Thunderstorms at Night - Arriving Late is no big deal   (By Chris Hope, published in Flight Training Magazine July, 2008)

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 all that hot.  The airlines were in one of their lay-off cycles, so that wasn't too promising either. Although I was a CFI, teaching flying students, 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 MO, a city in the southwest corner of the state.  The job interview went well, with the principals willing to accept my minimal engineering experience.  But I was really excited by the fact 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 would be meeting with the mayors and city councils of these small towns, selling our services and updating them on on-going projects.  And because none of these towns had full-time councils, city council meetings were always held in the evening.

Evening meetings, in towns 200 miles from home, was the downside of our job.   By car, it was generally a four-hour drive on winding Ozark roads, requiring a departure from the office in the middle of the afternoon, dinner on the road, a night in a motel, and a return the following morning.  I saw 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 generally make the trip, door to door, in about 2– hours.  And if the meeting was over by 10:00 or so, I could easily be back home in time to get some sleep and still be in the office at 8:00.  Of course, the down side of this arrangement was that it only made economic sense if I did not need a hotel room on the road somewhere.  Getting 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.  Weather looked good, except for some isolated thunderstorms.  I figured that I could dodge any that I saw, and I figured that they 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 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 could not get any additional info.  The storms were out there somewhere, and would continue on until 4:00 or 5:00 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 real 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 fifteen minutes into the flight, I started to see lightning strikes on the far western horizon.  So 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 on 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 at Springfield Missouri, so I figured that I could land there if I really 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 just fly circles to the north or south until they blew through.  The lightening 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 sixty miles to go.  So far the weather had been fine, so that seemed to indicate that things would continue to go 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 ten minutes - only about fifteen 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.

And that is when I asked myself, "Are you nuts?  What would you tell any student who was doing what you are doing? " And then I asked myself, "What would your wife say about this?  What would your boss and co-workers say?" So, I told Springfield Approach that I was going to make a 180 and land at Springfield.  The airport is pretty empty at 1:00 a.m., so there was no problem finding a place to park and tie down. 

At this time there was not an FBO at the airport, just a general aviation counter at the terminal building.  And the terminal was just as empty as the ramp, so finding a quiet spot on the floor was not a problem at all.

I woke up around 6:30, a bit stiff, and needing coffee.  I stuck my head outside to see a beautiful sunrise, and the promise of a warm and sunny day.  I was home about an hour later, and after a shower and quick breakfast, back to the office. And only a little later than I normally would have been.

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 the 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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updated March 10, 2018