Review Your Thunderstorm Penetration Procedures

by Don Lind

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    Have you ever watched a thunderstorm boiling black clouds up to 50,000 or 60,000 feet and wondered what it was like inside?

    If you’ve ever driven a car through a real “gully-washer,” or watched a wheat field being flattened by hailstones, or seen a tree shattered by lightning, you’ve had a mild hint.

    As an astronaut I fly a T-38 aircraft to meetings and training sessions all over the country—often traveling to work at 45,000 feet, just under the speed of sound—much as commuters travel to their work on the freeway.

    When you spend that much time in the air, you’re bound to run into a thunderstorm sooner or later. As you fly inside of a thunderstorm your altimeter is winding and unwinding as fast as the needle will move, and your aircraft is hurled hundreds of feet upward and downward. You’re flung first into the seat belt and shoulder straps, then slammed back into the seat. The whole aircraft is bouncing around the sky. The instrument panel is shaking so hard that you see the instrument needles only as vibrating blurs. About this time I usually notice that I’m breathing a little irregularly, perspiring noticeably, and holding onto the control stick and throttle with unusually white knuckles.

    In a full-fledged thunderstorm my thinking tends to be a little confused, but one thing I always remember is that the aircraft wings are only guaranteed to stay attached up to 7.3 G’s. I also recall that ice can form on the aircraft engine, and that if chunks break off and are swept back through the compressor section, they will tear off compressor blades. These blades will be flung off at roughly the velocity of rifle bullets.

    Then there’s lightning. A direct hit could cause structural damage; it could also reverse the polarity of the fuel pumps and flame out the engine. I’ve been struck by lightning only once, and although it caused only slight damage, it didn’t do my hormone balance much good. There’s still another danger from lightning. At night a lightning flash within a few miles is temporarily blinding, and at the speed of sound you can’t afford to be blind for even a few moments.

    So all things considered, the inside of a thunderstorm is a fairly unfriendly place.

    Once inside a thunderstorm, there’s not much you can do except hang on. But if you see a storm coming, there are some things you can do to help yourself come out of it alive. These are called thunderstorm penetration procedures.

    First you slow down to 280 knots; the wings have the best chance of staying on at that speed. Next you tighten the shoulder straps and seat belt so that you won’t be thrown out of reach of the controls. You turn on the anti-ice heaters to keep ice from forming in the engine. You’ve got to get these on ahead of time; otherwise the heaters will just melt the loose ice and send it straight back into the compressor. If it’s night, turn up the instrument lights as bright as they’ll go and fly with one eye closed. Then when a lightning flash wipes out the night adaption of the open eye, you can switch eyes, hoping the first one will recover before the next flash.

    Remember: you’ve got to take all these precautions before you get into the thunderstorm.

    There are situations in life similar to these thunderstorms, times when the pressure is really on and you feel as anxious as if you were being bounced all over the sky. Right then a lot depends on how well you do—if you come out of a thunderstorm going straight down, you seldom get a second chance. You’ve got to think clearly even though you may be a little flustered. For example:

    —You’ve just arrived at your first sorority or fraternity rush party, and you want to make a good impression. Someone hands you a cocktail. What are you going to do? You can pour it in a potted palm, or drink it, or just hold it, or perhaps say something gracious and hand it back. But you surely don’t want to make a social fool of yourself. The pressure is on, and if you’ve never seriously committed yourself to keeping the Word of Wisdom, you may be in the thunderstorm already. You’re flustered. A lot is at stake. It’s a little too late to be reviewing your penetration procedures.

    —You had no idea ahead of time, but he’s just parked on “passion flats.” What happens in the next few minutes could affect your whole life. You’re perspiring slightly, and your breathing is irregular. You’re already in a thunderstorm. Have you thought much about the law of chastity? That is, have you thought much about it at a time when you could think clearly? Right now your emotions aren’t giving you much chance for really rational thought. After all, you’ve been dating him because you like him very much.

    —You just got your first weekend pass. For the first time you’re really on your own. A new friend has invited you to come with him to a “great place” he knows about. But you have a vague feeling that this great place may not be somewhere your mother would want you to go. You don’t want him to think you’re still tied to mama’s apron strings, and you certainly don’t want to spend the weekend alone in the barracks. Have you thought carefully about what you want to do when “no one will find out”?

    The Lord put us here on the earth to make decisions, some of them in the face of considerable temptation and pressure. My flying experience suggests to me that when so much is at stake, we should consider the alternatives long before the crises come up. And they will come up. If you spend enough time on the airways of life, you’re bound to run into at least one. So we must decide ahead of time what principles we really believe in—what kind of people we really want to be—when it counts.

    Remember—review your thunderstorm penetration procedures before you get into the thunderstorm.

    Photo by Glen Perrin