The Five-Minute Brief
If you're like most IFR pilots, you probably worry too much about the weather. IFR magazine contributing editor Dick Coffey explains why most of the time, a minimalist briefing that takes no more than five minutes is plenty. He also discusses when it's not.
It's possible no, likely that pilots think too much about the weather. We can move a lot of aluminum and a buncha SOBs and their golf clubs hundreds of miles without doing much more than filing IFR and asking the briefer for departure and destination weather.
We do it everyday.
And it's okay. Furthermore, it's just fine to take a quick sweep through DUAT, glance at the METARs and TAFs and venture forth. Despite FAR 91.103's admonition to gather "all available information," you can do with a lot less. You probably should do with a lot less.
If you've got too much time on your hands, it's easy to start obsessing about atmospheric nits to the point that your weather briefings only serve to push another FSS briefer to an early retirement.
So, that said, what is the absolute rock-bottom minimum briefing that satisfies the FARs, smokes out any nasty surprises and won't jeopardize your navigation merit badge?
I can't tell you. But it's probably a lot less than you think.
FAR 91.103 is, without a doubt, the most ridiculous and widely ignored of all the regulations. In spirit, it's just fine: "Hey, before you launch, check a few things and have an alternative in mind."
Specifically, it mentions "weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC." Simple.
Obviously, the "all available information" clause isn't remotely doable, since even before the Internet, there was more information out there than you could possibly digest or even need. So without bogging down in the legalities, a "legal" briefing is one in which you at least make the attempt to corral some of that available information.
Although there's no rule requiring you to record your good-faith effort, that's why DUAT asks for your N-number and FSS does the same. In the event of an accident or incident, you'll be glad they did. If you brief via an "unofficial" source, there may be no evidence of the briefing.
If you worry about remote chances of enforcement action, pull a print out and carry it with you. (If you don't survive impact, it won't matter one way or the other. If you do, use the paper at your administrative hearing.)
Whether you like it or not, FSS invariably briefs by looking at the big weather picture, the synoptic view first, narrowing down to the specifics of METARs and TAFs. They're required to do it that way and it often gets in the way. Pilots have a natural and healthy tendency to localize the day's weather systems to a little tunnel in the big sky.
To hell with the warning that "the morning convection has forced an outflow boundary across northern Oklahoma." You want to know what the outflow boundary (whatever that is) will produce in the way of weather during the 10 minutes that you'll be slamming through northern Oklahoma two miles above the ground.
The essential skill is to tune out the distractions and zero in on what matters: identifying and assessing the real hazards and getting additional information when they exist.
Short Term Thinking
If you're like most pilots, when you have a trip on Friday you start looking and maybe worrying about the weather on Monday or Tuesday. You look at The Weather Channel and maybe cruise the Web for the 48-hour progs. That can be entertaining but it may not be valuable.
If I want to be nervous 24 hours before my proposed flight, I'll read my horoscope. I do all my flight planning including filing the night before I launch. Normally, I can't make the go/no-go decision more than 12 hours out anyway, so why waste the time?
I get my briefing at night rather than in the morning because the weather data reservoir is huge at the end of the day. The balloons have been up all day and have collected fresh upper air samples and the system is likely to be loaded with pireps. If I need that data, I'll want a lot of it. If I don't need it, I can easily ignore it.
Because I live in central Minnesota and most of the civilized world is at least four hours away, I usually plan to leave Minnesota just after the sun's up. To get to Oklahoma City for lunch, I launch at 7 a.m, refuel in Wichita around 10 a.m. and plan to order David's World Famous Meatloaf at the Runway Café on the Wiley Post Airport by 1 p.m.
The flight planning that I do the night before takes about five minutes. I look at the weather map on the 10 p.m. news and turn the sound off so I won't be irritated by TV meteorologist babble. I look for the location of air masses, especially for the places where the two air masses meet because that's where I'm going to focus my FSS briefing.
If there's a fat winter high parked over Kansas, the METARs will be one liners and the TAFs won't change for three days. The briefer will rattle off a few stations and we'll be done in three minutes.
I'll be most interested in the winds aloft, even though they're usually predictable within five knots or so. Ask for more? There's no point. The briefing will merely illuminate what I saw on TV and give me a clear and more closely focused weather picture. When there's no weather, briefers sometimes cut corners and forget notams. If so, I'll ask. I hate filing flight plans to closed airports.
If the weather is clear and a million, the long list of FDC notams have little meaning for an IFR flight. (See this article.) Either way, at the end of the briefing, I'll file for an early morning departure and go to bed dreaming of Dave's meatloaf.
Ratchet It Up
When the TV man's map is full of surface features, fronts and pressure areas, I know the briefing is going to be longer. But maybe not much longer. A weak summer cold front with no moisture inflow will make a few clouds here and there but the METARs will still be brief. Add another minute.
In the morning, I'll phone FSS and specifically ask for an abbreviated briefing. The nice thing about abbreviated briefings is this: The briefer is off the hook and can abandon all-available-information mode. I'm now in charge of the briefing and can spend the same five minutes asking about what I want to know instead of re-hashing the synopsis.
With that winter high, I might ask "I'd like the latest winds aloft for the route, pireps on turbulence and new notams." For the weak cold front, I might collect a few specific METARs and ask about any showers on the radar summaries. But I won't spend much time on any of that.
Weather like that is a definite go and if I want more data, I'll get it en route, where it will be more useful.
Things get interesting during the summer when a fast moving cold front is advancing into typical muggy midwest conditions. Weather like this can turn a routine trip into a no-go under the right circumstances. When the TV map shows the potential, I'll tailor my FSS or DUAT briefing to find those circumstances. I may have to abandon my minimal information strategy.
If I've got the synopsis from television, I'll focus my questions on the boundaries. I will ask one or two questions inspired by whatever I see on the TV map. "I understand there's an east-west cold front in southern Kansas. Can you give me dewpoints at DSM, MKC, ICT and OKC?" Obviously, I'm looking for moisture along the front; if I find much of it, I'll know to expect trouble. Towering Cu and CBs during the summer; maybe some meso-scale nightmares. During the winter, it could be unflyable icing conditions.
The abbreviated briefing is designed to supplement a full briefing, so this isn't the time to ask the questions that would be answered routinely during a standard briefing. If your self-briefed weather search comes up short and you're not sure what's out there, but you think something is, get a standard briefing.
Even so, five minutes may cover the waterfront. It definitely will if you use an automated program to grab weather from DUAT and print it out on the fly.
But on some days, five minutes won't do. That's where Web sources and DUAT graphics may be valuable. In general, compared to a carefully tailored abbreviated briefing, Web weather can be a pain in the butt. Logging on and stepping through pages while waiting for graphics to download is tedious, even though the information is occasionally invaluable.
Fortunately, unless you're confronted with an unusually active weather day or you're a student of aviation weather, you needn't bother with Web graphics. TV weather will give the big picture more quickly. For a basic text briefing to fill in the gaps, DUAT and FSS are almost always faster and more convenient than anything on the Web.
And for radar, FSS is more timely, even though you have to rely on the briefer's description of the display. There's little point in getting detailed radar information 30 minutes before takeoff. If you decide to launch, update it en route through Flight Watch.
During the winter, a stationary or warm front with a nearby low pumping in moisture will usually be cause to seek an extended briefing. If the weather is low IMC, I may want most if not all of the stations en route, especially trends. I like knowing the dewpoints because they're a good marker for fog and low visibility. That's a DUAT job with a printout and an update with FSS just before takeoff and during flight.
When I start the engine, I know where the fronts are and what they're producing. If there are additional boundaries, such as that ominous outflow in northern Oklahoma, at the very least I ought to know that it exists. When I have time, I might read a monograph on outflow boundaries, but today I simply want to know about the disturbance it will likely produce.
While the crew dumps gas into the Skylane, I'll get another abbreviated briefing on a day like this. I'll check the dewpoints on the north and south side of fronts and get any new airmets for ice and sigmets for thunder. If I can't forecast 20 miles with confidence, I'll write down what bothers me and call FSS again to clarify.
All of this psycho-meteorology can get to be a full-time job when there's serious weather afoot, so what I want to do is run the big picture in the back of my mind then tailor the briefing to find and evaluate specific hazards within that big picture. If you fly the weather that's out there, the only queries you need to make of FSS are for updates on what's ahead and how the destination is holding up.
If the briefing clashes with what you see out the windshield en route and you're tired of getting pasted with bad data, land, file a pirep and head for the Super 8. But on nine days out of 10, you'll negotiate the weather boundaries and arrive at your destination while the meatloaf is still warm. All on the strength of a five-minute briefing.