Don't planes fly AROUND storms?

I didn’t see any earlier threads on this - hope it’s not redundant - but I thought the point of radar on airplanes was to allow them to fly around storms. And I thought they were always in radio contact with SOMEONE who could alert them to the fact that there is big weather ahead that they’d have to change course. I remember that not too recently, the airlines changed their policies on landing or taking off during the possiblity of microbursts, meaning that advances in understanding of weather and flying have made the airlines much more cautious. So, what happened here?

Storms can be enormously huge. An airplane can’t fly hundreds of extra miles out of its way to avoid all storms. They are built to withstand some stormy weather and they fly at different altitudes to avoid the worst. But basically planes can’t reroute around a storm with the amount of fuel they carry on very long flights.

Yes, my impression is that planes avoid storms if they can, but sometimes it’s impractical to do so, or a storm is unexpectedly worse than they thought it would be.

Interesting BBC article. It theorizes that electrical faults could have knocked out the radar.

I can never get over how people seem to think that pilots are incapable of independent thought and require constant outside instruction in order to fly safely No, I don’t think that’s what you meant to say, but it can be read that way.

No, airplanes are not always in constant radio contact, or are they always in radar range. This is particularly true when crossing oceans. However, airliners do carry on board radar and the like with which to obtain weather information en route, and certainly a pilot has the authority to change course for reasons of safety.

As already pointed out, though, faults in those on-board systems can lead to airplanes flying into weather they’d otherwise avoid. And sometimes you can’t entirely avoid weather, but those on-board systems do have a use in attempting to find the least hazardous route through unavoidable weather systems.

Yes, airlines have become much more knowledgeable in recent years, and procedures have been changed in light of that knowledge. As to what, exactly, happened this week… we don’t know. There are a lot of people investigating the matter right now, but I don’t expect a good answer for several months at the earliest because these things do take time.

One other point… the plane was in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which is essentially a semi-permanent band of thunderstorms that circles the globe at a certain latitude.

Airliners mostly fly over them. But AF447 was passing through an area of many serious storms with tops reported to be over 50,000’, which is substantially higher than an Airbus 330 can fly.

Who on the ground is going to be able to track storms and talk to pilots in the middle of the ocean? Much better (as Broomstick notes) to equip the aircraft with weather radar and let the pilots control things.

Even onboard weather radar will only detect precipitation, when wind shear is what causes problems. The worst of each don’t necessarily occur in the same place and time. There have been accidents caused by a crew’s faithfully going into what appeared to be the thinnest area of precip on their radar, only to run into the heaviest microbursts of the entire line.

An unofficial compilation of met info for AF447.


What about flying under the weather? Is it possible with a high enough ceiling to get underneath a thunderhead that size?

I must admit I’m surprised at the implication that transoceanic flights are - for at least part of the journey - completely “on their own”, reliant only on their on-board radar to avoid weather.

Are there really portions of regularly-scheduled routes where communication with the ground is simply not possible? That sounds absurd to me, but it’s the impression I’m getting from some of the above posts.

There’s no ground in the ocean. That’s why it’s the ocean.

Possible - yes.

But the nasty effects (e.g. hail, violent winds) of a serious thunderstorm absolutely extend right to the surface. And at low altitudes, weather radar is not as effective and jet engines are much less efficient. So this would not be a good scheme.

Yes, it’s possible, but it’s a real bad idea - get hit with a strong downdraft/microburst at 30,000 feet you’ll spill the coffee and scare the passengers. Get hit with one at 2,000 feet you could wind up underwater. Plus you’ll get all the possible hail, water, sleet, whatever. And what Xema said.

Yes, that is the case. Those areas are a lot smaller than they used to be, thanks to modern communications, but they do exist. Why is that “absurd” to you?

Trans ocean flights have satellite communication. They can contact their operations or pretty much anybody they want to talk to. However, since there is no radar station in the ocean they don’t have the type of weather service available on land.

With satellite systems they can get whatever satellite weather information is available. Since that doesn’t really give them the whole picture they have to rely on their own radar plus a storm scope which gives them a visual representation of lightening strikes. A storm scope integrated with a GPS system gives them a moving map display that displays all the lightening strikes in front of them in relation to the plane. Lightening strikes represent storms that would have hail and high winds so it’s a good indication of the severity of a storm.

What they can’t see with their instruments is wind shear so it’s tough to know exactly where it is in relation to a storm cell.

I speculated in another thread that them may have lost their radar display which made it impossible to pick out a good transition through the line of T-storms they had to cross. We know from the plane’s data stream that it experienced 100 mph winds and that could be interpreted as getting into the worst part of a storm cell.

If they have to fly through a line of storms that they can’t climb over then by default they are under them. If you’re asking if altitude erases the effects then the answer is maybe-kinda but not really. You don’t want to be in the heart of a storm where the hail is hiding so in that sense yes. You’ll still get bitch slapped underneath by the winds.

Of course there’s ground in the ocean; it’s called islands. AM radio can reach around the globe at night. And there are weather satellites and communications satellites orbiting over the ocean as well. And there may be other airplanes in the vicinity relaying information. It’s a naive question but not that naive. How long do transoceanic flights spend where they don’t have two-way communication with anyone else? We know GPS covers pretty much everywhere, but what about weather data broadcasts?

Because I would have thought that communication via satellites was (nearly) always possible; Magiver’s subsequent post suggests that it is.

Is there no communication with other planes in the (semi) near area at the time? I thought one important tool for pilots was the pilots ahead of them reporting on unusual things in their flight path. Granted the ocean is big but I suspect there were a number of planes en-route to/from Europe/Brazil.

The post linked earlier to the page analyzing all the data so far suggests a mid-air break-up. Considering there was no mayday whatever it seems likely the disaster happened fast and was catastrophic. Even falling out of the sky there is a disturbingly long fall to the water (about a minute per 10,000 feet roughly speaking). I would think the pilots, whatever occurred, would be hollering on the radio about their plight. To so thoroughly be shut off makes it seem whatever happened was likely dramatic.

But still…a modern jet liner breaking up these days? I thought those things were a lot stronger than they look. I recall seeing tests on the (then being developed) 777’s wings where jacks were pushing them up. The wings got into a full “U” shape before snapping. Also, there are people who purposely fly right into hurricanes. Barring a severe failure in the airframe (missed cracks or something) I thought it would be very surprising for a plane to get knocked to pieces by a thunderstorm. No doubt the flight would be terribly bumpy and uncomfortable to downright scary for passengers but fall apart?

That or massive electrical failure of some sort so all systems shut down but again I thought the planes had redundancy for this. Hell, in the story of the Gimli Glider it notes that once all power was lost a little turbine deploys that is “powered” by the air rushing through it sufficient to maintain hydraulic pressure. Again, something so utterly incapacitating on a modern jet like that seems incredibly unlikely (I know…unlikely thought it may be looks like “unlikely” may very well have happened in this case).

Just talking out loud…I really hope they find the black box.

They generally do follow established routings (generally great circle segments, I think) and so yes, there will most often be a few aircraft ahead of you and it’s common to ask for “ride reports” or to warn the guys behind you of which altitudes/areas have rough/smooth air.

There hasn’t been a lot of detail about the automated messaging system that reported the sequence of system failures. It’s been reported that three or four systems were messaged as malfunctioning but I don’t know how often the computer polled the respective systems so I’m not ruling out that they all failed essentially at once, and that the logging/reporting system remained intact after some catastrophic single event, and sequentially reported separate failures as it free-fell down to the ocean over the course of a few minutes. Recall that the other pilots reported a bright flash – we know from TWA 800 that if the airframe is sufficiently breached, things fall apart almost instantaneously and you go from having an aircraft to having a hunk or hunks of metal in ballistic flight.