Once upon a time long, long ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far away


My Cessna 172 flight in a tornado.

It's a long story and not one that I am particularly proud of. I was departing DuPage for Memphis. In the wx briefing they said, "chance of convective activity anywhere along your route." Big deal, they say that about half the time just to CYtheir A.

However, to leave DuPage, I had to get a special VFR clearance. You know the adage: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I had had some instrument training but had not done approaches yet. My plan was to use the special VFR clearance to depart and believed that as I got further from the Great Lakes the wx would improve. Anyway, I thought I could just go out to the Joilet VOR and see what it was like, possibly get VFR on top.

So I blasted off. Big Mistake!! It was solid IMC from 500 to higher than I could climb. Worse, it began to rain, then it began to hail. The hail was pounding on the cabin and wings and sometimes the prop would strike a hailstone and it would go "powiee" (like a ricochet bullet in the movies).

I was battling to maintain altitude and some symbolic attempts at keeping the wings roughly level (and with the fuel caps pointed away from Mother Earth). I was getting beat up pretty badly. I called flight service (climb/confess), gave my coordinates in terms of VOR radials (too much work holding the plane to check the chart myself), and asked for the nearest field that was VFR. After a decade, they came back and said Kankakee. About that time I broke out into the clear. Kankakee was back into the mess and no way was I going in there again. So I motored on.

Then I got into it again. Thunder and lightening were all about. Here's what was happening:

There were these sequential squall lines and I was crossing them, into the wx and back out, then into it again. I resolved that I would land at Champaign, Il. When I was 5 minutes out (10 miles), they came on the radio and said that Champaign was closed, a tornado had just struck the field and airplane wreckage and debris was everywhere. I was saying to myself, "Which way did the tornado go?".

I never got an answer to that one. You could not see anything yourself because the sky was black as night except when the lightening flashed and then you just saw a wall of water. So I continued to Mattoon--after all, what choice did I have? When I got there, the storm was so bad that I had Center vectoring me between the worst cells. Finally, after two hours, I got into some better weather.

Thank goodness for the instrument training I had received (I was a good student). I just wish they had handed out brains with it. At last I could see the ground again, so I landed at Evansville, IN. By now, the weather was good enough to continue to Memphis (remember my original plan? i.e. get away from the Great Lakes and the weather would improve), but I was shot. My knees were like rubber and perspiration was all over me. It was like being in the ring with Mohammed Ali, except every time he knocks you down you have to get back up or be instantly killed.

I had fought and fought until there was nothing left. I checked into a motel for the night, lucky to be alive. Don't ever be as foolish as I was that day. I learned a valuable lesson that has always stayed with me. Some say there are old aviators and there are bold aviators, but there are no old, bold aviators. But I say there are a few, just a very few, of us 'lucky" aviators, but never count on being one of us just as I would never count on being that lucky again.

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Last Modified on May 27, 1999
All images and text copyright 1998, Barbara @ Babes & Airplanes