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Flying through Bad Weather

As heavy rain and flash flooding affect our Asian neighbours, it is important to remember the effects of harsh weather on flight and the risks of flying through bad weather.

Huge floods in India and Philippines in August this year remind us of the harsh impact the weather can have on human society. Just the same, it has a significant impact on aircraft, airports and the entire aviation industry. From 1982 to 2013, weather was a cause or contributing factor to 35 per cent of fatal general aviation accidents in the United States alone. The annual costs with such accidents in the U.S. ranged at this time to up to over $4 billion.

It is critical that a pilot understands weather processes and that they are able to recognise weather hazards. Pilots will eventually find themselves in a position where they will be flying through bad weather. They do not need to be expert meteorologists, but should certainly grasp an understanding of how the weather works. Even back in 1930, the American physicist and atmospheric researcher William Jackson Humphreys wrote:

Exactly what knowledge of meteorology does the aviator really need, when there is a specialist at every airport to tell him what the weather is along the route he is about to take, and what it is expected to be at every mile of the way? Well, he needs at least enough knowledge of meteorology to enable him to read a weather map understandingly; enough to enable him to discuss this map intelligibly with the man who makes the forecasts for him; enough to enable him to judge, while in the air, whether or not the forecasts are coming true; and enough to give him an understanding of the weather significance of the clouds and the look of the sky.

The Civil Aviation Act imposes the holder of an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) with a duty to “at all times take all reasonable steps to ensure that every activity covered by the AOC, and everything done in connection with such an activity, is done with a reasonable degree of care and diligence”. This might very well include having a good knowledge of the weather and its processes. Such understanding, and active steps based on the understanding, may be evidence of exercising care and diligence.

Weather has always been an obstacle for aviation safety. It has affected pilot error and aircraft performance. General aviation is particularly prone, given the aircraft is lighter, smaller and lies at lower altitudes.

But it also has a significant effect on airports and passenger travel. In Australia, the Bureau of Metrology works closely with Canberra’s Airservices Network Coordination Centre to minimise disruptions caused by weather. In extreme circumstances, Airservices even order airports to close down (where, generally, airport operators themselves are the only authorities that can close airports). During the 2011 Queensland floods, Airservices actually ordered Rockhampton Airport to be closed for several weeks.

The weather also significantly effects which runways to use at airports. Planes must take off and land into the wind or with minimal tail wind. It is even more difficult because wind direction can change very quickly and runways can be affected very rapidly. In Kochi, India, commercial flights halted operations for about a fortnight in August due to huge flooding at Cochin International Airport. After thefortnight, a commercial flight (Air India-Alliance Air) finally made the first landing when the floods settled down. It landed at an Indian Navy base, the first time that a military airfield was opened for civilian flights.

We have also seen recently the harsh effects the weather can have on airlines when it goes wrong.  In Manila, Philippines – which also suffered from huge floods in August – a plane arriving from China skidded off a runway, ripping off the engine and wheel. It was landing in a downpour near midnight and got stuck in a muddy field, and 165 people on board escaped through an emergency slide.

If you fly aircraft, it is a good time to reflect on how much you understand about weather conditions and how it affects your flying.