Epic Weather Looming? Run Screaming Into The Night


One of the many things I inherited from my father, in addition to his volcanic impatience, is a predilection for planning, especially contingency planning. Aviation, for me, has honed that obsession into a habit of preloading decision making. By that, I mean I like to think through what difficult decisions I might have to make ahead of actually having to make them. If A and B happen, then I’ll do C or D and so on. I’m hardly the only one to do this.

The preloading I’m thinking about now is the onset of hurricane season and the flowering of fly-in activity in Oshkosh next month. What ignited this is Rich Wellner’s video about losing his airplane when tiedown ropes parted in an unexpected storm. The context here is the North 40 at AirVenture and having lived in Florida for 20 years now, I’ve been through enough tense hurricane seasons to have learned a few things.

In 2004, there were four hurricanes in six weeks, starting with Charley on August 13. It came ashore at Punta Gorda, south of us, and pummeled the airport. For me, it became a real-world lesson in how to make sure your airplane survives a big storm. It’s easy. Move it out of the way or make sure your insurance is paid up. Lessor choices related to tiedown ropes, pointing it away from the wind or putting lift spoilers on the wings are the aeronautical version of a popular euphuism about the futility of rearranging deck chairs on a certain doomed ocean liner. I moved the airplane three times that summer, once to New Jersey. When I gassed up the airplane to head for Georgia, out of Charley’s path, the lineman couldn’t understand why I was fleeing. I never asked him if he saw the point after Charley swept through.

When I walked the ramp at Punta Gorda that fine sunny morning after the storm, the wreckage was evenly scattered everywhere. Airplanes that had survived in their tiedowns—and a few did—were so dented by debris damage I have to imagine they were totaled. A Tomahawk that had been double tied was almost intact, but the tail had been entirely twisted off, the empennage hanging loosely on the pavement attached by the tangle of control cables. And I wonder if the ones that did survive were repairable to the extent that anyone would really want to own them.

Hangars that had been there, maybe since the 1960s, were flattened, their steel posts sheared off at the base where they had been weakened by corrosion. I found a Cherokee in one of the hangars that seemed to have escaped too much damage, but the dazed owner of the hangar told me it wasn’t his airplane inside, but someone else’s that had been blown in from somewhere else. He pointed to his upended in a ditch near a taxiway. On the plus side, newer hangars built to modern standards—about 15 percent more steel—survived the storm, although many were dented from missile damage.

Conclusion: Move the airplane. If you can.

The Oshkosh dilemma is even grimmer. Last summer, we had a night of severe storms that was forecast to be much worse than it turned out to be, mainly lacking in high winds at Wittman Field. People were paying attention because there was quite an exodus on Wednesday. Lots of attendees who got there on Monday or Tuesday nonetheless pulled up stakes and headed to safer ground. With hail in the forecast, one of the sillier mitigations I saw was a run on carpet liner at local stores to cover wings and fuselages against boluses from heaven. I say it’s silly because the real threat is a massive, intense wind field, not hail, although both are bad.

Regardless of what tiedown efforts you think might work, you can’t defend against a microburst or, shudder, a derecho at AirVenture. For every owner that diligently plants robust tiedown stakes, a half-dozen will cast caution to the wind and use doggy augers that won’t hold back a determined Labrador. They satisfy EAA’s requirement for tiedowns, but in a serious blow, enough airplanes will probably come adrift to damage or destroy even those that are well secured.

Move the airplane.

Decision preloading is kind of a quid pro quo. If you decide to stay and ride out the storm, the probabilities are actually with you. There’s never been a serious windstorm during AirVenture. There never had been at Sun ‘n Fun either until 2011. The show got off lucky that time. Only a dozen or so airplanes damaged or destroyed.

For me, the calculus is simple. If the weather looks really threatening, you’ll know at least 12 hours before the fact. You can always bolt somewhere and come back later. The weather won’t blow the show into Lake Winnebago. Well, at least not all of it. The quid is the risk of losing or getting your airplane damaged against the quo of the value of seeing whatever the show had to offer that you’ll miss if you leave. Except you won’t miss it, because you can always come back. Quid: the hassle of packing up and moving. Quo: Not suffering the misery of filing an insurance claim and renting a car to get home or sweating out a stormy night wondering how bad it’ll get. And lately, the incidence of severe weather is on the rise, with marginally more thunderstorm days. (What data I can actually find suggests the increase is more modest than news coverage might suggest, but it’s an increase nonetheless.)

For me, it’s a no brainer. Move the airplane. Before you even get to AirVenture, have in mind a list of bolt holes so you won’t have to do it all in panic while you’re tossing gear into airplane and pulling up stakes. It will be much less traumatic if you do.

But I understand the allure of staying put. I’m as susceptible to inertia as anyone and, as I said, the probability is in your favor based on the history, at least at AirVenture. Here’s a video I did awhile ago on the performance of various tiedown systems. Here’s an earlier version and another on a new screw-type product. Aircraft Spruce has it.

As for tiedown ropes, cut the deck in your favor by carrying your own for routine use. What’s on the ramp may be old, weathered and absent half its original strength. My go-to is ¾-inch double or solid-braided nylon. Twisted nylon will do. All of these have a tensile strength of at least 10,000 pounds; more than enough for a light aircraft.

But if it really looks ugly and you know this ahead of time … well, you know the rest.

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  1. Are storms really on the increase, or, are you just looking more closely?
    … move the airplane…

  2. The question of whether storms are becoming more frequent is kind of an academic discussion, since the only one that matters is the one you are facing at the time. As we say here on the Gulf Coast of Texas, even in a quiet hurricane season, it only takes one to make a mess. Your advice about moving the plane is good advice, but sometimes where you move it is just as important. Many years ago, I had my trusty Beech Musketeer tied down outside at Houston’s Hobby airport. A category four hurricane brewed up in the Gulf and was headed toward the city. Most of the big planes in the hangars bugged out and headed inland, leaving Hobby as a virtual ghost town. As a result, I was able to beg my way into one of the empty hangars for the storm’s duration. As often happens, the storm veered off, slamming into the Corpus Christi area and moving inland. Also, as they often do, the dying storm spawned a number of tornados, one of which went through the Austin city airport where many of the big corporate jets from Hobby were hiding. The twister collapsed a hanger onto several jets and damaged others parked outside. My Musketeer emerged the next day totally unscathed. Some days you just can’t win.

  3. GOOD ADVICE in advance for Airventure 2022, et sub !!

    Just last week Wed (15th), I was working inside my hangar — 35 miles west of OSH — preparing my cargo trailer as my abode for Airventure week. No more tents for THIS lad! Every time I came out of it to get something in the hangar, I noticed the sky was getting darker and darker thru the open personnel door so I walked outside to reconnoiter; I didn’t like what I was seeing coming from the west. I quickly shut everything down and was just climbing into my pickup when the sky opened up with water and wind the likes I’ve never seen around here. I actually gave thought to what I’d do if the truck blew over it was shaking so bad and I was on the lee side of the hangar. Driving home, I had to dodge fallen debris and trees. That weather front spawned quite a few tornados on its way NE toward OSH and GRB. This’ll be my 40th Airventure; over all those years, I’d say there was bad weather at least one day during more than half the shows. I’ve summered in this environment for 20 years; I can attest to the fact that when the weather turns bad around here … it REALLY turns bad.

    Last Airventure, I was high and dry inside my cargo trailer but many of those in tents got clobbered. In fact, EAA was announcing over the PA system for people to go to the EAA Museum to seek shelter. The folks that run the campground I use opened up their basement to everyone. And don’t forget the guy with the multi-engine RV that somehow found enough bubble wrap to cover his whole airplane. Sadly, I remember that pile of damaged airplanes at SnF ’11.

    As you said, plan for and then actively seek a place to escape to protect your airplane and yourself plus how you’ll deal with the attendant logistics before it becomes a front and center issue. Me … my airplane will be in its hangar, I’ll be in my cargo trailer at the show and our group has beer! 🙂

  4. My insurance company will pay me the cost of moving an airplane out of the path of a hurricane. Their logic is simple – they’d rather pay a few hundred bucks to move it than $50k ~ $100k or more to total it.

    When it comes to making the “should I stay or should I go?” decision, removing the financial burden makes it a little easier.

    Check your policy to see if your insurance company makes the same offer.

    • I can’t say I know much about aircraft insurance. But when it comes to home and car insurance there is an industry wide database that tracks every claim you make. Unless you are later on in life as sadly many active GA pilots are, might be best just to suck it up and pay to move the airplane yourself instead of making a small claim that could impact your rates.

  5. Meteorologists in early 70s used to scoff at citizen reports of hailstones larger than a marble. Then came freezers, with people scooping up the stones and putting them in the freezer as proof, and now smartphones with video and cameras people point and shoot all the time.
    They scoff no more.
    Storms in France have produced tennis ball hailstones, with estimated velocities of 135 kph, which smash through tiled roofs, and even thin steel ones, the type used for some factories and hangers.
    Most of these monster hailstones fall in bursts amid rain, for just two or three minutes.
    Even so they will mince any aircraft they come into contact with.
    The mere golf-ball sizes ones hardly make the news anymore.

  6. Great article, Paul. The storm won’t damage an airplane that’s not hit by the storm. Re: Hail – in the early aughts a hailstorm hit Socorro NM with hailstones the size of softballs and bigger. There used to be some vids online of a parking lot at New Mexico Tech. Every car in the lot was totalled.

    • A problem in many locations, such as mid-south Alberta where they seed clouds from below to reduce size of hail. Paid for by insurance companies.

      Hail forms from bits of ice that are bounced up and down in the air, gaining weight each pass.

      IIRC Ron from Avsig forum had flown some seeding flights.

      (That range is from just south of Calgary to Red Deer which is halfway to Edmont.)

  7. And if you are staying put. Forget those nylon ratchet straps with stitching that is not worth anything and worth even less after a month in the sun. And if you have an open ended hook on your tie down – it WILL unhook as the strap or rope vibrate in the 60+ knots.

    And if you are a neighbor to my plane and you are not tied down properly with fresh rope – the bill is on the way from the local marine consignment store where I picked up some real rope and tied your plane down properly so it would not come loose and hazard mine. I made a PIC decision on that one. You are welcome! Spot my pet peeve!! 🙂

    • So buy UV resistant straps and replace them periodically. (Old ones may be useful around the home.)

      Good point about open hooks, I wouldn’t even trust typical ones with spring-loaded keeper. Hardware stores sell chain links with threaded middle but I don’t know quality of them, have one replacing spring attachment on one side of old Stanley garage door.

  8. A few years ago, I attended an air show not too far from Wellner’s place. Same state, anyway. I went to both days of the event. Saturday went off without a hitch. Sunday was a completely different matter. During the Blue Angels’ performance, #7, the narrator, announced that they were knocking off early. He explained that the explanation for this could be seen by looking over our left shoulders. There it was–an epic storm. On the airport were millions of dollars worth of aircraft, including one of the two remaining flying B29s and other priceless warbirds. There was an epic effort equal to the storm as airmen and ground personnel turned to. Somehow, the Angels’ ground crews fitted those aircraft into a hangar that looked too small and really challenged that assembly of crack maintenance crews. Other planes took off to avoid the storm. A Cessna belonging to the CAP was on the apron, and not tied down. A swarm of airport and other personnel swarmed the aircraft and hung on for dear life. If that Cessna had gotten loose, its brief flight would have ended with a collision with a warbird. I was in my car, parked in the first row past the movement area, and was watching as people hurried through the downpour to their cars. I snapped a photo of the Cessna being held down, the warbird in the background, and one of the ground crew wearing a yellow vest sprinting toward the Cessna to help. The photo is somewhat indistinct, but only because of the sheets of rain falling–or rather blown sideways by the gust. It’s still one of my favorite photos. Everyone came through OK.

  9. I just got my RV-8 done and I have about 15 hours flying on it. It’s tie-down here in CHD. Hopefully this season it will not be hit by any bad thunderstorms… It’s a risk we all face when dealing with weather…

  10. Error!

    Incidence rate of severe weather is NOT increasing.

    Read for example https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2022/05/UKWeather2020-21.pdf.

    Location of severe events varies, often one somewhere in the big world. For example, the US went a decade without a major hurricane striking the continent. (But some hurricanes may have hit islands in the Caribbean including Puerto Rico, or the Yucatan Peninsula and countries to the south.)

  11. Last year at Oshkosh after working our booth my wife and I jumped in the Bonanza and flew it back to Cincinnati. She wanted to get back to the kids anyway so we had planned to run her back on Thursday. So I flew her back Wednesday evening, gassed up, and flew back to Oshkosh the next morning. Early in the morning that line had burned out over Indiana so I flew through it and got back into Oshkosh before the field went IFR around 0830 local. Not much sleep. There was a lot of damage around Fisk when I did the arrival again.

  12. The military has used the pack up & move philosophy for years. Unfortunately, the logistics problems involving time, pilots and so forth often necessitate leaving many aircraft behind.

  13. Are my eyes so bad I don’t see my post resporting that one Martin Mars was thrown 200 yards by Typhoon Freda in 1962.

    In any case, here is an article on the deal to transfer the less capable of the two to a museum in FL.

    Deal delayed and delayed by bureaucrats and politicians, AFAIK has not happened yet because of budget uncertainty for the USN museum.

    (While people near the Martin assembly plant wanted it, they did not have prospects for funds.
    Since that interview, Coulson has added C-130s and B737s to its heavy air tanker fleet.)

    • Well, my memory anyway.

      The post was in the ‘death of an airplane’ thread.

      Adding to Mars history:
      Only a few built, USN only had four left when Dan McIvor bought the fleet from it. (One had burned after engine fire.)

      Coulson has the nose and FE station built for one not assembled when line was shut down, good training aids.

  14. Paul Bertorelli is (in the words of a co-worker from Sierra Leone giving me a compliment for my somewhat inept IT skills years ago) The Sheet !
    I think what Kai from central Africa meant was that I was “Hot [er, um] Stuff” …and Paul is undoubtedly that.
    P.S.: I can relate to the Father with a Volcanic temperament; mine would lose it when I did not put the worm on the fishhook correctly when we were attempting to catch fish near the hot and humid Chesapeake Bay. Only years later did I realize that this behavior was created by my Mother’s use of heaping tablespoons of Maxwell House high octane prior to our setting off for the boat dock in a non-airconditioned ‘53 Ford. Ah, the “fond” days of youth.

  15. I’m a minority here… but I live in Florida not far from Paul and am confronted each season with the fight or flight dilemma. At the first warning of a pending hurricane my FBO reminds me that I am going to be liable for any damage my plane may cause as a result of the weather. I am urged to move my plane to safety. My reaction each year is “No. Hell no.” I’m not going to fly away leaving my wife, family, and faithful dog to survive as best they can. Fortunately my insurer agrees. They specifically urge me to secure my plane as best as possible and to go home to take precautions with my family. I own a low and slow, VFR only legacy airplane. Not a safe platform for evading even the relatively moderate conditions that precede a Florida hurricane. So then there is that. But even if I owned the Navion or Cirrus my grandson wants me to buy so he can build time, I’d do the same.