So there I was, flying east over central Nebraska at 5,500 feet above sea level, on one of those early summer days when no one in their right mind is flying into Denver or across central Nebraska. I’d dropped my passengers off near North Platte, so I could come back my own way at my own pace. Getting home entailed skirting a massive storm complex that was dropping large hail and the occasional tornado from Grand Island north into South Dakota, with an additional line between Denver and everywhere. It got so tight that at one point the Denver Center air traffic controller came on the radio and announced, “Everyone on Denver Center. Stop asking for different altitudes and courses. There is one hole into Denver and we have to fit all of you through it. We can’t grant any requests at this time.” With an unspoken so just shut up and listen in his tone of voice. I was on a visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan at the time, so he didn’t have much to do with me, other than occasionally inform me of traffic.
I was enjoying watching this massive white, blue and black monster beat up on other people for a change, and limited my radio calls to those necessary. At last, after flying due east for longer than I normally would have, I got switched to Minneapolis Center and swung east-northeast. I could see the edge of the storm very clearly, and knew that I’d be able remain outside of it. I’d tied down or stowed anything inside the cabin that might turn into a missile if I hit turbulence, so I felt pretty comfortable. The blue and white 6-passenger airplane handled rough air fairly well, but so far the ride had been no rougher than the Great Plains on a June afternoon usually is.
The plane curved northeast, out of the sunny-side of the storm complex. Here the different layers and bits of the storm floated in shadow, changing from brilliant white with dark-blue rain below into wedgwood grey, grey-blue, navy, and shades of shadowy grey. I banked the plane to the right and glanced up to make certain I wasn’t under the edge of the anvil. That’s where hail hangs out some days, and you can get turned into a 250 horsepower golf ball by flying through those harmless-looking wisps of cloud below the anvil. (Stay away from green areas, too.) Nope, the winds had blown the anvil more to the north. So the plane and I cruised along, sun-washed corn fields to the right and a monster to the left.
And then I looked into the storm. I’ve never experienced anything like it since. The lowest clouds formed a pale grey, almost white, shelf or floor extending to the north beside me. Small pillars of cloud, clustered like people, rose from part of that base. Behind them gaped the blue-black maw of the storm, with tatters and wisps of scud below and behind the figures. I was struck with the overwhelming sense of seeing something I wasn’t supposed to, of watching a judgment or trial not meant for human eyes. The rational part of my brain knew the convection patterns and outflow causing the scene, but the rest of me wanted to run, to get away, out of sight of whatever power lurked in that “courtroom.”
I fled. I banked away, more to the east, and added a little power, scooting along on the edge of the first outflow winds until I felt safe, then turning north. I didn’t say anything about that I’d seen to the controller, or later to my boss.
I’ve flown around mesoscale convective complexes since then, but never have I had that sensation of trespassing. I’ve danced through tornadic storms, flown through glories and punched holes in the veils of sunset, but never had that sense of awe and doom that I felt from the storm in Nebraska.