There is now considerable evidence to substantiate the causal relationship between low altitude wind shear (LAWS) and the recent increase in low-altitude aircraft accidents. The National Research Council has found that for the period 1964 to 1982, LAWS was involved in nearly all the weather-related air carrier fatalities. However, at present, there is no acceptable method, technique, or hardware system that provides the necessary safety margins, for spatial and timely detection of LAWS from an aircraft during the critical phases of landing and takeoff. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has addressed this matter and supports the development of an airborne system for detecting hazardous LAWS with at least a one minute warning of the potential hazard to the pilot. One of the purposes of this paper is to show from some of our preliminary flight measurement research that a forward looking infrared radiometer (FLIR) system can be used to successfully detect the cool downdraft of downbursts [microbursts/macrobursts (MB)] and thunderstorm gust front outflows that are responsible for most of the LAWS events. The FLIR system provides a much greater safety margin for the pilot than that provided by reactive designs such as inertial-air speed systems that require the actual penetration of the MB before a pilot warning can be initiated. Our preliminary results indicate that an advanced airborne FLIR system could provide the pilot with remote indication of MB threat, location, movement, and predicted MB hazards along the flight path ahead of the aircraft.
In a proof-of-concept experiment, we have flight tested a prototype FLIR system (nonscanning, fixed range) near and within Colorado MBs with excellent detectability. The results show that a minimum warning time of one-four minutes (5×10 km), depending on aircraft speed, is available to the pilot prior to a MB encounter. Analysis of the flight data with respect to a modified “hazard index” indicates the severe hazard that the apparently weak and innocuous MBs present to both commercial transport pilots as well as the much larger number of pilots who fly the smaller general aviation and executive aircraft.