Reprinted from Bloomberg.com

By Pat Wechsler and Adriana Brasileiro

June 18 (Bloomberg) — Ronaldo Jenkins recalls the day a wall of cumulonimbus thunderheads appeared on his radar screen.

“I looked on the radar for the thinnest patch of the cloud system to go through and decided to go for it,” said the 63- year-old former pilot for Brazilian carrier Viacao Aerea Riograndense SA, who was unable to fly under or over the clouds.

Jenkins, now a flight safety consultant for the union representing Brazil’s airline companies, made it through the turbulence and lightning safely. Marc Dubois, the captain of Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, wasn’t as fortunate on June 1. In the early hours that day, his Airbus SAS A330-200 fell from the sky during a storm, killing all 228 on board. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

A system to provide more detailed weather information that may have helped both Jenkins and Dubois has been under development for at least four years by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and counterparts around the globe, according to the agency. The satellite-based upgrade of air-traffic management, primarily aimed at ascertaining aircraft positions more accurately, will have the ability to send real-time climate images and data to cockpits.

Seeing the severity of the storm an hour before reaching it “would have been useful” in the case of Flight 447, giving the pilot more time to find holes to fly through, said John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Accident Investigation

Martin Fendt, a spokesman for Airbus, declined to comment on whether a system like the one under development would have helped Flight 447. The company is waiting for the accident investigation to conclude before making statements, he said in a phone interview from Paris.

Air France-KLM also won’t comment before the probe ends, according to a spokesman in Paris, who declined to be identified because of company policy. The plane sent 24 automated system- failure messages, including one indicating that the A330-200’s speed sensors were faulty, according to Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses, the French agency responsible for the crash investigation.

In the U.S., the proposed technology is called NextGen, for Next Generation Air Transportation System, and is estimated to cost the government as much as $22 billion to develop, according to the FAA. The Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast link, being built by a team led by ITT Corp., is slated to be operational by 2013, according to the FAA Web site. ITT, based in White Plains, New York, is a manufacturer of engineering products and communications systems.

FAA Appropriations

The FAA, which is working jointly with the Commerce Department and military, expects to spend about $1 billion a year on the system, spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. It is seeking $865 million in appropriations for fiscal 2010, according to the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

“We want to get to generate forecasts so far in the future that we can generate routes” that avoid storms, said Jason Tuell, chief of science plans for the National Weather Service. That capability, not expected to be available until 2025, will depend on meteorologists and engineers developing a system that combines advanced numerical and higher resolution weather models with radar and satellite feeds, said Don Berchoff, the director of the service’s office of science and technology in Silver Spring, Maryland.

UAL Testing Systems

UAL Corp., parent of United Airlines, may not wait for the government’s link. The carrier, the third-largest in the U.S., is testing satellite-based weather systems for its planes, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based airline.

“Making the business case for this is the problem airlines face since safety records are already so good,” said MIT’s Hansman. There is the equivalent of one to two crashes per 10 million takeoffs and landings, based on his calculations.

The Washington-based National Transportation Safety Board reported 42 serious turbulence-related injuries and no fatalities in the U.S. over the past five years.

Most such injuries involve flight attendants who are unable to get strapped in before planes are buffeted, said Jim Burin, director of technical programs at Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Virginia.

Every year, millions of airline passengers fly through a turbulence-prone band, known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, when they cross the equator. In the 30 days to June 8, 38,716 flights crossed the equator with a scheduled seat capacity of 8.2 million, according to OAG Aviation Solutions, a unit of London-based United Business Media Ltd.

Convergence Zone

The Air France plane was in the convergence zone when it crashed into the Atlantic.

“There is a ring of very big thunderstorms circling the earth,” said Henry Margusity, senior meteorologist at State College, Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather.com. “This is the area where hurricanes and tropical storms form and planes must cross every time they fly between the Northern and Southern hemispheres.”

At times dead calm, the convergence zone produces some of the planet’s most violent weather when northeasterly and southeasterly trade winds clash, said Pat Slattery, a spokesman in Kansas City, Missouri, for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The thunderstorms may be 50 miles across,” said Jorg Handwerg, a Deutsche Lufthansa AG pilot for 17 years. “We call it squall lines,” which resemble “pearls on a string. If they are too close, you can’t find a way through. And if you have a cluster you may have to deviate for hundreds of miles.”

Tropic Supercells

Violent weather in the region can approximate the supercells that spawn tornadoes in the U.S., which exceed altitudes of 50,000 feet, NOAA’s Slattery said.

“We are eons ahead in forecasting convective storms in the central part of the U.S. than we are in forecasting them in the tropics,” said National Weather Service’s Tuell. “So much of it takes place over water in the tropics — over the Indian Ocean, Pacific and Atlantic — and there is just much less data available because of that.”

The Air France jetliner was carrying eight to nine hours of fuel and flying near its limit of altitude just before it crashed, said Hans Weber, chief executive officer of San Diego transportation consulting company Tecop International Inc. He was referring to information released by the official investigation that placed the plane at about 34,000 feet. AccuWeather’s Margusity said the storm clouds reached to at least 50,000 feet.

‘Coffin Corner’

“Pilots call it the coffin corner when they are flying a heavy aircraft close to its ceiling,” Weber said. “Flying gets to be difficult because there is a narrower speed difference between too slow and too fast. Not having to contend with the most severe weather would have freed up the pilots to deal with any equipment problems.”

The latest radar products are three-dimensional, such as IntuVue from Honeywell International Inc. in Morris Township, New Jersey, which helps pilots determine the height of thunderheads. The three-dimensional systems, introduced less than three years ago, are in a small portion of the commercial aircraft fleet, said Chris Benich, director of aerospace regulatory affairs at the world’s largest maker of airplane controls.

Among airlines using IntuVue are Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Air Canada and Singapore Airlines Ltd., while the U.S. Air Force uses it on C-17 cargo planes, according to a list provided by Honeywell. The cost for long-haul aircraft such as the Boeing 777 is about $335,000, said Bill Reavis, a Honeywell spokesman.

Two-Dimensional Radar

Most commercial planes are equipped with two-dimensional radar that requires pilots to manipulate it to get an accurate picture of the weather, Benich said.

“With older weather radars, pilots have difficulty accurately determining the top of significant weather,” Benich said.

Honeywell, Airbus of Toulouse, France, Thales SA of Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, and 14 other partners signed a contract on June 12 to work on the European version of the satellite-based link called Sesar, or Single European Sky ATM Research.

Brazil also is implementing a satellite-based system that will provide both the position of aircraft to control centers — even if they are outside radar coverage areas — and real-time climate data, said Ramon Borges Cardoso, a brigadier in the nation’s air force.

“The pilot in the cockpit will be able to receive a wealth of information he doesn’t get so easily now, including weather information,” said former pilot Jenkins. “The new system will definitely give pilots more confidence.”