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Old 07-31-2003
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Michael Carr is on a distinguished road
Dealing with Extreme Weather


Even jet turbines are no match for severe weather, especially when judgement might be impaired by tight deadlines.
On January 13, 1982 Washington, D.C. was hit by a blizzard that caused National Airport to close as several feet of snow accumulated in the region. Late in the day, National Airport reopened and flights recommenced. One flight, Air Florida's flight number 90, began to push away from the terminal, but the push-away vehicle became stuck in some snow. To expedite departure, Air Florida’s crew engaged the plane's reverse thrusters to push back. This did not work and a second truck was brought in to assist.

Once away from its gate, Flight 90 moved into line behind other jets and used hot exhaust from the plane in front to melt the accumulated snow on its wings. (Cockpit voice recorder tapes later showed that Flight 90’s engine de-icing equipment was not activated prior to takeoff.) Flight 90 was eventually cleared for takeoff, and the plane accelerated down the runway. Soon after takeoff, the plane’s nose pulled up, but the plane would not gain altitude. The aircraft soon stalled, sank toward the Potomac River, and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge.

As Flight 90 impacted the bridge, it struck several cars and killed five people before violently crashing into the iced-over Potomac River and quickly sinking in 20 feet of water. Rescue efforts saved only five people from the airplane, over 70 passengers and crew died. Crash investigations later concluded the plane’s anti-ice mechanism had not been activated, causing the plane's engines to ingest large amounts of ice and snow and lose power.

Subsequent salvage of the plane and the bodies of those aboard took 12 days. Divers worked under the ice as air temperatures remained in the negative 20s. By January 25, all the bodies and 95 percent of the plane's wreckage, including the most important "black boxes" had been recovered.


Extreme weather is usually brief, lasting a day or two. There is always something better to do than go head-to-head with the weather gods when they're in a bad mood.
I tell this story because it emphasizes a key point of understanding extreme weather, namely that extreme weather rarely lasts for more that a day or two, but during that time the forces developed by the winds and sea are immense. The storm that hit Washington, D.C., causing the crash of Flight 90, lasted less than a day. But during that time it mixed massive amounts of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico with extremely cold arctic air from northern Canada, which resulted in rapid condensation and a voluminous snow fall. This storm, as are many, was fast and furious.


Prudence and flexibility are the cornerstones of successful weather-routing decisions. One mariner takes a pasting, above, and gets a chance to reflect on the merits of that statement.
What is the lesson that we as mariners can learn from such events as the crash of Flight 90? Be always vigilant in looking forward in time. Though it may be sunny today, a storm over the horizon can be on top of you before tomorrow. Always look for ways to minimize the duration of encounter with severe weather. The shorter the time a vessel is exposed to large seas and storm winds, the less likely a disaster.

We can apply this principle to all weather events and patterns, especially this time of year when tropical depressions, storms, and hurricanes are prevalent. Hurricanes move rapidly once they are out of the tropics, often traveling 1,000 miles a day.

So how does one keep up with tropical weather? Keep a careful eye on tropical waves, those areas of disturbances that begin over Africa and move east to west across the Atlantic, north of the equator and south of approximately 20° N. These areas of disturbed weather are called waves because of their appearance on surface-weather charts with isobar lines extended northward to form the shape of a wave.

All tropical weather begins in these tropical waves, so tracking each wave coming off the coast of Africa is the first, and most important step, in staying aware and ahead of developing tropical systems. You can find tropical weather charts on the Internet at www.nhc.noaa.gov, www.mpc.ncep.noaa.gov, and www.weather.noaa.gov.

"The power of nature, and its ability to take down a mighty and powerful 737 jet sobered me."
There is one more aspect of making good decisions regarding serious weather. Once a potentially dangerous weather system is detected, you must not let your need for schedule-keeping or the completion of plans prevent you from taking evasive action. Air Florida's Flight 90 should most likely never have taken off. One would hope that problems such as not being able to back away from the gate due to such large accumulations of snow, a long period of sitting on the runway, and the lack of knowledge about using engine-deicing equipment would have led to a no-go decision. Most likely the desire to maintain a schedule and fly south to Florida overwhelmed the logic of staying in Washington.

Weather can and often does overwhelm us. We feel caught unaware by fast-moving and quickly developing systems, which once upon us allow no options. Once Air Florida's Flight 90 commenced takeoff, they were committed. And so here is the key word, "committed." Once you choose to depart port and choose a route, you are committed. Make sure that you have options. Don’t commit to a departure or route that does not have alternatives. Plan a route that gives you sea room and a cushion in time and space.


Knowing when to leaveand when to staycan have a direct impact on the quality of life aboard. After leaving port, a boat and her crew are committed to dealing with whatever the conditions may bring.
I use Flight 90 as an example of over- committing during extreme weather because I responded to this accident as a US Coast Guard diver. I was one of many US Coast Guard, Navy and Army divers who dove under the ice, in cold and muddy water, among the extremely sharp and jagged remains of Flight 90, recovering bodies and aircraft parts.

The power of nature, and its ability to take down a mighty and powerful 737 jet sobered me. Today, almost 20 years after this event, when I drive across the Potomac River’s 14th street bridge, I look down at the calm river and immediately remember that tragic afternoon. So, stay weather-wise and ever-vigilant!

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