Another Winter Storm Update

Here is the forecast snow from a single model (the NAM) valid through 6am Sunday morning. If this is roughly correct, and it is in line with earlier forecasts, I-70, I-80, and I-76 could be impassible and/or closed given that there will be enough wind, at least in places, to officially qualify as blizzard conditions.

click to enlarge further

I urge you to be aware of this storm if you are planning travel in these areas. Note: The heavy snow will affect the Denver airport.

More on the F.A.A.’s Electronics Rules

Last month, I had some fun with Alec Baldwin and American Airlines’ horrible customer service.

Of course, the underlying problem is the Federal Aviation Administrations’ silly rules about devices being used by passengers before takeoff and landing.  The New York Times followed up on the issue in the wake of the Baldwin incident and concluded

“The only reason these rules exist from the F.A.A. is because of agency inertia and paranoia.”
The F.A.A. and other groups seem to be running out of reasons we can’t use digital e-readers on planes during takeoff and landing. Maybe their next response will be: “Because I said so!”

Yeah, that is about right.

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The Final Word on the Crash of Air France 447

The seemingly mysterious crash of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic on June 1, 2009, was a mystery to the aviation and meteorological professions. Now, a new book by an aviation expert has confirmed the plane crashed due to pilot errors. And, the first error was flying into a tropical weather system that other commercial flights were avoiding.

We now understand that, indeed, AF447 passed into clouds associated with a large system of thunderstorms, its speed sensors became iced over, and the autopilot disengaged. In the ensuing confusion, the pilots lost control of the airplane because they reacted incorrectly to the loss of instrumentation and then seemed unable to comprehend the nature of the problems they had caused. Neither weather nor malfunction doomed AF447, nor a complex chain of error, but a simple but persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots. 

The full story is here.

Thank You, Aviation Training Center

A large crowd turned out Thursday night for the first annual aviation weather seminar at the National Center for Aviation Training.

photos by Dick Elder

I told the story of how the late Dr. Ted Fujita fought to convince meteorology and aviation of the correctness of his theory that “downbursts” existed and were the cause of a number of airline crashes. As I explain in Warnings, Ted’s persistence in the face of tremendous skepticism and envy has saved thousands of lives.

The goal of the evening was to better train pilots about weather. The National Weather Service provided speakers on microbursts, icing, and other hazards. The audience of more than 100 pilots seemed very appreciative of the useful information conveyed.

Nate Johnson on Weather and Smartphones

Nate is the impressive weather producer for WRAL TV in Raleigh. His blog posting here. Nate talks about pilots, weather, and smartphones. I’d like to relay an experience of my own from just last week.

There were thunderstorms occurring around Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport and I noted the captain looking at his smartphone at the gate. I asked which program he was using for radar. I knew it was one that had a built-in delay of 5 to 7 minutes which could be critical in a thunderstorm situation. I also gave him some additional apps that might be helpful. While I’m not fully comfortable with flight crews using smartphones for radar, if they are going to use it, the radar should be as timely and detailed as possible. 

As we taxied out, I could see cloud-to-ground lightning striking the ground. It was one of the few times I have been nervous before a take-off. We got into position at the end of the runway, paused a few minutes (yes, minutes)… and pulled off the runway. It was an hour and forty minutes before we took off, which was exactly the right thing to do.

To what extent my suggestions might have assisted, I don’t know. But, I thanked the crew for a great job when we landed in Houston and they seemed appreciative.

Kansas Flight Film Festival

From their press release. Sounds like fun.

On Saturday, August 13th, the Kansas Aviation Museum in conjunction with the Wichita Orpheum Theater is presenting the 1st Annual Wichita Aviation Film Festival. The festival features three films: the WWII epic Flying Tigers at 10am, the Cold War era Dr. Strangelove at 2pm and Harrison Ford’s Air Force One at 7pm with a reception at 6pm.

The Kansas Aviation Museum and the Orpheum Theater would like to announce the inclusion of three dynamic speakers who will offer ten minutes of detailed information related to the topic as a prelude to each film.

For Flying Tigers, local Charles Chauncey, pilot of the 704th B-29 produced in Wichita and stationed in the Pacific theater, will be on hand to convey his experience of war-time operations and how they affected the life of a pilot.

Prior to Dr. Strangelove, retired Lt. Col. George Sevick will be on hand to share his experience flying not only B-52′s but indeed the very B-52 that is on display at the Kansas Aviation Museum. Lt. Col. Sevick was a navigator/bombardier during Vietnam and spent nearly thirty years with Boeing Wichita working on the B-52 program.

Lastly, Boeing Presidential Airlift program director Kristen Kniest will join us for the 6pm reception and a presentation regarding the film Air Force One, detailing how well the producers of the film matched the reality of life aboard the iconic plane with the demands for dramatic effect during filming.

Air France Crash Followup

I had said I would follow up when we knew what was contained on the “black boxes” recently recovered from the Air France crash. The cause of the crash: Iced-over pitot tubes (which caused incorrect air speed readings) followed by pilot error. The following from the Wall Street Journal:

Cruising at 35,000 feet and nearly four hours into what seemed a routine overnight flight to Paris from Rio de Janeiro, an Air France cockpit crew got a stall warning and responded by doing what even weekend pilots know to avoid: They yanked the nose of the plane up instead of pointing it down to gain essential speed.
Air France stands behind pilots of plane that crashed two years ago kiling all 228 people aboard. Video courtesy of Reuters.
Apparently confused by repeated stall warnings and reacting to wildly fluctuating airspeed indications, pilots of Flight 447 continued to pull back sharply on the controls—contrary to standard procedure—even as the Airbus A330 plummeted toward the Atlantic Ocean, according to information released Friday by French accident investigators. The June 2009 crash took the lives of all 228 on board.
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Washington Post on Tornadoes and Airlines, Part II

Friday, I wrote two postings about the FAA, airlines, and tornadoes. You can catch up here. My postings were prompted by the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang posting Part I of their story about the fiasco at Lambert International Airport during the Good Friday tornado of April 22nd. The story pretty well confirms what I wrote about in Warnings

In fact, Campisi says, Delta does not currently transmit tornado warnings to planes on the ground, at least not that he’s aware of.

This about says it all:

Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and former inspector general of the Transportation Department, said that unlike advisories for lightning, dissemination of tornado warnings is not mandated. “The airline should have been warning them but I don’t know of any regulation that requires it,” she said.

“It seems like such common sense, I’ve never thought about the fact that there isn’t one. I know about the lightning [one] but not about tornadoes.”

While the airlines deserve their share of the blame, part goes to the FAA.  After dancing around the issue, the FAA stated,

When pressed on whether controllers specifically transmitted the Weather Service’s tornado warning — which warned of a confirmed tornado on the ground and the airport within its path — Molinaro said pilots were told to contact controllers for further details about the weather conditions.

In other words, no they didn’t.

You can read about all of the buck-passing in Part II of the story here. Thanks to the Capital Weather Gang and Washington Post for following up on this important safety issue.

More on Tornadoes and Aviation

Please see posting below including the comments section. 

Here is an interview done February 18, two months before the tornado struck Lambert Field.

The interview is from Its All Good with Sierra Scott. The mess at Lambert during the Good Friday Tornado was absolutely predictable. As I state in my book, I believe it will happen again unless the FAA makes changes in their regulations that mandate ATC towers and TRACONs be furnished with tornado warnings and those warnings be shared with aircraft under their control. 
In the comments from the posting below, I’m asked about linkage between the FAA and airports. Let me clear up several items:
  • The FAA does no weather forecasting. They contract with the National Weather Service for aviation forecasts. The NWS runs a national aviation weather forecasting center in Kansas City and separate aviation forecast desks in many of their forecast centers.
  • There is a separate set of aviation products that, in general, run on their own communications systems.
  • National Weather Service tornado warnings are not ”aviation products” and do run on the aviation weather weather communication systems. 
  • The aviation industry has to go outside their normal communications channels to obtain tornado warnings. 
People who have read Warnings express astonishment about this all the time. It is unbelievable but true. 
Airlines can use information from the NWS, their own weather department, or from a contractor (WeatherData used to have airlines as clients) if the airline’s “principal operations inspector” (POI, the person the FAA assigns to oversee the airline’s operations) approves.  FedEx, UPS, and Delta have their own weather departments. At one time, American, United, TWA, and Eastern had their own meteorology departments but those have been a victim of cost-cutting the last two decades. 
If the POI were to approve an airline meteorology department creating their own tornado warnings, the airline could use them. To the best of my knowledge, no airline does that at the present time. 
Airports themselves are free to get weather information from anyone they wish and some get it from commercial weather companies. The airport, for example, is responsible for clearing snow off runways and for the safety of people inside the terminal as indicated in the Washington Post story. 

‘Miracle’ in St. Louis

“There are a number of things we can be thankful for,” Ms Hamm-Niebruegge said. “It’s a miracle there were no fatalities.”

Officials said it was a miracle that nobody was killed by the sudden storm which swept through late on Friday evening, and there were no reports of serious injuries despite widespread destruction in a heavily populated area about three-quarters of a mile west of the airport.

Above are from news reports on the Good Friday St. Louis Tornado
Lambert International Airport
Photos from KMOV and KSDK TV.

And now the amazing news: According to CNN, no serious injuries. Think about that: In the city where, historically, more people have been killed by tornadoes than in any other, no serious injuries. 

Why? Luck, yes there is always an element of that. But the main reason for this ‘miracle’ is the amazing tornado warning system quietly built by meteorologists the last 50 years. 

A map of the tornado’s path through densely-populated areas
from the National Weather Service in St. Louis. 

The precision with which tornadoes can be tracked these days is amazing as this real-time blog posting from last night indicates. We not only knew the location of the tornado, we knew it was doing serious damage due to the debris ball on radar.

Click to enlarge radar image. NWS data via WeatherTap. 

Is the warning system perfect? No. In fact, in Warnings I highlight one of the major deficiencies and it has to do with aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration refuses to allow control towers, air route traffic control centers, and pilots (when they are getting their ‘official’ weather briefings) to get tornado warnings!!! 

The FAA has this myopic view that tornado warnings should not be used in aviation because they do not  originate as aviation products. There was near miss at the Daytona Beach, FL airport on Christmas Day 2006. Last night, at Lambert International Airport, it was the real thing: People on planes moved around by a tornado and, in at least one case, trapped for hours as a result.

Unless the Federal Aviation Administration changes its position, there will be a major disaster at some point in the future.

That stated, it is amazing how many lives the saved by the storm warning system. The storm warning system seems to operate below everyone’s radar. We never seem to get credit for all of the lives we save.

If this sounds like an interesting topic (and, it is!), pick up a copy of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. Written in the style of a mystery novel, it is an uplifting and fun read that tells the story of how we unlocked the mystery of storms so we could save lives — just as meteorologists did last night.

Note: Expanded and bumped.

If you are a weather geek or just interested in a “blow by blow” description of the storm, just scroll back two pages on this blog. Also, if you would like to read an excellent write up about the meteorology surrounding this tornado outbreak, just click here.

And, if you would like to see detailed radar data (including Doppler winds) from the STL WSR-88D when the storms were in the St. Louis area, click here and scroll down.

Giant hail fell from the STL tornadic thunderstorm. If you want to see a photo, go here and scroll down.

More on the Problem With Tornado Warnings and Aviation

Security camera of people running for their lives as the tornado strikes Lambert. 

From an aviation weather blog, written by a Delta pilot who was in the cockpit when the tornado struck Lambert Field in St. Louis last night:

I knew these storms were strong and had possible Tornadic signatures. I was IN THE COCKPIT at gate A4 when this happened. We felt the gusts and saw the rapid pressure drop on the altimeter. Plane moved around a bit, but no more than other times ive been in gusty winds on the ground. Our concourse is about 400 feet away from concourse C which sustained significant damage. What is bothering me is the fact that neither I nor the airline agents knew there was a Tornado warning for the area. Im pretty sure this storm was warned and im going to investigate why as Captain I did not know and how we might possibly have had better information in this event AND better warning in the future. 
First of all, I strongly empathize with this captain, his crew, and his passengers. It was terrifying to be in their situation. And so unnecessary. The warnings were excellent and saved numerous lives in this EF-4 intensity tornado (which puts it in the top 2% of all tornadoes in damage-causing potential). About the only people who didn’t have the warning were those in the field of aviation.

I wrote about this problem in my book, Warnings hoping to highlight and fix the problem before a major incident occurred. Due to the serious nature of this storm season, the following press release has been sent to the St. Louis media and other national media outlets.  The impetus for change in extreme weather warnings lies with all of us who work in, utilize and support the Federal Aviation-regulated airlines.  The FAA has been lucky thus far but once the pendulum swings and a catastrophe hits there will be hundreds of lives at stake.  As a scientist and US citizen, I feel a duty to my fellow airline passengers and the industry employees to shift the paradigm regarding weather warnings before any lives are lost.

CONTACT:  Mike Smith, Meteorologist
Mike Smith Enterprises (316) 204-9969
FAA Does not allow official tornado warnings to be distributed to Air Traffic Controllers or to pilots in their formal flight briefings.
St. Louis, MO April 23, 2011 – The Federal Aviation Administration has not updated its policy on releasing life-saving tornado warnings to allow control towers, air traffic control centers or to pilots during official weather briefings. “This tornado season has already broken records in the number of number and strength of the storms produced.” states Mike Smith, award-winning meteorologist and extreme storm expert. “The tornado forecast continues to look dire with perhaps more than 100 tornados expected to occur over the next week that have the potential to affect heavily populated areas with major airports.”
The FAA has historically banned the National Weather Service tornado warnings given to the public from the air traffic control facilities. Accurate weather forecasting mapped the path of the Good Friday tornado to strike The Lambert International airport.  If the FAA had updated its weather warnings policies then airport officials would have had the necessary information to evacuate jets and get airline passengers to safety. Within the airport terminal, emergency procedures could have been put into place to prevent injuries from flying debris and broken glass. “The FAA received a miracle that there were no deaths at Lambert but the FAA is courting a certain disaster due to its stance on not releasing tornado warnings that directly affect airline passengers.” states Smith about the April 22,2011 St. Louis tornado. The FAA is courting disaster as long as this censoring of tornado warnings continues.
Mr. Smith first revealed this deficiency in his book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.”
Mike Smith is the recipient of the highest awards in meteorology, holds 18 patents and has authored the book “Warnings” the true story of how meteorology has saved lives.  Mr. Smith’s blog Meteorological Musings reports on extreme weather across the country. He is an expert in both the fields of aviation and meteorology.
For more information, contact:
Mike Smith Enterprises – Mike Smith, President
e-mail: phone: (316) 204-9969
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Sun ‘n Fun becomes Wind ‘n Rain

A line of severe thunderstorms moved across the Florida Peninsula this morning and struck the annual “Sun ‘n Fun” aviation show at the Lakeland Airport.

Photo: The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita Eagle’s aviation reporter, Molly McMillan, posted photos and coverage on her blog.

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Next Week’s Presentations

I have three appearances next week…

Rotary Club of West Wichita, Rolling Hills CC, noon, Tuesday, March 8. Speech and book signing.

North Central Texas Chapter, American Meteorological Society, National Weather Service office Ft. Worth, 7pm. Details, including map, here. Public welcome. Speech and book signing.

At both of the above, I’ll be presenting CSI: Meteorology, The Phantom Crashes one of my most popular presentations.

Texas Severe Storms Assn. (TESSA) annual meeting, book signing, Colleyville (Ft. Worth). Details here.

Hope to see you!!