On April 4th of 2017 I was flying south from Ocala to Sarasota on an IFR plan with a buddy of mine to pick up some supplies. Going south the ride was bumpy and overcast at about 4000 feet and we bounced along in and out of the clouds. To the north was a storm system several miles across covering all of Florida; It was enormous and powerful. One might even call it a squall line, which is a line of powerful high winds and storms traveling in the same direction at a rapid pace. The on-board weather in my plane showed not only light (green) to moderate (yellow), but severe (red) to extreme (purple) precipitation. That cloud was tall and would contain some strong wind shear based on these color depictions.
I heard the pilot of N155CL talking to the Jacksonville Approach about the weather conditions. The pilot was asking about the storms ahead. The controller said that all she had was returns and could not see all the details. The pilot reported that he saw a hole and it thought it was clear. I knew exactly what he was doing. The pilot was attempting to penetrate the storm and find a hole between the storm cells.
This is very dangerous. As a Florida pilot I know how strong and deadly these storms can be. The tops of these storms can reach upward of 45,000 feet and can unleash a furious wind and rain storm with rain, hail and tornadoes. I hovered my finger over the push to talk button on the radio and debated making a quick radio transmission urging this pilot to turn around. I thought to myself that the pilot would be smart enough to see the extreme conditions and do so on his own. I talked myself out of saying something.
A few minutes later Jax replied with an altitude alert for N155CL. Then a contact/transponder signal lost call from Jax came a few minutes later. I turned to my buddy and said “That is not good, he just crashed”. We stared at each other in disbelief. I took a moment to write down the tail number and follow up once I got home.
Looking at the flight data it seems that N155CL attempted to penetrate the storm in a flimsy little airplane. Looking at the altitude and airspeed plot his plane went from 8000 feet to almost 10,000 feet in less than a minute. That is 2000 feet per minute for the uninitiated. That is a really fast change of altitude, usually caused by sudden wind direction change. The pilot saw a clear hole because the wind was pushing upward at such a rate that the clouds were pushed out of the funnel. He entered an updraft of the building cumulonimbus storm and got thrown upward at an extreme rate of speed. This sudden updraft either damaged or completely ripped off the left wing of the plane.
N155CL was a Pipstrel Virus SW. A small two-seat light sport aircraft with high wings. This aircraft was not designed for the extreme conditions the pilot encountered in that storm cloud. The instrumentation inside the plane would have included glass panels with weather and traffic that showed the conditions present in the storm ahead of the plane.
The pilot of this plane was not an amateur. According FAA records, the pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land, multi-engine land, single engine sea and glider. His most recent FAA third-class medical certificate was issued October 28, 2013, at which time he reported 12,100 total hours of flight experience. A review of the pilot’s logbook revealed that he had accrued 92 total hours of flight experience in the accident airplane as of April 2, 2017. he knew better than to do what he did. I can only guess at what motivated such an experienced pilot to attempt such a risky flight.
This incident left me pondering why I did not say anything. I beat myself up mentally several times for keeping my mouth shut when a few second transmission on the radio could have changed the outcome. In the end I had to reconcile the facts. As the pilot in the left seat, I am responsible for knowing the weather conditions and the limitations of my aircraft. The pilot of N155CL was responsible for his own actions.