Albertans witnessed tornadoes, torrential rain and thunderstorms pummel the prairies this summer. Many of our pilots kept an eye on the wacky weather from the cockpit, too.

“It was fairly wild weather-wise,” said STARS pilot Graham MacKay.

According to meteorologists with Environment Canada, the number and intensity of tornadoes, hail storms and high winds spiked across the prairies through June and July. Alberta, for instance, experienced the soggiest summer in 89 years, while Manitoba’s “tornado season” began as early as June – marking Canada’s first warning of the year.

Unlike other drivers, pilots can’t just pull the helicopter under an overpass and wait for the storm to pass, so the decision to fly or not fly is made long before a mission is accepted.

Luckily, STARS has access to innovative tools and technology to help our pilots determine whether it’s safe to fly, such as onboard weather radar, ground-based radar and storm scopes – which identify where the lightning strikes are and how close.

“We take a very conservative interpretation of the weather,” said MacKay, noting that the two-pilot teams check the forecast looking out about four hours (depending on how far away the call is) to ensure the safety of the helicopter, patient and crew members.

“It would be a disservice to our patients to pick them up and then have to wait out a storm or turn around while they are on board. If that means we can’t fly when the weather is bad the best outcome is for them to go by another means,” said MacKay.

For STARS pilot, Bob Young, flying near the mountains can be especially challenging. “These storms can pop up quickly and many of them are unpredictable,” he said. “We just give them a wide berth.”

Not all of the summer weather dampens the spirits, however. MacKay said he feels lucky to have seen the Northern Lights and the Perseid Meteor shower while wearing Night Vision Goggles.

“It was such an amazing perspective to be flying through a meteor shower and seeing the lights at the same time,” said MacKay.