A Delta Airlines aircraft makes its approach at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Whenever meteorology saves lives it is a cause for celebration, and that is certainly the case Tuesday. It is the 25th anniversary of the (hopefully) last domestic airliner crash caused by a thunderstorm downburst: specifically of USAir Flight 1016 on approach to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport on July 2, 1994.

Downbursts pose an extreme hazard to commercial airliners near the ground because they can produce severe wind shear. Wind shear can cause a plane to lose lift, resulting in a crash.

While downbursts still cause commercial airliners to crash occasionally in other nations (including one in Mexico 10 months ago), one courageous meteorologist saved hundreds of lives and averted hundreds of millions of dollars in aircraft losses in the United States.

That meteorologist was Theodore “Ted” Fujita, the author of the “Fujita scale,” which estimates tornado damage intensity; the discoverer of tornadoes’ suction vortices; and the creator of numerous other innovations and accomplishments in the field of geosciences.

In an era where the United States goes years between fatal airline crashes, it is hard to imagine the period from the 1970s through mid-80s when a crash because of a downburst-induced wind shear occurred every 12 to 18 months on average. These included:

  • Ozark Air Lines, St. Louis, 1973
  • Eastern Air Lines, New York, 1975
  • Continental Airlines, Denver, 1975
  • Allegheny Airlines, Philadelphia, 1976
  • Continental Airlines, Tucson, 1977
  • USAir, Dayton, 1982
  • Pan American, New Orleans, 1982
  • [Air Force One near miss, Andrews Air Force Base, 1983]
  • USAir, Detroit, 1984
  • United, Denver, 1984
  • Delta, Dallas, 1985
  • USAir, Charlotte, 1994

Nearly 500 people were killed in these crashes. Some survivors’ injuries were exceptionally severe, with a high number of quadriplegics.

The 1985 crash of Delta Flight 191 abruptly ended the skepticism about Fujita’s work, and the Federal Aviation Administration began an urgent program, with the help of Fujita’s colleague, John McCarthy, to create a warning system and to train pilots on pertinent piloting techniques. The end of the skepticism is what accounted for the nine-year gap between the Dallas and Charlotte crashes. Indeed, the USAir pilots received a wind shear alert in those cases but decided to continue their approach.

For the 20th anniversary of the Charlotte crash, I wrote a piece for the Capital Weather Gang about the meteorology involved in this discovery. Today, I wish to discuss some things we learned during that period that apply to current atmospheric science.

The first is a topic I’ve discussed before: the underappreciated nature of meteorology. When we do our jobs well, lives are saved and damage minimized. But no one notices when things seem routine. When was the last time your plane safely landed near thunderstorms and you whispered, “Thank you, meteorologists!”? People don’t notice when things go well, so our many successes are nearly invisible. In order for weather science to receive the funding and respect it deserves, we must do a better job of marketing and explaining our value.

The conquering of the downburst deserves a Nobel Prize for physics. It is my opinion the prize should go to two meteorologists: Fujita (posthumously) and McCarthy. (There should be a second Nobel awarded for the U.S. tornado warning system, which has cut tornado deaths by more than 95 percent.)

While I would prefer to focus exclusively on our downburst achievement, I believe there are lessons we can learn from the struggle to stop downburst deaths that apply to contemporary science in general and atmospheric science in particular.

The first is the notion of “consensus.” The scientific method has nothing to do with opinion, popularity or tribalism. Science, by definition, is about what can be reproduced and proved. Whenever a scientist invokes consensus, he or she weakens their case and is certainly not arguing “science.”

The story of the downburst illustrates this issue perfectly. Fujita, along with his mentor, Horace Byers, published their paper about their downburst discovery in the February 1977 Monthly Weather Review. The paper discussed what they had learned during their investigation of the crash of Eastern Flight 66 at JFK International Airport in 1975. By the close of 1979, the existence of downbursts was confirmed in two independent ways: The first was data on multiple downbursts obtained during Project NIMROD, a field project that took place in Illinois. The second was a series of seven photographs I took while storm chasing in July 1978. They depicted the entire life cycle of a downburst.

In the above list of crashes, I underlined the Tucson crash. Had weather and aviation science moved quickly after the above evidence had been studied, the subsequent crashes could have been prevented, and nearly 300 people saved.

Despite the conclusive evidence, planes continued to crash, and hundreds of precious lives were lost because the “consensus” in meteorology and aviation thought Fujita was wrong.

The belief was that Fujita had mistaken ordinary, though strong, thunderstorm downdrafts for a new phenomenon. Dozens of thunderstorm researchers in the United States and around the world had been examining thunderstorms since the late 1940s and had not found the downburst. How was Fujita able to see what others missed? The envy was palpable. Science News even asked, “Are Downbursts a Lot of Hot Air?” These issues are not confined to atmospheric science. For a similar example in medicine, please see “Nobel Came After Years of Battling the System,” from the New York Times in 2005.

After Delta Flight 191 crashed in Dallas, events moved quickly. Donald Engen, then head of the FAA, said of McCarthy, “I’ll do whatever he tells me to do!” The American Meteorological Society (AMS) assembled a session on downbursts at its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., chaired by Joe Golden and myself. Just a few months later, several of us on the AMS aviation committee contributed to the first downburst training manual published by Boeing and the FAA.

Meteorologists have “tamed” many aspects of the weather. For example, tornado and hurricane deaths have dropped dramatically despite increased population. In the United States, we have conquered downbursts.

While atmospheric scientists have many of the same issues as other scientists and, indeed, other human beings, in my nearly 50 years in the field, I have found us to be exceptionally dedicated to our work. Through the close adherence to the scientific method, we will most effectively continue our vital work in furtherance of safety, America’s economy and quality of life.

Mike Smith tells the entire story of the discovery of the downburst in his book, “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.”

In March 2018, Smith retired after a 47-year career as a meteorologist, entrepreneur and scientific innovator. He is now the president of MSE Creative Consulting and coaches scientific entrepreneurs.