Missing AirAsia Flight 8501: Examining weather-related issues

The disappearance of AirAsia Flight 8501 is refocusing attention on weather-related issues that have contributed to other commercial airline crashes in the past. Among them, malfunctions caused by ice and very violent weather that planes can experience at high altitudes, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler.

"I think it's fair to say these investigators will strongly focus on the weather and on the flight crew's response to the weather," said Steve Wallace, a pilot and former director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Accident Investigations.

Indonesian authorities said AirAsia Flight 8501 was passing through a thunderstorm over the Java Sea when it disappeared Sunday. As a result, while flying at roughly 32,000 feet, the pilots asked air-traffic control for permission to climb to 38,000 feet.

"Modern airliners are equipped to cope with precipitation, icing and turbulence, but most pilot decision making is about weather, and particularly weather avoidance," Wallace said.

Air traffic controllers and pilots around the globe take precautions to avoid potentially hazardous conditions, but sudden and unexpected weather can crop up in their flight paths. An NTSB study blamed weather as either the "cause" or a "contributing factor" in 1,704 crashes between 2003 and 2007.

"Modern airliners have radar that is designed to detect weather," Wallace said. "It basically sends back an echo of the level and density of precipitation."

Severe thunderstorms are normal occurrences over the Java Sea, the location of Flight 8501's disappearance. They can produce lightning and microbursts: powerful downdrafts of air that can jostle an aircraft.

"Very heavy precipitation can potentially drown out the engines," Wallace said. "Hail could break through the windshield; we have seen all those things happen in prior accidents."

Ice poses another danger at high altitudes. In 2009, ice accumulation caused malfunctions aboard Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330, which crashed enroute to France from Brazil.

"It lost all its airspeed indications, but the crew did not sort it out correctly and stalled the airplane and it crashed into the ocean," Wallace said.

Wallace said the flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders of Flight 8501 hold the keys to what happened on Sunday night, and how that thunderstorm contributed to whatever chain of events followed.