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Dodging thunderstorms – how teamwork works in practice

Thunderstorm as seen from the flight deck

Today started just as a ‘normal’ flight, but became interesting on the way back. My First Officer only recently joined the company, but is very experienced, professional and we seem to be able to get along very well. The alarm was set at 5am and I had a look at all the flight documents while enjoying the breakfast in the hotel. Nowadays nearly all documents required for a particular flight are electronic, so I usually have my iPad with me and review everything that I need to know to operate that particular flight. I usually arrive a bit early at the breakfast even if it mean that I have to get up even earlier. The flight started and progressed normally and we parked with a slight delay at our destination.

For the way back to First Officer was ‘Pilot Flying’, i.e. the person performing the actual flight. I was ‘Pilot Monitoring’, i.e. I was supporting and supervising the First Officer and managing the communications with Air Traffic Control and doing all the paperwork. We usually alternate these duties (i.e. the Pilot Flying becomes Pilot Monitoring for the way back and vice versa). We updated our latest weather forecast and saw that the weather forecast was more or less okay, but there was a chance of thunderstorms. We decided to add some more fuel to cover for any eventualities. It is perfectly okay to takeoff with the legal required minimum which includes a lot of reserves already (maybe I will make a post about this later on, for those who are interested), but in this case we decided that 400kg of fuel, worth around 10 minutes of additional flying time available would be beneficial. We took of and after a short while had a very nice view of Marseilles and later on the alps, even though there was a cloud cover.

Overview of Marseilles from 36000ft

We have a very nice system installed in most of our aircraft called ACARS (aircraft Communications addressing and reporting system – in aviation some people simply love to use complicated words/abbreviations for ‘easy’ things), which enables us to communicate with the company while enroute (similar to sending a WhatsApp/Chatmessage). It also helps us to get weather reports of places further away. While passing over Fulda in Germany I used that system to get the latest weather report. I looked at the weather report. Not good at all. I handed the report over to the First Officer. He looked at it and said: ‘I am not allowed to land in these conditions – according to our company rules, as a First Officer I will need at least 1000 meters of visibility to be pilot flying, we have 650m right now’. He was indeed right, as a massive thunderstorm was just passing the area. We agreed that while we could still legally land in these conditions (with a change over of pilot flying duties to me), it would be unwise to attempt an approach under these circumstances. Thunderstorms are dangerous to airplanes for various reasons, there can be massive hail stones that can smash the windscreen or engines, really nasty turbulence and massive wind shifts which could cause an accident, if encountered close to the ground. The good thing about thunderstorms is that they are very dynamic and move or dissipate rather quickly. I discussed with the First Officer that if the weather remained like the report I would like to have a look before deciding to attempt an approach or not. A weather report only gives part of the picture and radar data and the view out of the window are needed to make a reasonable decision. I also got the weather for the alternate airport the company planned for us, in case we could not land at Oslo for any reason (the so called ‘alternate fuel’ is part of the legally required fuel reserves that every airplane must have on board before take off). In our case this was Stavanger Airport, well to the west of Oslo. Unfortunately this airport was also affected by the thunderstorms and therefore not useable. I told the First Officer that I would like to have a solid and safe ‘plan B’, in case that the weather is not allowing is to land in Oslo. We discussed several airports and finally agreed that Gothenburg Airport in Sweden would be our best option. The weather system was moving to the west and the latest weather report for Gothenburg were clear skies and 25 degrees celsius. The fuel required to Gothenburg was almost exactly the same as the one needed to go to Stavanger. The First Officer suggested and I agreed that we should already put a sensible routing from Oslo to Gothenburg in our flight management computer, so it would be ready should we need it in a hurry. The purser rang the door bell and entered the cockpit to ask if we needed anything. I told him that we were fine but to expect a rough ride during approach and that there was a small chance of a diversion to Gothenburg in Sweden.

While approaching Denmark a line of thunderstorms appeared on our radar screen. I asked the First Officer ‘Do you want to go left or right of that line?’ ‘Well, I guess from looking outside it looks rather bad on the right side, so lets go for the left side’ ‘On the radar screen the line is tilted towards the left, so we definitely have no chance of turning right before the end of that line, wherever that will be. Also the wind is coming from the right side so if we deviate to the left the line might just be blown right into our way and we are safer on the upwind side…while it looks cloudy on the right there seems to be a gap that we could sneak through’. The First Officer agreed to my suggestion. At this moment the Air Traffic control center that controls Belgian, Dutch and northern Germany Airspace and is located in the city of Maastricht and therefore called ‘Maastricht Radar’ transferred us to the Danish Air Traffic Control, called ‘Copenhagen Radar’. After switching frequency we heard somebody asking about climbing to get above the thunderstorms. While only climbing will usually not be sufficient it can be helpful to get a better overview of the situation and get more margin to the cloud tops. I checked on our flight management computer if we could also accept a higher altitude and saw that we could, although we would be pretty close to the maximum altitude we could maintain at our current weight. I asked the First Officer if he would consider a climb or rather stay at our current level which would put is closer to the clouds, but would give us a greater margin to the maximum level. We agreed that climbing would be the safer option. We called Copenhagen and asked to turn 30 degrees to the right to avoid the line of thunderstorms ahead and also to climb by 2000 feet (equivalent to 600 meters). The turn was approved and the climb a short while after. I made a call to the cabin crew and told them that I would switch the seatbelt sign on and that they could expect some turbulence for the next few minutes.

Passing a line of thunderstorms

We cleared the first line, surprisingly with only very little turbulence, and saw yet an other line of thunderstorm clouds in the distance. In the meantime I got an updated weather report. Just as I hoped the thunderstorm had moved away from the airport and we had a good chance of getting in. We both very relieved by this news. We were told by the next Air Traffic Controller, who was already working from a Control Center in Norway, that there was a lot of thunderstorm activity and everybody else was deviating from their route to the east to avoid this area, but that approaches into Oslo very progressing normally. We decided to do the same after having a look at the massive thunder storm cloud (these are named Cumulonimbus, abbreviated ‘CB’) that was pretty close to our original route.

While we descended towards Oslo we saw that the thunderstorm was to the east of the field and exactly on the planned arrival route. The aircraft ahead of us seemed to be going through parts of it, even though it looked red (i.e. really, really nasty) on our radar and it looked impressive when looking at it through the window. While I do not want to criticize colleagues I was thinking that the pilot ahead of us was taking a high risk by going through that weather. I told the Air Traffic Controller that we could not continue on the published arrival route due to the weather and we had to deviate towards the west. The controller was luckily very cooperative and we picked our way through the weather without encountering any significant turbulence or any other hazard. The first officer did a very nice landing and taxied the airplane to the gate. We were greeted by the mechanic who queried if we encountered any technical difficulties (which we had not) and told us that just an hour ago there was extreme rain and a massive storm passing through.

I thanked my first officer for his good work and we both agreed that we handled a challenging situation very well as a team. While I, in my position as a Captain, am the final authority concerning the operation of the aircraft I like to have an open communication with the First Officers – very often First Officers have ideas that I had not thought about and even if I decide to stick to my decision I will always explain the reasons and try to give the First Officer the feeling that his input is a valuable contribution to the operation (which it indeed is). This way both of us can learn. I think on this flight we were able to archive these goals and we were well prepared for any realistic eventuality. If the airport was closed when we approached due to the weather we had already thoroughly prepared a plan B which, even though it would have been inconvenient, could have been activated and actioned without being burdened by a high workload and stress.

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