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Thunderstorms at Night — Better to Arrive Late Than Never

By Chris Hope

June 2017 - It was summer of 1977. I had been an Air Force pilot for the previous eight years, but my chances of continuing to fly for the Air Force were not looking great. The airlines were in one of their layoff cycles, so that wasn’t too promising either. Although I was a CFI, teaching part time was not going to put food on the table. So, with a wife and toddler to support, it was time to look for another field.

I dusted off my civil engineering degree and interviewed with an engineering firm in Joplin, Missouri, a city in the southwest corner of the state. The job interview went well, with the principals willing to accept my minimal engineering experience. I was excited that the senior partner had been a pilot for many years until he lost his medical, and he was anxious for me to find some way to fly for the company.

The company was a small consulting firm, and the client base consisted primarily of small towns throughout Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. One of my responsibilities was meeting with the mayors and city councils of these little towns, selling our services and updating them on ongoing projects. Because none of these towns had full-time councils, municipal council meetings were always held in the evening.

Evening meetings in cities 200 miles from home was the downside of our jobs. By car, it was a four-hour drive on winding Ozark roads, requiring a departure from the office in the middle of the afternoon, dinner on the way, a night in a motel, and return the following day. I saw an opportunity.

While it was true that the senior partner was in love with flying, other members of the staff were not. In particular, the bookkeeper did not see how an hour in the air could be cheaper than an hour in a car, especially in the Piper Seneca that I was flying. I argued that I could put in a full day in the office, and still make a meeting on the other side of the state. I could make the trip, door to door, in about 2-1/2 hours. And if the meeting was over by 10 p.m. or so, I could easily be back home in time to get some sleep and still be in the office at 8 a.m. Of course, the downside of this arrangement was that it only made economic sense if I did not need a hotel room on the road somewhere. Being stranded by weather or mechanical issues was not going to work.

On a glorious afternoon in June, I set off from Joplin to Cape Girardeau on the other side of the state. The weather looked good, except for some isolated thunderstorms. I figured I could dodge any I saw, and I thought they would dissipate around sunset. So, I had a pleasant, uneventful flight out. I met with the city council, and at around 11:30 that evening I checked the weather for my return to Joplin.

Imagine my surprise to get a weather briefing that included isolated thunderstorms in southeastern Kansas and southwestern Missouri. Further discussions with the flight service people resulted in no additional info. The storms were out there somewhere and would continue until 4 or 5 a.m. But in my mind, “isolated” meant that there was a lot of space to go around them. So I launched.

The night was very black — no moon, and the terrain over southern Missouri is rugged and sparsely inhabited. But I could see stars, so I figured that I would see thunderstorms before I reached them. And about 15 minutes into the flight, I started to see lightning strikes on the far western horizon. As I droned on westward, the questions going through my mind were, “How far west are those storms? Are they on my side of Joplin or beyond?” And, “There sure is a lot of lightning.”

Kansas City Center was not much help. At that time, they did not have much in the way of weather radar, and there was no traffic in the Joplin area to offer a PIREP. And, of course, the Joplin tower had long closed for the night. So I droned on.

The only airport of consequence between the two sides of the state is in Springfield, so I figured I could land there if I needed to. But I was doing a good job of convincing myself that the storms were west of Joplin. And even if they were not, I figured that I could fly around them. And if they did happen to be over the Joplin airport, I could fly circles to the north or south until they blew through. The lightning was unnerving, but at least that told me where the storms were.

I made it as far as Springfield without a single raindrop. The storms were still out there ahead of me. I had about 60 miles to go. So far, the weather had been fine, so that seemed to indicate that things would continue to work well. I checked in with Springfield approach control and asked what they knew about thunderstorms to the west. They could not tell me anything that I didn’t already know. There were thunderstorms in the Joplin area.

I passed Springfield and flew on for another five to 10 minutes — only about 15 minutes to go. The light show was continuing in front of me, and I was beginning to lose my confidence. But it was late, and the thought of a warm bed at home was enticing.

Then I thought, this is crazy, what would you say to any other pilot who decided to continue? So I turned back and landed at Springfield. At that time there was no friendly FBO — only an airline terminal with a hard concrete floor. But I made a pillow with my jacket, and woke up a few hours later to a clear, blue, sunny sky. I took off, arrived home in time for breakfast, and was back in the office at a reasonable hour.

What did I learn from all of this? First of all, arriving late, whether an hour late or a day late, is no big deal. And second, given a choice, friends, business acquaintances, and loved ones would rather see you arriving late than never again.

All in all, four hours of sleep on an airport terminal floor was the best night’s sleep I ever had.


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