Captain Paul Miller, Night Flight
In the 1931 novel “Night Flight” by Saint-Exupéry, we learn that even intrepid pioneering aviation heroes in the end are not match for thunderstorms in Patagonia. We find out that thunderstorms can and will kill. We loose the wonderful hero of this timeless novel, a story of some of the earliest commercial night mail pilots. It is a book that professional pilots and readers the world over have kept popular for over 80 years.
Now we see the crash of Air Asia 8501 as the latest dreadful and inglorious chapter in the story of commercial aviation. Thunderstorms can kill.
Thunderstorms can kill with hail, turbulence, lightning and icing.
Hail will shred aluminum leading edges of the wing and tail. Hail will bend, dent and destroy the leading compressor blades of a turbine engine, components spinning at tens of thousand of revolution per minute. Hail will dislodge and destroy the multitude of radio antennae and necessary flight probes sticking out in the free airstream. Hail will pock-mark, crack and puncture flight deck windscreens, windscreens that protect the flight crew from 300 mph winds, minus 60 degree temperatures and air so thin humans can not inhale enough oxygen to live.
Turbulent vertical wind shears will load up a wing with positive two times the acceleration of gravity one moment and slam back in the opposite direction the next with an equal and negative acceleration, and keep doing this over and over again.
Lightning can burn holes in fiberglass, aluminum and composite components of an aircraft exterior and flight surfaces.
Clear icing can coat an aircraft with a slick covering, increasing its weight beyond the wings ability to sustain flight. Rime ice can build quickly on flight control leading edges, disrupting the airflow needed to sustain controlled flight, raising drag significantly above the engines ability to push forward and again adding weight.
Thunderstorms can and have destroyed numerous aircraft in the history of commercial flight. The danger to commercial aircraft is so severe that US commercial pilots are required by the FAA and their companies to remain clear of thunderstorm cells and even the overhang of ice crystals, sometimes referred to as the anvil.
Are modern commercial passenger and cargo aircraft safe to operate inside of thunderstorms? This question has been asked numerous times in the week since Air Asia 8501 disappeared from radar screens. Let’s examine the current FAA standard specifications for commercial transport category aircraft. Are commercial aircraft and engine building companies required to produce aircraft and engines capable of sustained flight in conditions of hail, lightning, icing and severe vertical turbulence? If so, were any of the current transport category aircraft and engines now flying ever certified by such field tests? Data please?
Are any US certified commercial passenger or cargo airlines currently certified to operate inside thunderstorms in their operation specifications or OpSpecs? I know of none. Are FAR Part 121 airline dispatchers required to demonstrate their knowledge of thunderstorm avoidance flight planning and flight following by the FAA in order to be certified to operate as a dispatcher?
Are any US certified commercial airmen trained and certified for sustained flight operations inside thunderstorms? Not that I am aware of.
Is FAA air traffic control required by their own regulations to vector commercial aircraft around thunderstorms? Is the national weather service required to keep FAA ATC informed of areas of thunderstorm activity?
So how is it that airlines around the world, operating commercial transport category aircraft, airlines such as Air Asia, in aircraft such as Airbus 320 family, under the direct supervision of a trained and certified dispatchers with access to current up-to-the-minute satellite photographs of, not only thunderstorm cells in the planned flight path of the airline’s flight, but areas and lines of thunderstorms, do not advise their own company flights of safer routes? How is it that the local and enroute air traffic controllers, whose ground-to-air radar is exceptionally good at depicting weather, might deny a flight’s request to divert around or over a massive area of thunderstorms and then not offer some safe alternative assistance?
Where is the team work, the coordination, the combination of minds needed to improve commercial aviation flight safety?
Is any of this new information to any certified crew member, airline, ATC, regulator or manufacturer in commercial aviation? Have not thunderstorms been killing commercial flights and flight crew members since the beginning of manned flight. Don’t we find the first popular documentation in the 1931 book, “Night Flight” by Saint-Exupéry. Here our crew members operate aircraft with piston engines, wooden spars and canvas wings.
Now here is the airline industry, more than 80 years since Night Flight with turbine engines, steel spars and aluminum wings. Yet, thunderstorms are still killing commercial flights. Why was Air Asia 8501 the most recent to join the long list?
I wonder if Saint-Exupéry would say, “Imagine that? Nearly a century has passed since I wrote my book and this story is still timely in terms of flight safety!”
The chapters are new, the planes are new, the pilots are new, but the story is timeless: Thunderstorms can kill.
Early morning sun rising through clouds.