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Home > Air Safety > Am I at the mercy of the weather each time I board a jetliner?
Am I at the mercy of the weather each time I board a jetliner?
Aviation - Air Safety
Saturday, 29 December 2007 08:00

Hello Captain Lim,

The Armenian Airbus A320 crash is a depressing/sad incident and my heart goes out to the passengers and their families.

But it does pose a few questions -

1. Am I at the mercy of the weather each time I board a jetliner? So much so that clouds and lightning can kill hundreds of my co-passengers and me.

2. Modern as the Airbus A320 is, can it not override pilot errors if he tries to steer it into stormy weather? Can*t we negotiate bad weather (howsoever bad it may be) - so much for air safety?


Hi Amit,

Yes, some types of weather do pose a threat to flying but modern technology and rigorous training of the crew have enabled the industry to minimize the dangers. So you are not at the mercy of weather each time you board a plane as long as you have a set of well-trained crew and you are flying in some of the latest airliners.

Where there is fog, a plane (such as a Boeing 777 with properly trained crew) is now capable of landing even in zero visibility. Thunderstorms are dangerous but no sane pilot would fly into its core except those special planes known as *hurricane hunters* used by US Weather Bureau to gather scientific information. Commercial pilots avoid them and flying in the vicinity of one can be quite turbulent. Lightning will probably strike a plane somewhere every day but the aircraft will withstand it with no ill effect to crew or passengers. Wind shear can be a threat if experienced at lower altitude and pilots are taught to handle them during take off or landing.

Everyone would love to fly in perfect weather but that is not always possible. What can you do? Fly wisely! Choose an established airline that invests heavily on new equipment and training. Flying condition in the morning is generally smoother and look at the weather forecast (you got to be quite good to interpret or read the charts) in the newspapers, TV or from the Internet before you fly.

You mentioned about the Armenian Airbus A320 tragic crash in May this year (2006) - yes, the A320 is a good aircraft (I have switched over from the Boeing 777 to it now) with quite advanced technology. Even though it is older than the Boeing 777, it is the first fly-by-wire airplane that was once said to be uncrashable when it came out of service! What went wrong in this accident?

To recapitulate: On 3 May, 2006, an Airbus A320 with 113 person on board, was flying from Armenia to the Southern Russian city of Sochi. The weather at Sochi was poor with very low visibility - it deteriorated from 4000 to 100 meters (below the airport minima) very rapidly. The air traffic controller then instructed the aircraft to go around (abort the landing) and make a climbing right hand turn. Somehow, the crew did not perform this maneuver correctly. Despite a GPWS warning (a kind of digital voice shouting, SINK RATE! PULL UP! PULL UP!), the plane plunged into the Black Sea after that.

The investigation board concluded that the captain did not monitor the flight instruments properly during the climbing right turn. Also, the co-pilot did provide the necessary back up during this phase. Their subsequent reactions to the GPWS warnings were uncoordinated and were too late to save the day! The cause of this tragedy can probably be attributed (with a disclaimer) to human error.

You second query - can the Airbus A320 override the pilot error? From what I have read, the captain turned off the autopilot instead! What he did was to override automation! Had the automation (autopilot) being left on, the plane would not have crashed even if it were to steer into the stormy weather! The A320 has a lot of safety protections that was unfortunately overridden by the pilot! So it was the other way round!

Up to this point, manufacturers of planes have not developed a commercial airliner that can fully override a captain*s final decision although I have read about some European Research Institutes working on a software that would make it possible to regain control of an aircraft from hijackers - that is, overriding the pilot in the air from the ground!

A Simulated Armenian Airbus A320 Flight
The Armenian Airbus A320 Crash


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