NTSB issues safety alert on NEXRADs in planes

June 20, 2012 8:16:06 PM PDT
Every night, we use weather radar to tell you about what to expect in your neighborhood. But the National Transportation Safety Board says the weather radar used by some pilots in the cockpit may be cause some very dangerous problems.

The NTSB just issued a safety alert reminding all pilots that Next-Generation Radar or NEXRAD - a network of radars operated by the National Weather Service -- is not totally reliable. In fact, some of the data might be old and using it could be deadly.

Ask any pilot and the weather is their biggest enemy.

"It's the one unknown that's out of our control," said Capt. Brandon Ray of Western Airways in Sugar Land.

Wind, clouds, rain, they are all factors.

Last December, the NTSB believed weather played a role in a crash that killed a Georgia family over Bryan; and this week, the agency said the pilot may have relied on old weather information provided by NEXRAD before the plane came apart in the sky.

"If you focus on the NEXRAD and the NEXRAD alone, you could fly into what appears to be clear weather but it turns out to be maybe a cell that's actually moved in," Ray said.

And that's exactly what the NTSB fears happened. This new safety alert says the last images received in the cockpit from NEXRAD were six, seven and eight minutes old.

Ray took us aboard a King Air and showed us how it could happen.

"Right here NEXRAD shows that it's five minutes old," he said.

While the information shows a five-minute delay, he says the images are really a lot older.

"Five minutes is when we received the information, it's not necessarily when the weather is valid," Ray said.

So he and the rest of the pilots use a combination of live radar and NEXRAD to plan routes, not to mention experience. For those pilots without the resources of an airline, weather briefings are easily available online

It's something most pilots already know but worth an important reminder about NEXRAD's limitations before taking off into the sky.

"If it's used in the wrong way, it could be deadly," Ray said.

The NTSB says the pilot of the Bryan crash last year actually flew into a developing rainstorm. It's the second crash in the past year and half where NEXRAD was used.

And though National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ultimately oversees NEXRAD, a spokeswoman says they are not involved in this issue.

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