An American Airlines jet flew into a massive thunderstorm complex Sunday night in eastern New Mexico, where it was bombarded by hail and besieged by strong winds, lightning and torrential rain. The hail cracked the windshields and decimated the nose of the Airbus 319 aircraft.
In the wake of the incident, meteorologists have expressed disbelief that the aircraft flew into such a violent storm.
Flight 1897, originating from San Antonio and en route to Phoenix, diverted to El Paso after the harrowing encounter and landed safely.
No injuries were reported, but eyewitnesses reported multiple sick passengers because of severe turbulence.
“I’m on this flight that emergency landed,” tweeted passenger Ezra after the trauma. “Things were flying. Passengers throwing up. Scariest flight of my life.”
A passenger told ABC15 out of Phoenix that cellphones were “flying in the air, drinks splashing on the ceiling, and people sharing airsick bags.”
Another passenger, Jesus Esparza, said the plane dropped “like a roller coaster,” according to the Associated Press.
The flight carried 130 passengers and five crew members.
The El Paso Times obtained this apologetic statement from American Airlines after the incident:
American Airlines flight 1897, from San Antonio to Phoenix, diverted to El Paso due to damage sustained by weather in flight. We commend the great work of our pilots, along with our flight attendants, who safely landed the Airbus A319 at 8:03 p.m. The aircraft is currently being evaluated by our maintenance team. We never want to disrupt our customers’ travel plans, and we are sorry for the trouble this caused.
Meteorologist Stu Ostro of the Weather Channel tweeted radar imagery suggesting that the plane flew right into the core of the towering thunderstorm over eastern New Mexico:
On Twitter, meteorologists seemed incredulous that the flight took such a perilous path.
“Wow, that’s really crazy,” tweeted Ken Waters, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “It would have been so easy to divert around.”
“OK, WHY were they flying in a thunderstorm?” tweeted Rick Smith, the warning-coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Norman, Okla.
Radar indicated that the hailstones were about 1.5 inches across, bigger than golf balls. Jeff Piotrowski, a meteorologist and storm chaser, tweeted that visible damage indicated they may have been 2 to 3 inches in diameter, approaching baseball-size.
The thunderstorm was part of a massive complex that drifted east and collided with multiple other complexes over Central Texas.
Mike Smith, a recently retired vice president at AccuWeather, suggested in a blog post that, even though the aircraft landed safely, the airline and pilots may be guilty of “aeronautical malpractice” by venturing into the storm.
“The plane left San Antonio a few minutes early which would have allowed it considerable time to avoid the thunderstorms and still get to Phoenix more or less on time,” he wrote.
Smith added that pilots should have been able to see the billowing storm clouds at least five to eight minutes before they flew into the storm.
Matthias Steiner, director of the aviation applications program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that information available to the pilots may have been limited and that pilots are “handicapped in some ways.” He explained that because of cybersecurity and other complex issues, the weather information in the cockpit is in some cases less sophisticated than data a passenger can obtain on the Internet inside the cabin.
“The radar data is different than you get from Weather Channel or the Weather Service,” he said. “What you have in the cockpit has a much shorter wavelength. The signal saturates and attenuates much more quickly. [Pilots] don’t get the full picture, just the front end.”
Steiner said that pilots fly through gaps in storms “all the time every day” but that these gaps can close very quickly and storms can erupt in minutes. Whether the pilots erred “depends on what information they had in the cockpit,” he said.
The pilots may have been swayed to try to shoot the gap between storms because earlier flights made it through, he added. In these situations, Steiner said, dialogue among the pilots, air traffic controllers and dispatch is required and that, in this case, it’s possible there was a communications breakdown.
Steiner did say the problem of access to the best available weather data in the cockpit is “improving.”
Smith concluded, “In my opinion, it is well past time for America’s commercial airlines to update and reinforce thunderstorm avoidance training for their flight crews.”