Sitting in the Saab’s cockpit as the violent wind shook the plane, I cursed myself for not heeding the same lesson I’d taught so many times: If you have a concern, voice it to your co-pilot. The captain thought we could beat the line of thunderstorms, known as a squall line, between Hartford, Connecticut, and Albany, New York. I was positive we wouldn’t.
Was he sure he didn’t want to wait it out? I asked as we prepared to take off. The storm looked like it was coming in fast, and we’d already experienced some pretty bad turbulence coming in from the previous leg of the flight.
It was a short flight, he assured me, and we’d most likely reach our destination before the storm could catch up with us—and if not, we’d just fly around it.
I could barely hear the captain over the pelting of the rain and the whacking of the windshield wipers as we taxied forward. As we approached the runway, it became clear that everyone else was waiting out the storms: The normally congested radio frequency was eerily quiet, and the taxiways were empty except for the puddles and us. Because we were still in the relatively calm downpour before the storm hit at full force, the control tower cleared us for takeoff.
The first 10 minutes of the flight were bumpy but tolerable. Then the turbulence started in earnest.
In extreme circumstances, turbulence can break an airplane apart in midair. The turbulence associated with thunderstorms is composed of strong updrafts and downdrafts, and rapidly changing wind conditions known as wind shear. It feels like a giant hand clutching the airplane, shaking it until pieces come off.
From the colorful radar screen, with its reds and yellows, and the greenish color of more clouds to the west, I knew we were not going to beat the squall line.
“Could you ask for a block altitude?” I yelled at the captain, struggling to make my voice heard over the sound of the rain. A block altitude would give us a range of altitudes to fly—with the strong updrafts and downdrafts, it was impossible for us to stick to just one.
The reply that came back over the radio from air traffic control was revealing: “You’re the only plane in the area. You can have any altitude you want.” No one else, it seemed, had been stupid enough to take to the skies in this weather.
When the lightning hit us, the two computer screens in front of me—the screens containing all the flight information, including airspeed, altitude, and navigation—went black. I had to use a few small and awkwardly located backup instruments to fly the plane. Fortunately, everything turned back on after a few seconds, and we were eventually able to break out of the clouds. The incident had left its mark, though: As soon as we landed in Albany, the flight attendant quit.
On the way to the hotel where we were staying for the night, the captain conceded that waiting out the storms probably would have been a better idea. But his words didn’t do much to lift my spirits. It was my job—a job I’d trained so many other people to do!—to advocate for the safest course of action. The captain was a congenial kind of guy. He probably would have been fine with staying on the ground, if only I had made my case more effectively. I had to stop myself from quitting along with the flight attendant.