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How Far?

The last glow of twilight was fading from the sky as we headed towards Los Angeles in my club's Cessna 172. My friend Nadine was in the right seat with Macallan the 23-pound mega-shih-tzu on her lap. My wife Janet was in the back seat along with our minimal baggage. We'd had a wonderful dinner at Paso Robles, where we took on some fuel. As we approached Santa Barbara, I had just turned towards our destination of Van Nuys when we saw several flashes of lightning ahead in the distance.

The weather had been beautiful the whole trip and the forecast called for it to continue, so that lightning was unexpected to say the least.

I keyed the mike. "Center, 377, we're seeing some lightning up ahead. Can you give us any information about that?"

"Oh, there's some activity over near Daggett," said the controller, "but I see nothing along your route of flight."

"Great, thanks for that," I replied.

Daggett? That was in the Mojave Desert well over a hundred miles away! I was reminded just how far you can see from 9,500 feet.

"It looks a lot closer than that!" said Janet.

"Yes, it does!" I agreed. Even with the controller's reassurances, we were going to keep a careful eye on those storms. I was always taught to avoid thunderstorms by at least 30 miles, but I realized how hard that can be to gauge, especially at night. If it hadn't been for the controller's help, I would have been very concerned.

That experience stuck with me and it's come in handy more than once. Years later when my buddy Anders and I were on our way to Bend, Oregon as part of the Hayward Air Rally, we found ourselves faced with some nasty convective weather. By the time we got to the Klamath Falls area, we were seeing shifting masses of black clouds, opaque sheets of rain, occasional muted lightning flashes, and lowering ceilings directly on our route North. We heard other pilots calling out the position of storm cells on the air-to-air frequency. Thinking back to the trip to Van Nuys, I strongly advised against betting our lives on judging the distance to those cells. We called it a day and spent the night in Klamath Falls and went on to Bend in the morning.

Sometimes the air between storms is clear and there's lots of room to divert, so by relating storm cells to features on the ground, you can use good old fashioned pilotage to determine their approximate distance. This is much easier during the day, but it can be possible at night too. One evening when I was flying patterns at my home airport of San Jose International, I was turning crosswind when I saw lightning over the Santa Cruz mountains, less than 15 miles away. From my low altitude, it was easy to see that the lightning strikes were between me and the mountains. Needless to say, that was the end of the evening's pattern work!

The remainder of our flight into Van Nuys was uneventful. As it became clear the storms really were out over the Mojave, we were even able to enjoy the show. At that safe distance, it was actually quite beautiful. The night was clear as we followed the "rabbit" and landed on the big runway, 16 Right.

"Beautiful flight, honey," Janet said as we taxied to the FBO.

"Yeah, that was great—thank you, Kennan!" said Nadine.

"You're welcome!" I replied. "Glad you enjoyed it!"

Macallan just gave me a hang-dog look indicating he was glad to be on the ground.

Well, you can't please everybody.

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