Ah, we all love flying. Nothing can beat being crammed three abreast in a metal tube, slingshotted across the sky, while enjoying a one-tenth-ounce bag of stale pretzels as a toddler behind you kicks your non-reclining seat. If there is one thing that can intensify air travel aggravation, it’s learning that your flight has been delayed or even canceled, thanks to the weather.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, an average of 26,527 passenger flights are scheduled every day across the United States, with at least 5,000 planes in the air at any given moment. Even more striking is that the FAA oversees nearly five times as much airspace over the ocean than land. Of course, navigating through all this territory means that weather will certainly play a role, and as far too many of us have learned the hard way, it’s not always a welcome one.
While we routinely find ourselves furiously subtweeting our air carrier as we’re lined up on the taxiways for what seems like hours at a time, deep down we all secretly know that safety is the No. 1 priority. After all, most of us don’t like being subjected to severe weather while on the ground — so imagine being tossed around in the same storm six miles up in the air.
The results can be “impactful,” to say the least. Earlier this month, a nearly continuous line of thunderstorms stretching 1,600 miles from the Gulf Coast to Canada brought a flurry of delays and cancellations. Forecasts called for dangerous crosswinds and the potential for hail, two of the biggest dangers to pilots.
Just last July 27, a hailstorm in Istanbul prompted several emergency landings from planes that took quite a beating. One AtlasGlobal pilot was forced to touch down “blind” after large hail shattered the windshields; the nose-cone of the plane also imploded. When a significant portion of an aircraft’s surface has been damaged or destroyed by hail, it can affect the aerodynamics of the plane. Fortunately, the more than 130 aboard escaped without a scratch. Others haven’t been so lucky.
On May 9, 1964, a severe thunderstorm dropped baseball-size hail over a 135-mile swath across southwest Oklahoma. “An Air Force plane flew into the storm near Cooperton, in Kiowa County,” remembered Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla. “The plane disintegrated and crashed” according to Smith, killing all six aboard.
But large hail is not the only threat to commercial aviation, as strong winds during takeoff and landing can prove disastrous. Changes in wind direction and speed can cause sudden reductions in lift, spelling disaster to aircraft near the ground.
Fortunately, enormous progress has been made in the early detection and warning of conditions that could be hazardous to flight, thanks to the contributions of renowned tornado and severe weather researcher Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita. His work predominantly stemmed from the 1975 crash of Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Fujita was called in to investigate what caused the disaster, and he coined the term “microburst” to describe a sudden and narrow downdraft of air rapidly descending from a thunderstorm’s base, where it would collide with the ground and accelerate outward at exceptional speeds. This type of highly localized windstorm would have accounted for the sudden changes in wind direction and speed encountered by the aircraft in the seconds preceding the crash.
Following this incident, the FAA created the low-level wind shear alert system, designed to alert pilots in advance of sudden wind shifts that could be dangerous. In 1993, a device dubbed the “Airborne Wind Shear Detection and Alert System” was installed in all commercial aircraft to serve as a predictive device, integrating radar data and information about the aircraft’s movement to warn pilots of potential downburst winds. Likewise, major airports each have their own terminal Doppler radar, which can provide up-to-the-minute radar information on an exceptionally localized scale.
To date, 163 of these terminal radars have been erected across the United States. Many larger aircraft also have their own X-band weather radar system tucked in the nose cone; while the shorter wavelength (2.5 to 4 centimeters) can subsequently detect smaller particles, it doesn’t penetrate as far into storms as traditional ground-based weather radar. If a storm intercepts a plane’s desired path, Air Traffic Control will “re-accommodate” the flight.
“Airlines tend to fly around rather than through thunderstorms,” said Nate Johnson, a meteorologist for NBC News and a private pilot, “and that can add to flight time.”
But it’s not just in the sky that storms can help rack up those delays. “Storms on the ground can make takeoffs and landings tricky,” according to Johnson, “and lightning will prompt airports to pull in ground crews that marshal planes to the gates, retrieve baggage, and so forth.” This in turn can exacerbate wait times.
As much of an impact as severe storms can have, there are other dangers. “Icing gives me more pause than thunderstorms,” Johnson said. “It’s harder to avoid at certain places and times of the year, and ice accruing on your aircraft changes how the plane flies — or doesn’t — through the air.” Turbulence, on the other hand, is the least of one’s concerns.
Despite the many meteorological challenges faced by pilots, the industry has responded remarkably well over the years. “For all the impact, the safety record has been quite good in recent decades,” Johnson said. So next time you encounter a few bumps in the air, rest assured you’re in good hands — and then get back to enjoying your ration of airplane-shaped pretzels.