With hurricane Ian passing through Florida with its path of destruction, I’m reminded of a close and uncomfortable encounter with a hurricane while flying with the Navy. It’s one of three “near death experiences” (I use the phrase advisedly) I lived through (by God’s grace) while flying with the Navy.
While instructing at VP-30 training squadron in Jacksonville, Florida we would often try to give our more experienced student aviators the opportunity to work an anti-submarine warfare exercise with a U.S. attack submarine just prior to graduating. This particular mission was an all night flight near the Bahama islands. It was fall in the early 1980s, and we had been working intensely with our submarine “target” through the late night hours of the night. We were electronic emissions silent (no radar, etc.) so as not to give away our position nor the location of our U.S. submarine playmate to unfriendly observers.
As we neared the completion of our exercise during the late night hours, we began observing an unusual amount of lightning developing in intensity in all directions around our small operating area. Flying through thunderstorms is not a pleasant experience, to put it mildly, so we turned on our radar for safety of flight reasons. Although we were in relatively clear and calm air, it was obvious that we were surrounded by intense thunderstorm activity that seemed to be worsening by the minute.
We terminated our exercise a half hour early and headed north toward what appeared to be a relatively weaker part of the wall of thunderstorms. Despite my thousands of hours flying in many parts of the world, I had never experienced anything close to the dynamics of the next ten to fifteen minutes of flight. Lightning flashes were almost continuous and close. We think we were struck at least twice based upon the boom intensity and temporary loss of power. The rain and hail were literally deafening. We had to yell at one another to be heard. The most concerning issue was looking out at the wings illuminated by the almost continuous lightning flashes. While our four engine P-3 aircraft has stiffer wing structure than most airplanes (jet wings are usually designed to flex a fair amount in flight), we observed our wing tips flexing up and down at least 4 to 5 feet. I thought they surely must be close to snapping off. Our instructor crew of twelve (plus a handful of students) were all strapped into seats. Standing was impossible. Movement was to invite a concussion. Unstowed articles were flying around the interior. Aircraft movements were quick and dramatic, like proverbial Space Mountain ride.
After what seemed like forever, the air almost immediately calmed and cleared, like waking from a bad dream. When we arrived back at homeplate, we took a walking tour around the aircraft on the flight line ramp. Severe damage to the nose radome of the aircraft and hail damage tow the wing leading edges and propellers was readily evident. The aircraft (and we, with God’s grace) survived. The aircraft was downed for future flights until the wing spar damage could be assessed. We flew again the next day… in a different airplane and much calmer air. Epilogue: According to the local news later that day it was apparent that we had had the misfortune of being located inside a developing hurricane that previous night. Our Navy aircraft are now equipped with better weather radar.
“Even though I walk [or fly] through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4)