Aviation In Canada

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Thunderstorms and Light Airplanes, Part 2

This story is the continuation of yesterday's post. The background info in that section is important to understanding today's post.

The Cherokee continued on, despite the bad weather reported in the SIGMET and by other pilots in the area. He entered the southern edge of the line of CBs (abbreviation for Cumulonimbus, big, fluffy, deadly clouds) from the south side at a shallow angle. He called for clearance to climb to 7,000. I issued it promptly. He climbed. Passing through 7,700, he asked for a clearance to climb to 9,000. I issued it promptly, being well aware that things weren't good. I called to my supervisor to report the beginnings of something bad. The PA-31 I mentioned earlier was still picking his way through, but he was able to make a requested course change to get him out from underneath the PA-28.

The highest I saw the PA-28 was 7,800. The aircraft started descending at that point at a rate of 1,600 feet per minute, according to the radar. I asked if he was alright. The response was one I will remember, for a few reasons. The pilot was very professional in his R/T throughout all previous contacts. His answer, shrouded by a crackling noise I would later find out was hail hitting the windshield loudly enough to be heard through his radio (not static from the storm), was, "Well, I'm getting the snot beat out of me right now..." The air around him was descending faster than the aircraft could climb. Never a good thing. The turbulence, he said, was worse than he had ever encountered before.

I advised him the lowest altitude I knew off hand that was safe in his area was 2,800 and that I would look for something lower. He was quite certain in his reply that he'd be going below that. My supervisor found me a map that showed hills up to 1,200 feet, but we knew the area was a popular choice for new cellular telephone towers since the publishing of the chart. I advised the pilot of this as he descended rapidly through 3,500 and he said he'd try to keep it above 1,500 feet.

He did. I saw 1,600 on the Mode C before he finally levelled off. He broke out of the downdraft horizontally and said he was still IMC in heavy rain at that point but was showing a climb. He asked for a vector to the nearest airport. I said Halifax was 40NM due south. He asked about Charlottetown, which he believed was closer. I said, "It is closer, but you'd have to go through another 30 to 40 miles of what you just went through to get there." "What's a good heading for Halifax?" was the reply.

He landed uneventfully and spent the night in CYHZ. I reviewed the incident a thousand times over to see if I could have done anything else that might have kept him from going through, other than forcing him not do it by directing him south. ATC's job is to provide the pilot with what he wants to the best of their ability given equipment, circumstances and other traffic. Who would I be to tell the pilot he can't do what he wants to do if other traffic permits it? After all, it is his butt in the cockpit, not mine. Would you, as a pilot, be willing to have me tell you how to fly your airplane? I think not. It would be like me telling you how to drive your car while I sit in the back seat. Still, it's one of the most helpless feelings I have ever experienced. Here I am, a person trained to be in control (and you have to be a control freak to some extent to be a successful ATC), and there's not a damn thing I can do to help this guy out as he descends. My job is one of safety, and I'm watching an aircraft in an uncontrolled descent into terrain. It's not a good feeling thinking that you may very well be the last one to talk to a person. I'm just glad all of this turned into a write up on an incident, rather than an accident investigation.