As a flight service specialist, I was trained to understand National Weather Service charts, radars, satellite pictures and data. My job was to stay on top of how weather would affect flights primarily in my own geographic area, and in general throughout the country. I studied how terrain and upper air movement would affect weather patterns and learned to forecast based on the raw data.
In days past, pilots could depend on talking to someone experienced with weather and with a detailed knowledge of the geographic area the pilot was flying.
Flight Service Specialists are still given weather and aviation training, but this four-month course at the FAA Academy is now done in about four weeks. Although they are assigned one area of the country, busy phone lines may result in a call routed to a specialist not intimately familiar with the caller’s area of interest.
Future of Weather Briefings
This situation is probably going to become more problematic as Flight Service reduces to only two briefing facilities by the middle of 2019. The FAA states that the Future of Flight Service is automation…with human backup. Personal interaction is not as necessary as in the past since most pilots now have access to a computer or a smartphone can access a plethora of websites, which allow them to file flight plans and review weather.
The majority of pilots, especially those who achieved certification within the last fifteen years, embrace this alternative to calling someone for a briefing. The numbers of calls into flight service has dropped dramatically in the last decade as pilots exercise their option to self-brief.
Pilots who have been talking to flight service for many years know that a complete standard briefing contains both current and forecast weather and wind data. It’s logical for pilots to assume that because flight service personnel spend eight hours every day looking at weather data, they’ll give advice and guidance based on long term familiarity with weather patterns, especially over a specific geographical region.
Local Weather Variation
The obvious problem is that a pilot flying through unknown terrain can make inaccurate assumptions. A pilot from the Midwest heading into the Rocky Mountains may not appreciate the impact that mountains can have on local weather—especially because of wind flow. Pilots from the dry southwest can get into difficult and unpredictable icing situations in the Great Lake states when they enter foggy conditions not realizing that actual freezing levels may be up to 3000 feet different than forecast.
Regional variation in weather patterns is something that doesn’t always translate well in NWS forecast data. For example, in the southwest there is a summer rainy period from mid-July to mid-September, which they refer to as the Monsoon. Mid-level moisture hangs at 15,000 feet invisibly giving the appearance of clear skies. Heat rises up around noon everyday creating towering cumulus, which rapidly become severe thunderstorms. Most of these storms are singular rather than in the lines associated with fronts. The weather service doesn’t try to predict exactly where they will form—they just draw a big convective SIGMET around several states.
At sunset the storms start to dissipate with a few intense ones holding out until midnight, when everything quiets down. Where the storms took place there is usually enough water to form fog in the early morning that can encompass hundreds of miles.
Pilots who access only METARs and satellite data may be discouraged from flying into an area when the conditions are reading IFR, but a flight service specialist who knows the behavior of monsoon weather in that region can tell them the fog will dissipate about nine a.m. and clear skies again until at least noon.
This is the difference in how most pilots self-brief using available tools versus how a flight service specialist was trained to brief. Today’s pilots have access to the same weather charts, forecasts and information, which Flight Service uses daily. The trick is to look at, and understand, all of them rather than just skimming the METARs and Adverse conditions.
In training yourself to understand weather, the traditional Flight Service Standard Weather Briefing format is a checklist that ensures a pilot at least looks at all the basic information. The Standard Briefing always contains:
- Adverse Conditions: Any weather or NOTAM data, which may keep the pilot from completing a flight.
- Synopsis: Why the weather is doing what it is doing, and how the atmosphere is expected to move and change.
- Current conditions: Observed weather reports from both ground based weather stations and observers and from airborne pilots.
- Forecast Conditions: How the NWS expects weather to change on the surface in the local area, in the broader areas, and aloft.
- Notices to Airmen: The last part of a standard briefing are the NOTAMs.
Becoming Weather Wise
How can you achieve a deeper understanding of how weather will affect your flight? There are several avenues available to new and experienced pilots. The FAA Safety team frequently advertises free pilot briefing webinars every month. The National Weather Service aviation website is always available to glance through.
The Flight Service website is packed with good interpretive data and they have a plethora of YouTube instructional videos available.
The biggest factor in all of this is taking the time, every day, whether you are flying or not, to access one or more aviation weather websites and just look at the information and graphics, which are available in your region and nationally. This is the real secret to understanding how the atmosphere moves at all levels of flight. Become comfortable with opening up the various tools and seeing what they mean.
If you are planning a trip to a new region with which you are unfamiliar, start watching the weather patterns there as far in advance as possible. Look at the terrain, restricted airspace, and Minimum Enroute Altitudes as recommended on the charts.
One of the least used tools is the upper air data—yet it is what affects conditions at the surface over the long haul. In the depth of Winter and Summer the jet stream tends to be a stable westerly flow across the continental United States. It is when the jet starts to swing wildly from pole to equator in spring and fall that you can expect major changes in weather patterns to begin happening.
The jet dips down from the arctic regions infusing moist surface low pressure systems with cold air creating fog and severe icing in the Midwest. You can predict this a week in advance when you see a strong low pressure system on high altitude charts over Alaska being pulled southeast.
To begin your self-study for long term weather understanding, consider the following websites:
Regardless of how you obtain a weather briefing make sure that it is a method that records your access so you are covered from a liability aspect.
The more you know about weather, the less dependent you will be on Flight Service. Use your favorite weather briefing site frequently, even when you are not flying, so you develop a sense of what is happening in that part of our world you love the most—the air above.
Rose Marie Kern began working for the FAA in 1983. She has written books and over 400 articles on all aspects of ATC and Aviation weather. To contact her website www.rosemariekern.com.
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