ANALYSIS: Another Frontal Passage Tragedy, this time in Plainview, TX

Early news reports indicate that the tragic death of three family members in a small airplane crash in Plainview, TX was likely caused by wind turbulence related to a frontal passage. Plainview is 35-miles north-northeast of Lubbock, at the bottom of the Texas Panhandle. Earlier this year, another frontal passage caused three Texas air crashes in the same day; miraculously, there were survivors in one of those three accidents.

Adding to the tragedy is the fact that all four accidents would not have happened if the pilots had elected to wait for the front to pass. An advancing cold front is hard to not notice, when a pilot checks the weather outlook before flying. Just like controllers, pilots have to avoid complacency. Pilots have to be vigilant about weather risks, and always incline toward staying on the ground if there is ANY doubt as to the level of weather risk.

Not just pilots, but passengers too, need to be aware of the potentially insurmountable hazards associated with weather, especially with the emerging evidence of weather intensification related to record atmospheric CO2 levels. Intensified weather can even destroy larger aircraft, as happened with Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501, an Airbus A320, which crashed after encountering extreme weather over the Java Sea, killing 162 last December 28th.

The NEXRAD Sequence

The weather risks associated with the Plainview crash are well illustrated by the progression of weather radar maps. A loop of hourly images for the entire day of 5/29/2015 is viewable at WeatherUnderground.

These radar maps are a NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) product. NEXRAD is a network of 160 high-resolution Doppler weather radars installed in the 1990’s. They provide enhanced capability for tracking precipitation and severe weather.

Here is an image from nearly three hours before the Plainview accident. It shows a large weather buildup west of Amarillo, growing and progressing southeastward. The accident airport is depicted by a pink circle, north of Lubbock:20150529at1900CDT.. NEXRAD KPVW marked up

And here is the sequence of hourly weather images, at 8pm, 9pm, and 10pm local time. Notice how the front builds and quickly moves NW to SE, and pay attention to the airport location (see above, just below the Interstate-27 symbol, near map center):
20150529at2000CDT.. NEXRAD KPVW

NEXRAD image at 8:00PM local time.

20150529at2100CDT.. NEXRAD KPVW

NEXRAD image at 9:00PM local time.

NEXRAD image at 10:00PM local time.

NEXRAD image at 10:00PM local time. Notice the green line to the southeast and ahead of the fast-moving front (marking the front edge of the mixing zone?).

Here is the sequence of weather observations (METAR), as recorded by the on-airport AWOS-3 system. It reads like a classic frontal onset: clear skies and light winds from the east. A pleasant evening. The winds then become calm, just before a roiling sky suddenly clouds up, temperatures plunge, and the altimeter and winds spike. This flight took off in the narrow window of calm, just ahead of the storm.20150529.. KPVW METARThe sequence suggests a very high probability that the pilot may have encountered wind shear and even rolling turbulence shortly after becoming airborne. In their study of weather, pilots are trained to expect turbulence aloft, that there is an intense zone of mixing in the steep band of air just ahead of an arriving mass of colder air.

FAA and NTSB need to emphasize to all pilots, that weather hazards need to be deeply respected, and that complacency has no place in the cockpit. Going forward, a less aviation-promotional and more safety-assertive stance by regulators can prevent incidents like this from repeating every few months.