread is the hazard zone for icing?
6. How far away from the moisture cloud has hail been found?
7. How far away from a cloud can lightning strike an aircraft? (link)
8. How big is a microburst? (link)
9. How far away from a thunderstorm can a gravity wave create problems? (link)
10. How severe a storm will flood your runway?
11. How high over the top of a thunderstorm will you fly?
12. How close will you get to a thunderstorm?