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Thunderstorms and small planes can be a dangerous mix, experts say

The National Weather Service says showers and thunderstorms with heavy rain were moving through the area at the time of the crash.

A satellite/radar map is shown of Long Island's

A satellite/radar map is shown of Long Island's east end showing weather conditions around the time a small plane was reported missing Saturday. Photo Credit: News 12

Although officials do not yet know the cause of the crash of a small plane in the waters off Amagansett that left two dead and two missing, thunderstorms were in the general area of the aircraft’s route, meteorologists said.

An aviation expert said thunderstorms are “one of the most serious if not the most serious weather hazard” for pilots.

According to Jay Engle, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Upton, “there were showers and some thunderstorms with heavy rain moving across the area at the approximated time of the incident.”

At 2:35 and 2:55 p.m., lightning was reported in the distance by an automated weather observing system at East Hampton Airport, which sits several miles from the crash site, Engle said. Visibility at the airport was reported at between 7 and 10 miles.

The storms in the general area “were not particularly fast-moving,” Engle said, with most traveling about 10 to 15 miles per hour from north to south.

The weather system at the airfield did not record any data on wind speed, he added.

“Meteorological impacts of a thunderstorm are very localized,” Engle said. “It’s a wild guess to know what the conditions were ... what you get at 200 feet in the air could be a lot different from what you get on the ground.”

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said, “the initial report I received was that they were going through a squall.”

Conditions appeared to have changed by the time the first of two Coast Guard cutters reached the debris field, she said.

“It said calm winds,” she said, of about 6 knots and seas of one foot or less.

Michael Canders, director of the Farmingdale State College aviation center at Republic Airport, said “thunderstorms are hazardous for all aircraft, but particularly for smaller aircraft because of their size. They’re more dramatically impacted by high winds. It’s one of the most serious if not the most serious weather hazard.”

Canders said that when a thunderstorm forms, warm air is lifted into the atmosphere. “There is a flow of air that can occur very rapidly,” he added.

“Thunderstorms are not something you can safely fly into or even fly near in many cases,” he said. “Pilots are taught to give them a wide berth and just stay well clear of the effects of thunderstorms.”

Canders said some small planes have real-time weather radar systems but others rely on delayed weather information that can be a few minutes old, so pilots may not be immediately aware they are flying toward a thunderstorm.

With Joan Gralla

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