During the evening of September 28, I will be giving a talk in Seattle at the Mountaineers in NE Seattle on Climate Surprises: Unexpected Impacts of Global Warming on the Pacific Northwest. My talk os sponsored by CarbonWa and the Audubon Society. To find out more or to secure tickets, please go here.
A weather data revolution is about to take place in the cockpit of commercial aircraft, a revolution that will make air travel safer and more comfortable.
As I noted in a blog last month, most pilots do not have access to the full range of critical, real-time weather information when they are airborne. The amazing truth is that a passenger sitting in coach with a laptop, using aircraft wifi, has much better real-time weather information than most pilots.
With a lack of weather information some pilots have made serious and dangerous mistakes, taking their aircraft into thunderstorms and other weather threats.
A passenger with neck brace being taken off of JetBlue429
One example is the JetBlue Flight 429 incident in which an Airbus 320 flew directly into severe convection, sending nearly two dozen passengers and crew to the hospital.
And there are many more examples. Take Delta Flight 1889, which went into a strong thunderstorm with big hail last August, smashing the windshield and destroying the nose cone. As described here, this incident was easily avoidable.
Even today there was several aircraft flying into thunderstorms, needlessly endangering and discomforting passengers. Don't believe me? Here is an example from this afternoon. The colors give radar intensity, with red being intense echoes (heavy rain, hail). Look closely about two thirds up, just left of center and you will see a jet flying into red. Bad move.
And nearly the same time, a crazy prop plane went into even stronger convection.
Or this one about the same time in which a jet pilot took his/her passengers on a needlessly exciting ride.
Aircraft Radars Are Not Sufficient
Aircraft weather radars may be ok for tactical, short-term decision making (e.g., maneuvering around an isolated cell), but are completely inadequate for strategic decision making (deciding on route changes 10 minutes or more ahead of time). Aircraft radars can't see behind strong echoes so pilots can get into trouble farther on.
A failure mode evident in the JetBlue and Delta cases was the filling of a gap in a convective line, problems that would have been evident if the pilots had radar and weather satellite animations.
The Technology Exists to Fix This Problem
Today our nation has a marvelous network of powerful high-resolution radars maintained by the National Weather Service. New generations of weather satellites not only show the structure of clouds below, but probe the 3D structure of the atmosphere. Real-time lightning detection networks define cloud to cloud and cloud to ground flashes. And new rapid-refresh, real-time analysis and forecast systems are constantly updating the forecasts. Plus, many planes are taking weather observations and radioing them in constantly.
But how get this rich data to pilots? The solution is pretty much in place: most commercial jet aircraft now have wifi, including many flights over the oceans. I should know: I use wifi on every flight I take to follow the weather en route. So a pilot with a laptop or a pad should be able to get virtually any type of weather information, but few have done so until very recently.
Part of the problem is with the airlines, who have been too slow in understanding the benefits of this technology.
Some of the problem has been with the FAA, which even today PROHIBITS the use of weather software that shows the position of the aircraft. Amazing.
Part of the problem is from concerns about wifi interfering with cockpit electronics, but that can be solved.
Weather Software in the Cockpit
A number of vendors are now developing or providing weather display systems for commercial pilots. For example, JetBlue is now making such software available to their air crews. I understand Alaska Airlines is working on the same thing. Delta, working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has developed a Fight Weather Viewer App, with particular attention to defining areas of turbulence:
Honeywell has weather software that loads on to iPads and are designed for relatively low-bandwidth aircraft environments:
And WSI/Weather.com/IBM has a solution for general aviation that uses XM satellite technology:
But technology is not the end of the problem. Pilots will need the meteorological education to better understand weather threats and how they can be identified in radar or satellite imagery.
There is now an explosion of aviation weather apps that can be installed on laptops or pads. If airlines and the FAA work together to encourage the use of real-time weather data in the cockpit, all of us can look forward to smoother and safer flights.