This paper examines two of the most devastating plane crashes in all of professional aviation, the crashing of Delta 191 and the crashing of U.S. Air Flight 1016.
To the lay person, these crashes might just look like isolated incidents that both involved the inability of technology to handle inclement weather. However, these crashes were related to a weather phenomenon known as a microburst -- a weather phenomenon that was not well understood at the times of the incidents and which neither the pilots nor the aircraft were well equipped to handle. This paper documents the elements of both crashes and the unique details that led to them both and how they could have been avoided. This paper also explores what a microburst is and how it functions and also scrutinizes why the field of aviation was so ignorant about this particular weather occurrence to begin with. Furthermore, a closer look at how the field of aviation changed in lieu of these accidents is also assessed and described.
As experts and journalists have noted time and again, the crashing of Delta Flight 191 is one of the most intensely examined crashes in all of history, and because there was so much evidence and so many recording devices that were uncovered after the accident, it really became a crash that people could get a full and nuanced understanding of as a result of all this real-time data. One of the main causes of this accident was the Delta crew and the decisions that they made. "The NTSB final report faults the Delta crew for continuing the approach through a cumulonimbus cloud from which they observed lightning, a lack of specific guidelines and training for avoiding and escaping from low-level wind shear, and a lack of real time hazard information" (Hirschman, 2012). One of the reasons why Delta 191 was considered to be such a landmark aviation accident which so completely shook the industry and shocked both professionals and civilians, was because the flight resembled any other airline flight, right up until the final 40 seconds, making the ultimate crash a shock to everyone (Flannigan, 2011).
Reasons for the Delta Flight 191 Crash
Like many instances in life, hindsight is often 20-20, particularly since the Delta crew almost averted disaster multiple times. If the captain had been able to push for a go-round just a few second earlier, the disaster would have been avoided (Hirschman, 2012). If the first officer hadn't unspooled the engines by minimizing power to near idle at the moment of the approach, or if the first officer had relaxed the back pressure on the main control yoke at the moment the stick shaker hit, it is likely that no one would have been killed.
"The first sign of trouble came at 800 feet AGL while on final approach into Dallas Fort Worth with a 24 knot increasing-performance wind shear. The crew rightly anticipated a loss of performance and pushed the trust levers "way up" as the airspeed dropped from 173 knots to 133 -- a 40 knot wind shear. Despite the L-1011?s nearly 160,000 pounds of thrust, the aircraft still slowed to 119 knots and rapidly descended to the ground where it bounced and skidded into water tanks killing 134 passengers and one nearby motorist" (Flannigan, 2011).
One of the main causes of the accident was connected to the fact that Delta Flight 191 had in fact entered a microburst: this was a weather related issue that would have been best for them to avoid, but which they didn't avoid, unfortunately. The crew was faulted repeatedly for continuing to approach the cumulonimbus cloud with visible lightning and for the overall absence of specific training and procedures for navigating past low level windshear; there was also a lack of real-time wind shear hazard information which was viewed as yet another probable cause for the entire circumstance. However, to play devil's advocate, there are professional in the industry who still assert that the crew managed to do a very good job. The most effective ways to escape windshear involve applying a maximum thrust and pitching thoroughly for the most superior climb possible (Flannigan, 2011). As Flannigan reminds us, one could still argue that the crew even did the absolute best that they possibly could, and that sometimes an aircraft lacks an adequate amount of power to recover from such severe manifestations of weather -- that in the case of the Delta 191, that particular plane just didn't have enough power to escape from the windshear -- regardless of the actions of the crew (Flannigan, 2011).
As experts have concluded, the crew's decision to engage in and continue the approach into a cumulonimbus cloud which they viewed as containing visible lightning, was one of the major reasons for the crash, and one which could have easily been avoided. Furthermore, there was an aggravated lack of specific guidelines, methods and education/training for avoiding and escaping from low-level windshears. Furthermore, the crew was dealing with a paltry amount of real-time information about the windshear. Essentially, as one journalist explains, the crew was fighting against a phenomenon that they never even knew existed (Philip, 2005). This was a manifestation of the times. The reality in fact was that aviation simply wasn't educated about microbursts and didn't consider them a very real threat.
In fact, recordings from the cockpit demonstrate exactly that: once one of the pilots made contact with the tower at Dallas-Fort Worth, the pilot acknowledged the storm cell they were looking at, and expressed his desire to go around it (Gibson, 1985). The tower replied as follows, "I've had about 60 aircraft go through this area out here 10 to 12 miles wide, getting a good ride, no problems" (Gibson, 1985). This represents not just a lack of education in this arena, but a failure to follow specific protocol for dealing with inclement weather. The controller essentially ignores the presence of the storm cloud that the pilot has observed.
During this time, John McCarthy, a meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research had fought and tried for years to persuade the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration that this was in fact a very real phenomenon and one which was a substantial threat to aviation, but the success that he was met with was only marginal at best (Philips, 2005). In reality, " several years before the crash of Delta Flight 191, a senior Federal Aviation Agency official declared McCarthy's theory unbelievable and walked out of his presentation" (Philips, 2005). In hindsight, it's apparent that the field of aviation just wasn't ready to accept these theories (which were actually facts) and viewed them as irrelevant and inappropriate fantasies of a phenomenon that had no pressing concern on reality.
This marked an all too significant cause for this dreadful crash: a lack of knowledge and a lack of education -- combined with an absence of willingness to try new techniques no matter how different or novel they might appear. "In the 1980s, Mulally and Higgins developed the pilot survival technique taught today. Pilots must perform a maneuver that seems counterintuitive: Go to full power and point the nose upward 15 degrees, or more, until the stall warning sounds. Then ride out the turbulence" (Philips, 2005). This technique was extremely different and extremely counterintuitive to what was being taught and used in cockpits at the time. As Mulally admitted very candidly in an interview, people were dying each year as a result of a refusal to adopt new methods which would be able to more precisely and more aggressively deal with these weather phenomena. Furthermore, anytime Mulally tried to pitch airlines on his new training program, he would be rebuffed and ignored.
Researchers who were discovering and explaining microbursts were considered radical thinkers. One of the thinkers who was on the forefront of microburst research was Ted Fujida, a researcher who as one of the first to propose their very existence: he discovered them while travelling in a helicopter over a remote forest in Siberia where there were thousands of trees blown around for hundreds of square miles; Fujida's guides told him that this wreckage was likely the result of a big tornado, but he knew that he had encountered a weather phenomenon that was extremely different than anything of that nature. He knew that he had encountered one which was distinct from a tornado as a tornado moves along a path, and this destruction was emanating outward from a single point (Philips, 2005). However, this knowledge and this discovery did not do a tremendous amount of good right away, as science and aviation really weren't ready to accept it. It really wasn't until 1982 after years of science and research had been conducted by the atmospheric research center located within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, that meteorologists were able to provide hard evidence for a fact related to this phenomenon that they had always…