Part II in investigative series on St. Louis tornado

In this aerial photo, a large hole is seen in the roof of Concourse C at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport Saturday, April 23, 2011, in St. Louis. The National Weather Service confirms that it was a tornado that struck the airport causing several injuries and sending people scurrying for shelter as plated glass shattered around them, (Jeff Roberson/AP)

This story is the second in a two-part series on the strong tornado that struck Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on April 22, 2011, causing extensive damage to airport facilities and numerous injuries.

Part I detailed how people inside the airport terminal buildings never received the warning. This post documents how passengers and at least one airline pilot were unaware of the danger until it was swirling around them.

It illustrates what some say is a fundamental problem with the way weather information is shared among the National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and airline personnel, and then disseminated

At around 7:30 pm that evening, Jim Campisi, a veteran Delta Airlines captain, was preparing his MD-88 narrow-body jet for pushback when lightning shut down the ramp area. Since ground personnel were forced inside for safety reasons, he gave up hope of turning his aircraft around fast enough to beat the storm.

Sitting at the gate with passengers on board, Campisi was unaware that a tornado warning had been in effect for more than 30 minutes.

Doppler radar of the tornadic thunderstorm as it approached St. Louis airport. (National Weather Service)

Campisi, a self-professed weather geek who minored in meteorology in college, says that while his jet was parked at gate A4, he was relying on his mobile phone’s radar application to keep tabs on the storms, but his App does not show severe weather warnings. The plane’s built-in weather radar was useless while in the vicinity of so many terminal buildings.

He tried monitoring air traffic control frequencies for more information, but they were silent, since no planes were landing or taking off during the thunderstorms. The airport’s automated weather reporting service did not carry the tornado warning — but at one point it did note that a tornado was observed moving across the airport.

Campisi never received the tornado warning from any source. A passenger on a parked American Airlines jet at Concourse C, Derrick Wendling, says neither the pilots nor the cabin crew on his flight mentioned the possibility of a tornado either. Wendling described the close encounter with the funnel as feeling like “turbulence on the runway.”

Another flight, an American Airlines 757 destined for Chicago, was damaged by the tornado, with no advance warning given to passengers, according to Campisi and a media report.

Ned Raynolds, an American Airlines spokesman, said that the airline was updating its pilots about the inclement weather, but he was not certain if the tornado warning got passed along.

“We do not have access to the information from that night, but our weather procedures are long standing, proven, and are focused on keeping the customers and our employees safe. With weather radar available to the tower, the airport was still operating until the storm hit,” he stated via e-mail.

“In a situation such as the St. Louis tornado, information is relayed from the meteorologists, to our dispatchers in Systems Operations Control at our Dallas-Fort Worth headquarters, directly to the pilots, so they have the most current information to act on.  We believe that’s as up-to-the-minute as you can get, and that process was fully in place during tornadoes that recently struck St. Louis.”

American flights were operating out of Terminal C, which was closest to the tornado and therefore the most heavily damaged.

When the tornado passed about 300 yards away from Campisi’s aircraft at Terminal A, he watched in astonishment as the air pressure readings shown by the cockpit’s altimeter rapidly dropped and strong winds locked the plane’s elevator controls. “We noticed a pretty huge pressure drop... we actually watched it,” Campisi said.

A few seconds later, a gate agent came running down the jetway - which was still attached to the aircraft - and told passengers to evacuate to the terminal, where the power had gone out and people were rushing to bathrooms for shelter. By then the tornado had passed.

When he disembarked from the aircraft, Campisi saw insulation and shingles on the ramp area, along with other debris. “From what we could see and what I could tell, it was pretty obvious that we’d had a tornado,” he said.

“I started thinking real hard about why didn’t I know, as the captain of a plane sitting at a gate, that there was a tornado?” he says. “I’m surprised that we didn’t get warned on the fact that there was an actual tornado headed towards the airport,” considering the long lead-time of the warning.
“There’s just no way I would ever even try to push off the gate if I knew there was a warned tornado heading towards the airport. I just never would,” Campisi said

Campisi’s experience highlights a major disconnect revealed by the St. Louis tornado. Some pilots don’t routinely receive tornado warnings - which are aimed at the general public, and not specifically at the aviation industry - from Air Traffic Control, airline ramp controllers, or meteorologists at their airline.

Mike Smith, the CEO and founder of Weatherdata, an AccuWeather company, and author of “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather,” says the FAA has long resisted passing Weather Service tornado warnings to aircraft. “For some reason, I think it’s historic, I think it’s inertia, the FAA does not want non-aviation-originated products” to enter the pipeline of aviation weather information.

In fact, until 2008 the FAA even banned NOAA weather radios from air traffic control towers due to concerns that they would constitute a distraction. Controllers pushed to change that policy out of concern for their own safety in severe weather situations. Tony Molinaro, an FAA spokesman, said there was a NOAA Weather Radio in the St. Louis airport tower cab on the day of the tornado.

According to Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, forecasters warned provided air traffic controllers of the severe weather threat 45 minutes prior to the storm’s arrival. According to Vaccaro, staff at the Center Weather Service Unit in Kansas City, Missouri called the Lambert tower and warned controllers that the storms were capable of producing tornadoes and large hail. The call was followed up by the tornado warning, issued 34 minutes before the tornado hit the airport.

“It is our understanding that the tower received the warning and even evacuated,” he added.

The FAA maintains that it kept all aircraft well-informed about the dangerous weather conditions. Molinaro provided this statement to CWG:

Air traffic controllers at St. Louis Lambert International Airport received information about the storm Friday night from numerous sources, including their own Integrated Terminal Weather System (ITWS) radar technology, an Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) on the airport, and weather radios with broadcasts from the National Weather Services that were on in the tower cab. Controllers distributed weather briefings to pilots in aircraft via the Automatic Terminal Information System (ATIS). Pilots also received weather briefings from their own dispatchers and airline staff meteorologists. As the storm hit, the controllers ensured that aircraft were safely separated.

When pressed on whether controllers specifically transmitted the Weather Service’s tornado warning — which warned of a confirmed tornado on the ground and the airport within its path — Molinaro said pilots were told to contact controllers for further details about the weather conditions.

“Our... requirements state that the tower needs to inform pilots where hazardous weather is occurring and how additional information and details may be obtained,” Molinaro stated via e-mail.

“Pilots have multiple sources for their weather information,” he wrote. ”I can’t speak for the airlines. You would need to speak to them about how pilots receive all their weather information,” he stated.

How to warn pilots who are not in the air yet

Even if the FAA did transmit the tornado warning to aircraft at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport that night, it’s likely that Campisi and other pilots of planes in the ramp areas would not have heard it anyway, since they fell outside of the FAA’s jurisdiction.

When a plane is airborne or speeding down a runway, it comes under the jurisdiction of FAA air traffic controllers. But at most major airports in the U.S., pilots of aircraft parked at the gate, or moving within a ramp area, typically aren’t in contact with air traffic controllers. Instead, they communicate with ramp controllers. At many larger airports, these are airline employees.

This means the best way to reach airplanes at the gate is not through FAA channels, but rather through individual airlines, which can dispatch warning information via their own radio frequencies and datalinks. Many airlines, including Delta, employ teams of meteorologists to prepare custom forecasts for their operations.

But in the case of the St. Louis tornado, the airlines didn’t pass along the information either.

In fact, Campisi says, Delta does not currently transmit tornado warnings to planes on the ground, at least not that he’s aware of.

“Anything that would have to come to planes at gates is probably going to have to come to our company, and truthfully I can tell you that we don’t disseminate that kind of information,” Campisi said. “That’s what’s got me worried. I’ve never heard it.”

A Delta spokesperson said the airline will work with Campisi to better understand what happened in St. Louis and declined further comment.

Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and former inspector general of the Transportation Department, said that unlike advisories for lightning, dissemination of tornado warnings is not mandated. “The airline should have been warning them but I don’t know of any regulation that requires it,” she said.

“It seems like such common sense, I’ve never thought about the fact that there isn’t one. I know about the lightning [one] but not about tornadoes.”

Campisi is contacting colleagues to advocate for operating procedures so no other pilot is caught off guard, noting wryly that he may now hold the record for the Delta pilot who has come closest to a tornado. He wants to ensure that no one else from his airline, or any others for that matter, gets any closer.

(Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow contributed to this story.)