Microbursts are downbursts of air with a diameter of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) or less. Often associated with thunderstorms, they can generate winds of hurricane force that change direction abruptly. Headwinds can become tailwinds in a matter of seconds, forcing aircraft to lose air speed and altitude. After microbursts caused several major air catastrophes in the 1970s and 1980s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) installed warning and radar systems at airports to alert pilots when conditions were right for wind shears and microbursts.
Air particles clearly reveal a dangerous microburst. Sometimes, airplanes can be caught in these dangerous bursts of air. (NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory)