Utahns are saddened and air travelers in general are understandably upset by the crash and burning Wednesday of a Delta Airlines jetliner as it was taking off from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport en route to Salt Lake City.
Despite this grim episode, the public should know that commercial airlines are still not only about the safest form of travel, but also are in the process of becoming even safer.One measure of the progress being made is the fact that the disaster in Texas is only the first crash involving a major U.S. airline so far in 1988.
Another measure is the testing now underway in Denver of a new system that can protect jetliners against a weather hazard that has taken more 500 lives since the mid-1960s.
That hazard is wind shear, an abrupt shift in wind speed and direction that can rob a plane of lift. Though weather seems not to have played a part in Wednesday's crash in Texas, wind shear was responsible for the death of 137 people in a 1985 crash at the same Dallas-Forth Worth Airport that also involved a Delta Airlines plane.
Since the 1985 crash, aviation safety officials have intensified their efforts to combat wind shear, a very narrow and intense downdraft of air from a cloudburst. After its downward-rushing air currents hit the ground, they rush outward in all directions.
Wind shears form so quickly and take up such little space that they can pass between the wind-speed indicators that ring most airports without being detected. But the tests in Denver, involving a Doppler radar system that can track moving air masses, look promising.
Only last month, Scripps Howard News Service reports, this experimental radar flashed a warning to the Denver airport control tower: A wind shear was in the path of five descending United Airlines jetliners. The tower told one approaching pilot to expect an 80-knot drop in airspeed, which would have been one of the largest such drops ever recorded. All five airliners delayed their landing attempts until after the deadly condition had passed, then landed normally.
The FAA hopes to see the advanced radar in use at 100 airports around the country by 1992. Though each unit would cost $5.5 million, the experience at Denver suggests it would be money well spent.
Meanwhile, just as safety experts are learning from the 1985 crash at Dallas-Fort Worth, may whatever lessons are derived from this week's air disaster in Texas also eventually help make the skies safer.