When the wind blows

“Prepare yourself.”

You can add that phrase to the list of those I do not want to hear in or around an airplane. The mechanic uttered the warning just before he pulled open the hangar door and showed me a Cessna 172 that was heavily damaged by a windstorm that battered the Pacific Northwest on Dec. 14. Some of the worst damage was at my home field of King County International/Boeing Field (BFI).

“It appears that the aircraft caught a huge gust of wind that snapped the tie-down rope and it broke loose of its moorings and came up against another C-172,” the mechanic explained. “It then became airborne and landed on top of a Baron that was parked next to it on the ramp.”

The C-172 that took the unauthorized flight had a broken windscreen, a crushed instrument panel, a mangled firewall, and the nose gear snapped off. The fuselage was twisted and one of the wing struts damaged so badly it had to be splinted in order for the tug to move the plane into the hangar.

The tie-down rope, which had snapped in the 65-mph winds, hung forlornly from one wing.

The Baron, which according to the mechanic hadn’t moved from the ramp in years, suffered tail and wing damage. The VOR antennae also had been snapped off.

The Cessnas got the worst of it, he said. Both had been slammed to the ground so hard their main wheels were broken. We picked up pieces of wheel from the ramp. I noted a wheel strike on the upper wing of one of the C-172s. Fuselages were twisted and the tails and wingtips mangled.

A closer inspection of the rest of the fleet revealed a few more damaged rudders where the aircraft had been blown into the wings of other Cessnas. The fleet was grounded as a precaution and each aircraft was slated to undergo an inspection before being allowed to return to service.

The mechanic told me that all the local TV news crews had been out to report on the damage. One TV commentator reported that one aircraft had a wing completely torn off by the wind and that wing was now missing.

I looked closely at the aircraft with the “missing wing.” I remarked that I had never seen weather do such a clean separation of wing and fuselage.

“That’s because it didn’t,” the mechanic drawled, opening the door to another hangar where he showed me the missing wing in a jig. “That wing has been off for weeks.”

There was damage at other fields as well. At nearby Renton Municipal Airport/Clayton Scott Field (RTN), Bruce Fisher, operations specialist, said that a hangar door was blown in “and narrowly missed squashing the aircraft inside.”

The worst damage was to a Helio Courier on floats that was not tied down, he said.

“The struts are damaged and the floats have holes in them,” he said. “The propeller went through one of the floats and the aircraft is on its side now right by the entrance to the airport.”

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport one of the concourses lost several windows from wind gusts that approached 70 miles per hour. The airport also lost power on Dec. 15 and later that afternoon the FAA Terminal Radar Approach Control facility shut down for about an hour because the generator that had been powering the TRACON ran out of fuel.

The loss of electricity was widespread. Some airports in the area had back-up generators to power their instrument landing systems. Others were without power for several days.

On top of the storm we had a cold snap with temperatures in the low 20s. To stay warm I wore my World War II leather sheepskin lined pants and flight jacket. Not exactly a good fashion choice, but it did make the day of an elderly couple I met at a grocery store. The man informed me that he had been a waist gunner on a B-17 during World War II and he recognized the gear. He wanted to know if the pants and jacket were authentic and was very pleased when I told him that they are — and very warm, too.

Meg Godlewski is GAN’s staff reporter and a Master CFI.

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