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Flying in bad weather: questions after a crash

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Suzi / June 3, 1999


It's one of the toughest calls a pilot can make: when, if ever, to try to beat the weather and land a plane.

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Such decisions are the prerogative of the pilot, in consultation with ground-control officials.

But the decision is not always easy. A pilot has to weigh whether it is safer to stay in the air or try to land a jetliner before a storm gets worse. Then there are other considerations: crew and passenger fatigue, fuel levels, changing weather reports.

How pilots make these decisions is coming under increased scrutiny in the wake of the crash of an American Airlines jetliner in Little Rock, Ark., in a blinding storm late Tuesday.

While it's too early to tell what caused the crash that resulted in at least nine fatalities and dozens of injuries, weather is likely to have played a major part.

"You try to get in before the storm gets too bad," says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group in Washington. "You think, 'Can I make it? Is there enough braking capability on the runway?' And apparently there was not."

On the night the plane landed at Little Rock National Airport, winds were gusting up to 90 m.p.h. across the runway. Lightning flashed, and hail and rain pounded. Visibility was estimated to be zero.

"The plane had landed, and apparently it collided with a support structure that holds runway lights, which caused the plane to rotate and end up on a slight embankment a few yards from the Arkansas River," says George Black, a National Transportation Safety Board member on scene. "The plane broke in half. And a fuselage fractured in pieces."

Of the 145 people on board, at least 80 people were injured. The fatalities were the first on a major United States airline in almost two years. Investigators are combing through the wreckage and interviewing survivors looking for clues to the crash.

Waiting for the investigation

Experts caution that what may appear to be the most obvious reason for the accident, in this case the storm, may not in the end turn out to be the cause.

Still, with the plane having been recently serviced, the early focus was on the line of thunderstorms that delayed the flight from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Little Rock for more than two hours late Tuesday night.

Aviation experts say that with all of the sophisticated technology that predicts weather patterns and advanced radar that can track storms, pilots have better tools than ever to help them make weather-related decisions.

In fact, airlines and pilots regularly fly with confidence through inclement conditions, and airports seldom shut down.

Yet, for pilots, the decision of whether to land in stormy weather is rarely black-or-white. "It's in that gray zone in the middle," says Mr. Stempler.

The Little Rock airport is also not equipped with "terminal weather radar," also known as Doppler radar. It can look at the end of a runway and pickup so-called microcells that might result in wind shear.

And while experts say early indications are that wind shear may not have been a factor here, the Doppler radar could have given the pilot a better indication about the severity of the storm and it's proximity.

Though most television stations in urban areas use Doppler radar for weather forecasting, only 38 airports were equipped with it as of January.