Safety Publications/Articles

Beyond the phone call

How we should teach weather

Do you believe that realistic weather education is absent from most pilot training programs? If so, you've got lots of company, including the instructors at the AOPA Air Safety Foundation who soon will introduce ASF's newest live safety seminar, "Weather Wise: Tactical Tricks and Practical Tips."

Many times, students are provided only with rudimentary weather theory focused not on practical real-world flying, but rather on passing the knowledge test. Perhaps this is one reason why more than 12 percent of fatal single-engine fixed-gear accidents are weather-related. As flight instructors, we're responsible for educating our students on weather flying, a responsibility that requires more than memorizing the stages of thunderstorm development. It requires that we teach not only weather theory, but also how weather can affect our everyday flying.

To make learning about weather more memorable -- and, dare I say it, fun -- we may need to dust off our Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) knowledge. Remember the Law of Intensity? The more vivid and exciting a learning experience, the better the overall learning experience. Using the Law of Intensity for teaching weather is highly effective for both the CFI and student.

As a student pilot, I sat through many ground lessons on weather, and I promptly forgot everything the instructor said. I did not forget because I was uninterested; I forgot because I simply was not able to remember all the theory, definitions, and explanations on how this related to my flying. It was not until I was an active flight instructor in Massachusetts that I learned how to incorporate the Law of Intensity into my lessons on weather.

Because not all New England days are perfect VFR, I was often able to demonstrate, not lecture, on the ways in which weather affects our flights. One of my favorite lessons was about cold fronts. All students have heard of cold fronts, and during New England winters these fronts are unmistakable. Instead of lecturing, I flew with my students just after a cold front had passed. One flight was all it ever took to teach these students that the backside of a cold front brings a bumpy ride. Not only did they learn firsthand what the backside of a cold front is like, they generally wanted to learn more about these fronts and what weather conditions could be expected before the front and while the front was passing. These flights served to begin a conversation on weather theory, not end it.

After our bumpy flight and discussion on cold-front theory, I took the opportunity to ask about the weather briefing they received before the flight. Did they receive any airmets? How much of the weather brief did they actually write down? How much did they really understand? These questions generally moved from clear-cut, yes/no-type inquiries to those that would yield more open-ended answers. When a student answered yes to whether he had received an airmet, generally for turbulence, he started down the road to becoming his own meteorologist. After one flight these students knew that issuance of an airmet for turbulence almost always would follow a cold front, and they could predict the airmet for turbulence even before the briefer read it. These students understood in a very practical sense how cold fronts could affect their flying and were more likely to pay attention the next time the briefer mentioned a front.

A pilot who understands the significance of certain weather phenomena is more likely to copy down the information that the briefer relays. We've all seen our students getting a weather briefing and writing down only a third of what the briefer says. Understanding how the big-picture weather can affect their local flying will encourage these students to pay greater attention to the entire weather briefing. Writing down the entire briefing is secondary to pilots listening and beginning to understand that there is more to weather than just the current conditions at home base.

There is a marriage between theory and practicality that needs to occur for our students to truly understand weather and keep them actively involved in the learning process. We all know the airplane makes a poor classroom, but in the case of weather, lessons learned in the airplane invoke the Law of Intensity. I've found that the best way to teach weather is to take students flying in varying weather conditions such as turbulence and marginal VFR for the purpose of beginning a discussion on weather theory. If you're really lucky, your student may ask about warm fronts after you finish talking about cold fronts. When this happens you know you're getting somewhere.

There are numerous weather textbooks and videos available. Many of these resources are free to pilots, including a series of new pilot weather training programs produced by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation and the National Weather Service. The first program in this five-year series will be presented at AOPA Expo 2004 in October. A list of currently available free resources can be found on AOPA Online.

Leisha Bell is a safety program developer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, she is a CFII and MEI with more than 2,000 hours.

By Leisha Bell

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