GA Pilots Need Better Weather Info, Study Finds

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General aviation pilots are not excelling when it comes to understanding weather information that’s critical to flight safety, according to a recent study conducted at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The researchers tested 204 GA pilots to measure their ability to interpret weather information from various sources, including radar displays and written reports. The pilots correctly answered only about 58 percent of the questions. Pilot training is part of the problem, but according to researcher Elizabeth Blickensderfer, weather displays and reports that are difficult to interpret also contribute to the poor performance. “We have to improve how weather information is displayed so that pilots can easily and quickly interpret it,” she said. “At the same time, of course, we can fine-tune pilot assessments to promote learning and inform training.”

As an example, Blickensderfer said, respondents were prompted to choose the correct interpretation of METAR (Meteorological Terminal Aviation Routine Weather Report) information, for example: “CB DSNT N MOV N.” Pilots also were asked to interpret a ground-based radar cockpit display, which shows only recent thunderstorm activity—not current conditions. The test also asked pilots to look at an infrared (color) satellite image and determine where the highest-altitude clouds would most likely be found. Commercial pilots with instrument ratings scored highest, with an average of 65 percent; instrument-rated private pilots ranked second, at 62 percent; and non-instrument-rated private pilots scored 57 percent.

Comments (20)

This is more 'fake' news. A report based upon 204 individuals does not a 'scientific' study make. Who are those 204 pilots? What are their aeronautical backgrounds and experience. What scores would the most experienced among us achieve? Who are the control group? And they can't decode "CB DSNT N MOV N" ... give me a break ERAU. Maybe they were interviewing people at random at the Daytona Beach mall ?

Beyond that, what I read above conflicts with a strong downward trend in the GA accident rate. What percentage of GA accidents have weather as a primary cause? At what point will we have achieved success ... when we've driven the last GA pilot away ... or at least driven them "crazy" with the safety mentality and its requirements?

Finally, if the students who conducted this study think it's bad NOW ... they should have been flying in the days of teletype machines inside of little white FSS buildings sprinkled all around the Country with large charts and graphs hanging on the wall as the primary means to disseminate information. Being able to call up world class satellite based weather on a device that resides in your pocket is "universes" ahead of those days of old when pilots wore leather helmets and goggles.

ERAU -- overall -- is a prestigious institution. They'd better get a handle on the kinds of reports they allow to flow out under cover of their name. IMHO, this is nothing more than hyperbole barely worthy of the time I took to write this opinion.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 17, 2018 4:48 AM    Report this comment

As an old pilot who often visited those white buildings to look at the charts for myself ("Can you tell me what the K-Index is showing for that area?"), I too wonder what could possibly be missing from today's wx info.

I can understand why younger pilots can't decode METARs. All the newfangled EFB's decode them for you. (And, really, why are we still using cryptic abbreviations in this day and age of the Internet?) iFly color codes them. (Red is bad.) But despite raw METARs - which admittedly, I never really learned (I don't spesk French) - the availability of wx info today is amazing. There's almost too much info. (I'm talking to you FF.)

I mean, up until very recently, we were still dependent on some (usually well meaning) overprotective FSS Specialist trying to describe a RADAR image in words that you wished you could see for yourself. Those days are here now - even if delayed by 10 minutes. Once lightning data and vis and IR satellite is available over ADS-B, I can't image what more I would need. (Okay, maybe a Skew-T on icy days. But even that's only a data connection away.)

Maybe AvWeb can get the test and offer it as quizzes for us?

Posted by: Mike P | April 17, 2018 5:38 AM    Report this comment

The ridiculous abbreviations served a purpose when space on the teletype machine was a valued commodity. Those limitations no longer exist, so why to we still need the abbreviations?

As far as ERAU conducting this study, it's an organization that sells education and training, and every organization needs to justify its existence.

Posted by: Mark Sletten | April 17, 2018 7:32 AM    Report this comment

Larry nailed it. Accident rates are down so ER's conclusion that more weather understanding is "critical to flight safety" is demonstrably and logically WRONG. I also have to agree 100% with Larry that GA pilots have access to even more live (and near-live) in flight weather TODAY than even top military/airlines had 10 years ago. Even winds aloft, airport conditions, storms, etc are available FREE via ADS-B IN to your tablet.

Yea, ERAU should be better than CBS.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 17, 2018 7:58 AM    Report this comment

To be fair to the "study", it does say that better presentation of weather data is needed, and not that more data is needed.

"why are we still using cryptic abbreviations in this day and age of the Internet?"

I assume the answer to that is, "because that's how it always has been done". But the fact that the information is transmitted as a cryptic abbreviation doesn't matter, since it is very easy for that to be translated into plain text by a computer (fltplan.com will do this; I'm sure others will too). And I can more quickly read an abbreviated metar than the plain text version, referencing the plain text lookup when I see an abbreviation I don't know. It's also easy enough to color-code the metars.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 17, 2018 8:02 AM    Report this comment

Like Dr. Blickensderfer, I'm a Ph.D. research scientist specializing in pilots' interaction with adverse weather (Disclaimer: These are my private views, not FAA's). Frankly, I'm startled how little scientific knowledge some of these comments reflect, particularly "This is more 'fake' news. A report based upon 204 individuals does not a 'scientific' study make." Hogwash. How many critics here have taken even a single course in statistics and research design, let alone completed a doctorate? Until you have, you'd be wise to temper your judgments. It so happens that a sample of 25--if well-chosen and executed--mathematically produces quite reliable results. A sample of 200+ is quite large by most standards. Elizabeth is well-respected within her field, and underinformed criticism of her work does nothing to advance the field of aviation psychology; it only makes the critic look small and ridiculous.

Posted by: William Knecht | April 17, 2018 10:32 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for all the comments, especially from Dr. Knecht. Your input is much appreciated! I would emphasize that the study is not looking at how much information pilots are getting, but how well they are interpreting that data to make good decisions. While it's true accident rates are declining, I would argue that's not a reason to say we don't need any more improvement.

Posted by: Mary Grady | April 17, 2018 1:30 PM    Report this comment

I applaud efforts to make weather easier to interpret. I grew up in the age where military weather briefers spoon fed me the forecast based upon their own interpretations and I took that to the bank. Now, I look at all the different charts and TAFs and try to make good decisions but I know I'm not using the data as well as I could. I look forward to learning more from the outcome of this study. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Scott Morrison | April 17, 2018 1:47 PM    Report this comment

Sorry, William, I ain't buying your "private views." When the good Dr. cites that the pilots interviewed can't decode "CB DSNT N MOV N," the respondents are NOT reliable and -- therefore -- the study is seriously suspect OR ... possibly has an ulterior motive? Could it be money for MORE scientific studies by post docs? I'm betting it is? The respondents weren't well chosen at all by YOUR definition.

All information is relative. I used the juxtaposition of the old little white FSS buildings to show that. Most of us here have been in aviation long enough to remember when FSS used to provide traffic information at some non-towered airports, too. So when someone suggests to me that pilots need 'better weather info,' ... to THAT I say hogwash. They don't know how to use and interpolate absolutely excellent weather data that is available today ... different from as recently as 10 years ago. And compared to 50 years ago ... fuhgetaboutit!

I was one of the people who helped make the Voyager flight around the world in 1986 a success from Mission Control at Mojave. The flight knew it needed good weather info so they paid DEARLY to send black and white WX info from Washington DC to Mojave over data quality phone lines. Some pretty smart weather people used that crude stuff to make the flight a success over nine days. So when someone says that the weather data we have available TODAY is insufficient ... to that I retort that maybe they have a problem in their cranial cavity? MAYBE if a link to her report had been posted, I'd feel different but -- as it presented here -- I have a big problem with what I'm reading. Why even Charles Lindberg managed to find France after 33 hours when flying with a compass in 1927.

Finally, I'll have you know that I took statistics SO far back (where the HAL9000 lived) that we used sliderules ... the HP35 hadn't yet been invented because the 2n107 transistor and 1N34 diode were new devices replacing the 6AU6. Like I said ... everything is relative. Fake news refers to false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. Replace 'news' with 'data' and you know where I'm coming from. That's MY story ... and I'm stickin' to it.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 17, 2018 2:09 PM    Report this comment

I'm always entertained by pilots who believe that aviation shouldn't be improved and fault themselves when they make a mistake using a system that isn't designed to be user friendly (case in point: teletype weather information). The question is not whether weather products are insufficient, but how intuitive are they to actually use? While sure, it's required to learn these things in flight training, how much actually gets retained? I would hazard to guess that it's not very much for the majority of pilots, so what is the harm in improving weather products so they are more understandable? There are so many products out there now for use in preflight and in the cockpit that presentation to pilots really need to be improved at this point.

A two paragraph article is not enough to distill all of the facets of this argument, perhaps a link to the actual research would be helpful to those who are interested (but not necessarily to those who rant about fake news).

Posted by: Michael Vincent | April 17, 2018 2:31 PM    Report this comment

Larry, if you have specific substantive criticisms of the report's methodology, it would be good to address them directly rather than griping using crank language and citing your statistical bona-fides. You have em? Use em and put up or shut up. Show us where the pilot sample set went wrong and specifically what's wrong with their conclusions. Till then I don't care that you were on the Voyager team and I'm inclined to believe your aspersions are just rubbish.

You can look the peer-reviewed study up in The International Journal of Aerospace Psychology, Volume 27, 2017 - Issue 3-4.

Have at it.

Posted by: Michael Mullins | April 17, 2018 3:27 PM    Report this comment

I think the headline is eye-catching...and a tad on the misleading side. We have great weather. The article describes not inadequate and ever current and available weather information, but rather an inability to interpret the weather information available. As I love raw data, and I love to draw my own conclusions I find modern weather information very helpful. However, when complex weather systems and pressure systems collide, sometimes the data can be overwhelming to an non-meteorologist (and even to them, judging by the accuracy of some of the forecasts).

If weather interpretation in the modern era is a problem, and I believe it is, that is a factor for improvement. At OSH last year, a flight simulator demonstrated a Mooney crash near ABQ. NTSB proximate cause: pilots didn't understand that ADS-B/XM weather was a bit behind in an area prone to rapidly developing weather. I had the advantage since I know that area by heart having flown gliders in the region and scooted into an airstrip not on the sim charts, but only because I have a storm scope and all the modern weather do-dads in my cockpit and I can see when the t-storms on the pretty color screen are minutes to tens of minutes behind what the strikefinder is showing.

Misleading headlines aside, I can't disagree with the author's thesis: Pilots need to know and understand the limitations of our bounteous weather information as it applies to informed pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight decision making. If they don't, we need to re-think some of the weather education process. We still have VMC-IMC/LOC/CFIT accidents.

Posted by: Walter Roberts | April 17, 2018 7:10 PM    Report this comment

One last thought.

Please don't take away my METAR/TAF shorthand. Once learned is much quicker to read and assimilate than the long hand stuff.

Especially in a page of metars along my route. And no, I don't like the French either. Gimme back my fog and drizzle. Mist is for cleaning things.

And avweb, how's come you flag as spam on a pilot forum a copy of a METAR and its translation? PIlots use these things and they don't have the catch phrases your crab engine cites.

Posted by: Walter Roberts | April 17, 2018 7:25 PM    Report this comment

The weather forecasts are written in an archaic language that many don't read/speak. In addition there is little coherent information about how a local weather report relates to the big picture. The issue is communication and weather information is not being communicated. It is not just about training pilots to understand weather better, but it is primarily presenting weather information in a meaningful and easily understood manner. Can we please get away from teletype symbols and not only speak coherent Engish, but present graphics that present the big picture? We have all of the tools and technology necessary, but the communication is seriously ineffective.

Posted by: Russell Smith | April 17, 2018 10:24 PM    Report this comment

This article confirms the reason Weathermeister exists!

Posted by: Dan Checkoway | April 17, 2018 10:35 PM    Report this comment

In this day of 'rich' weather reporting (and it is) then there is either a fundamental problem in how pilots are being trained OR how they have lost some basic skills in building the model inside their head of how weather affects flight. Maybe we should just turn GA flying into a video game and be done with it.

That maybe a little harsh but it does speak to a lack of human factors understanding in our training programs.

Posted by: Barbara Filkins | April 17, 2018 11:17 PM    Report this comment

I am a private pilot, and a former weather forecaster. The raw weather observations and forecasts are in an internationally specified format. It was not intended for pilot use. It was intended for forecaster use. Most importantly, the format was intended to provide the information most needed for forecasting and safety. To a pilot the format is arcane. Some of the format is in French because France wanted to encroach on the All English format in use a few years ago.

When I worked as an Air Force Weather Observer, I created the types of observations in this article. At that time, Service pilots were briefed directly by Weather Forecasters (in person) and could call a forecaster by radio in the air on "Channel 13". Some of this has changed, but much remains the same.

Private and commercial pilots either call the FAA for a phone brief from a non Forecaster, use company folks, or self brief from the Internet. Using forecaster tools without the years of training is really hard.

Posted by: Michael winthrop | April 18, 2018 12:36 AM    Report this comment

"Elizabeth is well-respected within her field, and underinformed criticism of her work does nothing to advance the field of aviation psychology; it only makes the critic look small and ridiculous."

In context, pilots ARE interpreting weather correctly and ARE arriving safely at their destination. The criticism is that ERAU thinks that there is a problem when reality shows differently.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 18, 2018 7:57 AM    Report this comment

Upon reading the study, GA pilots probably DON'T USE all 23 types of weather information that are available(and were the source for the test material). How many do you personally use for a typical GA flight? Scoring an average of almost 60% on interpreting things you don't use in a day-to-day operation is actually not worrisome.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 18, 2018 8:48 AM    Report this comment

"In context, pilots ARE interpreting weather correctly and ARE arriving safely at their destination. The criticism is that ERAU thinks that there is a problem when reality shows differently." Heck yea ... as I said, Lindberg found France without his iPad and weather apps.

MY point exactly and several other folks said it too. Right away, I said that ERAU is a prestigious institution. Problem is, they support people who's primary output is writing reports and doing studies ... many of which either aren't needed, relevant or even focused enough to make sense. I don't have to jump off of a bridge to know it probably isn't a good idea. I can "sense" that. Just what is this report gonna do for all of us ... retake all of the exams for our tickets?

A PhD doesn't gain respect because they've gotten a PhD. They EARN respect. From what I'm reading here ... this study is -- as a minimum -- suspect. And I said so.

Just because someone has a PhD does not mean they are always correct. In THIS case, just the mismatch between the title and the study's premise is an issue. That I question it doesn't mean I'm attacking the person ... it means I am attacking the premise and -- maybe -- even why it was done in the first place. Mark nails that, above. Free Govment money or a direct line to the ERAU research money pot surely played a significant part. ME ... I'm more interested in the sex life of LGBTQ tadpole aviators who have to make night approaches to the boat under IFR conditions. Why wasn't THAT studied? Get my point?

MY writing style is often critical and irreverent -- if not corrosive -- for a reason. It gets peoples attention and gets you to thinking rather than lining up single file behind the issue ju jour and marching goose step down the primrose path to the promised land. As usual ... it worked. :-)

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 19, 2018 12:06 PM    Report this comment

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