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NTSB issues safety recommendations on lightning data for air traffic controllers
19 May 2012

Flight US1209 flightpath; red dots indicate total lightning detected (source: NTSB)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recently investigated several accidents and incidents in which air carrier airplanes have encountered significant convective weather conditions in flight, resulting in turbulence-induced crew and passenger injuries, damage to airplanes from hail and lightning strikes, and associated flight diversions.  For example, on August 14, 2011, US  Airways  flight 1209, a Boeing 757 en route from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Philipsburg, St. Maarten, was struck by lightning at approximately 16,000 feet. The crew reported smoke in the cockpit, declared an emergency, and diverted to Baltimore, Maryland, where the airplane landed without further incident. Because thunderstorms are, by definition, always accompanied by lightning, the presence of lightning is a strong indicator of potentially severe weather conditions, and its identification serves to locate areas that should be avoided by all aircraft. Pilots and air traffic controllers currently attempt to protect aircraft from such encounters by using both airborne and ground-based weather radar systems that detect significant precipitation, which is frequently associated with convective weather. The NTSB believes that in addition to the precipitation data provided by weather radars, real-time information provided by modern “total lightning” detection networks can further assist pilots and controllers in identifying specific areas where lightning exists, and, through observation of storm motion, may exist as aircraft proceed along their flightpaths. Therefore, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration:

  • Study the technical feasibility of presenting, through the use of the weather and radar processor system or other means, real-time total lightning data on controller displays at both air route traffic control centers and terminal radar approach control facilities, and, if feasible, incorporate real-time total lightning data on controller displays and in associated weather products for current and future display systems. (A-12-18)
  • To the extent practicable, incorporate direct center weather service unit briefings on new weather-related air traffic control equipment and information services into controller training. (A-12-19)
  • Incorporate real-time total lightning data into the products supplied to pilots through the flight information services – broadcast data link. (A-12-20)

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