Science Behind Travel Troubles

Incidentally, "solid-state" traffic may also be safer. Studies show that most accidents on highways occur when drivers are speeding up or slowing down. When everyone is stuck in the same steady flow, drivers may not get to enjoy the exhilarating rush of flying by others in the fast lane, but they may be less likely to end up in a crash.

Grounded by Weather

It may not be a comforting thought, but the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that, on average, every commercial aircraft is struck by lightning about once a year. Still, one can take solace in fact aircraft are well equipped to handle the occasional jolt.

The aluminum casing of planes is a good conductor and guides the electricity from a lightning strike along the outside of the airplane and into the air. In fact, only one U.S. airliner has been downed by lightning when, in 1962, a Pan American Boeing 707 was struck and a spark ignited fuel vapor in a tank, causing an explosion. Since then airplanes have been designed in ways to prevent such ignitions.

So if lightning strikes aren't a major hazard, how can a thunderstorm ground your flight? A bigger risk may be the violent winds and hail that are associated with the storms. Sharp changes in wind direction and speed, called updrafts and downdrafts, can cause extreme turbulence in the air and can make aircraft difficult to control. During takeoff and landing, wind shear can cause a plane to skirt off course and into trouble. If heavy enough, hail can cause damage to a plane's windshield or engines.

Another major weather hazard for pilots, particularly for pilots of smaller planes, is the buildup of ice on a plane's surface during flight. This happens when a plane flies through cloud water droplets that are small enough to remain in liquid form even when the surrounding air temperature is below freezing. In this state they are likely to latch and freeze on a passing plane's wing surfaces, which can alter the craft's aerodynamic properties.

It was in-flight icing that likely caused the crash of the small plane carrying rock 'n' roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959. But passengers are safer now from the icing hazard thanks to a couple areas of improved technology. De-icing solutions that are sprayed onto planes melt away any buildup of ice on the plane, while anti-icers effectively lower the freezing point of water on the plane's surface and prevent ice buildup during flight.

Meanwhile, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., are working an advanced radar system that can help pilots locate and avoid clouds containing the dangerous tiny water droplets that cause icing.

"This will take out a lot of the guesswork," said Marcia Politovich, director of NCAR's icing program. "We think it will show exactly where the water is. That information could ultimately turn into an important warning system for pilots."

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