While Western Canada is known for its beautiful summers, we also know that dangerous weather is often just around the corner.

This summer is no exception as we have seen destructive hail in Alberta and torrential downpours and tornados in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

We were reminded of nature’s wrath Aug. 7 when a devastating tornado struck southwest Manitoba and tragically killed two 18-year-olds. Our Manitoba crew was dispatched to the scene however they were stood down while en route as they were no longer medically required.

The dispatch led to a handful of questions on social media about STARS’ response capabilities and protocols in storms such as the one that struck in Manitoba. Chief aviation officer and captain pilot Dave Harding said the organization has several standard operating procedures (SOPs) with respect to thunderstorms and dangerous weather.

“Thunderstorms are very damaging to aircraft,” Harding said. “When we see a thunderstorm developing, we plan our route to be as far away as possible and still be able to appropriately respond to the mission.

“For a normal, everyday thunderstorm, we don’t fly any closer than five nautical miles (9.26 km) to any point of the storm and never fly underneath the anvil (cumulonimbus clouds with a flat, anvil-like top) because that is where the hail comes down. If you get a thunderstorm that pops up when there is cold weather, those tend to be a little more severe, so you want to avoid those by 10 miles at least.”

Weather checks are a vital piece of every STARS mission. Before a mission is accepted the pilots do a thorough check to ensure they can arrive to the scene of the emergency or hospital and back to their destination safely. To assure that safety is the determining factor, pilots are not told the nature of the call until they have accepted the mission.

“Pilots are looking at radar, they are looking at the area forecast which is a graphical representation of what the weather might be,” said Harding adding that pilots also rely on infra-red satellite read outs.

“The radar tells you more or less where it is, the infra-red can give you a look at how high the cloud is with the colour coding system they use.”

Although inclement weather might prevent our teams from arriving directly at the scene of an accident, that does not necessarily stop us from providing care. Working in concert with responding agencies on the ground and our STARS Emergency Link Centre – or Manitoba Transportation Coordination Centre for missions in that province – our pilots often arrange a rendezvous point where the patient can be transferred to our helicopter.

Harding added that because severe storms typically move quite fast – 30 to 40 knots is not uncommon – it doesn’t take long for a storm to move out of an area, allowing our helicopter to approach.

As you might have already guessed, meteorology is an important part of being a pilot. Harding, who joined STARS after an extensive career in the Canadian Forces, said pilots with a military background have more than 400 hours of meteorological training.