Weather forecast

December 1, 2004

Bruce Landsberg, executive director of AOPA ASF, talks about weather constantly and attends meetings to do something about it.

Most pilots have heard that weather is a leading cause of fatal accidents. Actually, that's not quite right. Weather is never a cause of an accident. Weather is the environment in which we choose to operate, and if a pilot consistently makes the wrong choices, well, it could be bad. Looking through AOPA Air Safety Foundation's safety database, we found 77 fatal accidents in which weather was a factor in 2003. There are some indications that we may be making a small dent in that number, but I'm nowhere near ready to declare victory.

At the National Business Aviation Association convention, a group of government, academic, and industry partners has been meeting for the past eight years to discuss what directions weather detection and dissemination should go and what problems remained to be solved. I've been going to these meetings almost since the group's inception because ASF recognizes the tremendous role that weather plays in general aviation flight operations. It's always good to see what the other players are thinking.

There is some consensus, after about two decades, that the Teletype is really not going to make a comeback. As a result, many weather products have gone or will go graphical. Obscure codes will, for the most part, go the way of four-course ranges except, paradoxically, in the most advanced weather displays in the cockpit where datalink capacity and screen space require this shorthand. Everywhere else — preflight telephone briefings, online through DUATS or private provider — the TAFs and METARs can be translated into plain language. Seems like the FAA should recognize this on the knowledge test and suggest that those having on-board weather displays know the code. It could become a badge of honor rather than the drudgery it currently is. It would also allow more time to be spent teaching interpretation and understanding rather than rote memorization. Get the need-to-know information first, then learn the niceties.

The rules still haven't caught up with reality for the airlines either. They still must abide by the 1-2-3 rule (from one hour before to one hour after the estimated time of arrival, the weather must be forecast to be at least a 2,000-foot ceiling and three miles visibility or an alternate airport is required) for alternate IFR fuel even though many of their aircraft routinely land in Category II or Cat III minimums. Because they are able to operate with a zero ceiling and visibility measured in hundreds of feet, this seems overly restrictive. Given the extra weight of fuel, that adds up to hundreds of thousands of extra-expense dollars that most airlines just don't have.

Those same alternate fuel requirements for light GA aircraft, however, make excellent sense. Over the past several years we've had a number of fatal accidents where pilots ran out of that on-board essential simply because they failed to understand that wishful thinking and an optimistic forecast don't change the reality of below-minimum conditions. Better forecasts of ceiling and visibility will help but until then, carry the gas.

There was considerable discussion about thunderstorms and how they play havoc with scheduled operations. Both the airlines and the FAA have struggled with this, especially in the Northeast corridor. With too much traffic, even on a good day, when large chunks of the airspace become unusable it costs time and money. According to one airline, a diversion runs anywhere from $2,500 to $15,000 just on direct operating costs — never mind the passenger hassle and the fact that the airplane isn't where it's needed. Much effort is being put into short-term convective forecasting that will allow a very accurate prediction about where the storms will be in an hour or three. We're not quite there yet.

I had a personal demonstration on the need for this a few years ago. Most of the time it's better to have turbine equipment and the ability to go really high on convective days, but sometimes the tortoise beats the hare. One summer evening a line of storms passed through the New York area and as my cab made its way out to Teterboro, New Jersey, with lightning bolts and heavy rain all about, it looked to be a very long night. The lobby of the FBO looked like World War III with impatient or resigned chief executive officers and harried flight crews all hovering around the computer terminal looking at the radar. The ramp was packed with every type of corporate chariot. The storms were moving right on through but extensive ground delays were in effect because of air traffic saturation.

Everybody was getting clearance delivery by telephone first and then waiting for an engine start time. Don't call us, we'll call you. Flying a Bonanza at the bottom of this food chain, I expected at least a two-hour delay, but the controller offered an immediate departure if we could stay below 3,000 feet for the first 40 miles. As soon as the back side of the weather cleared the airport we were gone, much to the disbelief of the high and mighty. While one can feel smug in such a situation, a systematic approach to the problem is essential and GA plays an important part by fitting into the system.

From a safety perspective, ceiling and visibility remain a very big deal for light aircraft. VFR flight into instrument conditions leads the accident causes by far — far more than icing or thunderstorms. Many pilots have learned that instrument meteorological conditions are over-forecasted. Part of that is procedural and part of it is lawsuit protection. This results in a few pilots getting away with flights into marginal conditions until circumstances and luck negatively conspire into a nasty sudden stop.

As many readers know, ASF has been on a campaign to get pilots to give more pilot reports (pireps) and to get air traffic control (ATC) to pass along more of them. It's a complex issue and I won't repeat my diatribe here other than to encourage those of you who haven't taken the free online course, SkySpotter, to do so, and then help us all by giving regular pireps. It will help the decision making of your fellow pilots and the National Weather Service, too.

At these meetings there are always different perspectives and the visionaries in the group believe that in 10 years or less, ceiling and visibility problems will be a historical curiosity despite our interest in them now. For heavy iron at big airports that may be true, but for the rest of us flying both VFR and IFR I suspect we'll still need to see what we're doing at least occasionally. Forecasting this accurately will have a big impact on safety and efficiency.

By this time next year the government will have resolved how the function of flight service will be handled. Either way, the delivery system will change significantly, the cost will go down, and we expect the product to improve. There was not much discussion in this forum other than to recognize that the displays of weather products and their communication to pilots will finally move into the twenty-first century.

Weather data in the cockpit will be more affordable as display and transmission costs come down. It will require pilots to understand what they are looking at and as usual, the information needs to be used intelligently. Dodging widespread areas of thunderstorms and seeing updates every 10 minutes or so will bring a new level of utility to the cross-country flier, but we'll see some accidents as pilots attempt to wriggle through areas that they never would have attempted before.

One area that deserves some special mention is the use of ATC to avoid thunderstorms. Most if not all en route centers and many terminal approach controls have given controllers the ability to see radar displays. However, not all of the controllers are facile with the equipment or as prone to assist as we might hope. This summer there were several accidents involving misunderstandings between pilots and ATC. There are very specific techniques to use with ATC to avoid weather. ASF will be discussing them in some detail during our new free weather seminar, "Weather Wise." In the next several months the program will play in more than 80 locations — check online for details or call 800/USA-AOPA (872-2672). The program will provide a practical approach to understanding weather, something more than a few of us missed in prepping for the knowledge test. Hope to see you there.