Flight into Tornados

My dad was a pilot and often took me flying from the time I was a toddler. One of my earliest memories is of me standing on the front seat of an airplane, probably a Cessna 172, and barely able to see out the bottom part of the side window. I must have been around two or three years old. Dad flew for fun, but also flew as a commercial pilot, doing aerial cross-country pipeline inspections, forestry, and as an aerial photographer of commercial properties.

On April 15, 1976, we jumped in a Piper Cherokee similar to the one in this picture, and flew from Ft. Worth, Texas to Amarillo, Texas, to visit some friends, I was fourteen years old. The actual plane we flew had tail numbers of N6377J.

The weather was partly cloudy as we took off, but about an hour and a half into the flight it began to turn ugly. We saw a storm building in front of us in the far distance, dad got on the radio with the flight service station (FSS) to ask them about the weather between us and Amarillo. They responded that they saw the buildup, but that it was unexpected and didn't think it would continue to build. We continued for another 20 minutes or so, and saw the clouds continue to grow in front of us. Once again, dad talked to FSS and they again said they were a bit surprised with the continued build up but thought it was as big as it was going to be. Another 15 or 20 minutes and even bigger clouds, we decided to turn back. We must have been somewhere between Childress and Amarillo about that time.

As we completed our 180 turn to head back to Fort Worth, we were dismayed to find that the weather had closed in behind us. A look all around revealed that we were in a pocket of blue sky, with thunderstorms growing around us in all directions. We turned again toward Amarillo, dad got prepared for a rough ride, getting the maps folded in the right place, strapping on the legboard, getting out a couple pencils and his ASA flight computer, and filing an instrument flight plan with FSS. This was before the days of GPS and electronic calculators and instruments.

We didn't know it, but we were about to fly into a very severe thunderstorm that would produce 17 tornado's and a wall cloud that would scream across Northwestern Texas. Here is a picture of a similar storm in the same area a couple of years later that produced 5 tornadoes.

We continued to Amarillo, about 30 minutes away, hoping we could get there and land before the storm decided to break loose, as Flight Service (who was updating us with the weather) predictions led us to believe was still possible. Very rapidly, the clouds finished their work of closing in on us and we were swallowed by the storm.

For the next 3o minutes we were bounced around as if we were in a clothes dryer. The turbulence was so extreme that our heads were hitting the side windows and ceiling. We were bouncing around so much that we couldn't even focus long enough on the instruments to interpret what we were seeing. Dad was struggling to maintain control, often moving the control inputs full to their stops, we had no choice but to just trust the gyroscopic indicators which I was sure had hit their stops and "rolled over", meaning they were no longer showing actual "up". The updrafts and downdrafts were so hard that we heard physical cracking noises when they hit, and dad and I would simultaneously look out at the wings to see if they were still attached. I remember suddenly bursting out into a very tiny pocket of clear blue sky, we were nearly upside down, probably rolled over by about 150 degrees, and dad barely had time to get us upright again before punching into the clouds at the other side of that tiny blue meadow. That brief moment gave us time to check "up" against the gyro indicators.

Dad had a tight grip on the controls and was telling me what frequencies to tune the navigational radios to as we continued our approach into Amarillo, or at least as we were trying to make an approach. As we were being thrown around against our seatbelts, I was virtually not able to get my arms and hands to move against the turbulence in the direction I commanded them, much less read the map which by now was a tangled and ripped wad of a mess. By miraculous effort, dad was able to get his hand on the ADF and set the frequency. This picture shows a typical instrument panel of a Cherokee aircraft at that time, the ADF is just to the left of center, second gauge down, and the tuning controls for it are just to the right of center behind the control wheel with the long black display and four white buttons.

I don't know if we ever got close to the Amarillo airport runway, but I do know we called it a missed approach, after which FSS said Childress weather looked better, so we asked for direct clearance to Childress. The bouncing became a little less severe as we headed Southeast, staying just ahead of the center of the storm, apparently. I believe we at least stayed upright the entire time. The rain at times came heavy and hard against the windshield. It must have been nearly an hour of that until we made it over Childress, still a lot of turbulence, but not so much as causing loss of control. It did, however, make me very queasy.

The approach to Childress is a non-precision VOR instrument approach. This means that the pilot must navigate to a radio beacon or station, turn to a heading away from the station and airport, use a watch to time an outbound leg, then do a series of timed turns, fly inbound to the station, cross the station on a heading toward the airport, start timing again, descend to a minimum altitude called the Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA), watch the time again for a few minutes, then look out the window for the airport. Because this kind of approach uses a great deal of estimated wind drift calculation and ground speeds in different directions to track the location of the aircraft relative to the airport and station, it is called a non-precision approach. As opposed to a precision approach, where the instruments are always telling you exactly where you are. Shown here is the actual VOR approach to runway 36 at Childress. At the time this runway was called 35, but the magnetic poles of Earth change over time and runway numbers change along as well, because the runway numbers coincide with magnetic direction.

As we arrived over the Childress VOR, which is named CDS in the diagram, we began our timing and turns, flying outbound and then inbound again to the CDS radio station. This entire approach procedure takes around 20 minutes. We were absolutely in thick clouds, not being able to see anything outside except the wings. We arrived at minimum descent altitude, theoretically over the approach end of the runway, with no sight of the airport. Without seeing the ground, we were required to execute a missed approach, climb out to a higher altitude, and start it all over again. On the second attempt, 20 minutes later, we still did not see the runway, so a second missed approach was initiated.

As we leveled off and set up to start another 20 minute approach, dad looked at me and said, "This will be our final approach". I was very excited and replied, "Great, the weather is clearing up for us?" Dad said nothing and did not look at me again. I remember vividly that he simply reached over and tapped the gas gauges. One gauge was on E, the other was about a needle-width above E. We had been in the air for over 4 hours with some of that time being spent climbing out at full throttle, and we had nearly exhausted our fuel supply. I then realized that this was our final approach, no matter what.

Dad continued to fly and set up for our last approach. He said that this time, when we get to minimum descent altitude, we were going to continue to descend whether we could see the ground or not. I knew that this was our best course of action, it was better to descend while in control of a running airplane, with a runway known to be somewhere in front of us, then it was to run out of gas and descend into the unknown.

20 minutes later, we were again at the final point of our approach. Now at the minimum descent altitude of 386 feet above the ground, and looking at a windshield that seemed to be covered with a white sheet, nothing of Earth could be seen. At this point we are required to go to full throttle and climb up and away from the unseen airport, and I was torn between the unsafe consequence of running out of gas and the unsafe act of descending toward the unseen runway. As dad had promised, we continued to descend, engine at near idle, coasting down a hill of surprisingly smooth air toward whatever would come up to meet us. Because I expected to accelerate and climb at that point, my mind was tricked into sensing an acceleration toward the ground instead. Dad stayed on the instruments while I stared out the windshield looking for anything, fearful that suddenly I would see a tree or building or water tank jump through the windshield.

We were descending at a rate of about 50 feet every 6 seconds. 350 feet. 300 feet, airspeed good and white sheet in front of us. 250 feet, engine running smoothly just above idle. 200 feet, not being able to see anything outside it seemed as though we were just hanging motionless in the air. 30 seconds have now passed since we should have begun our missed approach. 150 feet and smooth air, can't see a thing. 100 feet, 75 feet, now it has been 45 seconds into the descent. Then bang! We broke out of the bottom of a solid layer of clouds, the runway right under our feet! I yelled "I have the runway!", and dad immediately looked up and cut the throttle to idle. We settled down onto the runway centerline with a very smooth landing. Slowing down, still on the runway, dad commented that he hoped we could taxi into the ramp without running out of gas. Suddenly we both realized how stifling hot it was in the cockpit. We looked at each other and we were both drenched in sweat. I had forgotten my queasiness throughout that entire last approach, but it hit me hard at that moment. I barely got the sick bag to my mouth in time, and as we pulled off the runway I popped the door open to let in some fresh cool air for both of us.

Here is a picture from Google Earth of the Childress runway 35, apparently taken before the runway number changed to 36. When I saw this picture online a few days ago, it looked exactly as I remembered it when we broke out underneath the clouds on that day in 1976.

A final bit of interesting trivia: On August 8, 1976, almost four months after our trip, that airplane, N6377J, went missing west of the Bermuda Triangle never to be found.

Dad passed away of cancer in 1996, but I found that amazing trip in his flight log books. The log entry is the last one on this page.

The notation 6@3 I presume to mean the visibility was 6 miles at ground level and the ceiling was reported as 300 feet. Having my pilots license now, and practicing 50 foot clearance maneuvers, I know we were nearly at 50 feet when we broke out of the bottom of the clouds. So either that was the minimum reportable capability due to technology at the time, or that was the reported ceiling somewhere nearest Childress that had ceiling measuring equipment.

Documentation of the 17 Texas tornadoes of April 15, 1976 can be found at: Texas Tornadoes 1950-2012

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