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posted: 6/12/2012 10:59 AM

Some 10,000 severe storms can delay, ground air travel plans annually

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  • Radar in the plane's nose cone detects weather conditions.

    Radar in the plane's nose cone detects weather conditions.
    Photo by Kevil Kloesel

  • Radar in the plane's nose cone detects weather conditions.

    Radar in the plane's nose cone detects weather conditions.
    Photo by Kevil Kloesel


Students in Golden Apple award-winner Maria Barba's third-grade class at MacArthur Elementary School in Hoffman Estates asked, "What happens to airplanes during severe weather, thunderstorms, tornadoes, etc.?"

Nearly 1 billion passengers travel by plane each year in the U.S. and most of these flights take off without a hitch.

However, when the weather turns sour, the flight can be delayed or canceled. Some 10,000 severe storms annually can delay or ground travel plans.

"Statistics show 75 percent of air delays are due to bad weather," said Kevin Kloesel, associate dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma's National Weather Center in Norman.

Thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, fog, snow and ice can create serious situations for pilots, flight crew members and passengers. Radar and other weather detecting systems make sure planes don't get caught in a storm.

"Many airplanes have weather radar. The radar is located in the very front of the plane in the nose of the plane. Also, pilots are constantly talking via radio to air traffic controllers who are also looking at weather radar. The pilots always know where severe weather is, and the planes can be flown safely around any dangerous weather. It is highly unlikely that today's pilot would be caught off guard in a weather situation," Kloesel said.

Teams of experts called meteorologists, people who study weather, are on staff at the airport, at the airline companies and even at freight shipping companies. Experts use computer models to calculate storm probabilities days ahead of time so plans can be made for safe travel.

"It's the responsibility of the National Weather Forecast Office to issue aviation forecasts for every air terminal in the country," Kloesel said.

Many experts and agencies are relied on to develop and implement up-to-date research and forecasting methods.

Oklahoma's National Weather Center combines the National Severe Storms Laboratory, the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, the radar Operations Center, the Storm Prediction Center and the Warning Decision Training Branch, as well as academic programs including engineering, computer science and meteorology to do that work.

"The Federal Aviation Association and the National Weather Service have partnered on a number of research projects," Kloesel said. "Within the next decade, the research will revolutionize how we detect and forecast weather for aviation."

Want to be sure to avoid weather-related travel issues? Plan a trip for July, the most popular month for flying and the month with the least weather-related cancellations. December, January and February tend to bring the worst in travel weather.

Suggested reading

The Schaumburg Township District Library suggests these titles on weather and airplanes:

•"Extreme Weather," by Margaret Hynes

•"Exploring Weather and Climate," by Kathleen M. Reilly

•"Children's Weather Encyclopedia," by Louise Spilsbury

•"Eyewitness Flying Machine," by Andrew Nahum

•"Experience Flight," by Richard Platt

•DVD: "All About Airplanes and Flying Machines"

•Online: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

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