My friend Bill called Thursday evening, April 1. A friend of the family had suddenly died. Bill, his wife (Kay) and their pastor (Ken) wanted to go to the funeral in Sterling, Kansas (near Wichita), 10 AM Saturday. Bill was the music director at his church. He and Ken needed to be back Easter Sunday. Commercial flights were prohibitively expensive. Driving (800 miles one way) though possible was not practical. This was a job for general aviation!
I adjusted my work schedule to make the trip possible, but there were problems. We could not leave until I got off work Friday evening. There was a threat of thunderstorms near the destination. My P210 with its Stormscope, radar and high altitude capabilities was in the shop currently missing a windshield, two cylinders and an exhaust pipe! We would be flying a C182. It's a great four seat airplane but not a P210.
April 2: Beautiful Manhattan, Kansas: The first flight to Columbia, Missouri was uneventful. Weather radar showed a line of storms developing thirty miles east of Lyons (a small airport north of Sterling) that stretched from northern Texas to southern Nebraska. There was a thirty mile break in the line just where we needed it to be to get to Lyons. It would take two hours to get to the stormy area. When we got closer to the weather, just west of Kansas City, cloud layers and turbulence began to build.
Air traffic controller's screens are able to track airplanes but are not designed to track thunderstorms. If rain is very heavy, they can sometimes see it on their scopes. If their work load permits they will try to guide planes around the weather they can see. Controllers do their best but you cannot rely on them to guide you through a line of thunderstorms. This controller had a National Weather Service (NWS) monitor, a much better picture of the weather.
The controller updated me, "The line of storms from Texas to Nebraska has intensified with level 4 and level 5 storms with hail and gusts to 70 knots with tops up to 45,000 feet (very nasty!). There are some breaks a few miles wide that you may be able to get through. But there is a second line 15 miles parallel to the first one. There are fewer breaks in that line."
We were in turbulent clouds at night, 150 miles from Lyons and 100 miles from the thunderstorms. I am not sure I would have taken that on with my P210. The chances of successfully navigating (surviving) two lines of thunderstorms at night without radar or stormscope were poor. I looked at my sectional (map) for a safe haven.
"Has the line of storms gotten to Manhattan (Kansas) yet?" "They are fifty miles west of Manhattan." "I would like to go to Manhattan from present position direct." With a light chuckle, "You don't want to take on those thunderstorms?" "Not in a Cessna 182!"
Fifteen miles from Mahattan I was at 3000 feet, 2000 AGL (above ground level). The automated weather service was reporting a 2500 foot ceiling. The controller assumed I was now below the clouds and expected me to do visual approach. I told him I was still in the clouds and suggested the VOR-H approach, (one of several approaches available there).
"I can give you a vector to intercept the final approach course but if I lose radar contact, I will have to send you to an initial approach fix." I followed the vector to the final approach course. Just as I turned the controller said, "Radar contact lost." I quickly replied, "I'm established on the approach." "Cleared for the approach."
I descended 500 feet, popped out of the clouds, clicked the microphone five times to activate the airport lights and saw our haven appear in the darkness. The line of storms went through Manhattan at 4AM while we were asleep at the Ramada Inn and our plane was tied down on the ramp.
April 3: Where did the clouds go? The next morning we flew the last 90 miles to Lyons. The ride was smooth but the clouds were only 500 feet AGL at Lyons. Ken, my right seat passenger, saw the airport first. It was just to the right beneath the plane. Bob met us at the airport. He told us that at 11:30 the night before (our ETA at Lyons), there was a thunderstorm with hail. Maybe it's a good thing my 210 wasn't available.
We made it to the viewing and funeral. After lunch and a short visit it was time to return. The weather that passed the night before was now between us and home. Fortunately, most of the severe weather stayed south of our route. Our flight to Saint Louis was uneventful. Weather radar at the FBO showed a line of thunderstorms from Evansville, Indiana to north of Indianapolis. The northern part of the line was forecasted to build. There were thunderstorms over Cincinnati and Middletown.
I decided to go south of Evansville then to Middletown. Two hours later the storms should have moved through Middletown. Thirty miles from Evansville, I didn't see a dark cloud in the sky. The controller told me that the thunderstorms had dissipated and there was no significant weather between us and Middletown. I requested direct Middletown. We had smooth sailing home.
This trip was a great illustration of how weather can change. The thunderstorm lines in Kansas and Indiana demonstrated by radar were similar in intensity and coverage. Yet as I approached each line of storms, one had become impassible and the other disappeared!