NASA's radar work gives pilots a better ride

July 25, 2002|By Michael Hines | Michael Hines,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HAMPTON, Va. - A new tool that helps pilots detect turbulence caused by storms could be on airplanes in the next two years, researchers at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton said.

Scientists are working on a software upgrade for radar systems now used in most commercial airliners. The new system could help them detect turbulence with more certainty and with lower moisture levels than are now necessary for readings.

"It does not have to be raining in order to see turbulence," said Jim Watson, deputy project manager for Turbulence Prediction and Warning Systems.

Pilots now rely on warnings from other fliers about trouble spots or interpret radar patterns to predict whether bumpy conditions. Sometimes, though, pilots can hit rough patches without warning.

"You want to be able to warn everyone in both cases," said Neil O'Connor, a NASA Langley aerospace researcher.

Atmospheric turbulence is the leading cause of in-flight injuries, NASA said. The Federal Aviation Administration said that about 98 percent of those injuries happened because people weren't wearing seat belts, usually because there was little warning of impending rough air. Turbulence can also cause rerouting and late arrivals.

The NASA Langley research could curb the commotion by increasing the warning time before planes hit turbulence.

It's also helped dispel a commonly held notion about how far pilots should be from storms if they want to avoid turbulence. Most aviators now consider 20 to 25 miles a good distance. The NASA Langley work found that storms could cause disturbances up to 100 miles away.

"You think you're well clear of the thunderstorm and you still hit some turbulence," O'Connor said.

The work is part of the NASA Aviation Safety Program, a partnership with the FAA, aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the Defense Department. The program aims to reduce the number of fatal aircraft accidents by 80 percent in a decade. Four NASA test centers are involved.

For the radar work, NASA Langley researchers flew a research aircraft on 13 missions this spring. The aircraft was outfitted with an experimental radar system that used the motion of moisture in the air to determine turbulence.

Leaving from NASA Langley, the plane flew into areas where thunderstorms were predicted east of the Mississippi River.

NASA research pilots circled the thunderstorms several times to encounter turbulence, and researchers at the test stations recorded conditions. They told pilots when and where they were likely to hit rough air.

NASA Langley is in talks with two companies to install the upgrade in commercial aircraft. The research center won't license the technology and will see no profits from any venture.

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