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Weather a shaky subject for pilots in surveyWeather a shaky subject for pilots in survey

Pilots in a university survey were “stumped” by almost half the weather questions posed, a research team found, noting that the weather-knowledge deficit might not stop an applicant from passing an FAA knowledge test.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University research shows that pilots are weak on interpreting weather information on the ground and in the cockpit. Photo by Chris Rose.

The findings by researchers from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University were published in the April 2018 edition of the International Journal of Aerospace Psychology.

The results “are worrisome because GA pilots flying smaller planes at lower altitudes, usually with minimal ground-based support, have higher weather-related accident and fatality rates,” said Elizabeth Blickensderfer, a professor in ERAU’s Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology.

The 204 participating pilots were tested on their knowledge of 23 types of weather information, from icing forecasts and turbulence reports to radar. They were stumped by about 42 percent of the questions, the researchers found.

The survey subjects were divided into four pilot categories for the 95-question exam. The groups included instrument-rated commercial pilots, who achieved 65-percent accuracy, the highest score; instrument-rated private pilots, who scored 62-percent correct responses; private pilots without an instrument rating, 57 percent; and student pilots, who answered 48 percent of the questions correctly.

The mean score was 57.89 percent, based on assessments conducted on the university’s Daytona Beach, Florida, campus and at an airshow in the Midwest.

Blickensderfer said there is a need for improved testing of general aviation pilots and pointed out that in 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board highlighted “identifying and communicating hazardous weather” as a top priority for safety improvements.

“Currently, however, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Knowledge Exam allows pilots to pass even if they fail the weather portion of the test,” the research team said.

Examples of survey questions designed to push the pilots beyond rote, or memorized knowledge, included interpreting a “cryptic” meteorological terminal aviation routine weather report (METAR), and extracting meaning from a ground-based radar cockpit display, “which would only show recent thunderstorm activity—not current conditions.”

“If you’re flying 120 miles per hour and you don’t understand that there’s a lag time in ground-based radar data reaching your cockpit, that can be deadly,” said Thomas A. Guinn, an associate professor of meteorology at ERAU, and a co-author of the study.

Blickensderfer said the results should not be taken to mean pilot training is entirely to blame for pilots’ lack of weather knowledge. “We have got to improve how weather information is displayed so that pilots can easily and quickly interpret it. At the same time, of course, we can fine-tune pilot assessments to promote learning and inform training.”

The research, supported by $491,000 in FAA funding, was also co-authored by Robert Thomas, a Gold Seal CFI and ERAU assistant professor of aeronautical science; ERAU students Jayde King and Yolanda Ortiz; and former ERAU faculty member John Lanicci, now of the University of South Alabama. Researchers included Nick Defilippis and Quirijn Berendschot.

A follow-up study involving about 1,000 GA pilots across the United States is underway, the announcement said.

Topics: Pilots, Student, Icing

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