Thursday, September 13, 2012


An article (Weather Aware)  in the September 3, 2012 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology (try to read it here, but I suspect it's behind paywall) highlights new research on automating radar use to avoid severe weather.

Here's what happens when an airplane hits hail:

Yes, I have flown this airplane, and no, I was not flying when it hit the hail.  The top picture shows one of the exhaust stacks, which are made from some exotic metal in order to handle the extreme heat of the exhaust.  In this case, "exotic" is a synonym for "expensive."  All four stacks got dimpled, as did the leading edges, air intakes, and radome (below).

This is an interesting article, despite the author's snarky tone about flying in a "small" aircraft, namely Honeywell's Convair 580 radar testbed.  (When I lived in central New York I used to watch GE's DC-6 testbed, revelling in the sound of radial engines, but that's another story).

Honeywell has added new turbulence- and hail-avoidance software to the RDR-4000 InterVue weather radar.  This stuff is cool!  For example, it warns of radar attenuation, which has trapped many pilots.  Heavy precipitation can completely block even heavier precipitation from the radar signal.  When this happens the screen looks clear behind the heavy storm, but may contain damaging turbulence.  Too many pilots have flown into such holes.

The software also superimposes little emoticons denoting possible hail or lightning onto the radar display.

The first radar set I used was a monochrome unit in a Cessna 414A.  I got no training in its use.  I got no training in its use.  The POH had a supplement describing it, but that didn't help much.  So I had to learn by reading, experimenting, and watching intensely boring commercial videos.  Intensely boring.  Later, during my King Air IOE, a senior pilot spent about 15 seconds discussing tilt management.

"Experimenting" means that I once flew the 414 into pinhead sized hail despite the radar, stormscope, and my eyes indicating that the way was clear.  No damage.

Experimenting means that I read a 1950's version of the USAF navigator's handbook, which described how bombardiers could use radar for targetting.  I practiced painting cities and lakes.

Once while firefighting I was watching a thunderstorm approach.  The Air Attack wanted to stay on scene for as long as possible.  So I froze the radar screen at the same point in each orbit of the fire, and used this to estimate the time we had left before it got too close.

And Honeywell knows this.  Honeywell analyzed damaging inadvertent weather encounters, and concluded that pilots don't know how to use radar.
"Poor antenna tilt management and misinterpretation of radar returns were revealed as major factors, as well as a lack of knowledge of radar fundamentals and large variability in pilots' use of radar[,] and in training standards."
Like I said, pilots don't know how to use radar.  Because they are not trained to use it!

If you go to FlightSafety or Simuflite to train on a turbine powered airplane, you might find a few incredibly boring videos on radar management lying around the break room, but there won't be any training.  And with air carriers (Part 121 and Part 135) cutting back on training, and hiring less-experienced pilots, we end up, literally, with the blind leading the blind.   I'm not talking about the fascinating theory of the cavity magnetron, just how to adjust the tilt and gain and display mode to keep yourself out of trouble.

And, yes, I tried a few years ago to train the pilot who did the damage above, but he was often so far behind the airplane that there was no time to teach radar management, even after several near-misses.  I have taught several airline captains how to use weather radar to see traffic, but they've already survived being thrown into the deep end of the pool.  

That's no way to run an airline, or even a Cessna 414.


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