Getting You There Safely: Working With the Weather

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Written by: Justin Schlechter
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“Oceanic Thirty, Wash Center, be advised heavy to extreme precipitation at your 12 o’clock, 15-30 miles ahead.” 

“Center, Oceanic Thirty requesting up to 20 degrees left for weather.” 

“Oceanic Thirty, Wash Center, approved as requested; when able, proceed direct Sea Isle.”

The atmosphere in the cabin is relaxed and quiet. Most of the shades are drawn, and most people are either reading or sleeping, mouths agape, while killing time on the remainder of their flight. It is a stark contrast to the intensity that is currently going on in the flight deck, but that is the beauty of airline travel. It can be busy as can be in the cockpit, but as relaxed and chilled out in the back as if nothing is going on.

Professional airmen strive to complete each flight safely, comfortably and efficiently. In order to do so, the men and women in the cockpit need to understand the elements in which they operate.  The physical act of flying an airplane is just one iota of the process. It is the decision-making, analysis of the flight and situational awareness of what is around them that represent the other legs of the table upon which the entire operation is resting. Perhaps more than any other item, an airman’s interpretation, analysis and execution of operating within and around different weather systems is of paramount importance. It is typically the first thing a pilot reviews before flight and, in many cases, is one of the last bits of information a pilot utilizes prior to a flight’s conclusion. Operating safely within the tumultuous atmosphere we live in presents all sorts of issues that make a pilot’s job all that much more difficult.

So how and where do pilots get this information, and how do they apply it?

It all starts hours before the guests arrive at the airport. For most legacy and international airlines, there is an entire meteorology department focused on procuring, developing, and transmitting all sorts of weather information to its pilots. The methods in which they receive that information can come in a variety of ways.

Before any particular flight, a flight plan is generated by the airline’s dispatcher which incorporates all of the relevant meteorological information required by the Federal Aviation Administration. In most cases, this consists of METARs, which are current general conditions at the departure and destination; TAF’s, which are forecasts for the departure and destination airports; and other relevant advisories and forecasts. Some additional items include winds aloft information, SIGMETs, convective SIGMETs, and pilot reports, or PIREPs for short. SIGMETs contain hazardous weather information during flight, and convective SIGMETs contain information regarding thunderstorm activity.

In many cases, an airline will include information not just for the departure and arrival airports, but also airports along the way, or other airports near the destination. If there is an alternate airport listed on the flight plan, then all of the relevant information will be included for the pilots to review before and during flight. An alternate airport is only required when flight visibility at the arrival airport is less than three nautical miles or the cloud ceiling is below 2,000 ft. during an interval 60 minutes prior to the scheduled arrival time, and extending to 60 minutes after that time.

How does a pilot apply this information? It all depends on what the conditions are and how the pilots interpret them. In winter conditions, before you ever take off the pilots are plotting the course of action in terms of deicing, how to taxi on slick surfaces and briefing required engine run-ups to shed ice prior to applying takeoff thrust. In spring and summer, the biggest weather threat is thunderstorms. What are the prevailing winds aloft? Can the aircraft top the weather, or will excessive deviations be needed to avoid penetrating a line of storms? If so, how much extra fuel will be needed? Should a different route be filed? These are just some of the questions that the pilots will discuss.

There are lots of decisions to be made relating to weather at the beginning of the flight, but it is also important for the pilots to receive weather information in the air. In most cases, the pilots are kept abreast of changing weather either by utilizing the ACARS system to request new forecasts, or by the dispatcher sending information such as areas of turbulence or updated PIREP information. Typically, pilots will keep an eye on the destination and alternate current and forecast conditions, especially if the weather is marginal, and especially if they are given holding instructions. If the weather is so poor at the destination that ATC needs to hold, one of the first things that happens after coordinating the hold is that the pilot monitoring will request updated weather at the destination and the alternate and, in some cases, other airports that can be utilized as an alternate if the original fills up with diversions. It is imperative to keep all your options open when put in situations like that, and the cockpit can very quickly become a busy place.

Some aircraft, particularly long range international aircraft, are equipped with CPDLC, or controller-pilot data link communication. This system acts as a text messaging service for pilots and controllers to communicate on long range flights through areas beyond VHF radio reception. Instead of listening and talking on static filled HF radio frequencies, all communication is done through the flight management system. Controllers can pass along turbulence reports, PIREPs and even volcanic ash updates. Then controllers in conjunction with the dispatchers provide the pilots with the best information available so that the pilots can analyze it and make good flight decisions given the conditions.

One amazing weather information advancement is NEXRAD satellite weather. This is non-existent in the cockpits of airliners, but if you fly a Cessna 172 with Sirius satellite radio, you can receive NEXRAD radar imaging in your cockpit. Although it is not intended to be used for weather penetration because the information can be from seven to 15 minutes old, it is excellent for planning purposes. The weather radar in a jet typically begins to pick up weather approximately 160NM away and doesn’t really become defined until about 80NM away. That is only about 10-15 minutes of advance notice. If airline crews could see a picture of the weather an hour or so in advance, large scale reroutes could take place with minimal impact to the time and distance flown enroute. In many cases, it is better to make a small change in heading far in advance rather than a large scale deviation close-in.

Pilots don’t fly through thunderstorms. However, that doesn’t mean it is easy to avoid doing so. It takes a lot of concentration and weather knowledge along with the skill to utilize the weather radar correctly to avoid weather on a regular basis. This is especially so when there are thunderstorms everywhere as are typical on a hot summer day in the southeastern U.S. So, while the passengers are relaxing in the back, you can be assured your cockpit crew is working diligently putting all the pieces of the weather puzzle together. They are making informed decisions through analysis of information given to them from ground-based sources, air sources and by simply looking out the window. Flying the weather is as much an art as a science, and it is the professional airmen and women that do their jobs day in and out that enable their customers to have as safe a ride as possible.

So you may be wondering: how do pilots learn how to fly the weather after making the most informed decisions? There are many textbooks written that describe aeronautical weather and its associated hazards, but how do pilots actually apply their skills to each situation? In most cases it is the passing down of operational knowledge, but one of the best books on the topic is Weather Flying by the late TWA Captain Bob Buck. His book is a must for professional and even amateur aviators. It doesn’t just talk about weather phenomena, it explains how to fly it. If it isn’t mandatory reading for a neophyte aviator, it should be.

It is a pilot’s professionalism that allows his customers to relax with a Coke or to catch up on some sleep while the plane traverses a line of thunderstorms. It is their skill, ability and experience that allow an airplane to navigate in and around weather hazards without it interfering with the passengers’ inflight experience. That is their goal, and without the proper meteorological knowledge and support from the ground it wouldn’t be possible. It takes a team to get passengers from A to B and thankfully there are professionals at all levels of the industry who make it their goal every day to do just that. From the dispatchers to the meteorologists to the air traffic controllers, the pilots up front could not do it without their expertise, knowledge and professionalism on a daily basis.

Justin Schlechter is an airline pilot who lives with his family on Long Island.

About the Author

Justin Schlechter



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