Thunderstorms: a deadly weather condition

June 3, 2009

ThunderstormThe Air France Airbus that crashed earlier this week may have been a victim of one of aviation’s most dangerous weather conditions. Flight 447 was known to have been flying through heavy thunderstorms and turbulence when it disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean en route to Paris from Brazil. Debris has been spotted near the jet’s flight path.

It’s sobering to think that weather could pack enough force to bring down an Airbus 330-200, such as Flight 447, which carried 228 passengers. While thunderstorms may not have been the sole cause, they may have triggered a cascading series of factors that led to the accident.

Nobody wants to fly into thunderstorms. But, unless you understand the nature of the beast—the atmospheric conditions that produce thunderstorms—you could put yourself in a dangerous situation.

If the sum total of your thunderstorm information is what you recall from studying weather questions for the knowledge test, then you need to get better prepared. First, test your knowledge with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s newest online safety quiz, which includes sound, animation, and dramatic thunderstorm images.

How did you score?Not so good? For a back-to-basics primer on thunderstorms, turn to the Technical Information section in AOPA’s newly updated aviation subject report on the topic. Use the resources to discover the various types of storms (and the ones most likely to occur in your part of the country) and the stages of a thunderstorm.

If convective activity is forecast, is your only option to stay on the ground? Not necessarily. With thorough flight planning and weather knowledge, you can plan and execute a flight that stays well clear of convective activity. But you’ve got to understand what you’re facing. If isolated storms are forecast, could you skirt them with a generous safety margin? Or, do they form a miles-long, impenetrable line that could require you to do a 180-degree turn or land and seek shelter until the squall line passes? The preflight planning section of the aviation subject report provides tips for solid preflight planning strategies, including weather reporting sources and what they can tell you. A lengthy list of additional resources and archived articles from AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training give the serious weather student a library of information to browse.

"Weather Wise: Thunderstorms and ATC" If you fly solely VFR, you may think that you’ll always see a thunderstorm forming in the distance and thus be able to go around it. But that may not be the case, particularly on a hazy day when visibility is restricted. Instrument-rated pilots face another set of challenges: Thunderstorm cells can be embedded in larger cloud masses. Even with weather detection equipment on board your airplane, you’ll be relying on air traffic control to help you stay clear of trouble spots. Be sure to complete the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s online course, Weather Wise: Thunderstorms and ATC before you launch. This free interactive course, which qualifies for FAA Wings credit, discusses effective pilot-ATC communications and the weather radar equipment that ATC can use to help keep you out of the red zone.

The course is just one of several useful tools that can be found in the foundation’s online Thunderstorm Awareness Resources. The resources Web page includes a practical, kneeboard-sized reference card that will tell you the important things to keep in mind while you’re aloft, such as ways to get the best service out of ATC and how to the fly the airplane if you’re caught in a storm.

If you have questions at any point, call the Pilot Information Center at 800/USA-AOPA (872-2672) weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.