Do I fly over, under, or around…???
That morning had dawned “severe clear,” right up to Flight Level God. We were happily, confidently, on our way from Alamos to Tucson. But suddenly it wasn’t so clear any more. We had drawn out the departure – and now up the road, things were “building.”
Our usual airport departure routine: underwing prayers with the charismatic preacher-airport-manager, then climb in and lift off. It was splendid weather. We waved adios to our helper hombres from home. A half hour later we slipped into Cd. Obregon to document departing the country. It was such tiresome government paperwork.
An hour after that, we were two-thirds of the way to Tucson, beyond the point of no return.
As forecasted, pretty piles of cumulo-nimbus were popping up ahead, hints and promises of storms on a grand scale. So far they seemed innocuous – but we had to get beyond them before that changed. Still nothing on the “fright finder” – the sensor on the panel that registers data on electrical storms up to 200 miles ahead. But this was the monsoon season, and we knew it was only time before they soared high to burst their crackling fury.
I had planned to stay the course, deviating just a bit to go between build-ups, and proceed directly to ARVEY intersection, on route to TUS. My favorite cockpit mate, said “Hmmm, why don’t you just go below those, you’ll be able to see the mountains – the highest is only 5500’ in this sector.” I mused, decided no, it would be bumpy underneath. But the impatient suggestions kept coming to “Just go below.” Those played with my head.
So I pulled on the speed brakes, added some flaps, took off some power – and started down. Then I waffled, thinking better of it. On with the power and up with the air brakes, leveling off. Let’s just stay at this altitude, I muttered. But the clouds were piling higher and thicker. Nuts.
Into the descent profile again. Nose down, power back, flaps to angle the forward view better – and speed brakes going up on top of the inner wing, spoiling a bit of lift and slowing us down.
I was being a danged yo-yo, I muttered to myself. Stupid.
And down, and down, and down…. still not below the ceiling. Ooof. This was not working out.
Peering through the windscreen, I noted large purplish shadows hiding sharp lumpy ridges – and serious rain billowing down from slate-bottomed cloud bases. Thick, mean, curtains of rain. Nope – not going under there. So much for suggestions. But sometimes you don’t know till you take a look.
A course change.
Looking off to the west, I could see my way clear to a run up the valley to Nogales. Cranking ninety degrees left, off we shot westward. Once around the buildups on a mere ten-mile jog, a sharp right turn around that menacing pile of energy put us back on course.
A jagged bolt ripped cloud to ground, off to our left. Immediately off the right wing appeared the deep misty blue of heavy rain. A lovely grand thunderstorm; the one we had just circumnavigated while it was building – it had grown fast. Those can blossom upwards by thousands of feet per minute, and this one had. Ok, not lovely. Frightening.
By now I’m with Tucson approach, who is advising us of bad weather. We said oh we knew, cells were in sight – but from where we were, we practically could see him through good visibility. Just bad in the cells. The smile was in his voice when he asked “What are your observations, zero-five-alpha?” I reported cloud bases at 8,000’ and dropping, and where there was precipitation, zero visibility. He cleared me down to 4’000 direct to the airport. Soon we were on the ground taxiing to customs – and scampering into the office before the rain came.
But it was a drenching that didn’t come. That one stayed in the foothills. Later on came monsoon misery to poor Tucson, with microbursts and floods. There are days when you’re glad to be on the ground inside something strong. And your wings nicely hangared.