Aeronautical Meteorology

yok The branch of meteorology that deals with atmospheric effects on the operation of vehicles in the atmosphere, including winged aircraft, lighter-than-air devices such as dirigibles, rockets, missiles, and projectiles. The air which supports flight or is traversed on the way to outer space contains many potential hazards.

Poor visibility caused by fog, snow, dust, and rain is a major cause of aircraft accidents and the principal cause of flight cancellations or delays.

The weather conditions of ceiling and visibility required by regulations for crewed aircraft during landing or takeoff are determined by electronic and visual aids operated by the airport and installed in the aircraft. The accurate forecasting of terminal conditions is critical to flight economy, and to safety where sophisticated landing aids are not available. Improved prediction methods are under continuing investigation and development, and are based on mesoscale and microscale meteorological analyses, electronic computer calculations, radar observations of precipitation areas, and observations of fog trends. See also Mesometeorology; Micrometeorology.

Atmospheric turbulence is principally represented in vertical currents and their departures from steady, horizontal airflow. When encountered by an aircraft, turbulence produces abrupt excursions in aircraft position, sometimes resulting in discomfort or injury to passengers, and sometimes even structural damage or failure. Major origins of turbulence are (1) mechanical, caused by irregular terrain below the flow of air; (2) thermal, associated with vertical currents produced by heating of air in contact with the Earth's surface; (3) thunderstorms and other convective clouds (Fig. 1); (4) mountain wave, a regime of disturbed airflow leeward of mountains or hills, often comprising both smooth and breaking waves formed when stable air is forced to ascend over the mountains; and (5) wind shear, usually variations of horizontal wind in the vertical direction, occurring along air-mass boundaries, temperature inversions (including the tropopause), and in and near the jet stream.

While encounters with strong turbulence anywhere in the atmosphere represent substantial inconvenience, encounters with rapid changes in wind speed and direction at low altitude can be catastrophic. Generally, wind shear is most dangerous when encountered below 1000 ft (300 m) above the ground, where it is identified as low-altitude wind shear. Intense convective microbursts, downdrafts usually associated with thunderstorms, have caused many aircraft accidents often resulting in a great loss of life. The downdraft emanating from convective clouds, when nearing the Earth's surface, spreads horizontally as outrushing rain-cooled air. When entering a microburst outflow, an aircraft first meets a headwind that produces increased performance by way of increased airspeed over the wings. Then within about 5 s, the aircraft encounters a downdraft and then a tailwind with decreased performance. A large proportion of microburst accidents, both after takeoff and on approach to landing, are caused by this performance decrease, which can result in rapid descent.

Turbulence and low-altitude wind shear can readily be detected by a special type of weather radar, termed Doppler radar. By measuring the phase shift of radiation backscattered by hydrometeors and other targets in the atmosphere, both turbulence and wind shear can be clearly identified. It is anticipated that Doppler radars located at airports, combined with more thorough pilot training regarding the need to avoid microburst wind shear, will provide desired protection from this dangerous aviation weather phenomenon. See also Doppler radar.

Since an aircraft's speed is given by a propulsive component plus the speed of the air current bearing the aircraft, there are aiding or retarding effects depending on wind direction in relation to the track flown. Wind direction and speed vary only moderately from day to day and from winter to summer in certain parts of the world, but fluctuations of the vector wind at middle and high latitudes in the troposphere and lower stratosphere can exceed 200 knots (100 mph). The role of the aeronautical meteorologist is to provide accurate forecasts of the wind and temperature field, in space and time, through the operational ranges of each aircraft involved. For civil jet-powered aircraft, the optimum flight plan must always represent a compromise among wind, temperature, and turbulence conditions. See also Upper-atmosphere dynamics; Wind.

The jet stream is a meandering, shifting current of relatively swift wind flow which is embedded in the general westerly circulation at upper levels. Sometimes girdling the globe at middle and subtropical latitudes, where the strongest jets are found, this band of strong winds, generally 180–300 mi (300–500 km) in width, has great operational significance for aircraft flying at cruising levels of 4–9 mi (6–15 km). The jet stream challenges the forecaster and the flight planner to utilize tailwinds to the greatest extent possible on downwind flights and to avoid retarding headwinds as much as practicable on upwind flights. As with considerations of wind and temperature, altitude and horizontal coordinates are considered in flight planning for jet-stream conditions. Turbulence in the vicinity of the jet stream is also a forecasting problem. See also Jet stream.

An electrical discharge or lightning strike to or from an aircraft is experienced as a blinding flash and a muffled explosive sound. Atmospheric conditions favorable for lightning strikes follow a consistent pattern, characterized by solid clouds or enough clouds for the aircraft to be flying intermittently on instruments; active precipitation of an icy character; and ambient air temperature near or below 32°F (0°C). Saint Elmo's fire, radio static, and choppy air often precede the strike. However, the charge separation processes necessary for the production of strong electrical fields is destroyed by strong turbulence. Thus turbulence and lightning usually do not coexist in the same space. See also Atmospheric electricity; Lightning.

Modern aircraft operation finds icing to be a major factor in the safe flight. Icing usually occurs when the air temperature is near or below freezing (32°F or 0°C) and the relative humidity is 80% or more. Clear ice is most likely to form when the air temperature is between 32 and −4°F (0 and −20°C) and the liquid water content of the air is high (large drops or many small drops). As these drops impinge on the skin of an aircraft, the surface temperature of which is 32°F (0°C) or less, the water freezes into a hard, high-density solid. When the liquid water content is small and when snow or ice pellets may also be present, the resulting rime ice formation is composed of drops and encapsulated air, producing an ice that is less dense and opaque in appearance. Accurate forecasts and accurate delineation of freezing conditions are essential for safe aircraft operations.

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