Make Your Weather Briefing as Easy as 1, 2, 3
Developing Smarter and Safer Self-Briefing Habits
By James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Associate Editor
I’ve lived in two very different worlds — the world before and after the Information Revolution. My aviation career has neatly straddled that divide. I spent my formative years in aviation calling and, on a few occasions, personally visiting Flight Service Stations to receive various weather briefings. But as technology advanced and information became more available, pilot preferences shifted to self-briefing rather than phone briefings. While the tools may have changed, the same three steps still apply: Define your limits, gather information to determine conditions, and decide if those conditions are acceptable for you. Let’s take a look at that process.
Step 1 — Define the acceptable limits of your skills and equipment.
The Digital Download
The FAA definition of a pilot briefing is the gathering and translation of weather and aeronautical information into a form usable by the pilot to assist in flight planning and decision-making for the safe and efficient operation of aircraft. A self-briefing uses all means and sources of reporting, including automation, to thoroughly evaluate weather and aeronautical information in advance of a flight. So what’s the best way to accomplish this?
“Know your minimums,” explains Frances “Frankie” Prott, an Air Traffic Control Specialist with the FAA’s Flight Service Safety and Operations Group. The most crucial part of any self-briefing isn’t part of the actual briefing; it’s setting your own personal minimums and knowing your sources. “Read the manual for your onboard weather product and make sure you know the source’s particulars, like color palette, update rate, information source, etc.,” Prott says. It is important to inventory all available information sources you will have access to during the flight and be familiar with what they are telling you. Also, know what your aircraft is capable of handling and what should be avoided. If your onboard sources and self-briefing sources don’t match, it’s essential to know that before you take off because it can trick you into thinking conditions are better than they are. For more on establishing your own personal minimums, see Your Safety Reserve: Developing Your Personal Minimums, March/April 2015, FAA Safety Briefing, p. 30.
The most crucial part of any self-briefing isn’t part of the actual briefing; it’s setting your own personal minimums and knowing your sources.
Advisory Circular (AC) 91–92, Pilot’s Guide to a Preflight Briefing, contains an excellent list of U.S. government resources for self-briefings (Appendix A) that covers everything from ADS-B availability to volcanic ash advisories. These resources are drawn from FAA and National Weather Service sites. Numerous private services and applications can also provide you with an excellent briefing. Some can also integrate these resources into a one-stop shop and can function as an electronic flight bag (EFB) on the flight. [Editor’s note: we are not mentioning specific non-federal resources to avoid the appearance of an endorsement.]
Whether you’re going to brief on your own or via a third-party service, it’s essential to make sure you’re covering all the bases. “Use a checklist to ensure you gather all information for the intended flight,” says Prott. See the sample checklist in AC 91–92 (Appendix B) and modify it to meet your needs. It may seem redundant, but the process is just like your aircraft checklist — it helps catch errors that you may not even know you made. Another adaptable checklist option is the graphic checklist on the interactive map feature on 1800WXBRIEF.com.
Step 2 — Gather information to determine conditions.
Practice Makes Perfect
“After defining your terms and assembling your resources, all that’s left is putting it all into practice. Identify risks and compare the information collected against your situation,” Prott explains. “If you accept the risks, have a mitigation plan in place. Use your knowledge, skills, experience, and tools to make a wise go/no-go decision. Don’t let ego or external pressures (the need to get there, not disappointing others, etc.) interfere with a safe decision.”
For a bit of help with that, we can turn to a scenario-based training course developed by Flight Service and hosted by the FAA Safety Team: ALC-683 — Conducting Preflight Self-Briefings for Student and VFR Pilots. While the course is aimed at visual flight rules (VFR) pilots, it is an excellent refresher for a pilot at any level. An IFR version is on its way and may well be available by the time you read this. These courses can give you good tips and tricks to help improve your self-briefing skills and practice implementing them.
“On self-briefings, people tend to miss the trends,” says Prott when asked about common mistakes pilots make. “Forecasts can be inaccurate, especially in areas where weather reporting points are few and far between. Flight Service specialists spend eight to ten hours a day, five to six days a week following trend weather through PIREPs, weather cameras, METARs, satellite, and radar.” This is why calling Flight Service can be a great idea to check your self-briefing work, especially if you are inexperienced or traveling to a new area. As you improve your skills, you may find less need to check in.
Prott notes that “Most self-briefings are ‘snapshots’ at a point in time. This is a significant issue when flying to and from an unfamiliar area with patterns and trends unknown to the pilot.” Then there’s the matter of NOTAMs, another area of concern that Prott says pilots sometimes miss during a briefing. “Pilots can easily overlook an important NOTAM, like a restricted area activity, due to the volume of these notices on a briefing, or if the pilot just focuses on the departure and destination airport. Sometimes it is hard to sort through so much information.”
Step 3 — Decide if those conditions are acceptable to your limits.
Go/No-Go, and Gone
Pilots often think that a go/no-go decision is final. However, pilots have a choice at almost any point during the flight to make a change. “You should continually assess the environment,” Prott explains. “Maintain awareness of changes in the weather conditions and, if needed, call Flight Service in-flight to help you reassess the situation.” To reinforce this point, you can build checkpoints into your flight and ask yourself, “Is the weather still as expected/good enough to continue?”
One suggestion Prott offers is to use a weather log. “Studies by the FAA and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have found that after a weather briefing, pilots often forget where the weather is and when it could later impact the route of flight.” Having a weather log can help you compare the forecasted conditions versus what you see and make it easier to spot changes while in flight.
Just having a lot of information doesn’t make a good decision automatic. “I remember one briefing, there was a solid line of extreme weather — embedded thunderstorms, hail, wind shear, the works! — going from New York to Alabama,” Prott recalls. “The flight was planned from Ohio to southeastern Georgia in a single prop. The briefing went to a level of detail that took nearly an hour. I am still surprised the pilot decided to give it a go.” Prott continued, “I reluctantly filed the flight plan and started following the pilot on FlightAware. My colleagues and I watched that tiny plane icon for hours. It was nerve-wracking. They made it without having to stop.”
Many of us have a story of picking that one piece of “go” information out of a mountain of “no go” information to justify an ill-advised flight. The goal of a good self-briefing process is not to make that mistake.
- First, establish a set of personal minimums against which you can set the current and forecast conditions.
- Next, build up a good network of resources for both preflight and in-flight. This could be as simple as choosing a one-stop solution like 1800WXBRIEF.com (see this article for more details). Maybe you prefer to use individual sources so that each step is a separate process you can check off. Find the collection of resources that work best for you. Don’t be afraid to occasionally add sources to the mix to see if they might be better for you.
- Keep a checklist and update it periodically.
From there, practice in low-stress situations to work the bugs out. Maybe it’s a mock flight plan you won’t actually file and fly or just a trip to the airport for some pattern work. This gives you experience working through your process and gets you used to telling yourself no. If you’d no-go your mock flight/touch and go’s, you should do the same for a real flight in the same conditions.
Decision-making is a skill. The more repetitions you do, the better you get at it. Then, if you do go, you repeat the process in part throughout the flight. Does what you see, either with your eyes or on your cockpit displays, match the expected conditions? If not, how should you mitigate that? It’s also true that, just like with your flying skills, you need to practice your decision-making skills regularly to maintain proficiency.
Finally — Repeat steps two and three periodically during the flight.
You can practice this process without even going to the airport. Every time you do it, you’ll get better and begin to recognize the local weather trends. As you practice, remember that you can always “phone a friend” over at Flight Service and talk to a specialist to “check your work” and see if there is anything you missed.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.