Weather Watch

Weather can make harrowing flying experiences

Special to The TribuneNovember 2, 2013 

An H-2 Seasprite helicopter takes off from Portsmouth naval base south of London in 1985.

PHOTO BY JOHN LINDSEY

Aviation, from the Latin word “avis,” which means bird, is the art or science of flying airplanes.

Anyone who has spent time flying will sooner or later have his or her own harrowing experiences with weather. I was a U.S. Navy air crewman stationed with an H-2 Seasprite helicopter squadron (HSL-36) in Mayport, Fla. We flew from the stern of U.S. Navy destroyers and frigates in search of submarines.

I was stationed aboard the Knox class frigate USS McCandless in the summer of 1985, returning to Norfolk, Va., after a six-month deployment. A few weeks before our return, most of the ship’s crew developed a severe case of Get-Home-itis Syndrome.

As the McCandless approached the Virginia coastline, we decided to fly our trusted H-2 helicopter on a long journey to Florida. You see, our helicopter crew really wanted to get home.

The weather that day was stifling hot with humidity levels that you could cut with a blade. In conditions like this, the East Coast can ambush an aircraft flight crew with the sudden development of severe thunderstorms.

Sure enough, we flew into a band of thunderstorms that stretched for hundreds of miles from west to east. We used the helicopter’s radar to try navigate through these immense tempests but were caught in severe up-and-down drafts between storm cells.

The turbulence was so furious that tiny metal fragments in the bottom of the helicopter’s gearboxes became suspended in the gear oil, causing numerous caution lights to illuminate the cockpit.

We made an emergency landing in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and waited for the weather to clear while we cleaned the various gearbox chip detectors. The weather didn’t settle til the next morning. If we had been more cautious, we probably would have arrived home earlier.

It was reminiscent of another flight about 10 years ago. I was flying with a Navy P-3 Orion squadron (VP-65) out of Point Mugu near Ventura bound for Williams Gateway Airport near Phoenix to pick up some squadron members.

As we made our approach to the runway, we could see a North American monsoon to the south, heading toward the airport.

It looked like a solid wall of brown dust with lightning bolts. Meanwhile, the air controller in the tower reported calm and clear conditions.

As soon as we landed and made a 180-degree turn on the runway, the monsoon winds hit us.

A P-3 is a large aircraft, weighing about 135,000 pounds when loaded, but these winds gave us the sensation that the four-engine turbo-prop was going to flip at any moment.

There was so much dirt and sand blowing around that we couldn’t see more than a few feet through the windshield.

Even though we were on the ground, our true-airspeed dials indicated gusts over 70 mph. Then, after a few minutes of these winds, some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced turned the dirt into mud.

After about five minutes, we could finally see the markings on the runway. As we taxied we saw that several small aircraft had flipped. Ironically, in our quest to get back home, our crew ended up spending the night in Arizona.

I’ve found a common thread with most aircrews: The longer you fly, the more respect you have for the weather.

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John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. He is president of the Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers. If you have a question, send him an email at pgeweather@pge.com.

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