130 passengers on American Airlines Flight 1897 from San Antonio to Phoenix on Sunday (June 3rd) had a scary ride as their aircraft slammed head-on into a hail storm at 34,000 feet over South-Central New Mexico. Ultimately, this aircraft decided to make an emergency landing in El Paso - apparently using on-board instrumentation and a cockpit side-window to land since the windshield was shattered by golf-ball to tennis-ball size hail.
A wide swath of thunderstorms - including severe weather - was occurring through West Texas and New Mexico through the afternoon and evening. The normal jet route would take the Airbus A319 airliner along the same route as the Interstate 10 through West Texas - but due to weather, it appears Air Traffic Control routed traffic above just west of Odessa, Texas to Carlsbad, New Mexico, to near Capitan, New Mexico. That's where the real trouble began.
Attempting to avoid the strongest storms, the flight was routed over the Sierra Blanca mountain range north of Ruidoso, New Mexico, where - at first look on the radar - appears to show a decent break in the weather. A slight blip of rainfall on the above image is shown just ahead of the nose of the aircraft, but does not appear to be of much significance. Weather radar on-board the Airbus has not been released, but may have likely showed a different story. Here's what I found when I did some digging...
As you can see, significant weather radar reflectivity is noted in at the same place as the first image - why the difference? This is because the first image (top-down look) showed "Base Reflectivity" - the scan of the radar at the lowest level. The cross-section image shows the entire storm, and is likely to show a bit more of what the on-board weather radar would have shown, although it is possible that the frequency may have been attenuated (degraded by heavy precipitation) at some point - or the angle at which the airplane radar was broadcasted did not solicit correct feedback returns.
From the looks of things based on the top-down view and base-reflectivity imagery, this route appears to be the best way around a long line of storms. However - the atmospheric cross-section above proved that this was one of the worst places to cross.
Unfortunatly, this part of New Mexico is plagued by some radar dead-spots. It's rural, and the nearest radar (Alamogordo) sits on the west side of a mountain while this aircraft was approaching from the east - and the weather was on this east side of the mountain - making it a bit more difficult to "see".
The next nearest radar on the east side of the mountain (Clovis, New Mexico) is about 120 miles from the site of the incident. This is much further away than the Alamogordo radar (only 45 miles away), but due to terrain and the radar scan tilt at that distance, it actually captured a better view of the storm. This base-reflectivity, top-down radar image (above) shows a different story.
Why did Air Traffic route this aircraft into a hail storm? How come the pilots didn't "see" this weather and avoid it? The investigation will likely tell on this one, but it certainly wouldn't have been my advice. Fortunately, a miraculous landing in El Paso with little visibility out of a shattered windshield concluded this flight - nothing less than expert piloting figuring that one out.
Dan Schreiber is a freelance meteorologist with experience