Pilots need advance warning on turbulence in sky

Pilots need advance warning on turbulence in sky

The crash of Indonesia AirAsia QZ8501, which plunged into the Java Sea on Sunday morning amid rough weather, has sparked concerns that not enough is being done to help pilots deal with the wrath of Mother Nature.

With extreme weather conditions occurring more frequently and demand for air travel in the Asia-Pacific region set to grow strongly in the coming years, improvements must be made in the gathering and dissemination of weather-related data, experts say.

What caused the Airbus 320-200 with 162 people on board to go into an uncontrolled descent remains a mystery but bad weather is likely to have played a part.

About 45 minutes after the plane left Surabaya at 5.30am, the pilot asked air traffic control for approval to turn left to avoid a storm.

The next request was to take the plane from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet. It was the last time the cockpit communicated with Jakarta air traffic control.

The plane presumably crashed with no survivors - a fear confirmed more than 48 hours later when the first pieces of debris and bodies were found.

Data from Indonesia's meteorological agency showed slight rain in the Belitung and Pontianak areas when the plane was estimated to be flying through the vicinity, with thick cumulonimbus clouds as high as 45,000 feet that can produce lightning and other dangerous weather conditions, such as gusts and hail.

Advancements in technology in the recent decades have produced flying machines that are much better able to detect and withstand severe weather conditions.

"All modern aircraft are fitted with technology and systems that provide resistance against lightning strikes, for example," said Captain Mok Hin Choon, president of the Air Line Pilots Association - Singapore.

"There are also anti-icing systems to minimise the risk of ice forming on critical parts of the aircraft such as the wings and engines."

Before every flight, pilots are also briefed on weather conditions they can expect along the way, Captain Mok said.

But there are blind spots and gaps in the current system, according to Mr Hsin Chen Chung, director of Nanyang Technological University's Air Traffic Management Research Institute.

The centre has started work on at least two research projects to study how airlines and pilots can better cope with bad weather.

"Pilots do not always get advance warning of severe weather conditions, for example, clear air turbulence which hits suddenly," he said, referring to the turbulent movement of air masses without any visual cues such as clouds. It is caused when bodies of air moving at widely different speeds meet.

Nor is there any warning of updraft and downdraft - strong upward-moving and downward-moving air currents - which can strike suddenly.

The formation of ice on the surface of the aircraft can also occur without the pilots' knowledge, which can result in serious problems if critical components malfunction as a result.

Mr Hsin said: "Pilots depend on air traffic control to provide them with critical and timely information and this is where the industry needs to push for improvements.

"The technology is there, with satellites and ground radars that are capable of forecasting weather conditions in advance.

"The challenge is to gather the data, present it in a useful way and, perhaps more critically, to ensure that pilots receive the information on a timely and regular basis."

Another area that can be improved is pilot reporting.

"Different countries, air regulators and airlines have varying standards on this," Mr Hsin said. "If the ground can receive regular updates from pilots in the air, the information can be collated, processed and made available to all other aircraft in the area."

 

For this to be effective in further boosting air safety, countries must adopt similar standards.

Within South-east Asia, there is already a push for ASEAN nations to work more closely together to harmonise aviation operating procedures, so there is cause for optimism, Mr Hsin added.

The crash of Flight QZ8501 caps a disastrous year for the air travel industry which also witnessed the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in March and the shooting down of another Malaysia Airlines flight in July.

Still, flying remains the safest mode of transport.

From 90 air accidents in 2009, there were 81 last year - even as the number of travellers increased from 2.2 billion in 2005 to 3.1 billion last year.

But there is an urgent need for the industry to plug the gaps, especially in the Asia-Pacific, where passenger traffic is expected to grow by 5.7 per cent a year until 2017, compared with 3.9 per cent in Europe and 3.6 per cent in North America, based on estimates by the International Air Transport Association.

It does not help that weather conditions have become more extreme, with more frequent and severe reports of flooding, typhoons and other natural disasters.

Mr Hsin said: "We are not saying that it has suddenly become unsafe to fly but the fact is that the world is changing, air traffic is growing and we need to make sure that we speed up our efforts to ensure that air travel continues to be the safest mode of travel."

karam@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on January 1, 2015.
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