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Tornado Strikes Airport, Misses 1,000 Airplanes

By Dan Grunloh, Editor - Light Plane World

Dan Grunloh

I felt fairly safe at Lakeland-Linder airport when the thunderstorm and tornado ripped through the fly-in. I was in a rental car facing into the wind on the lee side of some large campers. Some of my friends weren’t so fortunate, and had the storm come a few minutes earlier, I could have been in a real mess myself. As it was, I only lost a camping tent. The rain was so heavy at times the visibility was less than 50 feet. No person could have stood upright in the open during its peak.

It would be like wing walking on a 70-mph airplane while flying in heavy rain. The fiberglass poles of my tent and the others around me snapped as the wind flattened them as if they had been run over by a roller. A row of portable toilets on my right had all tipped backward and were floating in the deep flooded ditch behind me. I had visited one of them just before the storm struck. At least I was reasonably dry. One of our exhibitors said he weathered the storm under a picnic table hanging on for dear life and more afraid than he has ever been, even after 30 years of hang gliding.

And yet for all its ferocity, a surprisingly small percentage of the airplanes were damaged. It looked really bad right after it cleared and took an army of volunteers working overnight to clean up the mess. I didn’t take a lot of pictures of wrecked airplanes. I suppose it’s natural for us humans to focus on calamity as we often do. There is no diminishing the tragic loss nearly 70 airplane owners, but the truth is we always go forth into aviation with the possibility of a mishap or loss of our equipment. It comes with the territory. I found some spectators and bystanders to be more emotionally distraught than the owners themselves.

If there is any good to come from the destruction it is that we were given a lesson in humility and reminded that the forces of nature rule supreme. It was also a lesson on the importance of good aircraft tiedowns. We saw an amazing example of recovery and resurrection when the sunshine and blue sky returned for a successful final three days of the fly-in. A big worry, though, is the possibility that some may take the wrong lesson from this occurrence.

Some aircraft owners have expressed a reluctance to attend large fly-ins in Florida or in Wisconsin because of the threat of thunderstorms. They can’t bear the thought of losing their airplanes and will only go where access to a hangar is assured. If your plane is so precious and priceless its loss is unthinkable, then perhaps it should stay at home and you should get another “using” airplane for your quest of flying adventures. The airplane is more than a possession, or accomplishment; it’s a tool for adventure. If you are afraid to bring your toys out and play, you aren’t going to have as much fun as the rest of us.

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