The abbreviation for thundershowers in aviation weather reports and forecasts is TSRA, which stands for "ThunderStorms and RAin." As boring as that little bit of trivia may be, real life thunderstorms certainly get your attention when you are airborne or planning to become airborne. TSRA figured into today's return flight Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados.
The replacement starter for the right engine arrived a day earlier than FedEx said it would. This was made possible by knowing someone who knew someone who worked for FedEx. Having someone who had an intimate knowledge of how packages clear customs didn't hurt either. So Roy, our local FAA-certificated mechanic, had the new part installed, tested, and signed off by 11am. Roy has over 30 years of experience working on all sorts of aircraft. After finishing the installation, Roy did a thorough walk-around inspection of the aircraft. I'd say he falls into the category of "excellent mechanic."
The flight to Barbados was mostly uneventful, with just a bit of cloud dodging here and there. The last 100 miles or so of this route put us just over 50 miles from the nearest island, but we were on top of the clouds much of the time and that seems to reduce one's awareness of these matters. A partial panel (attitude indicator and HSI covered) ILS to runway 9 was performed by the aircraft owner under the hood since we were in mostly visual conditions. After landing, ground instructed us to taxi to a gate area, but we were not at the main terminal per se and there was no jetway waiting for us.
This airport is much more GA friendly and organized that Trinidad. Everything went very smoothly once we were on the ground because we had arranged a handling service for the price of $170. I called them 20 miles out and the service was waiting for us. They arranged fuel, took our gendec paperwork, processed it, filed our flight plan and got us access to the main terminal so we could have a snack.
I had an uneasy feeling about the towering cumulus clouds that appeared to be closing in on the airport from the east. When we got back to the airplane and prepared to depart, the sunshine was gone, the wind had picked up, and a steady rain had begun falling. The Barbados Terminal Area Forecast called for a 40% probability of TSRA within a 18 hour period, but there was nothing more specific. We received taxi instructions and our clearance, then made our way to the runway. We were told to hold short at the second entrance to the runway from the end. We did our run-up there and I noticed an American Airlines jet was sitting on the runway in position, behind where we would enter the runway. I still didn't like the idea of departing with so little weather information.
After the run-up, we called for departure and were told to standby. The tower asked American if there were ready to go. They said not yet, they were reviewing their weather radar returns. The tower then cleared us for takeoff and I said we'd like to wait and we'd also like to know what American was seeing on their radar. The American crew told us there were three different cells: One to the east, one northeast, and one to the south. They were trying to work out a strategy for picking their way through the mess. I thanked them and looking to the south and west, thought I saw a way out for us.
I told the tower we were ready and we did a sort of right downwind departure fairly close to the runawy. We went through some clouds and then came out in a cloud canyon of sorts. It was a clear shot to the west, so that's what we asked for. The controller kept offering us a turn right on course, but there was a large build-up to our right. I said we'd have to proceed west for another 10 miles before we could turn. In general, most of the tropical thunderstorms I've seen on this trip have been isolated and easy to spot and avoid if you are in visual conditions. Get in the clouds with no radar and no XM weather and you're really rolling the dice.
We picked our way to the west, remaining in the clear and gradually turning northwest as we passed the larger build-ups. We heard the American flight depart and they asked for several deviations as they made their way to the east before turning northwest. Eventually we got a climb to level 080 and soon we were able to join Amber 628, our assigned airway. It was just a 25 mile deviation or so. As I heard the American flight get a frequency change, I wished there had been another opportunity to thank them again for their assistance. Now to the northwest about 50 miles, we had perspective on what we had avoided (though the wide angle lens on my camera doesn't really convey the scale very well).
The flight back was over mostly scatter clouds and the 12 DME ARC RWY 07 approach (again partial panel) into V.C. Bird went pretty well. I probably have just one more flight tomorrow, then my pilot duties on this trip will complete, we'll be on an American Airlines flight to San Juan, and this trip will become one unforgettable memory.