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Twenty Years Later: Remembering a Deadly US Plane Crash in a Microburst

The last microburst-related U.S. jetliner crash occurred 20 years ago on July 2, 1994, and it's a testament to weather forecasting improvements and aviation training.

US Airways Flight 1016 crashed during a landing at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thirty-seven of the 57 passengers and crew members died in the crash.

Microbursts were a controversial subject after Dr. T. Theodore Fujita, famed for his tornado research, proposed them in the mid-1970s.

AccuWeather Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Executive Mike Smith wrote about the controversy in his book, "Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather."

Proof for Fujita's hypothesis came in two ways: investigations into a major jetliner crash in 1985 and photographic evidence.

The studies into the crash of Delta Flight 191 brought about better weather warnings and training for pilots to deal with this dangerous and potentially deadly meteorological phenomenon.

Delta Flight 191 was on approach to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on Aug. 2, 1985, when it crashed short of the runway after it was caught in microburst during a violent thunderstorm.

A total of 137 passengers and crew died in the crash. One person died on the ground.

A microburst is a downdraft, or sinking air in a thunderstorm, that is less than 2.5 miles in scale, Severe Weather Expert Henry Margusity said.

"Some microbursts can pose a threat to life and property, but all microbursts pose a significant threat to aviation," Margusity said. "Although microbursts are not as widely recognized as tornadoes, they can cause comparable, and in some cases, worse damage than some tornadoes produce. In fact, wind speeds as high as 150 mph are possible in extreme microburst cases."

There are two types of microbursts: wet and dry, Margusity said.

"Dry ones have no rain associated with them and typically occur in dry thunderstorms or ahead of thunderstorms," he said. "Wet ones occur within the rain shaft of the thunderstorm and can be hidden to observers and pilots."

Meteorologists can predict them ahead of time that thunderstorms can produce these types of winds. Doppler radar can see the winds occurring in the storms.

That wasn't always the case.

The meteorological and aviation communities scorned Fujita for positing that a previously undiscovered phenomenon caused jetliners to crash. He had written a paper in 1977 outlining his theory.

Other researchers claimed Fujita, who developed the Fujita tornado intensity scale, misinterpreted what was occurring in the thunderstorms, Smith said.

Smith took a photo of a thunderstorm near Andover, Kansas, during Independence Day weekend in 1978 that gave the definitive proof that Fujita's theory was correct.

It wasn't until the crash of Delta Flight 191 that the message about microbursts got through.

It was the first official recognition by the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the crash, that a plane crashed due to a microburst.

"Within two years, the Federal Aviation Administration had created a course to teach pilots to avoid downbursts and how to escape if they inadvertently flew into one," Smith wrote in his blog on the 25th anniversary of the Delta crash in 2010.

"Ground-based low-level wind shear alert detection systems were installed at most major airports, and Terminal Doppler Weather Radar was installed at 44 high-risk airports, including DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth). These two systems generate wind shear alerts that are relayed from the air traffic control tower to pilots in flight or preparing to take off."

The US Airways Flight 1016 crash on July 2, 1994, could have been avoided if the pilots followed their training on avoiding downbursts, Smith wrote in his book.

While a downburst collapsed the Dallas Cowboys' practice facility in May 2009, there was a bigger story that didn't capture the media's attention.

The downburst also occurred over the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.

"[T]he planes and their passengers were safe, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Fujita (who passed away in 1998) and other courageous meteorologists who were willing to follow the science wherever it led, in spite of sometimes fierce criticism," Smith wrote on his blog.