25 years ago today: an event that changed meteorology and aviation

The 25th Anniversary of the Crash of Delta 191

By Mike Smith of Meteorological Musings. ( a video and reconstruction follows – Anthony)

Flight 191 wreckage - image courtesy National Severe Storms Laboratory

At 9:30am this morning, a long-overdue memorial to the victims of Delta Flight 191 was dedicated at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport’s Founder’s Plaza. The crash occurred twenty-five years ago, August 2, 1985, at 6:06pm.

The Lockheed L-1011 departed Ft. Lauderdale enroute to Dallas and Los Angeles, but crashed short of the runway in a violent storm known as a microburst (a description of a microburst is here). One hundred thirty-seven passengers and crew lost their lives along with one motorist. A number of the survivors had life-altering injuries.  The stories of loss (for example, www.star-telegram.com/2010/07/31/2375338/the-weekend-that-redefined-loss.html ) are simply overwhelming.

For the eight years prior to the Delta crash, there had been a fierce controversy within meteorology and aviation over Dr. Ted Fujita’s theory that an undiscovered atmospheric phenomena that he named a “downburst” had caused a string of jetliners, starting in 1973, to crash. As I explain in Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, the consensus was that Dr. Fujita had misinterpreted what was actually occurring in these thunderstorms.

In spite of volumes of evidence in his book and in peer-reviewed papers, the consensus in meteorology was downbursts didn’t exist.

After Delta 191 crashed, Dr. Fujita was brought in to investigate and, within a few months, found data that convinced even the doubters that downbursts (and their smaller version, microbursts) were mortal hazards to aircraft. Other investigations were also conducted including the National Transporation Safety Board’s and those of various attorneys retained by the airline, the government, and the victims. A messy, too-long trial followed the crash where people like Gene Skipworth, the air traffic controller who competently attempted to guide the flight to a safe landing, were dragged through the mud.

My copy of the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the crash. For the first time, the NTSB determined a microburst was a cause of a plane crash.

With the benefit and perspective of time, we can look back and realize: For all of the tragedy of that evening and its immediate aftermath, a great deal of good has come out of the Delta crash.

read the rest here:

The 25th Anniversary of the Crash of Delta 191

Video:

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43 thoughts on “25 years ago today: an event that changed meteorology and aviation

  1. The consequences of allowing the CAGW believers to suppress the use of coal fired power plants to bring the benefits of electricity to hundreds of millions of third world residents are not as dramatic or perhaps newsworthy as airplane crash prevention, but the predictable ongoing deaths and suffering far exceeds the number of lives saved by wind shear detection.
    The leading CAGW proponents live in luxury while glibly condemning millions who scramble daily for enough food to feed their families to an essentially eternal existence in their existing primitive condition. Of course, the beneficiaries of the new coal fired electricity don’t vote, don’t fly to Copenhagen or Tahiti for conferences, and don’t trade carbon credits.

  2. “In spite of volumes of evidence in his book and in peer-reviewed papers, the consensus in meteorology was downbursts didn’t exist.”
    One can sense Hansen and Schmidt wanting to smirk over that line.

  3. I was at a talk by Dr Fujita at my company (back in the 80’s) and he said that the reason he came up with the idea of a microburst was due to his investigation of the atomic bomb damage for the Japanese government during at war at either Nagasaki or Hiroshima (I don’t remember which he referred to in the talk). He saw that the bomb (which was an air burst above the city to maximize the effect) bent the street lights in a circular pattern with the bomb as the epicenter and the bending decreasing as you went away from that point. He later remembered this when investigating wind damage. A most remarkable man.

  4. The story of Dr Fujita and microbursts shows that consensus and $1.68 at Starbucks will buy you a cup of coffee. He was right, consensus was totally wrong.

  5. “Scientific consensus” appears to be some sort of a term used to indicate and to honestly disclose to everyone that they are no where near the mark. (-:
    PS. Now about this vacation for Anthony Watts. Perhaps he could have a WUWT cruise, where he gives one or two talks; he and his wife’s passage would be paid for if enough people book for the event. Of course his celebrity status could get in the way at times, and people are budgeting right now, but it’s an idea.

  6. Perhaps I misread the piece, but the impression I got was that the scientists were right, and it was the meteorologists who resisted believing what the already impressive and growing body of scientific literature was saying.
    Hence my comment upstream about Hansen and Schmidt smirking.

  7. This crash also changed the personal computer world. Don Estridge, known as the father of the IBM PC, died on the flight. His success in building IBM’s personal computer division was unusual and depended on his locating the division in Florida, far away from IBM headquarters. Without Don Estridge, the PC division was reabsorbed into IBM where personal computers were a sideshow, and smothered (until finally sold to the Chinese years later). It is hard to remember now how dominant IBM personal computers were and how they led the industry.
    This story has a lesson for the climate science and technology world. Leaders in a field, whether large corporations or top universities or NASA, grow set in their ways and tend not to allow upstart people or theories to grow inside the organization. That is why innovation usually comes from new organizations, rather than inside existing dominant firms or research organizations.

  8. There we go again with that consensus nonsense. Consensus is nothing but an altar upon which the truth is sacrificed for the maintenance of collegiality.

  9. — The space shuttle is safe to fly in the cold, we’ve done it before.
    — Even if you lose a few tiles from an ice impact at launch, its still safe to fly with ice impacts because the shuttle loses a few tiles often on missions and has always returned safely.
    — It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford your payments, housing prices will continue to increase.
    — There’s no way the earth used to have a single large continent of land, continents don’t move.
    — The first settlers to America came via a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia.
    — 1) Mars is inhabited by aliens!
    — 2) Mars is dead.
    — 3) Mars had life!
    — 4) Mars might have had life!
    — 5) Mars might have once been able to support life!
    — Space is composed of an Ether.
    — 640k oughta be enough for anybody.
    A question from an expert is always worth more than a statement.

  10. geo says:
    August 2, 2010 at 12:23 pm
    “In spite of volumes of evidence in his book and in peer-reviewed papers, the consensus in meteorology was downbursts didn’t exist.”
    One can sense Hansen and Schmidt wanting to smirk over that line.

    They can smirk what they want, but they are in the same position that Meteorolgy had during those days. And all it took was the works of a remarkable person that relied upon science and the scientific method rather than performing magic tricks with statistics to take down a concensus.
    I think that there is a valid question in “How many lives have been saved due to the work of Hansen and Schmidt?”

  11. I remember when it happened. Records show 27 survivors. The whole event occurred over around 35 seconds. The CVR transcripts are pretty bad (not all of it is in the clip above).
    Anthony is an ex-pilot, you know.

  12. I think that a WUWT Cruise would be a splendid idea! Invite other well-known speakers along as well; I’m sure that Lord Monckton of Brenchley would appreciate a trip on the briny!
    Any cruise operators willing to make an offer?

  13. Strange and unexpected conditions which have never been imagined occur every day in nature. We don’t know the hundredth of it.
    Those who perished in the Delta 101 crash had the grave misfortune to have proven that “concensus” does NOT mean “correct”.
    May they, and all other victims of “scientific certitude” rest in peace.

  14. I remember the crash well, as I was a young flight buff that particularly cherished getting photo’s of the L1011 as it came in to land at CYVR. (Vancouver INTL) The L1011 was a marvel in design for it’s time, and in the few times it crashed, was usually let down by the humans that flew it more often then not. The tale of flight 191 is a real tragedy in that the pilot knew what was coming but had no idea they were in over their heads until it was too late. As mentioned, this crashed paved the way for the FAA mandating the installation of micro-burst/wind-shear detection equipment on all commercial aircraft.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mayday_episodes

  15. I also remember this crash. I have stood at a crash-site memorial and felt an overwhelming and indescribable feeling there. I have flown many, many times on commercial airliners, and I know that many of those landings were safer because of what was learned on that horrible day.
    As a modern day example of reality surpassing consensus, this does stand out. It is terrible that the knowledge had to come from tragedy, but it seems to be the only way in certain things. Are we poisoning people with statins because consensus says we need to lower cholesterol? Are we damaging children with low-fat foods? Are we actually going to dismantle our civilization because of faulty thermometers?
    Thanks for mentioning this, Anthony. This is a very important day to remember.

  16. It makes one wonder how many such previous cases were attributed to pilot or tower error.
    For example, the B-737 uncommanded rudder deflection flaw took down at least three aircraft (no survivors) before it was discovered. (By some miracle, another flight made it down safely.) And it was either put down as unknown causes or pilot error. It took a four-year investigation after USAir 427 to finally nail it down.

  17. I live in Dallas, and the event has always stuck in my mind as a terrible accident. I remember the long discussions that led to the installation of Doppler radars to track wind shear, including vertical vectors.
    There is nothing more dangerous for an aircraft than to be flying low and slow, where a sudden wind shift, especially a shift to tailward, can cause a catastrophic loss of lift.
    I thought it was especially sad that the plane’s landing gear struck and crushed a car on the highway, killing the driver. That’s not to belittle the loss of crew and passenger lives, only that the incongruity, the irony, of a motorist being killed by a plane crash somehow made the event more real for me.

  18. I’ll sign up to a cruise with A. speaking and contribute!
    We all know Einstein’s quote that only one person prove me wrong.
    Consensus is for the C of E (Episcopalians).

  19. And, since then, I always try to get a seat in the back of the plane, and away from the rotational plane of the the engine turbines…

  20. To paraphrase Einstein: a million scientists can agree on an idea; it takes only one to prove them wrong.
    (Actually, I took quite a bit of license taken on his original phrase, however the outcome is still the same)

  21. This reminds me of the “sprites” and “jets” controversy. For years pilots had been telling scientists that they saw upward flashes from lighting events. The scientists didn’t believe them because there was nothing in their model that provided for it.
    It wasn’t until someone pointed a high speed IR camera at a thunder storm and had the photos that it was accepted. It seems that in this day human experience is the last accepted evidence.

  22. The Weather Channel had a pretty decent look at it last weekend on their “When Weather Changed History Series.” Aptly titled Delta 191 Crash. I can’t find anything worth reporting about it at weather.com other than they only run the series on Saturday (and don’t necessarily report the weather the rest of the time).

  23. I was about a year into an airline career when that happened. Lots of running around and blaming going on, especially from the Feds, who always seemed to me to be more concerned about getting the paperwork right than anything else. Once we had the crash figured out, the airlines did wind shear training every year in the simulators, and the airports put wind sensors all around so that they’d pick up the big divergence in surface wind vectors you get with a downburst. Lately, the radars have gotten doppler detection built in with automatic warnings.
    The way a downburst hurts on final approach is that when you’re on the glide slope, you first encounter a headwind, which makes your airspeed high and pushes the plane above the glide path. To correct, you pull the power back and lower the nose. Then you hit the core of the downburst which pushes you down below the path, then you get the tailwind, which cuts your airspeed, and you’ve got the engines unspooled just when you need the power. The big engines can take 5 or 6 seconds to wind back up, which doesn’t sound like much except when you’re near the ground and falling out of the sky.
    I’ve flown the Delta crash scenario in the simulator, and it’s recoverable, but only if you know what to do, which they didn’t at the time. Essentially it’s full forward on the throttles and pull the nose as high as she’ll go, disregarding the falling airspeed, right to the edge of the stall warning, which goes completely against a pilot’s instincts. The airliners have that recovery built into the flight guidance computers. Punch a button and follow the needles.
    The airline consensus these days is to not attempt a landing until the downburst has subsided or moved off the approach path, so not all consensi are bad.

  24. cagw_skeptic99 says:
    August 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    The consequences of allowing the CAGW believers to suppress the use of coal fired power plants

    You could put this on Tips and Notes. You could add this to a post after most of the on-topic discussion has occurred. I don’t know about everyone else, but I make a point of ignoring off topic comments from people who pounce on a new post. I figure those commenters couldn’t care less about the topic or the discussion, all they want to do is get noticed, even though 99th isn’t that much better than being the 142nd quickest draw in the west.
    It’s probably a good thing I’m not a moderator here. 🙂

  25. Mike McMillan says:

    The airline consensus these days is to not attempt a landing until the downburst has subsided or moved off the approach path, so not all consensi are bad.

    Of course, the difference being that this one is based on testable, provable principles….

  26. Hmm a consensus of meteorologists you say held up the acceptance of the microburst. I sure hope we dont get any more of those pesky consensuses.

  27. Hi everyone, Mike Smith here.
    First, I’d like to thank Anthony for cross posting my piece on Delta 191. That tragedy became a milestone in the history of both meteorology and aviation. But, it is especially important that we remember the families and friends of the victims today.
    I am writing after viewing the comments to note that there is a parallel between the rejection of Fujita’s microburst theory and today’s ongoing controversy pertaining to ‘global warming’ that I came to realize as I was writing my book, “Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.” That parallel is that many people initially rejected Fujita’s hypothesis out of envy, not because of his evidence. I was a member of the American Meteorological Society’s aviation meteorology committee at that time and I was attending aviation and aviation meteorology conferences. Many times I heard, “I’ve never seen a microburst in MY research!” Or, my institution, the [fill in the blank with the name of several research institutions], the finest in the world, has never found the microburst; Fujita couldn’t have found one.” As silly as it seems now, those sentiments were expressed with surprising frequency.
    Some of the same behavior Judy Curry has noted (“tribalism” and reluctance to engage critics) in the global warming controversy was evident in the history of the theory of microbursts 25-30 years ago. Fujita was proven right, the “consensus” was proven wrong.
    By noting this, I am not trying to say one side in the AGW debate is right or wrong. I am saying that we need to do a much better job of talking to each other and determining the scientific validity of evidence (which is the only thing that is important) rather than worrying about who is producing the evidence.
    Mike

  28. There have been few glider crashes which included a couple of deaths in Australia where the pilots have either got caught chasing the lift along the front of a thunderstorm and have got into very severe downdrafts instead and have been forced to land close to and ahead of the thunderstorm or have tried to get home to their field as a thunderstorm [ s ] bore down on that same field.
    They were caught in the low level downburst which usually only extends to a couple of hundred feet high above ground in our relatively benign thunderstorms here and perhaps some 5 kilometres or so out from the storm front.
    There are often downdraft velocities of some thousands of feet per minute in the front of these types of storms which are usually accompanied by an even more severe downburst and even wind reversals at low level which just destroys airspeed in that situation followed by the almost inevitable stall at a low and irrecoverable height with the very strong possibility of a resultant crash.
    Of course with a glider, you can’t just open the tap and try to out climb the sink rate or even modify the downwards velocity.
    You have to wear what you have got and got yourself into!
    I have sat at some 6000 feet in a glider a few kilometers away watching a small ground level microburst appear from what seemed to be just an average and innocuous cumulous cloud with a small but heavy column of rain falling from it.
    The roiling dust laden couple of kilometres wide doughnut shaped ring of the microburst spreading out from the shower at ground level was a most impressive sight and was an excellent lesson to me, even with some two and half thousand hours in gliders, on the care that is needed when flying around what may appear to be the most innocent of minor storm systems.
    Now do you want to know about those very near lightning strikes when flying around thunderstorms in a glider!?
    I thought not! Nothing that mustard colored underpants can’t hide!

  29. Gary Turner August 2, 2010 at 3:08 pm
    I live in Dallas, and the event has always stuck in my mind as a terrible accident. I remember the long discussions that led to the installation of Doppler radars to track

    Yup; “TDWR” (Terminal Doppler Weather RADAR) operated by the FAA (not the NWS) and not the same as NEXRAD or the WSR-88D series …
    In fact, the TDWR are C-Band (5 GHz) RADARs as opposed to S-Band (2.8 GHz) as the WSR-88D NWS RADARs are.
    .

  30. Of course I felt great pity for everyone on that flight, but for some reason I always felt particularly sorry for the lone man killed on the ground – he was driving on Hwy 114, just north of the landing strip, when the planes landing gear went through his car and crushed it flat as a pancake. He had just moved to the city a week before, and had never driven on that road before. It’s amazing to think of how much trouble he had to go to just to meet his appointment with death falling blindly out of the sky that day.
    Delta 191 was carrying several thousand pieces of US mail in it’s cargo bay, since Delta had a contract with the USPS. I remember the pictures of half burnt mail spread all over the grassy field where the wreckage was. Apparently the Post Office gathered up all that scattered mail and delivered everything that still had a readable address on it, since 3 weeks after the accident, I got a clear plastic bag with a half burned, water stained envelope inside. Creepiest part was the stamp on the outside of the bag which proclaimed, in all caps, “THE USPS IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CONDITION OF THIS ITEM”. They didn’t say that this had been one of the pieces recovered from that field – they didn’t have to.
    I kept it for quite a while, although I haven’t been able to put my hands on it for a few years now. Not that I mind if it’s gone – I never liked the way it made me feel when I held it.

  31. The airline consensus these days is to not attempt a landing until the downburst has subsided or moved off the approach path, so not all consensi are bad.
    A man with experience is not at the mercy of a man with an opinion
    — Dave Ramsey

  32. “Of course I felt great pity for everyone on that flight, but for some reason I always felt particularly sorry for the lone man killed on the ground – he was driving on Hwy 114, just north of the landing strip, when the planes landing gear went through his car and crushed it flat as a pancake. He had just moved to the city a week before, and had never driven on that road before. It’s amazing to think of how much trouble he had to go to just to meet his appointment with death falling blindly out of the sky that day.”
    It was his 28th birthday and we was on his way to his birthday party.

  33. Re Mike Smith:

    I am saying that we need to do a much better job of talking to each other and determining the scientific validity of evidence (which is the only thing that is important) rather than worrying about who is producing the evidence.

    That’s all we are saying.
    If AGW is so scientifically sound, why do it’s practitioners spend so much time hiding their evidence and demonizing their opponents?
    If the Earth’s climate really is on the cusp of disaster, then I want to know about it. Why is it so difficult for me to see the evidence for myself?

  34. So many flight 191s went down in the span of about a year that the airlines stopped using that number to designate a flight. Those of you who travel frequently have a look at the screens. No 191s.

  35. <a href = http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/08/02/25-years-ago-today-an-event-that-changed-meteorology-and-aviation/#comment-446358"<Jim
    And NEXRAD was a joint project with the Airforce, NOAA, and FAA. It was a competition between Unisys and Raytheon. After NEXRAD was awarded to Unisys, the FAA decided that it didn’t satisfy their needs and awarded a contract to Raytheon for TDWR.
    There’s the saying that the two things you don’t want to see being made are sausage and politics, but I’d add a third: government procurements. I may have worked out in the end, but the process was ugly.

  36. I flew through DFW the next day returning from a visit to my grandparents. My dear younger brother, sitting by the window, loudly informed my mother (and everyone else in the cabin), “Look, there’s a burned airplane!” I’m surprised that he lived to adulthood. 🙂
    Microburst training is now standard curriculum in aviation. Mostly we are taught to avoid them, but also how to recognize and try to fly out of them. I’ve never tangled with one in a glider, just dodged them in power planes (ah, lovely Denver).

  37. John A says:
    August 3, 2010 at 2:55 am
    If the Earth’s climate really is on the cusp of disaster, then I want to know about it. Why is it so difficult for me to see the evidence for myself?
    For that you need the special Warmist goggles; shade #10 is best. These filter out harmful, cognitive dissonance – producing direct observations, inconvenient facts, and other evidence based on the scientific method.
    Grant money, career, and fame based on “seeing the evidence” also help immensely.

  38. Any glider pilot can tell you that some bits of the sky go upwards, and some go downwards. And some bits go down like the proverbial lead balloon.
    Its not rocket science. What goes up must come down.
    Airliners try to stay out of thunderstorms, but even a large CuNim can produce a large downdraft. Had full power one day, just to stay level. That’s about a 2,000ft/min downdraft.

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