Small Plane Likely Had Obstacles to Overcome
Late this Friday the investigation into the small plane crash in Kanawha County in underway. The folks at the FAA will be on hand in the morning to begin their inspection of the wreckage.
I wanted to focus on the meteorology of the event and why ‘April thundershowers’ can create lots of turbulence.
Let’s start with what we felt on Friday. Before the rains and thunder arrived, a windy and warm spring day was underway. Late morning-early afternoon wind gusts had topped to 36 miles per hour in Charleston.
For even a large plane leaving or arriving at Yeager airport those gusts would have been enough to create a horizontal bump or turbulence. For a small plane like the Piper PA-32, an experienced pilot would have wanted to avoid those winds at all costs.
In effect, the smaller the plane, the greater the effect the wind can have.
Now I have a call into Kathleen Bergen at the FAA to confirm flying altitudes from small planes but my experience is these smaller planes fly well under the planes at jet airplane level.
So let’s examine the winds aloft this plane would have felt.
During the afternoon towering cumulus clouds climbed as high as 40,000 feet into the heavens. At this level, the winds were blowing near 80 miles per hour.
Coming down in height to the 20,000 foot level, those winds scaled back to 50 miles per hour.
I surmise both these altitudes are well over where a small plane would fly.
But at the 10,000 ft height, the winds barely dropped to 45 miles per hour.
No doubt you have heard the term “wind shear” through the years? That refers to the difference in wind speed (or direction) as one ascends into the heavens.
Not only was the wind strong at the ground as discussed already, but those wind grew stouter the higher into the air one climbed.
That's the definition of wind shear.
Those sheared winds would create plenty of turbulence for even wide bodied planes (where your friendly neighborhood US Airways pilot have asked you to stay with your seat belt fastened) to navigate. For a small plane that turbulence would have been a tricky if not dangerous situation to fly through.
Now back to the thundery nature of the showers. As I drove into downtown Huntington around 1 pm, a few vivid streaks of lightning and crashes of thunder reverberated through the Ohio Valley.
To get that type of storm, the air must be rising quickly. That rising air would provide a stout “bump up” or vertical turbulence for a pilot to navigate through.
Recall how we talked about a strong horizontal turbulence from the gusty winds before the storm.
Now you throw in the vertical wind profile and you have makings of an unfavorable scenario for a plane to be flying through.
Since plane left the Akron-Canton area and was bound for South Carolina and since the front that was producing the problematic winds lay from the East coast all the way back to the lower Ohio Valley, there was little chance to divert "around" the weather front.
Add it up and yesterday’s April showers were no slouch and likely played a key role in the crash of the plane.