13 INVESTIGATES: Flying through storms - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Flying through storms

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BIRMINGHAM, AL - On April 28, more than a dozen tornadoes touched down in Alabama. Some of the storms wreaked havoc on flights at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. But, a few planes landed and took off while twisters were only miles away.

A tornado warning even caused air traffic controllers to seek shelter.

While separate twisters were blowing through Kimberly and Graysville that day, crews here at our TV station heard a plane fly right over Red Mountain.

Even former Alabama Quarterback AJ McCarron tweeted his concerns about the severe weather on his flight into Birmingham.

To study the risks of flying in or near severe weather, we talked to two veteran pilots and a man who survived a storm-related plane crash 23 years ago.

The time was about 10:15 pm on Monday, April 28. Two different destructive tornadoes were ripping through Graysville and Kimberly. Around the same time, a couple of planes were landing and taking off at the Birmingham Airport.  

Were those two planes putting their passengers or cargo at risk?

We showed their flight paths to veteran corporate jet pilot oscar kent.

"I have flown over some tornadoes before. You know we went over the top of them because they were not that tall. But usually like that night that was pretty nasty stuff with the lightning and all that kind of stuff. It's not uncommon for someone to come in right behind one or just before one and land," he said. 

Kent said the flight risk depends on the exact location of the storm the and its path.

Based on these national weather service radar loops, at the time the planes were taking off and landing, the tornadoes were between 13 and 15 miles away from the airport.

According to FAA advisory guidelines, a pilot should "avoid by at least twenty miles any thunderstorm identified as severe or giving an intense radar echo."

"You know, the 20 mile is not a hard-fast rule if you're trying to land and you know about that storm, which way it is tracking. It's tracking away from you and not towards you, then you can safely determine with the information you have from ATC and what you have on board whether it's safe to make that landing," explained Barry Franks of Over the Mountain Flight School.  

When you take a closer look at the radar, the conditions at the airport appear less risky while the tornadoes are tracking away to the northeast.

But those two flights were not the only ones in the air near Birmingham that night. Around 10:26 p.m., former Crimson Tide Quarterback AJ McCarron tweeted, "This is crazy our pilot is about to fly us into Bham with this terrible weather and tornadoes headed that way."

In fact, the conditions around Birmingham and the airport became so severe at 11:33 p.m. that the entire air traffic control tower had to evacuate for 23 minutes.

"Super cell storms, in short, will kill you. They will rip the wings off the aircraft. There are major updrafts in those storms. That is something you don't want to find out the hard way," Franks said. 

In March 2008, a major crosswind prevented an Airbus from landing in Hamburg, Germany. Last year, a strong rain storm forced an Indonesian flight to crash land into the ocean, injuring more than 100. High winds caused a Delta flight to crash near Dallas in 1985, killing  137 people.

Then there was L'Express Flight 508 here in Birmingham. The plane crashed into an Ensley neighborhood after entering a severe thunderstorm on July 10, 1991. Thirteen people were killed. Only two survived. Mabry Rogers was one of them.

Rogers was on a small commuter flight from mobile. As they approached Birmingham, he said the passengers noticed a large storm on a cockpit radar screen.

"So I leaned over my friend right next to me and looked and I said, 'My god, he's not going to fly into that,'" Rogers recalled.  

Then around 6:11 p.m., the pilot started to lose control near Bessemer. Rogers described what happened next as a "flat spin." He said the bottom of the plane remained parallel with the ground, while the whole aircraft violently circled around and around.

"The forces of the spinning has people out in the aisle. They were strapped in with their seat belts but it was, you know, you were would be horizontal had you not been strapped in," he explained.  

According to the NTSB crash report, the plane came out of the storm about 200 feet above homes in Ensley.

Rogers was convinced the next few moments would be his last.

"We came out of the clouds. You could now see the ground. The whole plane went silent. There had been a lot of turmoil and pandemonium. I think everybody said a prayer. I for sure did. I said goodbye to my family. And I thought this, very distinctly recall to this day, 'You don't live through a plane crash,'" he said.  

Seconds later, L'Express Flight 508 clipped some trees on 29th place in Ensley. It rammed through a chimney and the plane's captain was thrown into a nearby front yard as the jet headed straight for 2517 29th place.

"The wing that I was sitting on, of that side of the plane broke through the wall of that house and I was thrown into the room, still in my seat belt, still strapped. And I was alive," Rogers recalled.  

Rogers and the captain survived. The co-pilot and 12 other passengers perished.

Following a lengthy investigation, the NTSB concluded the crash was caused by "the decision of the captain to initiate and continue an instrument approach into clearly identified thunderstorm activity, resulting in a loss of control."

Ever since, Rogers has taken every precaution when facing storms in the skies. He advises passengers to always monitor weather forecasts for their destinations and refuse to board commercial flights if they feel unsure about a storm.

"If you are on a private plane, you would be able to go up and tell the captain and say, 'Don't go into that storm,' or pilot. And he would not do it. I have done that twice since this crash flying in private planes," he said.  

Rogers suffered broken legs, some broken ribs and a few cuts in that 1991 crash. He maintains if he had sat in any other seat he would not be here to warn you how to avoid flying through storms.

"I viewed it then, and I view it now, as a matter of chance. Next time, my friend sits in that seat instead of I sit in that seat and he survives and I don't," he said.  

Mabry Rogers says he is still disturbed every time he boards a plane. But he feels safer because of advances in cockpit technology and increased pilot training over the last 23 years.

EDITOR'S NOTE: View the full interview with Mabry Rogers in the video player above.

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