An Airbus captain on getting into bad weather

Regarding one of the puzzles of the Air France 447 crash -- how a professional air crew ended up in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm -- an airline pilot writes:

As a point of reference I'm an A-320 Captain for NWA (soon to be Delta but happy to be getting a paycheck) with over 12,000 hours. While I agree that it's entirely possible and perhaps even likely that the Air France 447 crew did indeed proceed into an area that they shouldn't have I can say that if his radar isn't up to snuff or if they misinterpreted the presentation there are no other resources for them in that situation. At least over the continental US we have other aircraft reports and ground controllers who can make suggestions.

Most civilians (non aviators would I guess be a better term) are quite surprised to find that they have better access to up to date weather resources while sitting at home on the computer than I do. Once I'm airborne it's just the radar and who I can talk to on the radio (ATC, other aircraft, my dispatcher). While I'm told that modern business jets have satellite links to provide views and weather from various vantage points we who carry the most people do not. At main stations I can pull up numerous local and regional radar presentations which are very helpful. However when operating out of small stations this isn't always possible and once I get into my aircraft I'm blind except for the radar in the nose of the jet. It works well but it isn't foolproof, if I could see the same things airborne that I can while at a computer terminal we, my aircraft and passengers, would all benefit.

If any good can come of this accident I hope it will lead to a discussion and implementation of better weather resources for the airline industry. I'm proud of what we do and our overall safety record but this is one area where we could make great advances.

This is an important area where, strangely, small airplanes are actually better equipped for safety than most airliners. (Airliners are safer in just about every other way, from crew training to redundant backup systems, and despite the recent disasters are amazingly safe overall.) Starting in the early 2000s, handheld or tablet-sized displays capable of showing near-real-time Nexrad weather came onto the aviation market. They got the data via satellite services like XM/Sirius and could display info about storms, winds, and airport conditions that was only a few minutes old. Here's how a popular recent tablet model, the Garmin 696, looks. Its display screen is 7" diagonally, large enough to be very useful.

It can match the airplane's path to nearly-current radar information (as with the storms shown in central Florida, above). Everyone emphasizes that such displays are for "strategic" rather than "tactical" guidance -- giving you a general idea of places to avoid, rather than tempting you to try to slalom your way around the worst parts of a storm.

Other displays are mounted right on the panel and show how the plane's path matches the surrounding terrain and any other planes in the vicinity, along with the weather. This is a Cirrus cockpit, a fancier and more modern version of the kind of small plane I used to fly, with the weather (plus route, traffic, terrain, etc) displayed on the right-hand screen.


I don't know how much good these displays would do over the open ocean -- where, after all, there are no ground-based radar stations to support Nexrad-style displays. But more info, and more recent info, is always better -- and the captain is right about this literal blind spot for most airliners, which should be corrected.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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