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Air Traffic Controllers Steer Pilot Into Storm

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Three Madison County men were on a return flight from a hunting trip to South Dakota. The airplane was a single-engine, four-seat Beech Bonanza. The pilot and two passengers were en route over Missouri at night when the aircraft entered a severe thunderstorm cell, causing a loss of control and subsequent crash near Downing, Missouri. All three men on board were killed. The three men’s surviving family members brought negligence claims against air traffic control under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The aircraft was on an FAA instrument flight plan and communicating with an air traffic controller in Kansas City when the crash occurred. The pilot had previously been speaking with an air traffic controller in Minneapolis, who had provided the pilot with weather information about the line of thunderstorms ahead and offered guidance to a break in the line over northern Missouri. The thunderstorms were displayed on the controllers’ screens via a new technology called WARP (Weather and Radar Processor). WARP, which was implemented in 2002, provided the controllers with information that was to be used to assist pilots in avoiding severe weather. WKW’s weather expert was able to take the archived radar information and convert it into a display similar to what would have been shown on the air traffic controller’s scope.

Relying on the information provided by the Minneapolis controller, the pilot then proceeded into Kansas City airspace, where a controller again provided navigation towards a hole in the line of storms. However, the next three Kansas City controllers did not provide any weather information to the pilot and actually suggested the pilot turn east, which placed the aircraft on a path directly into a severe thunderstorm cell. While the pilot thought he was still on a route of flight taking him through a hole in the weather, he was instead proceeding directly toward an intense thunderstorm.

The Kansas City air traffic controllers watched the aircraft fly into heavy to extreme precipitation depicted on their radar screen, via WARP, without communicating to the pilot what lay ahead. The controllers’ radar screens depicted the position of the aircraft and the graphic display of the heavy to extreme precipitation. The pilot, conversely, did not have any weather radar on board and was equipped with only a “Stormscope,” which is an on-board instrument capable of detecting lightning.

According to the FAA Air Traffic Control Manual, air traffic controllers are required to tell pilots about the intensity and position of weather on their radar screens. Other violations of the FAA manual occurred regarding the controllers’ position relief briefings and transferring of control of the aircraft to different sectors. WKW prepared a presentation for use in depositions that recreated the entire flight plan and all associated radio communication with the pilot in order to demonstrate the sequence of events that led to the crash, and we successfully obtained a settlement shortly before trial.

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