Even hundreds of miles away, a storm can give you a bad day

With Air France 447’s experience in heavy weather front of mind, it’s important to recall that aircraft at cruise altitudes are not normally put in peril by a storm front along their route of travel.  They tend to be most dangerous to aircraft that are in the takeoff or landing phase, when the aircraft are travelling the slowest and aircrews have the greatest amount of workload.  An Air Force C-130 narrowly avoided a Colgan 3407-like stall on approach through quick recognition and fast action by the aircrew.

“We were on our initial approach into Al Asad,” said Capt. Andrew Gillis, a 737th EAS C-130 aircraft commander and native of San Jose, Calif. “We were the third aircraft to go in. No one else reported any issues. In the middle of our approach, it started getting real rocky, and our air speed indicator ended up bouncing up and down plus or minus 20 knots.”

Falling back on countless hours of training and simulations, Captain Gillis advanced the throttles to max power to break off the descent and go around again. There was only one problem.

We had absolutely max power from the airplane,” Captain Gillis said. “There’s a specific escape maneuver, and we were in the process of doing that maneuver, but the airplane was still sinking.


— Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher.  “Quick recognition, action saves C-130 aircrew, soldiers“, 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs, June 3rd, 2009.

Ouch.  Throttles firewalled at 1,800 feet AGL, and still going down; not a good situation to be in.  What is really remarkable is that between problem detection and problem resolution, the aircraft lost just 800 feet of altitude despite being in a remarkably perilous situation for over seven miles. And 1800 feet is not a lot of room to play with when we’re talking about a stall or high sink rate situation.  It is a good thing the crew diagnosed the situation so rapidly and took corrective action.

Even more interesting, the high winds they encountered were actually caused by a large storm front several hundred miles away.

With the winds making a safe landing impossible, the crew headed for home, enduring another 30 minutes of intense turbulence. 1st Lt. Jeff Stanek, the aircraft’s navigator, said the wind shear and turbulence were caused by a massive storm front hundreds of miles away.

“There was a huge storm front the size of California that moved over Turkey,” said the native of Marlboro, Md. “And it moved faster than anticipated. We were clear of the actual storm, but the gust front in front of the storm is what we hit.”

Bravo zulu to the whole aircrew; you guys saved 45 passengers (as well as yourselves).

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