Simon, Sassy, Nikolette and Storm Cells
It seems as if Simon, the stray collie from the 6/21/2014 Hammond LA-Houston transport, was having some issues with other collies at his Houston foster home, so Texas Collie Rescue decided that Simon should go to a foster in Arlington TX (between Dallas and Fort Worth) and that Sassy, a shy collie/sheltie mix should go to the Houston foster. Nikolette, an adorable hound mix, needed transport from Arlington to Houston, so she was added to the manifest.
I was supposed to fly the mission on 7/2/14, but had to postpone the transport due to some severe weather in the Dallas area. The weather was iffy on 7/3, the holiday on 7/4 presented scheduling problems, so we decided that I’d make the flight on 7/5/14.
The weather outlook wasn’t ideal (“showers in the vicinity” forecast for airports in the Houston area about the time of my return), but there was no cause for concern. I took off from Pearland Regional at 8:30 a.m. and arrived at Hooks Memorial Airport northwest of Houston at 9 a.m. to load Simon. We departed Hooks at 9:30 a.m. and arrived at Arlington Regional at 11 a.m. I deplaned Simon, boarded Sassy and Nikolette, refueled and departed Arlington at noon for the return.
As I neared Hooks (arrival was 1:30 p.m.), my on-board weather displays came alive. NEXRAD radar painted areas of heavy rain along the route of my return to Pearland from Hooks, along with suddenly developing storm cells, rising to 40,000’ that were producing hail (half-inch to one-and-a-half inches) and lots of lightning strikes. It hadn’t been forecast, but now there was a convective SIGMET (SIGnificant METeorological advisory), or significant dangerous stuff (I guess that would be SIGDASH) covering the area.
I landed at Hooks, delivered Nikolette and Sassy, and decided to call Flight Services to discuss options. The most direct route from Hooks to Pearland is to fly south and then to turn east, but that was exactly where the cells were worst and seemed to be developing. Another option: fly south and then east along the narrow corridor between controlled airspaces at Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airport, then south to approach Pearland from the east. I wasn’t comfortable with that; it was to close to the area that was spawning the cells. We decided that my best option was the least direct: fly north from Hooks, then east and eventually south, skirting the Bush airspace and then hope for favorable vectors to approach Pearland from the north or east. In radioing Hooks Ground Control for permission to taxi, I informed them of my plans. I took off at 2:30 p.m., with Hooks Tower clearing me for a turn to the north.
When the tower handed me off to Houston TRACON (approach/departure control), the controller inquired, “Cardinal 223, say intentions.” I wanted to respond, “Cardinal 223 wants to get his ass on the ground at Pearland safely,” but I informed him of my desired routing. He proceeded to begin giving me vectors. Air traffic controllers had their hands full that day; those men and women are, simply, incredible.
I had switched on the Stormscope, which displays lightning strikes. As I flew north, it lit up with dozens of strikes behind me, which my eyes confirmed. Seeing cloud-to-ground lightning (actually, it’s ground-to-cloud, but this isn’t a meteorological lesson) from the air is awe-inspiring. Eventually, what I was seeing on my NEXRAD displays and what the controllers’ more timely displays were showing became promising: a narrow corridor between the cells had opened, which gave me a straight path to Pearland. I was assigned that vector and landed without incident.
Sorry. No images of the cells, lightning or areas of heavy rain. While the autopilot was holding heading, I had my hands full maintaining my assigned altitude in the turbulence.
In the process, I became a better pilot and also increased my personal minimums and comfort margin. I love flying, in part, because it makes you constantly focus, evaluate, think, process and decide on the best option; as the saying goes, “Getting your pilot certificate is getting a license to learn.” And there is no end to the learning. These cells were not forecast when I took off at 8:30 am. You can’t fly by what you expected; you have to accommodate what you’re dealt and come up with the right solution. Every flight is different. Every take off is different. Every landing is different.
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