Long range weather planning tools – 4 favorites

Every pilot I know is a weather geek. Whether you have to be one to get a license or you become one as you fly (a chicken or egg question if ever there was one), all of us spend a lot of time poring over radar images, METARs and TAFs. “How’s the weather?” is more than just a casual question to a pilot.

But it seems like the focus is almost always on the short term weather products: can I fly right now? That focus on the classic go-no-go decision is too narrow. Weather means a lot more than just the latest METAR. Now, with some upgraded apps and websites becoming more readily available, there are more options than ever for long range weather planning.

Why does it matter? For a lot of pilots, the airplane exists to go places, which means the return leg of a trip is as important as the outbound leg. Sure, you can make it across the country for your big meeting. But can you get back from the West Coast in 3 days? If you don’t spend some time considering that second leg, ignorance and schedule pressure can quickly lead to get-home-itis.

Understanding the forecast beyond the TAF means looking a little harder for weather data. Don’t rely on The Weather Channel – here are four great resources:

Long range prog charts. I always like to start with the big picture: where are the fronts, lows and highs? Prog charts are hard to beat for this, but many websites only show them up to 48 hours. ForeFlight in particular has done a good job of adding longer range prog charts and making them easy to access – from the Imagery tab you can find charts out to 7 days. They are also available online at the Aviation Weather Center.

Prog forecast

12 hour PoP charts. Where there’s moisture there’s usually some weather to deal with: rain, icing, convection or low ceilings. It’s not exact, but knowing where the widespread areas of precipitation are going to be can help fill in some details around those fronts. The Probability of Precipitation forecast charts are excellent for this, going out to 7 days. Pair this with the extended progs for a good overview of the major weather drivers. Available in the ForeFlight Imagery tab or online from the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

POP chart

GFS model output. These are the numerical models you hear about on TV a lot, where millions of data points go into a supercomputer and a forecast gets spit out. They have come a long way in just the last 5 years, and are pretty useful for long range forecasts of ceiling and visibility. The raw text reports are not pilot-friendly in the least, but they are also available as charts. These show areas of low ceilings or visibility out to 84 hours, in 3-hour increments. Available in the Imagery tab in ForeFlight or online from the NWS Meteorological Development Lab.

MOS graphic

High Resolution Rapid Refresh website. This is as close to one stop shopping as you’ll get for long range forecasts. Some go out to 30 days (no they’re not that accurate), but there are all kinds of charts, from high altitude weather to connective forecasts. I particularly like the “forecast radar” charts, where the model creates an estimated radar image up to 24 hours into the future. Not very mobile-friendly, but a good resource for the true weather geek. Available online from the Earth System Research Laboratory.

forecast radar image

I’ve found most of these forecasts to be quite good as I’ve used them regularly over the past six months. The old advice that “the further out a forecast goes the less accurate it becomes” is pretty true, but these products are at least directional. You won’t know if it’s going to be 200 and a half or 500 and one, but you will know if it’s going to be clear or rainy – and how widespread those conditions might be. This is especially true if you combine multiple forecasts to get a well-rounded view of the atmosphere.

Any other resources you’ve found to add to this list?

5 Comments

  • Except for the last one I used all of these resources this summer as I spent 3 weeks with my family flying around the central and southern states.

    We stayed over one, two or three nights at 11 different cities in 9 states, so I relied on these wx products (in Foreflight) to help me determine if I should leave a day early, or earlier/later in the day. I found them to be surprisingly accurate.

    I also use the NOAA SFC Model, which is the only long range aviation wx too I know of that covers Canada:
    http://mag.ncep.noaa.gov/model-guidance-model-parameter.php?group=Model%20Guidance&model=nam&area=namer&cycle=20131203%2012%20UTC&param=1000_500_thick&fourpan=no&imageSize=M

  • An interesting website that I have been tracking for the past several months is windyty.com. On this site you can see winds aloft at various altitudes and times (it has a ‘play’ function) as well as other choices for temperature, clouds/rain, waves, snow, pressure. Pick a point on the map and the program opens to a point forecast that includes levels of the clouds forecast out 4 more days from today. Airports that have METARs (with history) and/or TAFs (some automated stations are included) are shown as colored rings, the color related to VFR/IFR. Reports are presented as decoded or raw.

    During my watch of this site, I have found it to be useful and fairly accurate. I spoke with the folks that make it (in Europe) last summer and expressed my appreciation for it, particularly for use in Hot Air Ballooning Competition (low level winds) for which I often give forecast presentations around the country. They said they were adding aviation features (the above data was recently added/enhanced).

    There is a wealth of information on this site – explore. It does work well on Android and Apple platforms.

  • I still like http://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/conusWeek.php?expandweek=ON#tabs
    by NOAA. It provides a 7 day forecast by region or state or ConUS. It is difficult to find, but a search for “NOAA Mid-Atlantic” pulls it up every time. Click on Weekly View and Expand to get 7 day information. Scroll your mouse over a day & time in a column and get the map populated with that information. Weather includes chance of precip 12 hrs, Hi & low temp 12 hrs, and hazards, temp, dewpoint, winds speed & direction, gusts, sky cover every 3 hours. Accumulation of rain, snow, or ice every 6 hours. It is a very good tool. I use it often.

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