Surfing the Digital Atmosphere
What’s Cool, Fun, and Free for Pilots to Learn Aviation Weather
By Jennifer Caron, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Copy Editor
“Weather forecast for tonight: dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning.”— George Carlin
Here’s a shocking statistic — did you know that general aviation (GA) accounts for 88% of all weather-related accidents in the National Airspace System (NAS)? (See the report here.)Let’s let that one sink in for a bit. 88%! Air carriers only account for 3%. Commuter aircraft? Just 5%.
Here’s an even more sobering statistic — most GA pilots do not walk away from weather-related accidents — the outcome is fatal more often than not. Visibility is the number one problem.
There’s no doubt that aviation weather is a serious threat to GA safety with numbers like these. But why? With all the advances in weather technology and all the resources pilots can access, such as in-person briefings, phone apps, websites, and the alphabet soup of PIREPS, NEXRAD, TIBS, ATIS, AWOS, AIRMETs, SIGMETs, METARs — oh my! — there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of up-to-date weather reports and forecasts for pilots to fill up their plates.
So, with all the weather information that’s available, why do weather-related accidents continue to plague GA? The answer is not so simple; it’s complex — just like a bank of towering clouds ahead — it’s multi-faceted with many layers.
The bottom line is that aviation weather information is frequently misinterpreted. First, most weather products are not meant for or geared towards aviation. The vast majority of weather information is for people on the ground, not in the air. Add to that the fact that some weather products and information are not intuitive enough for cockpit use, then top that off with the need for improved weather training and standardized competency requirements, and you’ve got yourself an atmosphere that makes it tough for pilots to recognize rapidly changing weather conditions.
Under the Weather
Pilots are not meteorologists and are not expected to give the local forecast on the evening news. However, pilots do need to know and understand the weather and how it can impact the aircraft, the flight, and the ability to control the aircraft.
So which type of weather data would you rather have in the cockpit? Do you want weather data that is a forecast of conditions valid at the current time but may not be completely accurate? Or, would you rather have a weather display that’s picture-perfect at the time the weather conditions were measured but is now anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes old? Of these, which would you use to make a good decision to avoid bad weather?
These are the kinds of questions that the FAA’s Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC) program examines. They look for the most effective ways to present weather information in the cockpit, determine the most relevant weather data for aviation use, make weather easier to understand, improve training, and make recommendations to the aviation industry on how to deliver weather in a more manageable format. Their goal is to help pilots consistently and accurately interpret weather information, understand its limitations, and use it effectively to avoid adverse weather.
WTIC is one of two research programs in the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System Aviation Weather Division. Along with the Aviation Weather Research Program, WTIC seeks to enhance aviation safety by minimizing the impact of adverse weather on flights operating within the NAS.
“GA pilots struggle to interpret weather products, which places them at a greater risk of flying directly into hazardous weather,” says Dr. Ian Johnson, engineering psychologist and human factors researcher in the WTIC program.
“We’ve run experiments and found that most pilots focus primarily on the weather they have at takeoff or landing. The mindset is, ‘If I can just get up safely, then I’ll look out the window and decide what to do,’” explains Gary Pokodner, WTIC program manager. While it is not necessarily a bad idea to take off and take a look, staying safe requires staying alert to weather changes. Other pilots focus more on the weather at the landing to make sure they can get down.
GA aircraft operate in (rather than above) most weather, and many pilots do not get to see hazardous weather until they fly into it. That’s why in-flight updates are vital. A 200-mile trip, for instance, can leave a two or three-hour weather information gap between your preflight briefing and your actual flight.
“Almost everybody seems to neglect in-flight weather,” says Pokodner. In-flight weather forecast tools present a challenge to pilots, and they find them harder to use.
“If you only understand 50% of the weather radar, satellite data, or an AIRMET, for example, then there’s a good chance you don’t actually know if the weather is good enough for you to fly or not,” Pokodner explains. It’s important to develop an overall picture of current and forecasted weather to determine how it will affect visibility, turbulence, aircraft performance, and your personal minimums.
“We need to find a better way to teach pilots the weather and determine areas where pilots have a weakness,” says Johnson. One of WTIC’s main objectives is to uncover gaps in pilot training and gauge a pilot’s understanding and interpretation of cockpit weather sources (e.g., METARs) and weather products (e.g., SIGMETs).
Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited
So, where can pilots go to learn aviation weather? I’m not just talking about weather sources or some boring meteorology text that doubles as a sleeping pill. I’m talking about learning tools that engage your eyes and teach us with immersive experiences. Visualization is a much more effective teacher than words on a page because images stick with us longer, and they help us get a feel for the weather. Pictures are priceless when it comes to displaying complex, dynamic information like cloud cover and precipitation.
A wealth of virtual courses, videos, and augmented and virtual reality experiences really up the coolness factor to learn aviation weather. There are apps for your phone and videos that are light, enjoyable, and informative and won’t chew up a chunk of your time to learn some valuable safety tips to make better go/no-go and in-flight decisions.
Let’s dive into the digital atmosphere of cool, fun, and free products and explore some exciting weather tools on the horizon.
Augmented Reality (AR) uses technology to superimpose a computer-generated image or video on real-world objects. If you’ve ever tried “view in your room” from your smartphone, that’s AR. Retailers use it to let you see and “try on” products in your home before you buy them. To see how AR works for weather, check out this cool video on the formation of a thunderstorm.
Use your smartphone or tablet to download the free AR aviation weather app WeatherXplore, available for iOS and Android on the App Store and Google Play.
WeatherXplore makes printed pages come alive with enhanced graphics, images, and videos linked to the book Aviation Weather with Augmented Reality to give you an interactive print experience. Content is animated, and there are videos, courses, quizzes, and interactive 3D. Press the scan image button in the app to see weather conditions in real-time and know what lies ahead on your route. What’s more, you can use your smartphone to create a 3D virtual reality experience from any sectional chart.
There’s more with WeatherXplore — ten short, free mini-video lessons based on real-world weather scenarios that are light, fun, take less than 15 minutes to watch, and cover topics such as density altitude and carburetor ice. You can find them on the Fly8Ma website for free, on the Western Michigan University site with a free account, and on YouTube.
WeatherXplore was sponsored by WTIC and developed in partnership with PEGASAS (the FAA’s Center of Excellence for General Aviation), and Western Michigan and Purdue Universities, with contributions from Tietronix Software and Fly8MA.com, an online private pilot ground school.
AND Believe It
If you haven’t tried virtual reality (VR), you are missing out. VR is next-level immersion inside a 360-degree world. All your senses respond to sights and sounds in the virtual world just as they do in the real world, which makes for an astonishingly true-to-life experience. With many of us grounded due to COVID-19, VR is a great way to fly to any airport you choose, learn a new flight management system, and practice your procedures. With VR, it’s as if you’re right inside the cockpit, working the controls, feeling what it’s like to maintain control through turbulence, or watching thunderstorms develop around you. Keep in mind that while VR is a good learning tool, it is not currently FAA approved to accomplish any minimum experience or proficiency requirements for pilot certification or currency, as specified in 14 CFR part 61. To learn more about the world of virtual flying, check out “Fly Into the Matrix” here:
Riders on the Storm
Take a virtual flight in the WILD, the Weather Information Latency Demonstrator, to try your skill at navigating hazardous weather in the safety of a simulator, free of charge. Do you know when visibility starts to deteriorate? What about the difference between in-cockpit images and out-the-window conditions? WILD teaches you the effects of latency and how to better spot weather change color cues on a display.
It’s another innovative collaboration between WTIC and PEGASAS, and the plans are to have WILD available at this year’s EAA AirVenture airshow. You can also find the WILD weather scenarios in the Mindstar and Redbird flight simulators. The Redbird Pro app is available for iOS and Android devices on the App Store and Google Play.
PIE in the SKY-REPs
The better the observation, the better the forecast, the better your go/no-go decision. So spread the word. Your pilot report (PIREP) informs everyone in the airspace about actual weather conditions that may not be in the forecast or to confirm the forecast is correct. It helps you and other pilots. But because of the system today, some pilots are deterred from filing a PIREP.
Instead of filing PIREPs by radio or ATC, try the free app by Virga (flyvirga.com) to share in-flight weather conditions and pictures right from your smartphone. With Virga, you’ll enjoy the super intuitive interface and its full integration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aviation Weather Center and Leidos. PIREPs submitted by radio are synched right in. It’s available now for iOS and coming soon for Android users.
WTIC is also looking at a new, user-friendly way to file PIREPs. Called “Speech to PIREP,” this promising research uses voice-enabled technology to speak your PIREP directly into your smartphone, where it’s instantly displayed and distributed nationwide.
Potholes in the sky reports, aka turbulence reports, are tough to come by in GA, but research by WTIC and the National Center for Atmospheric Research has shown great promise using ADS-B. It’s extremely accurate, shows the exact time and location, and could potentially increase the number of aircraft providing turbulence observations by over 100 times compared to PIREPs. A working demo is coming soon, but check out the article on turbulence inside this magazine issue for more.
It’s Raining Resources
Sign up for your free account on FAASafety.gov for a self-service array of seminars and webinars on all things weather from the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam). Just type “weather” in the search bar to find everything you need and earn credit in the WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program while you’re learning.
Check out the training module links on this page for online — free! — courses that can teach you more about weather observations and forecasts and the limitations of weather displays in the cockpit.
Last but certainly not least, stop by the FAA’s YouTube Channel for plenty of videos on weather products and how to use them.
Stay tuned; we’ll keep you posted on the large portfolio of WTIC projects to help you make good decisions about bad weather.
🛩️ Graphical Forecast for Aviation
🛩️ Latency Training Module
🛩️ Visibility Training Module
🛩️ NEXRAD Training Module
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.