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.

ANALYSIS: AirAsia 8501, Extreme Weather, and the Crash of Pulkovo 612

2014 is behind us now. Thank goodness, because it was a lousy year for public confidence in aviation. Our confidence was undermined substantially, not by engineering, but by aviation marketing spin.

Our engineering progress has been great. We are developing new technologies and learning how to fasten hundreds of people inside ‘flying jetfuel tanks’. These new aircraft are technical marvels: reliable, while also increasingly lighter, more powerful and more fuel-efficient.

But, our aviation marketing is a flop. Not the marketing that makes people feel they need to buy a ticket and fly off on a vacation or for business. No, I mean the marketing that protects people from what the airlines and the aviation regulators feel might diminish demand. 2014 was a flop in this area because of the miserable mishandling of information about three major air crashes. First Malaysia 370; then Malaysia 17; and closing out the year with Indonesia AirAsia 8501.

To be fair, there was some improvement, in that Indonesian authorities did release some detailed information much more quickly than had happened nine months earlier. But, it has now been eleven days since the crash of a radar-tracked Airbus 320 into relatively shallow seas, and we still have not located the ‘black box’. Plus, we are seeing over and over again: the airlines – and the regulators who serve us them – want to keep us in the dark. Classic spin control: he who controls the information controls the show. On top of that, we are saddled with an obsolete regulatory framework that perpetuates this informational inequity. Relatively primitive black box technologies that minimize transparency, maximize airline/regulator control of critical flight data, and frankly ensure that the revealed facts are kept as fuzzy as possible.

There are Always ‘Design Limits’

No matter how good our engineering is, and no matter how robust a system is designed and built, we cannot avoid the fact that there are limits. Design a roof to hold the huge weight of a two-foot snowfall in an area where nobody has ever seen that much snow, and the roof should work just fine. But, what if the weather suddenly produces three feet of snow? We design to expected extremes, but what if our expectations are wrong, or what if the measured extremes are intensifying over time?

It is entirely conceivable that the design for today’s airliners does not offer real protection from the most hazardous phenomena associated with today’s most intense thunderstorms, the ones that tower to 50,000 feet. The windshear and turbulence, or the rate of icing, may be too much. Then, too, our pilots may be becoming complacent, losing the fear of weather that, in the past, would have caused all pilots to simply stay on the ground until the thunderstorm was done.

If the aircraft seems invincible and the pressure from airline management to keep the whole day’s schedule ‘on time’ is more intense than the fear of a weather forecast, a commercial pilot will fly on, even into danger, unaware until it is too late that he has more than met his match. And, this appears to be exactly what happened eight years ago, with Pulkovo Flight 612.

The Crash of Pulkovo Flight 612

20060822.. Tu-154 picThe accident happened on August 22, 2006. All 170 onboard were killed. The aircraft was a Tupolev Tu-154 with three engines at the tail, a design quite similar to the Boeing 727. The flight data showed convincingly: the flight was cruising at FL380 (38,000 feet) near a strong storm cell, was suddenly lifted to near FL420, and then entered a flat spin, descending all the way to a terrain impact (near 1,000 feet MSL) in less than three minutes.

20141228pic initial_radar_QZ8501

Photo showing the QZ8501 datablock, just prior to disappearing.

The Pulkovo Flight 612 accident scenario is consistent with the reports that QZ8501 made a sudden extreme climb while losing airspeed, just prior to disappearing. This was covered in a few articles, including the BusinessInsider piece by Paul Colgan on January 2nd. A tweet posted hours after the QZ8501 disappearance included a photo of the radar display, showing (red ellipses, added) an altitude of FL363 and climbing, with an airspeed of 353 knots. The article includes a second photo with a leaked printout, indicating that seconds after the climb and dangerously slowed airspeed, QZ8501 was showing a descent rate of nearly 12,000 feet per minute – far in excess of even the steepest controlled descent. And, the printout showed the speed had decayed to just 61 knots – indicating the A320 was no longer flying, but was simply falling like a rock.

Below is a paragraph from the Pulkovo Flight-612 accident summary, as posted in the Aviation-Safety.net database.

Pulkovo flight 612 departed Anapa (AAQ) for St. Petersburg (LED) at 15:05. The Tu-154M climbed to the cruise altitude of 35,100 feet (10.700 m). Because of storm cells ahead, the pilot decided to change course laterally by 20 km and attempted to climb over the storm cells. However, the thunderstorm front was unusually high, extending up to 15 km (49,000 feet). The Tu-154 entered an area of severe turbulence, pushing up the airplane from 11.961 m to 12.794 m within just 10 seconds. The angle of attack increased to 46 degrees and the airspeed dropped to zero. It entered a deep stall from which the crew could not recover. The plane crashed and burned in a field.

A more thorough analysis has been compiled at this aiREFORM webpage: aiR-Link

What Might We Conclude?

Obviously, to be absolutely certain, we have to wait for the real flight data, once the black box is recovered. But, even without that, it is clear that the existing data shows the QZ8501 accident had many similarities to the Pulkovo 612 crash. While many people are looking closely at the Air France 447 accident in 2009, they should be paying as much – and perhaps even more – attention to what we know about the Pulkovo crash in 2006. And, both airlines and regulators need to take another look at what they are doing to keep pilots from getting too close to mega thunderstorms.

See also…

12/28/2014
Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 Missing, with 162 On Board
aiREFORM Post
12/30/2014
QZ8501: Debris Field and First Bodies Reportedly Found
aiREFORM Post
1/2/2015
The Truth is the First Casualty of any Air Crash
aiREFORM Post

Real time tracking, FDR transmission needs to happen now

Scott Hamilton at Leehamnet nails it again: aviation regulators need to get off their butts and implement effective tracking and transmission of flight data, to support timely search and rescue after remote crashes.

The failure to mandate what should be a relatively cheap system installation and operation cost only encourages the news media to spin off wild misinformation, seeking to fill the news information void. In a recent post, Mr. Hamilton noted that this “… is to the great disservice and most likely distress of the families and friends of the victims on the flight….” It also substantially undermines the public’s perception of the safety of today’s passenger aviation program. Mr. Hamilton goes on to note, “…for the industry, it all comes down to costs and in this context, dead people don’t matter, only cost matters. It’s the infamous tombstone mentality that enough people have to die before there is enough of an outcry to force regulators to do the right thing and force the airlines to follow….”

A Simple & Inexpensive System

The solution is a simple combination of technology and regulation. FAA and other regulators would simply require that all commercial passenger flights operating beyond continuous radar coverage must install a system that would transmit a basic data bundle in the event of a potential emergency.

Essentially, the system would track (each second) the flight’s basic data, including latitude & longitude, altitude, indicated airspeed, pitch angle, bank angle, and heading. The system would also apply logic to identify substantial heading/speed/altitude changes within the previous 15-seconds.

A transmission of data bundles would be triggered by odd parameters, such as excessive pitch angle and/or bank angle, abnormal speeds and/or altitudes, or substantial heading/speed/altitude changes. Once triggered, data bundles would be transmitted each second.

Each data bundle would require only three basic parameters: position (lat/long), altitude, and indicated airspeed. A few additional parameters would be added to the data bundle, as appropriate; for example, if the system noted excessive pitch angle or bank angle, or substantial heading/speed/altitude changes within the previous 15-seconds, these parameters would be included in the data bundle. On the assumption that this is a flight emergency, the transmissions would continue indefinitely.

For security purposes, if the transmission was triggered during a flight, the shutoff/override authority would NOT be in the aircraft. Instead, it would be by the ground dispatch/monitor personnel, who would need to communicate with the crew via radio, satellite, ACARS etc., to ensure the transmission is an anomaly, not a real emergency.

The Truth is the First Casualty of any Air Crash

Geoffrey Thomas, at AirlineRatings.com in Western Australia, seems to have one of the best factual views of the QZ8501 tragedy. And he is doing a great job posting coverage since the Indonesia AirAsia flight disappeared nearly six days ago. One of his Posts on New Years Day re-declares the maxim that, when anything bad happens in aviation, facts are the first things to disappear.

He’s correct, but it should not be this way. Every nation has an aviation authority, such as FAA in the United States. These agencies are stuffed full of employees, theoretically there to serve the Public. In their early years, these agencies did very important safety and infrastructure development work. But, as these agencies have matured, they seem to have become less and less productive, more about quietly helping the airlines than about aggressively speaking up for safety. So, when an accident or incident occurs, they tend to say nothing. It is as if their speaking up might get in the way of how the accident airline needs/wants to manage the PR spin.

Given this, when an incident like QZ8501 happens, we end up with a deep informational vacuum. Neither airlines nor regulatory authorities take charge to clearly and timely articulate the known facts. And as we all know, where there is an informational vacuum, rumors and other garbage will quickly fill the void. This is happening (AGAIN!) with QZ8501, while victim’s families suffer, and while millions of others ponder just how safe aviation is.

It’s a new year.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if FAA’s leadership chose to set a new, higher standard for the world to follow, by aggressively working for maximized aviation safety? Wouldn’t it be great if, when a serious accident or incident happens, the relevant national authority would step forward and firmly assert the known facts, and then stay up front to keep us all urgently posted? This is kind of the way NTSB’s Deborah Hersman handled the investigation, in early 2013, when the B787 battery fires were happening.

Can we make that our new standard for aviation safety transparency?

The Lack of Tracking

20150101cpy.. QZ8501 crying prayingIn today’s aviation, hundreds of people can disappear in an instant. We have the technologies to safely track flights, but implementing these technologies does not conform with the fiscal bottom line. So, one flight disappears, tens of millions are spent fruitlessly searching, then another disappears, and we just stumble about … while the families and friends of those lost grieve horribly. They grieve for their real personal loss, and their pain is intensified by the cold lack of explanations.

Granted, we will not necessarily save lives by showing up at an oceanic crash scene within three hours. But, let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons for preserving this flight data is to learn from the incident and prevent it from happening again. In the U.S., we have spent decades studying civil passenger aviation and slowly acquiring new knowledge. We have learned about: wake turbulence, microbursts, crew coordination (and the need for crew resource management), icing, spatial disorientation, and basic human fatigue. In most cases, we have applied the lessons learned to create new technologies, new procedures, and new protocols. All for safety.

Today, perhaps more than ever, our government regulators are clearly teamed up with corporate officials to encourage the rapid growth of a robust trans-oceanic passenger airline industry. Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are prime markets, owing to their populations and multi-island geography. But, we as passengers are left to wonder: are our government regulators placing enough emphasis on safety and risk reduction, to learn from one accident so that a repeat accident never happens?

Case in point: the flight data recorders, aka ‘black boxes’. These devices have been around for six decades. They record all the key flight data, but they function remotely, like padlocked desktop computers without an Internet connection. When an accident happens, we still have to find the black box and hope it provides the data we need to see. And within these black boxes, the design anachronistically records voice over what was recorded two hours earlier. This is the design standard approved by agencies such as the FAA. It is as if we want to minimize our odds of producing hard data. And yet, if we can put thousands of songs on a slim personal device, surely we can record an entire flight’s worth of flightdeck conversations, right?

Is anyone served well by the current program? No. Though, in an odd way, the lack of hard data denies legal proceedings. Instead, that lack of hard data fosters a quick round of apologies and payouts to victim families, followed by head-scratching and ‘let’s forget this happened, now, and get back to the business of growing this business’. Which, seemingly, is a lousy way to run a business.

“Given that a standard iPhone can record 24 hours of audio, surely the black box should have sufficient memory to record cockpit conversation for the full duration of any flight.”

– Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, after the disappearance of MH370

Basic Streaming Data for Flight Incidents

There is no valid reason that a system cannot be deployed to stream basic flight data for all commercial passenger flight emergencies. A device that assesses the flight second-by-second and, if key flight parameters are exceeded (rate of descent, rate of climb, bank angle, pitch angle, airspeed, altitude above terrain, distance from planned route, etc.), once any parameter is exceeded, the system independently transmits the basic data for accumulation into a data cloud. A small investment, to share data to a satellite, in a situation where an on-board device senses a developing incident.

Each second, a bundle of data gets stored for quick access by others, including rescue authorities. This is not a huge and expensive bundle of data. This bundle reduces to just three basic parameters: position (lat/long), altitude, and indicated airspeed. And, if the system notes substantial changes within the previous 15-seconds, add just a few other parameters to the bundle: the heading, and/or the pitch angle, and/or the bank angle. This way we can see if the aircraft went into a spin, perhaps related to catastrophic failure. This is a mighty small bundle of data, and the least that should be done for passengers on these over-water flights.

We’ve had the technologies for many years. Now, we need the will and the leadership to use them, to start collecting data from failed oceanic flights.


See also:

QZ8501: Debris Field and First Bodies Reportedly Found

News reports indicate searchers spotted wreckage at around 12:40 local time (0740 UTC) and began recovering passenger bodies from an area of the Java Sea with 3-meter waves. One aircraft door has been found, but the main fuselage and other aircraft components have not yet been located. The debris location is consistent with the known flight route, reportedly in waters 30-meters deep, roughly 100-miles southwest of the Borneo coastline.20141228.. AWQ8501 map showing wreckage locationBased on the flightplan revealed early by Indonesian authorities, it appears the flight was heading northwest along route M635 (the route marked in blue, see below) at FL320 (32,000 feet). The flight disappeared close to the time that it passed the intersection TAVIP, which defines the boundary between the Ujung Pandang controlled airspace and the Jakarta controlled airspace (note the verticle blue line with the ticks on either side; this defines FIR boundaries).

The original filed flightplan called for an initial cruise altitude of FL320, with a later climb to FL380. It appears this is a standard climb profile, related to the fact the flight crosses a route (W15) heading southwest to Jakarta. A reconstruction of other air traffic (posted at FlightRadar24) indicates QZ8501 needed to be northwest of the crossing route before the last climb could be approved. And this is exactly what reportedly happened; i.e., the QZ8501 crew had given ATC their climb request and, two minutes later, they were given a climb clearance to FL340 … though at this point in time there was no response, likely because the clearance was issued just after the upset.

20141228cpy.. World Hi Chart, near TAVIP intersection, showing crash debris vicinity

(click on image to view World Hi Chart near intersection TAVIP)

20141228.. AWQ8501 map showing other air traaffic (FlightRadar24 data, posted at NYTimes)

(click on image to view other graphics and article at NYTimes.com)

This accident, following the disappearance of MH370 in early March 2014, has intensified the call for mandatory satellite-based flight tracking along non-radar flight routes.


See also:

QZ8501: A Preliminary Meteorological Analysis

Tim Vasquez served in the USAF from 1989 to 1998. During his service, his meteorological duties progressed from weather observer to weather forecaster to weather programmer. He is the owner of Weather Graphics, a firm based in Oklahoma City that specializes in meteorological software, forecasting textbooks, data services, and consulting & training.

Here is a preliminary analysis Mr. Vasquez did to assess the potential for weather issues in the disappearance of QZ8501. The analysis suggests a higher potential for clear (and rapid) ice accumulation at the cruise altitude, 32,000 feet MSL. The infrared image below reflects conditions eight minutes after the last contact with the flight. Look closely at the graphic and you will see the thin blue outline of Pulau Belitung, due west of the estimated incident location.

(click on image to view original meteorological analysis at 'Weather Graphics.)

(click on image to view original meteorological analysis at ‘Weather Graphics.)

 

Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 Missing, with 162 On Board

20141228cpy.. AirAsia Indonesia A320A Sunday morning flight from Surabaya to Singapore has gone missing, with 162 on board. According to the airline’s official statement, AWQ8501 (a.k.a. QZ8501) departed Juanda International Airport at 2235Z (5:35AM local time), and lost contact with air traffic control nearly one hour later, at just after 2324Z. The regularly scheduled passenger flight is 745 nautical miles direct. The route filed included RAMPY-M635-SURGA, and was planned at two hours and ten minutes flying time. Weather is believed to be a likely factor, as the pilot had reportedly requested weather diversions and a climb related to monsoonal storm activity.

20141228.. AWQ8501, FlightAware map view (approx. direct route, labels)

(click on image to view article at Accuweather.com)

(click on image to view article at Accuweather.com)

One early report, since declared erroneous by Indonesian authorities, placed a search in Java Sea waters, just southeast of Pulau Belitung. This seems fishy because, although much of the route lacked radar coverage, per ATC tracking procedures there should have been a good idea of roughly where the flight was, at the time of last communications. Thus, the reported search site remains plausible, and perhaps the media has failed to get authorities to clarify they are simply modifying their search locations. Many are frustrated by this situation , as it echoes the many miscommunications following the Malaysia flight incidents, MH370 and MH17, from earlier this year.

It would be nice, in this world where we now all have access to charts, weather data, and so much information, if airline and government authorities would quickly share the hard and basic facts for this incident, including:

  • the filed route of flight
  • the reported positions along the amended route of flight (time & lat/long)
  • the weather data (convective sigmets, satellite weather presentation, at time of departure and at time of disappearance)
  • any relevant transcribed communications between the flight and ATC (voice, or datalink)
  • and other known and releasable information.

Given the heightened fears of terrorism in today’s world, it is understandable that some details might be concealed for real security reasons, but much of what authorities continue to hide is clearly releasable. The key lessons we learned during the Malaysian incidents was that aviation officials, both at the airlines and with the regulatory agencies, need to evolve away from their old pro-business ‘informational control and PR spin’ habits. Let the people know the facts, and right away. That said, it is commendable that the Indonesian Ministry of Transport did make a fairly quick release of some flight data, including a Data Manifest (listing all passengers and personnel),and a Load and Trim Sheet (showing fuel, routes, etc.).

Aviation Charts

Here are portions of the World Hi Chart, in two sections, showing the approximate direct route updated charts, with orange boxes marking filed route fixes. The red arrow marks two degrees of latitude (120 nautical miles) for scale.

20141228cpy.. World Hi Chart, N half of WARR-WSSS, route added

North half of charted direct route

20141228cpy.. World Hi Chart, S half of WARR-WSSS, route added

South half of charted direct route


See also:
MH370, March 2014:
MH17, July 2014: