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Techniques for forecasting and detecting a type of wind shear called microbursts are being tested this month in an operational program at Denver's Stapleton International Airport as part of an effort to reduce hazards to airplanes and passengers.

Wind shear, which can be spawned by convective storms, can occur as a microburst. These downbursts of cool air are usually recognizable as a visible rain shaft beneath a thundercloud. Sometimes, however, the rain shaft evaporates before reaching the ground, leaving the downdraft invisible. Although thunderstorms are traditionally avoided by airplane pilots, these invisible downdrafts also harbor hazards in what usually appear to be safe skies. When the downdraft reaches the earth's surface, the downdraft spreads out horizontally, much like a stream of water gushing from a garden hose on a concrete surface, explained John McCarthy, director of the operational program. Airplanes can encounter trouble when the downdraft from the microburst causes sudden shifts in wind direction, which may reduce lift on the wing, an especially dangerous situation during takeoff.