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That Time A Giant Storm Sucked Us Up Like A Vacuum Cleaner

A Shorts 330 (or any plane) is no match for a giant thunderstorm. (Wikipedia commons)

In the late summer of 1980, as a Shorts-330 copilot, I encountered the grim reaper again. I thought he might lay off me since I wasn’t in a combat aircraft, or in a combat zone, but here he was, empty eye sockets and all, watching over my shoulder.

The final mission leg one night took us from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) to Salisbury, MD, with a 2100 takeoff time with a full load of 30 passengers. The weather briefing had been ominous with severe thunderstorms forecast, but takeoff and departure toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge had been clear. Shortly after crossing the Bay, however, we picked up a dire radar depiction in the vicinity of Salisbury, a bright red return with a narrow yellow perimeter indicating a powerful storm. It was about ten miles from the Salisbury Airport but seemed headed in roughly that direction, southwest to northeast. We approached from the northwest.

As we reached 30 miles from the field, the storm had moved to within five miles of the airport. I considered that we should return to Baltimore because it would be a very close call on beating the storm to Salisbury. But, this was the last leg of the day, Salisbury was our domicile, and get-home-itis suggested maybe we should give it a shot. As a relatively new commuter copilot in the Shorts 330, I asked the captain, Deano, if we might consider returning to BWI.

“Naw,” he said, “we can make it.” With that he pushed up the throttles and the race was on.

With more than ten miles’ visibility we could clearly see the runway and airport as we lined up on a nine-mile final. It looked like we had it made. The storm, a towering black column with crackling lightning, seemed about two miles on the other side of the runway, but it was obvious we would get there before it did and land with clear visibility.

Thunderstorms are impressive creatures. They can develop as eight-mile-high vacuum cleaners violently sucking up the ground air around the storm base and propelling it upward violently until it spews out the top of the column. As the low-level air is sucked off the ground, it must be replaced, usually from the air several hundred feet above it. As this air above the ground air is pulled downward toward the ground, it too must be replaced, usually with some of the ground air rising into the storm. This creates vertically circular eddies swirling around the storm at irregular intervals.

Just as I declared to myself we were home safe on about a one-mile final, we encountered one of the violent, vertically circular vortices in the clear air just ahead of the storm. This is termed the frontal gust that, if observed from the ground, displays trees with branches thrashing and bending back and forth in the strong wind. We had a fifty-fifty chance of getting an updraft or downdraft.

By Ardfern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Had we hit a downdraft, we would have all been dead in the cornfield off the approach end of the runway in about three seconds. But my guardian angel saved me and we caught an updraft.

Suddenly we were not in control of the plane. I felt as if a giant invisible hand had scooped us up and raised us into the sky, a sensation similar to a rapidly rotating Ferris wheel after you pass the bottom of the circular arc and begin to rise rapidly.

Deano pulled the throttles to idle and shoved the nose downward in a futile attempt to descend to the runway that had begun to pass under us. Despite idle power and 15 degrees nose low attitude we rose at 1,500 feet per minute. The power of this force made me later realize we could never have recovered if the air column had been going down instead of up.

Finally, as we neared the departure end of the 5000-foot runway, the upward force released us and left us 1,500 feet above the ground and gasping in terror. But we were back in control of the plane. I’m sure the passengers sensed our plight. We raised the gear and flaps and sped away from the mayhem we had just encountered. A few miles from the airport we did a large 180-degree turn to appraise our chances of getting back to the field. The sight as the airdrome location came back into view sucked all the air from my lungs.

The storm had moved on to the field, blocking our return. Further, in its mass to the southwest and threat of moving to the northeast, it had blocked any possible return to BWI with our current fuel load. Behind us was nothing but the Atlantic Ocean. Except…

Twenty miles away and five miles from the shoreline lay the Ocean City, MD airport with 5000 feet of runway. Unfortunately, it was closed for the night, no lights, no tower, nothing. Further, although we had visual conditions, we didn’t know exactly where the field was located and had nothing to guide us there except an educated guess from the road network leading to the resort.

Again we went to full power to reach Ocean City with the storm roiling up behind us. We made our guess on the airport location and illuminated our landing lights, turning to and fro trying to sight the runway. Finally, there it was, all 5000 beautiful feet of concrete. We configured with gear and flaps and headed straight for it. We had no idea which way the wind was blowing and didn’t care, we were putting it down immediately regardless of the wind.

The frontal gust had not quite arrived so the winds seemed near calm. We landed, and as we rolled down the runway, the passengers broke into applause and cheers. We turned off at the end of the runway and began taxiing back toward the terminal. About the time we arrived at the gate area, the frontal gust arrived and then the storm with rain as heavy as I have ever experienced with the wind rocking the plane on its landing gear.

(Excerpt from “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey, Military Airlift Command, 1981-1993,” by Jay Lacklen.  Click here to buy the book.)

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