Avoiding Turbulent Travel

Typical summer thunderhead over Oklahoma.
Credit: NOAA

Typical summer thunderhead over Oklahoma.

Many of us have experienced the unpleasant situation and domino effect caused by flight delays.  It’s a logistic nightmare for both airlines and travelers when storms cause shutdowns. At the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO, research and computer scientists create forecaster tools and weather displays that are tailored to provide positive impact on the aviation industry. The sophisticated technology allows air traffic controllers, managers, and aviation dispatchers to make informed decisions about how to route planes around the path of severe weather events and even volcanic ash plumes. The focus of this technology is to increase flight efficiency and safety, and minimize delays.

Tactical Decision Aid Tool

June marks the start of summer and the time that thunderstorms most commonly occur. It is a turbulent period for the airlines since a high percentage of flight delays are due to weather.

Impacts to the Dallas/Fort Worth Terminal Radar Approach Control Areas Arrival and Departure corridors.
Credit: NOAA

Impacts to the Dallas/Fort Worth terminal radar approach control areas arrival and departure corridors on April 17, 2007 at 22:40Z.

So as thunderstorms sweep across the country, it is comforting to know that NOAA is working hard in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service to make air travel smoother and “uneventful”. “It’s no wonder that our Tactical Decision Aid Tool is a big hit with Center Weather Service Units during storm season,” says Mike Kraus, Chief of the Aviation Branch at Earth System Research Laboratory’s Global Systems Division. “In one case alone,” he continued, “the Meteorologist in Charge of the Fort Worth Center Weather Service Unit reported how they used our tool over 15 times per shift to explain to Operations Supervisors in Charge how the thunderstorms were expected to continue to develop and move through their airspace. Our technology gave them the visualization capability to effectively communicate an accurate, consistent, and relevant weather picture for the traffic manager’s decision-making process.”

Volcanic Ash Coordination Tool

Mt. Augustine eruption January 13, 2006
Credit: NOAA

Mt. Augustine eruption January 13, 2006 (4:10 pm)

The Volcanic Ash Coordination Tool, or VACT, is another system developed for aviation by the Earth System Research Laboratory.  It is used to determine and disseminate advisories and coordinate agency responses related to volcanic ash threats, keeping aircraft out of harm’s way.  For the aviation industry this equates to money; for the traveler it means safety.

Over the years, 100’s of millions of dollars worth of damage has been done to aircraft engines by volcanic ash. In some of those incidents, planes experienced engine failure, narrowly escaping catastrophic consequences.  

Mt. Augustine eruption in real time with VACT overlays.
Credit: NOAA

Mt. Augustine eruption in real time with VACT overlays.

The VACT was successfully used in real time during the 2006 multiple eruptions of Mt. Augustine on Augustine Island, located approximately 180 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska. “This is truly an inter-agency tool, says Greg Pratt, Chief of the Aviation Systems: Development and Deployment Section, “as it allows for shared situational awareness and coordination between the experts at the agencies responsible for alerting and warning on volcanic ash threat so that more accurate and consistent information is being briefed to emergency managers, state and local officials, the Air Force, and even the Governor’s office.”

Using graphic, image, and map overlays, the VACT simultaneously shows Mt. St. Augustine’s location, ash dispersion as detected by radar and satellite data, dispersion and wind model output, and impacted jet routes in the Anchorage air space.

Summer is in full swing now, and as you buckle up on your next flight, be safe and aware that NOAA is working for you behind the scenes to help keep your ride smooth and timely.

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