Our flight into Hong Kong was delayed by an hour at least due to heavy thunderstorms, hail, and rainfall in the area around Hong Kong, and Southern China’s Guangdong Region. I took the above photo as we were making our decent into Hong Kong, somewhere between Dongguan and Zhongshan. Indeed, south China is experiencing a monsoon season at this time of the year and areas like this contain unstable air that any towering cumulus cloud can trigger and quickly become Cumulonimbus very quickly. Aircraft (especially commercial aircraft) avoid such clouds by at least 23 nautical miles (about 37 kms) on the upwind side. A typical Cumulonimbus takes less than 20 minutes to build. The most dangerous part of this is that at that particular time it does NOT show on the weather radar. It then becomes active for around 20 minutes (in which 95% of their lighting is internal (invisible in DAYLIGHT), flashing every 90 seconds or so- that can be LETHAL). They dissipate for 20 more minutes, becoming high-level cirrus clouds and low-level stratocumulus before eventually dying away.
It was because of this kind of activity that we had to stack in a hold at 7,000 feet around some 50km outside of the Hong Kong and Macau airspace for around 45 minutes before being given the all clear to land at Hong Kong Chep Lap Kok Airport’s runway.
Unfortunately, on June the 1st 2009 an Air France Airbus A330 (flight AF447) flying from Brazil to Paris CDG entered two large Cumulonimbus clouds - one just over 40,000 feet high and then another that was much larger, topping an astronomical 53,000 feet high. The aircraft’s autopilot disengaged, pitot-tube stopped working, and the aircraft went into a deadly stall plummeting into the deep ocean within a few minutes. ALL 228 passengers and crew lost their lives. The key thing to bear in mind is that EVERY Cumulonimbus cloud expends as much energy as 3-10 nuclear explosions in its 20-minute active phase. Therefore, the next time a plane is delayed – don’t panic because it’s probably for a very good reason, and it may just be that your life is saved by the guys in the front office.
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