The sorry state of weather training

It’s become fashionable to complain about the lack of stick and rudder training today–just tune into our long-running debate about stall training if you don’t believe me. Beyond complaining, though, recent headlines do seem to support the idea that pilots’ basic airmanship skills are withering, whether it’s Air France 447 or the Colgan crash in Buffalo.

But before we run off and mandate 100 hours of taildragger training for every pilot, we should step back and look at the numbers. What they show is that, while loss of control accidents do account for a large percentage of accidents, they are not the main cause of fatal accidents (many are of the “fender bender” variety). Indeed, one reason these two airline crashes made headlines is that catastrophic loss of control accidents by experienced crews are pretty rare.

Weather, on the other hand, is fatally unforgiving–especially for general aviation pilots. According to 2010 statistics, only 5% of accidents happened in IMC, but these accounted for 18% of total fatals. The accident record in IMC at night is even worse. Many of these accidents are the classic VFR-into-IMC scenario, but icing, thunderstorms and even high winds play a role in a lot of other accidents. And it’s not just new pilots that are affected by weather; it must be dealt with on every flight by every pilot.

Radar summary chart
The FAA written test still talks about black and white radar summary charts. Why?

Are we preparing new pilots to deal with the threat of weather? Yes and no. Student pilots are taught how to read METARs and TAFs, and we spend a lot of time talking about pre-flight weather briefings. But most of the weather lesson stops at the flight school door, and very little time is spent learning what weather looks like in flight and how to adjust to changing conditions from the left seat. The result is we focus on weather theory and especially the go/no-go decision, to the exclusion of more nuanced decision-making.

This simplistic approach leads to either canceling every flight because of weather, or naively blundering into dangerous conditions. Neither one is good. The balance between good utility and safety is a famously difficult one, but done properly it’s the most rewarding part of flying.

To be fair, it’s easy to see why weather training is so lacking. For a start, weather is an incredibly complex subject, one that professionals spend years studying at universities. To try to cram even a quarter of that into a typical ground school class is impossible. There’s simply a lot to learn, especially for instrument pilots.

FAA tests are part of the problem, too. They spend a lot of time talking about black and white radar summary charts and how to decode text AIRMETs, with very little emphasis on real world weather analysis or decision-making at 150 knots. If a flight instructor teaches to the test, the student won’t learn much practical information about weather.

But the real problem is not with our book learning, it’s with the application of it.

An understanding of textbook principles is an important first step, but what makes pilots unique is the need to translate that theory into practice. And the reality is that weather flying is very hard to practice in a simulator or visualize in a book. It requires the integration of technology, visual observation, air traffic control and a lot of good decision-making. Like learning crosswind landings, there’s just no substitute for going out and doing it.

That’s pretty rare today: just think of all the things you can learn by sitting on your couch with a computer. Technology has made it faster, cheaper and easier to learn almost any skill (including some elements of flying). Navigating thunderstorms or avoiding in-flight icing aren’t on the list.

So the goal must be to gradually expose yourself to increasingly bad weather in order to learn where the line is and how to build in some margins. A great way to get started is to simply plan some cross country flights with no passengers (for comfort, not because you’ll be unsafe) and expect to fly them unless the weather is truly awful. Doing this demands that you have hard limits and you a backup plan always in mind, but it can teach you more than any ground lesson ever will.

This real world approach also calls for some type of mentorship, either with a flight instructor or just another pilot with more weather flying experience. Airlines do this by pairing new first officers with more experienced captains; it’s up to us to do something similar in our Cessnas and Pipers. A lot of this will probably happen after the checkride, and that’s fine.

cockpit shot of Malibu
Real weather lessons happen in the cockpit, not the classroom.

What about new cockpit technology? It can certainly help. The widespread use of datalink weather tools, whether from XM or ADS-B, has certainly made it easier to avoid convective weather. Likewise, TKS de-ice systems are showing up on more airplanes, giving pilots a few more options on cold days.

But these tools really just give pilots more options, they don’t make the decision for us. At the end of the day it’s all about judgment. And judgment, as any parent of a teenager will tell you, is hard to teach.

That’s especially true in aviation. We seem to do a good job of training towards specific standards (perform a 45 degree bank turn within +/- 100 feet of altitude and roll out on the heading +/- 5 degrees). But when it comes to more nuanced goals, we struggle (get good utility out of the airplane, but don’t push it and crash in bad weather). There’s no single sentence PTS description for good airmanship or smart weather flying. That doesn’t mean we can’t train for it.

Part of learning judgment is becoming deliberate about what we do subconsciously. So much decision-making in life happens without us knowing–hundreds of times per hour we make educated guesses and jump to conclusions. This is often a useful tactic, saving us time on everyday tasks that don’t need deep thought.

But things are quite different with a complex, ever-changing situation like aviation weather. We have to very explicitly consider the conditions we see, what the current plans are and what the options might be. Then we need to make a decision based on the facts. Gut feel gets a vote, but it’s not the ultimate decision-maker.

With this type of decision-making, practice certainly pays off. So get out there and take a lesson from Mother Nature. Class is always in session.

What was your own weather training like? What do you know about weather now that you didn’t know the day you passed your checkride?

14 Comments

  • John, you’re telling me the freezing level is not 2c / 1,000′? The FAA test said SO!?!

    You’re right, when I got my ratings I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The more I learn the more I uncover things I don’t know.

    Never stop learning!
    http://www.avwxworkshops.com

    • Yes Bryan, the standard lapse rate is one of those pet peeves of mine. I really wish that pilots would just learn it for the test and then forget it. Except for some POH tables that rely on a “departure from standard” it has no formal use in day to day weather decision making. I’ve trained way too many pilots over the years that were taught to use the standard lapse rate to calculate the freezing level. Truly a shame.

  • It was never really a consideration of mine to have a PPL without an IFR add on for very long as even before my flight training started I appreciated the options IFR flight gave in both weather and airspace. This article mentions some good points, the approach in both PPL and instrument training regarding weather was more of a “situation leads to this action” process where we were taught symptoms of bad weather but not necessarily a deeper understanding of them. This created a black and white picture where if certain variables were present it would be either a go or no go decision, restricting pilots from actually experiencing weather first hand based on a lack of a more complex understanding of weather and the affects on aircraft. We can’t make bad weather appear in training, but coming out of my relatively smooth IFR check ride I was not solid on what my personal comfort level was and what weather I was willing to fly into. Of course, as the article mentioned practice has changed and is still changing that, but there is always something new to learn as even the educated meteorologist gets it wrong a good percentage of the time.

  • The basic IFR rating really cannot qualify one to handle any but the simplest scenarios. Just like the basic PPL doesn’t get one ready to handle a Pitts. But it seems that the simulators are getting good enough now that sigificant weather experience could be obtained without the need to stick your nose in it. Maybe if the training had to include simulator training in the big problem areas of Tstorms, icing, turbulence and below minimum ceilings it would help. I think fear is perhaps the biggest factor in weather accidents; once fear takes hold, flying the airplane goes out the window. Simulators can’t teach about controlling fear, like one gets when they realize they might be in over their head, but fear can be greatly reduced if one has experienced the scenario previously in a simulator.

    • I hope what you’re advocating is to remain calm under pressure rather than to fly fearlessly… As a 38 year GA pilot with I/R, I thoroughly endorse simulators for procedural or navigation training, but I’d have to say that the only value to be gained from flying a GA sim in t-storms or ice would be to prove that you really, REALLY don’t want to go there, and thus instill some useful (and inexpensive) fear/respect into the small plane PIC so he/she does everything possible to avoid those situations…

  • My instrument instructor was a Minnesota night freight dog whose working twin had fresh sheet metal on the fuselage by the props. When asked, she said casually that she had to replace the sheet metal now and then because ice slung from the props beat up the panels! This lady knew her stuff about instrument flying, and she made sure that I trained in weather. My long cross-country included landing at a grass strip in rain, taking off and circling below the ceiling to air file, a lengthy leg in and out of layers, an NDB approach to minimums, nightfall, a new air filing for the trip to a major airport in rain to shoot an ILS approach to minimums, immediate departure for her home airport in the clouds, diversion to my home airport because of a t-storm at her place, and an ILS to minimums. As we put the airplane into my hangar, the heavens opened, lightning boomed, and it poured most of the night. I came away from the training with a realistic experience of weather and an enormous respect for what it takes to fly IFR safely. I felt sorry for friends who’d gotten instrument ratings without ever seeing the inside of a cloud. I also came to agree with Richard Collins that single-pilot IFR without an autopilot is Not A Good Idea.

  • Lack of “Stick & Rudder” skills? Lack of proper “weather training” (inc. use of weather detection equipment)??

    Air France 447.

    “And that’s all I have to say about that”

  • Sorry, but once you earn your PPL and hopefully your I/R, it is no longer the FAA’s, nor your Flight Instructor’s responsibility to hold your hand… If you intend to actually use your ticket with any degree of utility, it is your personal responsibility to actively and continually educate yourself about weather…

    There are tons of books, videos and web-sites (this is one!) that are readily available, but nobody will force you to pursue a “higher education” (pun intended) in weather… Pilots, especially Instrument Rated ones, who choose not to constantly increase their knowledge and experience with weather are just statistics waiting to become the star of an NTSB report…

  • John, your article was very insightful. I am a 500 hour instrument rated private pilot. The more I fly, the more I realize how little I truly understandweather, and especially how little ability i have to translate all those pretty pictures of weather that are depicted on weather sites, XM weather displays, etc. into actionable insights that will help me with my flying. I use my IFR rating to allow me to fly in the clouds, but when the weather forecast calls for thunderstorm activity or icing below 4000 AGL, I chicken out and stay at home. I wish I could find a way to develop a greater understanding of the weather in a way that will directly improve my ability to make good weather decisions, both before flight and during flight. I am comfortable with risk management and don’t need risk avoidance, but in the case of weather, I haven’t found a way to get comfortable with managing risk through learning and application. I will say that I am gradually trying to do expose myself to worse weather in order to learn from the experience (without making it my last experience!).

    • Mahesh – You won’t “learn” more about weather simply by gradually exposing yourself to adverse weather. That’s like cutting off your right arm to lose weight in my humble opinion. Here’s what the NTSB said in a 2005 safety recommendation. “It appears that pilots generally require formal training to obtain weather knowledge and cannot be expected to acquire it on their own as they simply gain more flight experience.” I fully agree with the NTSB on this recommendation. I am a flight instructor and former NWS meteorologist and I specialize in teaching pilots at all experience levels about aviation weather. Yes, getting out there and flying in real weather is just one ingredient in the recipe for minimizing your exposure to adverse weather. Formal instruction is the other ingredient that needs to be integrated into this as well. Once you have a better appreciation on how to analyze the weather prior to a flight, the experience you gain while in flight is what I call applied knowledge. That’s the approach I recommend.

      • Mahesh, your struggle is a common one. We generally don’t do a good job of teaching us to make informed go/no go decisions (although Scott D. is an exception). To me, it’s about connecting the dots. I’m kind of a weather geek, so I read lots of weather books and learned the theory. I also had a great instrument instructor who made me fly in lots of weather. But knowing that that cloud deck up ahead and the PIREP I just heard indicates the occluded front that was forecast–that’s the hard part.

        I like your comment about “risk management” and not “risk avoidance.” That’s the way to view it.

  • On weather: amen! Many flight instructors (those who don’t also work as freight dogs, and who didn’t come to flight instruction as owner-pilots) have no concept what weather is like during a real-life IFR cross-country flight. A friend of mine once shocked an experienced instruction by taking him on an IFR approach to minima in actual IMC — it turns out the instructor had done all his approaches in VMC under the hood.

    For anyone flying up here in Canada, Nav Canada has published a series of free, downloadable local weather manuals with collected wisdom from briefers and pilots (e.g. when there’s a line of thunderstorms across Eastern Ontario, there’s often a clear corridor through the line over Lake Ontario — that kind of thing). Work a look: http://www.navcanada.ca/NavCanada.asp?Content=contentdefinitionfiles%5Cpublications%5Clak%5Cdefault.xml It would be great if the FAA did something like that for US regions and airports.

    On SPIFR and autopilots: I flew over 800 hours (including >100 hours actual IMC) before I finally installed a single-axis autopilot in my PA-28-161 in 2011. For me, it wasn’t a matter of safety so much as fatigue — hand-flying all those IMC hours, often in turbulence, gave me a lot of confidence in my skills, but the AP leaves me a lot less tired after 4-8 hours of flying.

    • Scott,
      I appreciate your comment. Perhaps, there is a way to learn about weather in a way that actually enables one to connect the learning to real life weather. I read a reasonable amount about weather, though I am certainly not a weather geek, but most of the stuff I do read doesn’t seem to make me much smarter about the weather I should expect to encounter on my flights. The kind of articles that David cites I think would be very helpful in giving pilots practical weather wisdom, as opposed to reading a lot of jargon about occluded fronts, for instance.
      Mahesh

      • Mahesh,

        Yes, it’s very useful to have a good idea what to expect especially locally. For example, it’s useful to know that the months of July and August are the monsoon months in the desert Southwest – lots of convective SIGMETs. Also, November brings Santa Ana winds to the SoCal area and that means some of the worst turbulence in the country. This is all great information, but on any given day, the weather may be completely opposite of the norm. So you cannot rely on it for preflight or inflight decisions. Instead, I like to focus on teaching pilots how to recognize signatures of adverse weather.

        Most of my students are certificated pilots and a majority have instrument ratings. I do one-on-one online training (via GoToMeeting) with them or I also hold weekend weather “boot camp” from time to time for a group of 20 to 30 pilots. In most of my training and online workshops, I focus on real life scenarios using real weather data that I’ve captured. I try to demonstrate the signatures to look for. This is concrete information that can be used to make good decisions. But this does require that you understand the nuts and bolts of weather as well. I released a new workshop to my website members a couple days ago that shows you how to recognize the signature for a low level severe or extreme turbulence event. In order to do this you have to understand concepts such as buoyancy, lapse rates, wind shear and how to read a Skew-T log (p) diagram. None of this can be learned while accruing hours in your logbook…it’s learned through formal training.

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