If you listened to the weather reports on this past Wednesday you would have thought the world was going to end. There was a cold front approaching from the west. Ahead of it was a strong southerly flow. Tuesday night had been wet, but by Wednesday morning all of the precipitation had moved off to our east, leaving fairly benign weather behind. Still, the forecasters were calling for “severe storms,” especially later in the afternoon.
The Boss and I had a full day ahead of us. Our plan was to leave Homebase and head north to Montgomery, Alabama where the he had a morning meeting. After that, we’d head southeast to the little town of Louisville for yet another meeting. It was a schedule only possible with a helicopter.
I started checking the weather early. It was uniformly fine – overcast in some places, but good visibilities all around and as I said, no precip. Frontal passage wasn't forecast until very late at night. Yet there was this ever-present "chance" of severe weather all day. Talk about doom and gloom! The Boss asked my opinion. I said, “Let’s go!” We were airborne at eight a.m., headed north. With the strong wind on our tail the one-hour flight only took 45 minutes.
Man, it was bumpy! While the up and downdrafts can be rough for all aircraft, they were infrequent on this day. Helicopters do better in turbulence than airplanes for reasons which are complex. Gusts have a longer relative time to act on the wing of an airplane traveling at 120 mph or so compared to the spinning rotor which presents a “new” blade (wing) to a gust about 400 times per minute. Also, the long, limber blades and gyroscopic properties of the spinning rotor tend to dampen the response to gusts better than the relatively stiff, short wing of an airplane. But the cabin of the helicopter, which reacts separately from the rotor, gets shoved around a lot, and those yawing, sideways-slewing motions can be quite uncomfortable.
When we left Montgomery at midday, the sun was out. No sign of any severe weather at all. I began to wonder if the forecasters had blown it?
Arriving at our second destination, I kept two close eyes on the weather – one on the TV radar and one out the window. By this point, virtually the entire state of Alabama was under a tornado watch. There were dire warnings about hail the size of basketballs, and winds strong enough to rip the roof off a Walmart. The plan was, if the weather looked like it was getting bad I was to bug-out and flee…some direction…to where it was good. The Boss would catch a ride home with one of the guys who wasn’t fortunate enough to have a helicopter at his disposal.
Flying home into the setting sun and into the wind was rough. The 50-minute flight actually took 1:05. I know that an extra 15 minutes doesn't sound like a lot, but trust me it can seem like an eternity in a slow-moving helicopter on a bumpy day.
Still, I was feeling pretty good about myself - I had guessed right on the weather. But the Boss wasn’t sharing my enthusiasm. I said that when we’d talked early in the morning it almost seemed as though he was hoping I’d cancel the flights. (He is very skittish about flying in bad weather.) But things just looked too good not to go flying. And even though it ultimately worked out, it might not have.
“It’s certainly about my safety, and yours,” he said. “But it’s also about the safety of the equipment. We sure don’t need this thing damaged by hail and grounded for a couple of months while it’s being repaired.”
This is true. And it's something to consider. When I was at PHI, if my assigned helicopter broke they’d just send me another one. They always had spares (as well as certain performance guarantees in their contracts with the oil companies). But now, ol’ N206TH is our only bird. Without it, we’d be stuck.
I knew that I could avoid the bad weather in flight. But then I thought about my little helicopter, parked out in the open for hours at a time that day. If a bad storm had suddenly formed close by and made a bee-line for it, I might not have been able to get airborne and out of harm’s way fast enough. Maybe it would have been “safer” to just leave it in its hangar at home that day? Well those are the chances you take. Or don’t take.
A friend of mine was flying a Beechcraft King Air on a day when there were thunderstorms afoot. He was plugging along, and thought he'd given the storms a wide-enough berth. (No pilot who flies for a living - and wants to continue doing so - intentionally puts his aircraft so close to bad weather that it scares the passengers.) Even so, the plane was struck by lightning. It's not as catastrophic as it sounds. They didn't even know it at the time, and evidence of the strike wasn't discovered until after they landed. Although the amount of actual damage was slight, the inspection to make sure there wasn't any further damage was extensive and costly. Very costly. And of course, the plane was out of service while the inspection and repairs were performed.
My Boss bought his helicopter to do just what he did on Wednesday. Without it, he would have had to cancel one of his meetings and make the long drive to the other. ”I prefer when the weather people are conservative, rather than the other way around,” he said.
We did actually get some severe weather in spots on Wednesday. But it happened very late at night, just before the cold front came through. So we gambled and won. This time.