Saturday, April 23, 2011

More on the Problem With Tornado Warnings and Aviation

Security camera of people running for their lives as the tornado strikes Lambert. 

From an aviation weather blog, written by a Delta pilot who was in the cockpit when the tornado struck Lambert Field in St. Louis last night:
I knew these storms were strong and had possible Tornadic signatures. I was IN THE COCKPIT at gate A4 when this happened. We felt the gusts and saw the rapid pressure drop on the altimeter. Plane moved around a bit, but no more than other times ive been in gusty winds on the ground. Our concourse is about 400 feet away from concourse C which sustained significant damage. What is bothering me is the fact that neither I nor the airline agents knew there was a Tornado warning for the area. Im pretty sure this storm was warned and im going to investigate why as Captain I did not know and how we might possibly have had better information in this event AND better warning in the future. 
First of all, I strongly empathize with this captain, his crew, and his passengers. It was terrifying to be in their situation. And so unnecessary. The warnings were excellent and saved numerous lives in this EF-4 intensity tornado (which puts it in the top 2% of all tornadoes in damage-causing potential). About the only people who didn't have the warning were those in the field of aviation.

I wrote about this problem in my book, Warnings hoping to highlight and fix the problem before a major incident occurred. Due to the serious nature of this storm season, the following press release has been sent to the St. Louis media and other national media outlets.  The impetus for change in extreme weather warnings lies with all of us who work in, utilize and support the Federal Aviation-regulated airlines.  The FAA has been lucky thus far but once the pendulum swings and a catastrophe hits there will be hundreds of lives at stake.  As a scientist and US citizen, I feel a duty to my fellow airline passengers and the industry employees to shift the paradigm regarding weather warnings before any lives are lost.

My press release:

FAA Does not allow official tornado warnings to be distributed to Air Traffic Controllers or to pilots in their formal flight briefings.

St. Louis, MO April 23, 2011 – The Federal Aviation Administration has not updated its policy on releasing life-saving tornado warnings to allow control towers, air traffic control centers or to pilots during official weather briefings. “This tornado season has already broken records in the number of number and strength of the storms produced.” states Mike Smith, award-winning meteorologist and extreme storm expert. “The tornado forecast continues to look dire with perhaps more than 100 tornados expected to occur over the next week that have the potential to affect heavily populated areas with major airports.”

The FAA has historically banned the National Weather Service tornado warnings given to the public from the air traffic control facilities. Accurate weather forecasting mapped the path of the Good Friday tornado to strike The Lambert International airport.  If the FAA had updated its weather warnings policies then airport officials would have had the necessary information to evacuate jets and get airline passengers to safety. Within the airport terminal, emergency procedures could have been put into place to prevent injuries from flying debris and broken glass. “The FAA received a miracle that there were no deaths at Lambert but the FAA is courting a certain disaster due to its stance on not releasing tornado warnings that directly affect airline passengers.” states Smith about the April 22,2011 St. Louis tornado. The FAA is courting disaster as long as this censoring of tornado warnings continues.

Mr. Smith first revealed this deficiency in his book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.”

Mike Smith is the recipient of the highest awards in meteorology, holds 18 patents and has authored the book “Warnings” the true story of how meteorology has saved lives.  Mr. Smith’s blog Meteorological Musings reports on extreme weather across the country. He is an expert in both the fields of aviation and meteorology.


  1. An airport near Cairo, IL has been destroyed

  2. Do you have a link where the FAA states this policy?

  3. KSE: This is more of a negative policy. They keep shutting down attempts to bring tornado warnings into the system. The most recent was after the incident I write about in "Warnings" -- the near miss between a tornado and a Delta Express jet at Daytona Beach.

    Tornado warnings are NOT part of the official aviation weather data stream.

  4. The NWS does issue Airport Weather Warnings (AWW) for some airports around the nation. Even though there isn't a specific tornado warning for airports, they fall under the warnings that are issued by the NWS and the FAA has procedures to follow under their airport emergency plan if such an event were to occur.

  5. You are correct the NWS issued AWW's for SOME airports. But, as you correctly indicate, they don't differentiate threats. The actions to be taken for large hail (which can damage aircraft while posting minimal threats for people) are quite different than for tornadoes.

  6. I am a former airline dispatcher and I know we would have aircraft flying through cells that contained TVS radar indications and the crews never knew. These were all storms that were tornado warned. The pilots of these flights have stated that they would have avoided the cells completely had they known a tornado warning was on the cell. The concern I have is that an aircraft could encounter a vortex airborne.

  7. Dwight... I'm interested in hearing more about what you have to say. What is the best way to reach you? I'm a reporter in St. Louis.