As their plane climbed away from Belize City, American Airlines pilot Brian Will and his co-pilot were ready to detour several hundred miles to avoid a wall of bad weather in front of them.
Then, looking at the display on a new weather-radar system, the pilots saw a way to navigate between the storms on the Dallas-bound flight this spring.
"We found the gap that the weather radar said was safe to go through," Will, who is also American's director of advanced technologies, recounted recently. "We didn't have a single ripple, and we flew straight through to Dallas."
Shooting the gap saved the airline a costly refueling stop in Houston or New Orleans. The makers of the advanced radar systems promise to do the same for other airlines -- along with sparing passengers from gut-churning turbulence and reducing lengthy delays.
The system on Will's plane was made by Rockwell Collins Inc. and just hit the market in February. Rival Honeywell International Inc. also has a new on-board radar system designed to give pilots a better idea of the weather ahead.
Rockwell Collins says its MultiScan ThreatTrack radar system is the first to detect not just severe turbulence but also more moderate bumpiness that is safe to fly through, although not comfortable for passengers. Other features warn pilots of storm cells that could rise from below and blow outward and make a flight choppy or dangerous.
American was the first customer for ThreatTrack. The system is now on about 40 planes at American and several foreign carriers.
Honeywell's version is called IntuVue. A waffle-like receiver is in the plane's nose cone. Pilots see a cockpit display that uses icons to warn of potential hail and lightning up to 370 miles away. They can call up panoramic 3-D images of storms between the ground and 60,000 feet, eliminating the need for pilots to manually aim the radar at smaller sections of the storm.
The system has been installed on 66 of Southwest's newest Boeing 737 jets and will be on future deliveries. Southwest has no immediate plans to retrofit its roughly 600 older planes -- it would cost upward of $200,000 per job.
Bill Lusk, a Boeing 737 captain and the manager of daily operations for Southwest Airlines, says the new system improves the safety margin, helps pilots provide a smoother ride for passengers, and saves on fuel. Flying into a hailstorm can leave a plane's aluminum skin badly dimpled, so better radar could also reduce maintenance spending.
Older systems do a good job of capturing the basic characteristics of a storm -- its height, shape and intensity -- but the newer ones make it easier to pinpoint the location of the worst weather, says Erik Eliel, a pilot for a major airline who also trains other pilots on radar. But he worries that airlines might think all that technological muscle reduces the need for pilots to understand dangerous weather and the limits of radar.
"In terms of situational awareness, some of the stuff that the modern-day radars do is incredible," Eliel says. "They are not a panacea. You still require training on some things."
Rockwell and Honeywell are working on refinements that will better predict ice at high altitudes, which can damage engines and cause a loss in power. Radar can't "see" so-called clear-air turbulence, so pilots rely on reports from other planes to avoid it, but the companies are working on algorithms to predict it.
Last year, 11 passengers and 13 crew members on U.S. airlines were injured during turbulence, according to government figures. This May, four passengers and two flight attendants were injured when an Orlando-bound US Airways jet hit severe turbulence for just a few seconds shortly after takeoff from Philadelphia.
The stakes are big for Honeywell and Rockwell. The world's passenger and cargo airlines are expected to need about 65,000 new planes over the next two decades, according to Boeing and Airbus, and each will need some type of weather-radar system. The companies and airlines declined to disclose the cost of each system.
Honeywell took four years and hundreds of flights on a 1952-built Convair 580 to develop its system. Rockwell took about six years, and a team of six engineers and a meteorologist flew into storms all over the world on a plane leased from a real estate investor.
"The only way to find out what the weather is like over the Amazon," said Roy Robertson, Rockwell's resident radar expert, "is to go to the Amazon."