Crowdsourcing Weather Conditions

A New Take on PIREPs

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Editor

If you shop online, you’ve probably scrolled through at least a few product reviews before clicking “buy.” During the last Christmas shopping season, crowdsourced customer reviews were more valuable to me than breathless product information drafted by advertising agencies. Wave-offs saved me money and frustration, and glowing reports guided my better selections. Because I benefit so much from fellow shoppers’ experience, I reciprocate by contributing my own reviews.

You probably know where I’m going here. When browsing aviation weather sources to determine whether you can safely fly, official information in METARs, TAFs, AIRMETs, SIGMETs, and other products is important. You can also count on its integrity. Still, no matter how hard weather forecasters work to get it right, Mother Nature has a way of changing things up. Consequently, there is no substitute for also getting “real world” and near real time reports from those who have flown before you.

Aircraft Icing

You can probably think of times you have benefited from the crowdsourced weather information, more commonly known as PIREPs (pilot weather reports). Icing can be notoriously difficult to forecast. Icing may be under-reported because few aircraft are equipped for flight into known icing (FIKI) conditions; therefore, there will be no or few PIREPs in those areas. If and when PIREPs do exist, they can help determine the accuracy of a forecast or, alternatively, if the path is clear.

Need to know when you’ll be on top of an overcast layer? PIREPs are the best source. The list of useful items goes on: cloud bases, tops and layers; flight visibility; precipitation; visibility restrictions (e.g., haze, smoke and dust), actual winds and temperatures aloft; and hazardous conditions (e.g., thunderstorms, icing, turbulence, wind shear).

It’s a Two-Way Street

In aviation, as in shopping, crowdsourcing only works when there is an actual crowd offering information. If you are a PIREP consumer, please be a PIREP provider as well.

Lightning strike by an airplane

The PIREP format is printed on many of the most popular kneeboards, so you don’t need to memorize a thing. You might find it helpful to think in terms of who, when, where and what. In any case, please write the following sentence on your kneeboard in large bold print: INFORMATION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN FORMAT OR PHRASEOLOGY! Hazardous weather information is important, but so is data on favorable conditions, especially if you find them in the context of a gloomy forecast.

The traditional method for making a PIREP is to tell ATC or Flight Service that you have a pilot report and let them tell you when they are ready to copy your information. These days, though, you can also use tablet- and smartphone-friendly PIREP submission tools. Some have auto-populated values based on user preferences or GPS data. Another option is the FAA’s electronic PIREP submission tool at the NWS Aviation Weather Center Digital Data Service (ADDS) website. Registered users (see “Learn More” below) can electronically submit PIREPs for instant graphical display and nationwide distribution.

Caveat Emptor (Buyer — and Flyer — Beware!)

There is a dark side to online shopping reviews, so it pays to look for “verified purchase” indications. PIREPs are far less likely to be fabricated in the crowdsourced weather world, but you still need to read with a critical eye. Few pilots are professional meteorologists, so the ability to properly assess and relay weather conditions is likely to be inconsistent. A new or low-time pilot may have a tendency to overestimate, and what a B-787 pilot reports as “light chop” will be far more intense for a C-150 pilot.

To refine your own reporting skills, take a look at the Aeronautical Information Manual and FAA Advisory Circular 00–45H, Aviation Weather Services. Above all, just remember that those who use PIREPs — an eager audience that includes fellow pilots, ATC, Flight Service, and the National Weather Service — will appreciate anything you can offer, and the more the better.

Learn More

Susan K. Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/

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