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Breakthrough Radar System Helps Pilots Avoid Rough Turbulence

ABC News(WILMINGTON, N.C.) -- In-flight turbulence causes more injuries on an airplane than anything else, but a breakthrough piece of technology could help pilots avoid these pockets of unstable air and make for safer flights.

Pilots report more than 70,000 instances of moderate to severe turbulence a year. According to the FAA, three-fourths of all weather-related accidents are caused by colliding winds and temperature changes that shake up the cockpit and the cabin.

That is why flight attendants are always pestering passengers to keep their seatbelts on. In-flight injuries are expensive and cost the airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars per incident.

Rough weather rarely brings a plane down, but it does cause a dozen serious injuries as well as a half billion dollars in damages and flight delays each year.

But for the first time, a new 3-D radar system installed in business jets, and soon, fleets of commercial jets, will allow pilots to spot not only turbulence, but lightning and hail from more than 60 miles away. Southwest already has it in 19 planes.

Honeywell, the maker of the new radar, intentionally flew ABC News into rough weather over Wilmington, N.C., to demonstrate how the system works. As the clouds were billowing and the cabin started shaking, the radar screen flashed bright icons identifying lightning cells and hail miles away.

"The things that a pilot would not see with conventional weather radar are these lightning strike symbols, the hail icons," chief test pilot Markus Johnson said. "Both of those are areas that pilots need to keep away from."

Johnson said the older radar would only identify areas of precipitation, while this new radar can show the probability of hail. While lightning might frighten passengers the most, a hailstorm is what really causes the damage to the aircraft.

"It can be as large as a golf ball, and when that hits your airplane, it can tear right through," he said.

In a nutshell, the new system provides information that will help pilots make better flight decisions faster, Johnson said, "It allows me to concentrate on deciding where to go to have the smoothest, safest ride."

To find out how the radar system works and what happened when ABC News' Jim Avila flew into rough weather, tune into Nightline at 11:35 p.m. ET.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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