Ask the Captain: Do thunderstorms cause plane crashes?

ByABC News
April 30, 2012, 5:26 AM

— -- Question: Can bad weather like thunderstorms make an airplane crash?

— submitted via e-mail

Answer: Thunderstorms, particularly, may be hazardous to airplanes. Violent up and down drafts can cause structural failure. Consequently, pilots do not fly into thunderstorms. Using onboard weather radar and working with air traffic control, pilots deviate around areas where there are thunderstorms.

Newer weather radar includes technology that shows where there is windshear. Windshear is a rapid change in the direction and /or velocity of air. Some types of windshear known as microbursts can force an airplane down into the ground. In the past, this type of accident happened too frequently, but since the newer technology was added and training improved it is now rare.

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s there were several accidents caused by thunderstorms in the U.S. and around the world. Since the mid-90s, due to advances in technology and training, the U.S. has not experienced a thunderstorm-caused accident.

Yes, thunderstorms can cause an accident, but we have mitigated the risk to be very, very low.

Q: I read recently that the Department of Transportation fined a regional affiliate of American Airlines a total of $900,000 for keeping passengers waiting on the tarmac (according to a recently passed law). I am concerned that this law would give an incentive to airlines to fly in aircraft that are not safe/properly maintained or to fly in bad weather.

— caesarslaw

A: There are provisions in the law for maintenance issues to prevent the conditions you state. If there is a maintenance problem, the airline will not be fined for the delay. Recent years have been some of the safest in aviation history. The airlines realize the importance of safety and have been successful in continual improvement.

Readers, please leave your questions for John Cox here, and only leave comments about this week's column below.

John Cox is a retired airline captain with U.S. Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.