Taking Off Into Inclement Weather

Think before taking off into approaching bad weather. Waiting a few minutes can make all the difference.


Way back in the bad old days when I had just a few hundred hours of flight time, I recall how I would get quite obnoxious during my preflight preparations. (Of course, some say I still am, regardless of when I might be flying next, but thats only because I know what they dont.) The challenge of herding all the cats necessary for a safe departure sometimes made for brusque conversation with me. Get over it.

These days, Im more laid back before departing, at least outwardly. Im still running through a mental checklist, though, and trying to make sure everything gets done in a logical order. Ive also come to grips with what was driving my concerns: a misplaced belief that filing for, say, a noon departure meant advancing the throttle no later than 11:59. No exceptions.

So, I readily understand how anxious some pilots can get when preparing to depart. Add in various external challenges from business and personal lives, passengers who need to be at the destination by a certain time and the peer pressure of other airplanes coming and going seemingly without problems, and the physical and mental effort of actually flying an airplane can seem like a vacation.

On more than a few occasions, Ive delayed my departure, however. The vast majority of those occasions involved weather and my lack of desire (read “fear”) to confront some nasty phenomena during a high-workload portion of flight. In my book, Im busy enough taking off, climbing, obtaining a clearance, configuring the airplane, getting on course and cajoling ATC into whatever I need next to deal with the nasty weather. Most of the time, waiting as little as a few minutes resolves the weather issues. Heres an example of what I mean.


On July 5, 2006, at about 1210 Eastern time, a Piper PA-28R-200 was substantially damaged when it impacted trees during the initial climb after takeoff from the Block Island State Airport (BID), Block Island, Rhode Island. The private pilot and two passengers were fatally injured. Instrument conditions prevailed; an IFR flight plan was filed for the flight to the Westchester County Airport (HPN), White Plains, New York.

At 1205, the pilot told ATC he was ready to depart; he was released at 1206. At that time, he was advised of an area of moderate precipitation over the airport, with heavy precipitation south and west. There were no further communications from the airplane.

A pilot-rated witness observed the airplane depart with thunder and “very heavy rain” in the area. He lost sight of it at about 300 feet agl due to the rain and clouds. Witnesses near the accident site reported weather conditions that included “heavy rain,” “thunder,” “lightning,” “extremely cloudy” and “foggy” at the time of the accident. Three hours later, the airplane was located in a wooded area about mile from the airport.


All major portions of the airplane were accounted for at the accident site. The flap actuating mechanisms position corresponded to a flap-retracted setting. The landing gear handle was observed in the down position. The left main landing gear was extended, the right main landing gear was partially separated and the nose landing gear was completely separated from its mount.

Both propeller blades exhibited “S” bending and chordwise scratches, evidence of being under power at the time of impact. No anomalies were found with the engine, which rotated when the propeller was turned. No powerplant or flight instrument system failures were noted by investigators.

Another pilot who departed from the same runway about 10 minutes prior to the accident flight later said a preflight briefer advised him thunderstorms were moving toward the airport and recommended an immediate departure. The pilot departed within five minutes and turned away from the weather approaching from the west. The accident flight took off to the west and would have headed in that general direction to reach HPN.

Toxicology testing indicated that the pilot, a physician, had recently been using bupropion and fluoxetine (prescription antidepressants) and oxcarbazepine (a mildly impairing anti-seizure medication also used for certain chronically painful conditions and to treat manic-depression). The FAA would not typically approve the use of any of these medications.

The pilot had not indicated the use of these medications or the diagnosis of any conditions for which they would be used on his most recent application for an airman medical certificate.

At the time of the pilots most recent application for an FAA second class medical certificate, he indicated the only medications he was currently using were Lipitor (atorvastatin) and aspirin.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include the “pilots inadequate preflight decision making and his failure to maintain terrain clearance during departure. Contributing, were low ceilings, rain and thunderstorms.” The role of the medications or the conditions for which they may have been used could not be conclusively established in this accident. Also, the NTSB apparently doesnt have a canned probable cause finding of “get-there-itis.” If it did, this accident would qualify.

We dont know if the accident pilot saw the other pilot depart and we also dont know what, if any, knowledge he had of the approaching thunderstorm. We do know the weather was lousy enough to consider postponing departure until after the thunderstorm had passed. But that likely would have been an impossible decision for the pilot to make.

Putting aside the legality of the pilots use of non-approved medications, their presence raises the question of what impact his emotional state may have had on his decision to depart. Generally, some antidepressants have become known as lifestyle drugs or “mood brighteners.” In other words, the normal anxiety many pilots, myself included, may have felt before departing into the approaching weather may have been artificially suppressed.

Some pre-departure anxiety is a healthy thing: It helps keep us focused. Erring too far in the other direction, as we have seen, can have disastrous consequences.


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