Monsoon. Conjures up images of rice paddies whipped by gales and slashing rain, don’t it? Clipper ships in South Pacific seas battening hatches and furling sail, riding out the storm. By odd chance, the version we get under SoCal Skies ain’t quite as dramatic, although it can still be deadly.
Out to the east we’ve got the Laguna Mountains and the lower Sonoran Desert. South of that is the Gulf of California, or the Sea of Cortez. (See John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez – if my favorite American writer calls it the Sea of Cortez, so do I.)
The Sea of Cortez provides a large source of warm, moist unstable air. This time of year – July, August, sometimes September, monsoon season in the Southwest – the winds will occasionally blow that warm moist unstable air northward. As that warm, moist, unstable air hits the scorching heat of the desert, it does what all such air does when heat is applied: it rises.
So, let’s see, you’ve got a huge source of warm, moist, unstable air being transported north oertop a blazing hot desert, causing it to rise very rapidly, and, as it continues to explode upward, the thing takes on a life of its own. Before long you’ve got the type of weather that strikes fear in the hearts of most pilots: cumulonimbus … that’s thunderstorm in case your Latin fails you or you were asleep during the weather portion of your private pilot studies.
All those hearty Midwesterners, kindly Southeasterners, Rocky Mountaineers, Dakota Plainsmen and poor, put out, summertime Northeasterners get to wallow beneath thunderstorms for big chunks of the year. We get to admire them from afar for a couple of months, max. Tampa Bay sees 180 thunderstorm days a year – we average 4.
Observed from Montgomery Field, 70 miles west of the desert, they are a magnificent sight. When you get to see one, from a distance, highlighted against the brilliant blue eastern San Diego sky, it’s awe-inspiring. Up close, it’s a little different. And up close to a thunderstorm ain’t where ya wanna be.
Accepted wisdom is to avoid thunderstorms by 10 miles – I’ll shoot for 20. A small, isolated cell is fairly easy to circumvent, unless it happens to be moving in the same direction as you are and, even then, there’s a good chance that the winds pushing the storm aren’t as fast as you – if they are, go land somewhere and hide.
If the cells are fairly close together, that’s when it starts to get a lot more interesting. Trying to squeeze an airplane between thunderstorms is not the smartest move you could make. If the cells merge as you near them, you’re only course of action is to get the hell outta there. Never, ever, not once try to fly underneath a thunderstorm – there could be downdrafts so severe that you’d impact the ground below. Plus, flying near thunderstorms in proximity to mountains is asking for serious trouble.
Recall your basic weather training. In the cumulus stage of thunderstorm development, you can experience updrafts in excess of 3,000 feet per minute. Were you to get caught inside one, it’s quite possible that you could pull the wings right off your airplane: airplane starts climbing faster than you’ve ever experienced, you push hard against the yoke, the wing spar cracks, OOPS … get the picture?
In a mature thunderstorm, you may experience downdrafts in excess of 2500 feet per minute, and updrafts in excess of 6,000 feet per minute. When the updrafts and downdrafts are in close proximity, you’ll get an incredibly strong vertical shear and the potential for extreme turbulence – and your airplane won’t be able to survive.
Should you be stupid enough to fly into a thunderstorm, the accepted wisdom states that you should cinch your seat belts and shoulder harnesses, reduce to maneuvering speed, Va (turbulent air penetration speed), fly a straight heading through the storm using your instruments, accept changes in altitude, under no circumstances add to load factor by trying to maintain altitude with your elevator, and, by all means, quit screaming like a little girl which will not inspire confidence in your passengers. A friend who once flew freight in Africa told me, “You can fly through 95% of all thunderstorms and never get a scratch. The problem is that you don’t which 5% will kill you.”
So let’s say you’ve planned an eastbound trip from San Diego in the summer months – why, would be the first question. I mean, really, why would you go to Arizona or Nevada in the summer? It’s frkng hot, bozo – 110 freaking degrees – airplanes don’t like hot, they don’t perform well in hot.
Nevertheless, you’re determined to fly to Phoenix for Cousin Jethro’s reform school graduation, Bud Light party and Make America Great Again buffoonery. Go EARLY. Yes, Virginia, wake up at dawn, get airborne by 6:30 or 7 am and get there before the thunderboomers start cranking.
After the grand celebration, the concomitant bad beer hangover, and the waking horror of having associated with a troop of troubled trumpkins, wait another day and return EARLY, so you don’t have to deal with monsoonal thunderstorms on the return trip.
OR … avoid the thunderstorms and fly north in the summer – fewer trumpkins, better beer choices, a whole lot less heat. Oh, and no frkng monsoon.