Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Orangeburg “Copper Cloud” Incident

It was a day not unlike today; hot summer afternoon with a nearly unbroken layer of puffy white clouds hovering over the landscape at 5,000 feet. The year was 1978 or 1979 and I was teaching flying part time out at Miller Aviation at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. I had driven out to the airport only to find that the student who scheduled a flight with me had to work unexpectedly and cancelled our lesson. I was sitting in the ready room reading an old Flying magazine waiting to see if someone would get the whim to want to fly when my buddy Hugh who worked for the air courier service across the tarmac from the school, came bursting through the door. “I saw your car outside.” he said, “Want to get some instrument time? The weather is perfect!”

Hugh’s schedule for that afternoon was to fly a Cherokee Six from Columbia to a little airport in Beaufort County named Frogmore, to Charleston and finally returning to Columbia. He knew that I was looking to get some instrument time to keep up my “currency” requirements and he had been flying all that morning and was looking for a break from being at the controls. We could file our flight plan for 5,000 feet and that would put us in the middle of the clouds with clear air both above and below us. “You’re On!” I said and off we went in search of adventure. Little did I know that adventure is what we would get!

As we departed the Columbia Airport, the flight controller suggested that we file for 7,000 feet instead of 5,000 to get in the clear cooler air above the clouds, but we told him that we were looking for a little actual instrument time and asked him to keep us aware of any buildups that he might spot on his radar as he followed us along the airway to the southeast.

The first 15 minutes or so of the flight were perfect. We were experiencing a little light chop as we bored holes through the clouds, occasionally seeing a patch of blue sky above or a swatch of farmland below. It was great day for getting real instrument time! There was some other traffic around; a couple of airliners inbound to Columbia from the north and another departure to the southwest so we were well clear of traffic.

As we were cruising west of Orangeburg, SC, all of a sudden, the clouds around us turned dark grey and the light chop turned to a serious case of turbulence. The airplane was pitching up and down 10 degrees and the wings were rocking back and forth over 30 degrees. I had my hands full keeping the plane straight and level. Now, a Cherokee Six is a sizeable airplane as far as general aviation aircraft go so this was really some heavy “air” as we used to call it. Hugh was on the radio with the controller trying to find out what was going on with the weather. The controller said that he did not see anything. Just then the cloud above and slightly to the right of us turned a greenish copper color. That is a bad, bad thing for a pilot to see up close and personal. Just then, we hit a really big bump followed by some downward “G” forces. That usually meant that we were climbing rather rapidly. A quick glance at the rate of climb indicator on the vibrating dashboard confirmed that we were in at least a 2,000 foot per minute climb. I say “at least” because 2,000 feet per minute up or down was the limit on the dial. Hugh immediately reduced power to idle as I set up the best rate of descent at nearly 148 MPH. That normally results in a descent at 1,800 to 2,000 feet per minute. To our amazement, the indicator was still pegged at 2,000 a minute climb. That meant that we were in a shaft of air that was rising at nearly 4,000 feet per minute.

Hugh told air traffic control (ATC) that we were in an uncontrolled climb and they responded that we were clear of traffic and requested that we report passing every 1,000 feet. Up and up we went with it and it seemed that Hugh was reporting every minute or so. That was the fastest I ever climbed since flying F-9’s out of Corpus Christi back in ’64. We started talking about the possibility of hail, which is often seen near copper colored clouds. That would have been pretty rough on the Plexiglas cockpit and the leading edge of the wings.

After what seemed like an eternity, we broke out of the side of a towering cumulous cloud into smooth, clear air at about 10,500 feet. Once I could see where the cloud was, I made a sharp turn to the right in order to get as far away as I could. During the turn Hugh and I were able to look up the side of the cloud but we could not see the top. We told ATC that we were clear and requested a cruise altitude of 10,000 for the rest of the trip to Frogmore.

The rest of the trip was uneventful with landings at Frogmore and Charleston. On the way back to Columbia, we were again facing the same weather system that we had encountered over Orangeburg. We contacted Columbia ATC to assist us in staying clear of the buildups that were now on the Northeast side of Orangeburg. By now the cumulus clouds sported the anvils of mature thunderstorm systems. ATC apologized for not spotting the storm we ran into. The operator told us that he did not realize that the radar was set to circular polarization (CP) to make it easier to see aircraft. CP did not show storms like the other radar modes did at the time. Modern radar does much better. What the controller said next made our jaws drop. It seems that the stream of rising air that we were caught in was feeding an F-1 tornado on the other side of the storm. It turned over a couple of mobile homes and knocked down a few trees and gave two young pilots a story we could tell later in ready rooms with lightning and thunder flashing outside. And so it goes. Oh MY!

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