Monday, May 4, 2009

A Night in the Day in the Life of a Charter Pilot.

Okay, fun day Saturday. Saturday night/Sunday morning... not so much.

But first let me give you a basic lesson in meteorology. And believe me, any lessons from me will be about as basic as you get.

The life cycle of a thunderstorm, as we pilots learn, can be characterized into 3 stages. (This comes from AC 00-6A rev.1975)

A thunderstorm cell during its life cycle progresses through three stages - (1) the cumulus, (2) the mature, and (3) the dissipating.

The key feature of the cumulus stage is an updraft. The updraft varies in strength and extends from very near the surface to the cloud top. Growth rate of the cloud may exceed 3,000 feet per minute.

Precipitation beginning to fall from the cloud base is your signal that a downdraft has developed and a cell has entered the mature stage. Meanwhile, updrafts reach a maximum with speeds possibly exceeding 6,000 feet per minute. Updrafts and down drafts in close proximity create strong vertical shear and a very turbulent environment. All thunderstorm hazards reach their greatest intensity during the mature stage.

Downdrafts characterize the dissipating stage of the thunderstorm cell and the storm dies rapidly.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with my flight Saturday night? Well, let me tell you about my day.

Saturday started pretty early. I'd promised a friend that I would help him set up a table at the gun show and help out where I could. The gun show was fun and I got home around 6:30. I'd barely gotten seated to eat dinner when the phone call happened. Ah, the dreaded phone call. There's a pop up trip to Tampa Bay.

On a side note. When the weather is as bad as it was in Texas this last weekend, you can bet we'll get pop up trips. You see, the airlines won't be able to get in somewhere because the weather is too bad and the people who get bumped from the flight will invariably call the charter outfits to get them where they want to go. Because when the weather is so bad that a jumbo jet can't get through them, the much smaller corporate jets will... Umm, you see it's like this. A massive thunderstorm will take a larger passenger jet and really shake it up, so to speak, but a jet that's only a 10th the size of an airliner when it penetrates the storm will.... Okay, think about it this way. The turbulence in a large thunderstorm that's producing tornadoes will affect a small relatively light corporate jet differently than a larger airliner because... the small jet is safer because...

Yeah, I don't get it either. People, listen carefully. If the airlines can't make it somewhere because of the weather. There's a VERY good reason they can't. I can guaren-damn-tee you that that corporate jet is no safer. Some charter outfits will take your money and the loss of the airplane, the crew, you and your loved ones are just the price of doing business. Yes, it can be that cynical and cold with some of the outfits out there.

Anyway, we load up the guy, his wife and kids and plot a route that looks to be the safest and away we go.

We'd filed for 41,000 ft and we were slowly clawing our way up there. At about 39,000 ft, that's about 7 and a half miles straight up, we hit one of those updrafts I mentioned above. The vertical speed indicator shoots through 6000 ft/min and hits the peg. We blast through our assigned altitude and through the next thousand feet. We topped the updraft, or flew through it, around 42,500 feet and then the downdraft took over. We got sucked back down to under 40,000 feet with us doing everything we could to NOT get sucked into the thunderstorm proper. Ignitors on, throttles to max temp... We get 5 minutes of max temp before "bad" things happen to the engines, or at least that's what the engine manufacturer says. We get a block altitude of 39,000 to 43,000 feet and got our airspeed under control and continued on.

You see, we're experienced Lear pilots and we weren't scared at all. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Oh, and 43,000 feet wasn't enough to get over the storms. It was just all that plane could do.

The rest of the trip was... uneventful. Till we got back from Tampa and had to descend through that shit again.

Fun times... fun times.

And I finally hit my pillow just after 5am.


Old NFO said...

Been there, lost 10,000 feet before we flew out of it. Two broken legs, one separated shoulder (me), one head wound requiring over 100 stitches, numerous contusions and abrasions. Overstressed one P-3 to the point we popped NUMEROUS rivets... sigh...

drjim said...

Had a buddy back in Illinois who was a Corporate Pilot.
I feel your pain!