Piloting Through Threatening Clouds

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When I fly light airplanes this time of year, I like to get airborne in the morning and back on the ground by early afternoon. That's because of a springtime and summer meteorologists' mantra: ''Chance of afternoon and evening thundershowers.'' Believe me, nothing will challenge you and make you feel humble any better than meeting one of these storms on its own terms, in the air.

It has happened to me twice. One incident frightened me and seemed to show the elements at some of their worst. But the other incident showed a gentler, yet still awesome side of what nature can do.

My first encounter with one of these storms came as my wife, Kristen, and I flew a small plane from Quantico, Va., to Bar Harbor, Maine. During the flight we watched the fleecy cumulus clouds rise even higher. Slowly, these benign clouds were growing and darkening, transforming themselves into something more ominous. Then the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center warned of thunderstorms.

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''Level 5 precipitation,'' the controller said. The scale goes from one to six. Storms like this do not suffer fools.

By radio I received more details on the exact locations of the thunder cells. I drew a line across one of my aeronautical charts to mark where they were. Like a phalanx of advancing troops, they blocked our route to the Northeast.

A controller made suggestions on how we might vector around the storms. But while I could change my course, the thunderstorms could pop up in places where they weren't necessarily expected. And the controllers might not be able to see all the trouble spots on radar.

I said to Kristen, ''Forget this nonsense. Let's get on the ground.''

''Sounds good to me,'' she said enthusiastically.

Conveniently, Boston Center had just handed us off to approach control at Manchester, N.H. We could go no farther that day. I squeezed the push-to-talk switch. ''Manchester Approach,'' I said. ''Seven Charlie Hotel would like to land at Manchester.''

''Roger, Seven Charlie Hotel. You're cleared down to 2,000. Fly heading zero eight zero.'' The controller sent us in a wide semicircle to descend from 9,000 feet. He knew why we wanted in.

Our descent took us sliding under a cloud that had become very dark, and as it passed just overhead it splattered us with big raindrops. Clouds much like it seemed to have formed all around us, but we were between them, in fairly clear air.

The approach frequency hummed with other planes changing their routes or asking to come into Manchester. The clipped, squelched, official-sounding voices over the radio were somehow comforting. Machines, pilots, and controllers flawlessly carried out an ad lib, high-speed opera on a 50-mile, three-dimensional stage.

The rain intensified. As the runway came into view, I could see that it was slick with water, and that concerned me a little. But it was a fine-looking runway at that moment.

A bit of turbulence rocked us as we headed down the glide scope. I was hoping for no wind sheer close to the ground. A commuter jet in front of us had not reported any trouble.

Manchester's trees and houses came nearer to the plane's little wheels, and then a satisfying thud told us we were safe on the ground, rolling to a stop without the hydroplaning I had worried about. We were safe, despite all of nature's apparent threatening and my own worries.

Not too long after that trip, Kristen and I ran into another thunderstorm on the opposite end of the East Coast. We were over the Gulf of Mexico, en route from Key West in Florida back to the mainland. About halfway across the water, we found a group of dark clouds. Although we were above most of the low cloud formation and in the sunshine, we could see rain streaking the ocean below. Then a bolt of lightning speared through one of the clouds, accompanied by a sharp hiss of static in our headsets.

''A thunderstorm that low,'' I wondered aloud.

The tops of thunderstorms often rise to tens of thousands of feet. But at only 7,000, we were above most of this one, and what we weren't above we could easily circumnavigate. There wasn't the same fear we'd felt with the first storm. There was no turbulence at all, even though we were close enough to this strange little storm for its lightning to interfere with our radios.

The thunder clouds were arranged in a half circle, and we flew over this sanctum, watching the rain pelt the water's surface and the lightning lance down from the clouds.

We were still in the sunshine, and then we were not. Under a wispy cloud archway, rain pounded the aircraft. In less than 30 seconds, the rain gave way to mist, and we were in the sun again, on the north side of the cell.

Ahead was blue, a few harmless little white clouds, and at last, land. For some reason, I looked down and back, not really knowing why, almost as if some guiding voice had said, quite casually, ''You've really gotta see this.''

Stretching from the nearest edge of the rain, continuing down to the surface of the water, was the most brilliant rainbow I have ever seen. It wasn't like the pale rainbows you see from the ground. Someone might have painted this one with bright oil colors.

''Look behind us,'' I said.

''Wow!'' was all Kristen said, and she watched the rainbow for what seemed like several minutes. This time the elements seemed to be showing off.

''You want to drive for a while?'' I asked.

''All right. I've got the airplane,'' Kristen said as she turned forward in the copilot's seat and flew us into a clearing sky.

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