Winging the Weather

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To appreciate the following screed, first click on this video . It's only 30 seconds long. I'll wait here while you watch it.

I picked this little clip off a longer World War II training film on flying the B-26 made by the famous First Motion Picture Unit, Ronald Reagan's old outfit. The entire film is about an hour, but this scene struck me as amusing because if an instructor did that today—"weather good"—he'd be sued for malpractice and stripped of his Flight Instructor of the Year merit badge. Somewhere between the end of World War II and today, we somehow accreted the idea that good training also has to be exhaustive across every phase of flight and if the checklist says review these 10 weather items, well, by Geezus, we teach our students to do that, whether it's necessary or not.

When I started editing IFR magazine 20 years ago, I preached to the choir by printing an article about weather every month. It was pretty long-haired stuff, too, not just the boilerplate how-to-get-a-weather briefing drivel. In printing these articles, the underlying suggestion was that you had to know this stuff. The reality was that I didn't believe that then and I believe it less now, although such articles still have a place for those academically inclined.

The point is, we still lard up training with this sort of non-pertinent detail making it that much harder—and more boring—for people to become students and students to become pilots. That's a long way of saying that what the current training edifice should focus on is less theory and more on how to find and use the resources to recognize hazards—online briefings, tablet apps, in-cockpit datalink and ADS-B and so on. We're actually getting there, albeit slowly.

I noticed this week that Lockheed Martin just rolled out, with amusing fanfare, a new web-based flight service feature that sends out alerts on hazards, notifies of TFRs and even reminds you to close your flight plan. Good idea, I suppose, but pardon me for being a little underwhelmed. The voice briefing has been an anachronism for at least 10 years and building new web sites to support this sunset activity that very soon now the FAA is probably not going to want to fund strikes me as a version of that futile act relating to rearranging furniture on a doomed ship. I think pretty quick now the long and occasionally unnecessary palaver you get from an actual FSS briefing will be gone. We just haven't accepted that yet. We'll get there, too.

Meanwhile, I hope the new age of instruction will return to the days of yesteryear when you could look outside, like that old B-26 IP, and pronounce "weather good," and proceed to commit lift without further federal intervention.

Comments (38)

As you know, at the bottom of any tfr.faa.gov page about a specific TFR [emphasis added]: "Depicted TFR data may not be a complete listing. PILOTS SHOULD NOT USE THE INFORMATION ON THIS WEBSITE FOR FLIGHT PLANNING PURPOSES. For the latest information, call your local Flight Service Station at 1-800-WX-BRIEF."

For what purposes, I wonder, should we use the information on that website, and why does the FAA provide the website?

Posted by: Steven Brecher | November 7, 2012 8:47 PM    Report this comment

In my previous comment, the all-caps emphasis was added by me. I so indicated in a comment in square brackets which I suppose software elided.

Posted by: Steven Brecher | November 7, 2012 8:49 PM    Report this comment

Until recently I was a full time instructor & pilot examiner. It was a struggle to get PPL candidates to tell me what the weather was doing, just by looking out the window. They all wanted to dive to the computer... (Yes, the computer was necessary to tick the flight test boxes. But I wanted some airmanship too.)

Posted by: Peter Wheeler | November 8, 2012 4:42 AM    Report this comment

I don't remember the last time I called flight service. I use ForeFlight, WeatherTAP, and a few other things ALONG WITH MY BRAIN to make sure the weather is OK along my route of flight.

Of course there are those magical days where I just say "Weather's good" and jump in the airplane without even checking the winds.

Let's not solve a non-existant problem by intimidating low time pilots by giving them WAY more information than they need.

Posted by: R. Doe | November 8, 2012 7:38 AM    Report this comment

With the consolidation of all FSS into regional centers, the local knowledge (i.e. looking out the window) has been lost. The briefer does little more than read the same information you can get from a DUATS briefing. Granted, they'll do the filtering for you (I'm flying to New York, why do I need the 4 pages of information on the DC SFRA?), but it's the same information they're looking at.

Then NTSB also propagates the myth that only certain sources are "legal" in accident reports. When an accident pilot gets a briefing from WSI or some other commercial source, the report usually says something like "Someone using the pilot's login received a briefing...". Have a look at JFK Jr's report.

I stress to my students to continually re-assess the weather conditions as they go. Dick Collin's Flying Weather series has a number of good pointers on how to determine if the weather forecast is good or trash, all based on "looking out the window".

Posted by: Jerry Plante | November 8, 2012 7:44 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Bertorelli, retire while you're still ahead before you start become responsible for pilots killing themselves out there because of your opinions.

There's nothing wrong with getting an official weather briefing and TALKING to another human being that is a PROFESSIONAL at weather analysis and provide a HUMAN approach. All these gadgets are NOT going to say, "yeah, honestly, I wouldn't go if I were you". A gadget is NOT going to hear the inflection in your voice that could suggest that you're inexperienced.

We are becoming less and less aviators and more and more Xbox-in-the-air technophiles. What was that again? Aviate, navigate, and communicate? I guess we can now change that to iPad, heads down, play with gadgets, and oh, look outside occasionally to see if your ForeFlight is lying or telling the truth. Do you want to enjoy flying, or do you want to play with your toys heads down with other pilots not seeing and avoiding? I digress.

Back to weather. There's nothing wrong with WX-BRIEF. I for one enjoy learning from those guys to improve my skills. ForeFlight is not going to do that. Way to lower the bar Paul. Keep it up.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | November 8, 2012 8:23 AM    Report this comment

I'm a briefer, call me and I'll do my best to paint a picture of what the weather is doing and the local trends. Many of us fly weekly. It is not easy to be all things to all levels of pilots. If you're a student pilot call in every time and learn just one more thing each time. Ask questions. Use your iPad and lets look it over together. We are weather experts and can tell you more in 5 mins than just using the web alone.

Posted by: Sam B | November 8, 2012 8:37 AM    Report this comment

It's not just the weather. It's pretty much the complete curriculum as far as I can tell. Not every student will need an ATP. Does anyone really need to know the relative bearing on a fixed card ADF anymore or try to figure out where they are by looking at VOR needles all askew like on the private pilot written. On the flight test there will be a diversion scenario. So fly the airplane,plot a course, E6B the ground speed and fuel while all this could be done in two seconds and two fingers on a I Pad. Just cuz I had to oil the rocker arms before Take Off doesn't mean everyone should.

Posted by: William Rucker | November 8, 2012 8:45 AM    Report this comment

You had rocker arms? I had to open the valves manually.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 8, 2012 8:59 AM    Report this comment

The biggest reason I called FSS recently was to check for TFR's occasioned by the election. Given the disclaimer on the government website--and that I don't have Internet at home anyway--it was easier to call. The weather part is rarely that helpful, tending to include things like pireps and metars 300 miles along my route, and sometimes forgetting to mention that by the way, Lethbridge is having an airshow, it's a bad idea to plan on clearing customs there (Canadians didn't bother mentioning this one either). However, for the occasions when I can't get internet weather, it does serve a purpose, even if I am rolling my eyes waiting for the briefer in Georgia to get around to the interesting bits about the weather in Seattle.

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | November 8, 2012 10:37 AM    Report this comment

I have mixed feelings about WX-BRIEF. My preferred source of weather is aviationweather.gov for the big-picture, and DUATS for the legal coverage (and a couple other details not available from aviationweather.gov). The rest of the flight planning is done with FltPlan.com (along with additional weather checking).

However, I frequently fly to College Park, MD, inside the Washington DC FRZ. So, I *have* to call them to file my flight plan, and they inevitably ask "do you require a weather update?". It's pretty hard to say "no", even though I already have all the info I need. But because I'm already talking to them, I'll usually ask for at least the current weather at my departure and destination airport.

There is also another benefit calling WX-BRIEF, and that's for sorting through the actual effective times of TFRs. The big downside with internet briefings is that I have to trudge through 5 giant paragraphs of boiler-plate TFR wording to figure out the where/where of the actual thing. Having them do that on the phone for me is a big help.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 8, 2012 11:15 AM    Report this comment

I think it all depends on what your flight plan is. If you are going up to fly within 40 miles of your current position it makes little sense to spend 30 minutes with a weather briefer. If you are flying 300 miles to another state you do need the brief, website, or other source of weather information. I think that is what Paul was getting at. In training we should inform the students about the sources and make sure they use a few of them at least once so they know how to do it if needed.

Posted by: RODNEY HALL | November 8, 2012 11:45 AM    Report this comment

"The big downside with internet briefings is that I have to trudge through 5 giant paragraphs of boiler-plate TFR wording to figure out the where/where of the actual thing."

I have the same problem. But isn't a solution that requires you to phone someone to decode and read it to you just totally absurd? It is to me. I've taught myself to minimize the slog and pick out the pertinent data.

I also despise TAFs and METARs. I know it's the international language, but so is English for aviation. One wonders why they aren't in plain language.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 8, 2012 12:16 PM    Report this comment

There seems to be this absolute need in aviation for clinging on to all this crazy old stuff "just because that's how it's always been done". It drives me mad. Like TAF's and Metars. In this day an age, why on earth do we have to put up with this mind-numbing stuff? -RA means "a little rain? BR supposed to mean fog? Who are these people that came up with this torture? Probably telex senders trying to keep the morse printing brief. But morse printers haven't been around since the 50's. An Aera Forecast is predictably logically called an FA report - and are btw completely undecipherable unless you have a degree in Enigma code-breaking from Bletchley Park.

It's time to move on.

Thankfully most apps and Foreflight will give you the weather straight and translate the TAF's and Metars. The NOAA website is as useless as all the other aviation weather sites. Thank god for new technology - if I don't have to decode a single TAF, Metar, Winds Aloft or FA report again I'd be the happiest man alive.

Posted by: Adam Frisch | November 8, 2012 12:42 PM    Report this comment

There seems to be this absolute need in aviation for clinging on to all this crazy old stuff "just because that's how it's always been done". It drives me mad. Like TAF's and Metars. In this day an age, why on earth do we have to put up with this mind-numbing stuff? -RA means "a little rain? BR supposed to mean fog? Who are these people that came up with this torture? Probably telex senders trying to keep the morse printing brief. But morse printers haven't been around since the 50's. An Aera Forecast is predictably logically called an FA report - and are btw completely undecipherable unless you have a degree in Enigma code-breaking from Bletchley Park.

It's time to move on.

Thankfully most apps and Foreflight will give you the weather straight and translate the TAF's and Metars. The NOAA website is as useless as all the other aviation weather sites. Thank god for new technology - if I don't have to decode a single TAF, Metar, Winds Aloft or FA report again I'd be the happiest man alive.

Posted by: Adam Frisch | November 8, 2012 12:46 PM    Report this comment

Adam, the Captain Marvel decoder ring from a box of Sugar Pops cereal works quite well for that. Sort of a stone-age app.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 9, 2012 8:03 AM    Report this comment

"I also despise TAFs and METARs. I know it's the international language, but so is English for aviation. One wonders why they aren't in plain language."

It's called short hand. Those of you who can't put the effort to study, well, it explains a few things. The pilot population is fast becoming lazy and fitting the instant gratification mold with all these toys. No wonder why the pilot numbers are going down. Nobody wants to study anymore.

Perhaps there is a market for pilots to buy apps that lets the pilot put in the departure and destination code, time of departure, and the entire screen will turn green for go, and red for no-go.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | November 9, 2012 10:49 AM    Report this comment

Depending on how bad the mosquitoes were, we used to have to carve a new propeller before each flight. Still got that adze somewhere.

Amy I'd buy that app provided it includes amber as well to denote "dangerous but exciting".

Posted by: John Hogan | November 10, 2012 8:55 AM    Report this comment

Amy, I think I'll write that app! If demystifying weather saves confusion, and possibly a life, I'm all for it.

I love the idea as long as the user can tune the settings for their particular minimums and equipment. I think a slightly more useful variation is a mashup app that takes existing wx sources and lets the pilot decide what, and in what order, they want to see their route info.

I find myself doing the same sequence for most longer flights: Wunderground model maps and forecast discussion, UNISYS imagery, ADDS progs, then ADDS airmets and winds within 24 hours. TFRs from tfr.faa.gov.

Until FlightPrep trolls killed it, Navmonster.com was a very good solution.

Posted by: neil cormia | November 10, 2012 10:07 AM    Report this comment

Amy is right. Flying went down the tubes when they replaced tailskids with those sissy little wheels. Real pilots don't need enclosed cockpits, brakes, radios, or nosewheels.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 10, 2012 12:05 PM    Report this comment

Amy,

I guess you can describe it a short-hand, but it is really a product of the limited capabilities of the Teletype systems developed in the 1930s. By the 1950s, TTYs were capable of transmitting the entire alphabet in upper and lower case. Why the '30s technology was never updated has always been a mystery to me.

I've been de-coding this crap since 1958, never liking it. Now I can get fully 'translated' TAFs, METARs, etc. directly from NOAA/NWS websites. Yet the stuff is still available in the '30s code. Who knows why? Maybe it is a screening system to see how dedicated pilots are to their craft and whether they have the secret de-coder ring.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | November 11, 2012 12:43 PM    Report this comment

I'm with you Richard and Edd. I'm morally opposed to all change. And we do indeed get better pilots if we can make it as hard on them as we can just to read a weather report.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 11, 2012 3:13 PM    Report this comment

Have to grin over the back & forth on TAFs & METARs, it's so like the debates in the Ham Radio world over the requirement to learn Morse code.

All that "shorthand" stuff is a holdover from the pre-Internet Teletype networks that ran at 60WPM and every letter was precious. Today one large .JPG picture contains more data than was transmitted in a week by that Teletype system.

In the Ham world the defenders of learning Morse were passionate but finally lost out (mostly).

Posted by: John Wilson | November 12, 2012 8:13 AM    Report this comment

The thing about Morse, however, which I learned as kid amateur operator, was that it had a skill component. There was a satisfaction in doing good, clean keying and reading the same. I remember the first time I used a bug key. What a thrill it was.

Check of this video. People are still making them and this one is a beauty.

www.snipurl.com/25kucw9


Somehow, reading METARS and TAFS is more a chore with little reward.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 12, 2012 9:42 AM    Report this comment

The central question is has there ever been a case where there was an asymmetrical deployment of flaps that resulted in an accident where the plane would not have crashed if the asymmetrical deployment had occurred in level flight. I challenge anyone to produce even 1 accident or incident report where this occurred.

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | November 12, 2012 10:36 AM    Report this comment

I have no idea why my post just came up with the last comment as it was not what I typed. Kind of like when the view on the I pad doesn't match the view out the window......

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | November 12, 2012 10:39 AM    Report this comment

“The thing about Morse, however… was that it had a skill component. There was a satisfaction in doing good, clean keying…”

Oh, absolutely true. But I always found the argument that you “couldn’t be a good operator” unless you were expert at Morse to be ridiculous, and using the same argument that the discipline of learning METAR code is needed in order to be a good pilot falls under the same heading.

Totally off subject, but this exchange brings back a 1960’s era memory of sitting in a radio van next to my USAF buddy, an ex-Navy radio op. With headphones cocked to clear one ear he could discuss the evening’s bar hop schedule and other weighty subjects while simultaneously pounding out 35+ wpm copy on a manual typewriter (“mill”) from code streaming into the other. Now, he WAS a good operator!

Posted by: John Wilson | November 12, 2012 10:39 AM    Report this comment

??Sorry for the double post. Something strange happening with the site or my (IE9) browser, I get an error message on the first try, have to force a re-load to bring the site up ?? It's not your IE9 it's AVWEB's site. I get the same thing.

Posted by: Gilbert Pierce | November 12, 2012 11:26 AM    Report this comment

RE: Site error problem
Just as a follow-up for the site administrator: What is happening is when I initially browse to the site after first opening the browser, I get a blank screen with the error msg "phpBB" (no quotes) and a couple of lines down the text "Could not connect to the database".

If I force a reload of the page, it comes up and works normally for the rest of the session. Happens every time on the first visit to the site. For several days I thought the site was simply "down", until I discovered a reload would bring it up.

Some kind of scripting error I assume, although I'm not really up on that stuff.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 12, 2012 7:45 PM    Report this comment

John, there is some kind of scripting or database error. We're working on it. Sorry for the problem. (Happened to me, too.)

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 13, 2012 10:49 AM    Report this comment

David, Gilbert, John (and Paul) -- thanks for the heads-up on the phpBB database connect errors. Our server team tracked down the gremlin and bashed its head in yesterday. Looks like a bit of legacy code from long ago that caused problems with form submissions, but all seems to be working fine now.

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