Weather may be to blame in fatal helicopter crash

Around 8:30pm Monday night a REACT medical helicopter, flying from Rockford Memorial Hospital, crashed in a field south of Rochelle, Illinois killing the pilot and two flight nurses. While the Federal Aviation Administration and The National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, weather is a suspect not worth overlooking.

Normally, we think of wind shear and severe thunderstorms as the main causes for air disasters. In this case, the helicopter was likely flying through super-cooled water droplets. These unfrozen droplets can exist in the atmosphere in liquid form, even though the temperature of the atmosphere is below freezing. As an aircraft flies into these droplets, the cold fuselage comes in contact with the cold water, causing ice to form on the aircraft and wings (or in the case of helicopters, rotors). The accumulation of ice may not be noticed by pilots and passengers during night flying and if it is, usually the pilot can ascend or descend to a different flight level where the ice won’t accumulate or will melt. It is not immediately known whether the helicopter involved in Monday’s crash had deicing equipment.

Icing is dangerous because of a few reasons. 1.) It can change the aerodynamics of the aircraft; proper aerodynamics are needed to ensure there is enough lift to keep the vessel in the air. 2.) Ice can produce a significant amount of weight, causing the rotors to spin too slow to maintain flight. 3.) Ice can cause blockages of pitot tubes and vents. This can cause errors in instruments such as altimeters and airspeed indicators. 4.) Ice formation on unheated parts of the aircraft can affect the ability of radio transmission. 5.) Ice accumulation that falls off of aircraft may damage necessary pieces of equipment for flight.

Conditions at Rochelle, the nearest airport to the crash site, were cloudy with intermittent snow showers and flurries. At flight level, it is certainly possible that the crew ran into low clouds and super-cooled water droplets, which could’ve caused icing. Shortly after we confirmed the crash, I spoke with Casey Sullivan, a Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Romeoville, Illinois. He could not confirm whether icing was a factor. “We did not receive any reports of any icing in that area from aircraft, but that’s not to say it wasn’t possible.”

Since there were no survivors or pilot reports in the area, we must look to the profile of the atmosphere from this evening’s balloon launch at the Davenport, Iowa National Weather Service Office. To the left is the vertical profile of the atmosphere around Northern Illinois this evening. Meteorologists and pilots refer to these charts as “Skew-T Log P” diagrams. What’s important to know is the red line represents the temperature (slightly below freezing at the ground (bottom)), with a steady decrease as you ascend into the atmosphere (top). The green line is the dewpoint. The air is completely saturated where the green and red lines are very close together. This occurred from near the surface, up to about 5,955 feet. This is the most likely area for super-cooled water droplets to be present within the atmosphere. Unfortunately, most medical helicopters travel at a level below 5,955 feet…making the threat of aircraft icing a real and present danger if the aircraft did not have deicing equipment.

Stay with 13News as we continue to cover this air crash. -Eric

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Posted under aviation, news, safety, science, snow, technology, travel, weather geek

This post was written by Eric Sorensen on December 11, 2012

Out of This World

The 2012 election is now in the rear view mirror. Thousands upon thousands of absentee ballots were cast from all ends of the globe as people couldn’t make it back to the country to venture to their local polling place. Some of these votes can literally be out of this world. NASA allows astronauts that are current on mission in space to vote via electronic ballot. The votes are cast on a secure connection and sent straight to the voting headquarters. This process wasn’t used this year, but two astronauts currently on the International Space Station did cast votes before they left on their mission. Votes from space have been cast in the past –  talk about going to great lengths to exercise your democratic freedom! -Greg

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Posted under event, space, technology

This post was written by GregBobos on November 7, 2012

GOES/NWA Satellite Info

The status of weather satellites has become an increasingly important issue over the past three weeks, and part of the NWA Annual Meeting was dedicated to discussing expectations of future satellite capabilities. Weather satellites have become a major issue because back on September 23 the satellite in charge of monitoring the entire east coast, and the Atlantic, GOES-13, went offline unexpectedly. At this time it is still unclear if the satellite can be repaired. GOES-13 was put into operation back in 2006 and was supposed to last at least a decade.. that doesn’t seem to be a reasonable goal anymore. As we speak, another satellite, GOES-14, is slowly moving toward the position of the inactive GOES-13 satellite in order to take its place and begin retrieving data from the East Coast. This won’t be a quick fix because GOES-14 will take the entire month of October to move to its new location.

That brings us back to the NWA conference and the topic of satellites. With the apparent need for satellite upgrades and maybe even new satellites all together, NOAA’s Satellite Division expressed some futures hopes and expectations for satellite operating capabilities. As of now there are 17 environmental satellites in use. NOAA wants to improve snapshot times by its satellites from once every 20 minutes to once every 5 minutes, and higher that rate to once every 30 seconds in storm events. This decreasing refresh rate would increase data into computer models which would increase the accuracy of forecasts. Faster satellite refresh times would lead meteorologists to have a much better picture of the story on the ground, and help us to better inform you of any incoming threats. -Greg

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Posted under event, science, space, technology

This post was written by GregBobos on October 9, 2012

Exactrack|HD is here!

Beginning today, we will have the ability to track storms in true 1080i high definition making WREX-TV the first station in the Rockford TV market with this technology.

We will be utilizing new software from WeatherCentral of Madison, Wisconsin, the weather provider WREX-TV has had for over a decade. Exactrack|HD will allow us to see more detail within storms, picking up the smallest and finest detail, and providing us the ability to track storms more accurately. By continuing our partnership with WeatherCentral we will be using an interface familiar with our weather staff, but one that adds important new features like 3D slicing that will allow us to find areas of hail and high wind within a storm.

Last year’s record severe weather events made us realize the need to secure the best technology available. Earlier this year, we were one of the first stations in the country to show weather interactively in a 3D HD environment. Now we’ll be able to see storms in crystal clear high definition with precision accuracy. As always, we encourage your opinions and comments so we can drive this weather department in the direction you want. Feel free to give us feedback here, on our Facebook page, on Twitter, or via e-mail at weather@wrex.com.  

Stay ahead of the worst storms with the best technology available! Exactrack|HD, a first in Rockford television and you’ll only see it here on 13News.

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Posted under event, news, technology, Threatrack

This post was written by Eric Sorensen on June 11, 2012

New technology lets us see storms like never before!

Back in February, 13News was first to bring you true, interactive weathercasts in 3D high definition. However, we’re not stopping there!

We’ll move farther ahead than ever with a new way to track storms beginning next week as we’ve secured the best technology available to any television station in the country to track storms.

And it’s fitting our next chance of thunderstorms is Monday.

You’re invited to experience Exactrack|HD for the first time Monday evening on 13News at 5, 6, & 10 and see the weather like you’ve never before! -ES

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Posted under news, technology, weather, weather geek

This post was written by Eric Sorensen on June 8, 2012

VIDEO: “Project:Tornado” Special Report

Our weather team worked tirelessly all month long to educate more than 5,000 students on the power of severe weather. We wrapped up our Project:Tornado campaign with a half hour special that aired this past Sunday. Here are all four parts with no commercial interruptions:

 

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Posted under event, news, Project: Tornado, safety, science, severe weather, statistics, technology, tornado, weather, weather geek

This post was written by Eric Sorensen on May 28, 2012

Think twice before buying a weather radio!

The title of this blog post got your attention, didn’t it? In my 13 years as a Meteorologist, I’ve always believed everyone should have a weather radio in their home, much like everyone should have working smoke detectors.

NOAA Weather Radios have come a long way! Back in the 1980s they became popular for those who wanted to get weather information in real-time. Batteries allowed operation even when the power went out. The problem was someone had to push a button to turn the radio on and then wait for the most important information.

In the 1990s, there were significant improvements to NOAA Weather Radios with the advent of automatic alert tones. This meant that people who weren’t paying attention to the weather could be alerted to rapidly changing weather.

By the 2000s, NOAA Weather Radios got even smarter as one could pre-program your specific location into the radio so it wouldn’t sound an alarm for storms dozens of miles away. This allowed the right people to get the right warning at the right time.

But you may not need a new one.

Imagine taking your family on a road trip this summer. Perhaps you’re on your way across Iowa when the skies turn dark. You wonder if there are any weather warnings and turn on local radio. But if you’re not paying attention to every sign, you may not know what county you’re in or if you are in a warning or not.

Unfortunately, several people were killed on Interstate 44 near Joplin Missouri just about a year ago because they drove into the obscured tornado.

But what if there was a way to be alerted wherever you are? New wireless smart phone technology will allow your cell phone to become a smart weather radio! By utilizing the phone’s GPS signal, a new program developed by the wireless industry, the FCC, and FEMA will send out an alert tone with important information during dangerous weather, AMBER Alerts, and Presidential Alerts during national emergencies.

The program begins next month and is offered by all wireless carriers for free.

The technology that will send alert tones will not be able to utilize the National Weather Service’s polygon warning system. It will send alert tones to any telephone in any county affected by a weather warning, regardless of whether the phone is specifically within the polygon warning.

Another caveat is this technology is not available on all cell phones. Click on the following links to see if your cell phone is capable to download the new program.

AT&T
Cricket Wireless
Sprint/Nextel
T-Mobile
U.S. Cellular
Verizon Wireless

If you don’t have a phone capable for WEA (Wireless Emergency Alerts), there are other ways to get notified. The stand-by NOAA Weather Radio might still be right for you. As always when severe weather threatens, we are here for you 24/7 online, on the air, on the radio, and are the only station with live, automatic weather alerts on Facebook and Twitter.

One great way to remain connected is with our WREX Text Alerts. We have two programs you can utilize. Learn more about our program and how to sign up by clicking here. -ES

 

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Posted under safety, technology, weather

This post was written by Eric Sorensen on May 18, 2012

Still Some Uncertainty for a Stateline White Christmas

Christmas is just a short five days away.  Some of our numerical weather prediction models are still hinting at a chance that we may have some snow on the ground in the Rockford region.  The Global Forecast System model, more commonly referred to as the GFS, is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).  NOAA oversees such organizations as the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP).  Their GFS computer model is run four times daily and can produce forecasts up to two weeks in advance.  Generally, meteorologists utilize GFS information from one to five days out, as anything beyond that becomes less accurate.  So it is important to stay up to date on the ever changing forecasts.  There are other weather prediction models, such as the North American Mesoscale (NAM) model, the Global Environmental Multiscale (GEM) or Canadian model, and the Integrated Forecast System (ECMWF) or European model.

Three images of the GFS model output for Friday into Saturday (Christmas Eve) have been posted here.  The data and images show mean sea level pressure, precipitation, and thickness.  It looks like the possibility of light snow is in the forecast for Friday night and into very early Saturday for Rockford at this moment.  This model run also looks like the snowy system will intensify and impact areas just southeast of Rockford near the southern Chicago suburbs and into Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio.  This is still something to keep an eye on, as the updated model runs may find a change in the track of this system.  So right now, don’t give up hope for a white Christmas!  -JA

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Posted under event, science, snow, technology, weather, weather geek, winter weather

This post was written by Joe Astolfi on December 20, 2011

WeatherBrains preview!

On Monday, I will be a guest panelist on “WeatherBrains,” the most listened to weather podcast. It is highly respected by those in the field of Meteorology and those with a love of weather! It originates from Birmingham, Alabama. James Spann, Chief Meteorologist with ABC33/40 in Birmingham is the moderator of the 60-80 minute session. Spann was the one who guided millions to safety during the record-breaking tornado outbreak of April 27th.

I will be talking about how WREX-TV has positioned itself as a leader in weather information across multiple platforms, not limited to our Project: Tornado campaign where we have taught tens of thousands of children about the need for a weather plan, our unique severe weather protocol, the 2011 heat wave, the recent autumn and winter tornadoes, and the success of this very weather blog.

It is quite a privilege to be included on a panel of distinguished Meteorologists and scientists and I hope you have an opportunity to listen! WeatherBrains is taped live Monday evening and will be accessible late Monday night/Tuesday morning.

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Posted under event, heat wave, news, record weather, safety, science, severe weather, technology, tornado, weather, weather geek

This post was written by Eric Sorensen on July 22, 2011

ISS Flyby!

issListen up all you early risers. The International Space Station is going to do some flybys over the Rockford area within the next 4-5 days. Look at the list to see if you will be up at those times. Then when you head out, just look in the direction that is given and then the number of degrees above the horizon. It looks like the size of a pinhead quickly moving across the sky. Enjoy!

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Posted under space, technology

This post was written by Cyndi Kahlbaum on October 13, 2010