Or can it only detect terrain on a clear day or night? I’m mostly asking because of PIA268

I know GPWS is much more reliable in todays time, and I’m unsure if the accident flight even had a GPWS system, but is it safe to say the chances of that scenario repeating, are minimal? Assuming the system is functioning properly and or the crew reacts properly to the warning.

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    $\begingroup$ Most aircraft nowadays have the Enhanced GPWS where aircraft GPS position is matched against a worldwide terrain and obstacle database, so that terrain and obstacle warnings can be generated without the need for a ground radar. Just a comment, as it’s relevant but doesn’t answer the question. $\endgroup$ Jan 24, 2020 at 7:48

1 Answer 1


Modern airliners typically use a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) with two sources of information for triggering warnings: the radio altimeter and a global terrain database. See e.g. the Boeing 737 NG, which uses EGPWS (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System):

Ground Proximity Alerts

The GPWS provides alerts for potentially hazardous flight conditions involving imminent impact with the ground.

The GPWS monitors terrain proximity using an internal world wide terrain data base. Proximate terrain data shows on the navigation display. If there is a potential terrain conflict, alerts are provided based on estimated time to impact. These alerts are “look-ahead terrain alerts.”

The GPWS provides alerts based on radio altitude and combinations of barometric altitude, airspeed, glide slope deviation, and airplane configuration. The alerts are for:

  • excessive descent rate
  • excessive terrain closure rate
  • altitude loss after takeoff or go-around
  • unsafe terrain clearance when not in the landing configuration
  • excessive deviation below an ILS glide slope
  • excessive deviation below glidepath

These alerts are “radio altitude based alerts.”

(Boeing 737 NG FCOM 15.20.11 Warning Systems - System Description, emphasis mine)

For the terrain database to work, the aircraft needs to know its position from a GNSS source (like GPS), but can also use another source (like inertial position) as backup:

5.3 Primary Horizontal Position Sources. Horizontal position for TAWS must come from a GNSS source meeting ETSO-C129a or any revision of ETSO-C145, ETSO-C146, or ETSO-C196 (or subsequent). As an exception, TAWS equipment limited to installation in aircraft where the EU Regulation on Air Operations does not require such equipment may be configurable to operate solely on a non-GNSS position source.

5.4 Alternate Horizontal Position Sources. Retaining TAWS functionality during GNSS outage or unavailability provides a safety benefit. It is acceptable and recommended to incorporate a secondary, non GNSS position source, to provide horizontal position when the GNSS is not available or reliable.

(ETSO-C151c, thanks to DeltaLima for pointing this out)

So there are two signals that need to work in clouds for full TAWS capabilities.

  • Radio Altimeter:

    For the radio altimeter to work in a cloud, the radar signal needs to be able to penetrate the cloud and reflect off the ground. Only the part of the cloud below the aircraft is relevant here. Airbus published a nice overview of factors that could result in erroneous RA values:

    The external causes may be linked to aircraft flying over:

    • Other aircraft, hail clouds or bright spots, i.e. terrain presenting reflectivity variations.
    • Runways contaminated with water or snow.

    In these cases, the RA condition may not be detected by the systems, which continue to use the erroneous RA values.

    (Airbus Safety First Magazine - Radio Altimeter erroneous values, emphasis mine)

    So normal clouds should not affect the radio altimeter, but clouds with dense precipitation (like hail) can have such an affect. Note however, that if the radio signal reflects off the cloud itself, it could result in a false positive alert, but not a false negative.

  • GPS signal:

    Here, the clouds above the aircraft are relevant, since they could block the signal to the satellite. The GPS signal is however largely unaffected by weather:

    Does RAIN or SNOW or CLOUDS affect the reception of my GPS receiver?

    Answer: No. Not so as the user can tell without instrumentation.


    The GPS signal frequency of about 1575mhz was chosen expressly because it is a "window" in the weather as far as signal propagation is concerned.


    Even if the GPS signal is temporarily lost, the Alternate Horizontal Position Source can take over. The inertial position accuracy from the ADIRU would slowly degrade over time, but provide a good position estimate just after the GPS signal is lost.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a good basis for an answer, but you are missing GPS as sensor. Without knowing the position, the terrain database is useless. GPS is not affected much by clouds. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jan 24, 2020 at 9:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ inertial systems are not accurate enough for EGPWS, by far. ETSO151c on TAWS (generic name for (E)GPWS) says in section 5.: Horizontal position for TAWS must come from a GNSS source $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jan 24, 2020 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DeltaLima That's interesting, I though it would just use ADIRU position. I updated the answer... $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Jan 24, 2020 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ And I upvoted it :-) $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Jan 24, 2020 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ "Answer: No. Not so as the user can tell without instrumentation." eh... I'm not so sure. I use a Garmin running watch and it can take a full minute to get a GPS lock on a cloudy day, while it only takes seconds on a sunny day. This is under the same conditions, otherwise - I walk the same direction out of the same building 5 days a week into a parking lot and keep walking in a straight line until I've got signal (or have to deviate because I'll cross a street). $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jan 24, 2020 at 19:21

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