Q: What is wind shear? And can it rip the wings off?
Well, to keep it simple, windshear, one of those horrific buzzwords that scare the crap out of passengers, is a sudden change in the direction and/or velocity of the wind. It can happen vertically, horizontally, or both, as in the case of a microburst preceding a thunderstorm. A microburst is an intense, localized, burst of air from a storm front. Think of it like an upside down mushroom cloud. The strength of the shear can run the range of barely noticeable to potentially deadly. Fortunately it has become easier to predict, and as a rule windshear does not simply appear out of nowhere, flipping a plane upside down without warning.
This “rip the wings off” business is something I can’t begin to address. It’s like asking, “Can a wave break a ship in half?” Theoretically, yes. Practically speaking, no. In the case of windshear, pilots are not worried about losing wings, they are worried about losing speed when a certain number of knots are from a headwind suddenly “shear” to a tailwind. But again, conditions in which this will happen are generally predictable, and pilots are trained to deal with them. Windshear got a lot of press in the 1970s and 1980s when it was still a misunderstood phenomenon. The crash of Eastern flight 66 at Kennedy Airport in 1975 is considered the watershed accident after which experts began to study it more seriously. The last major accident attributed to windshear was in Dallas in 1985.
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.