Is pilot interest in weather waning?

Bad pun, good question…

How’s your weather? That used to be the question of the day for pilots about to fly away on a trip. It was asked by family, fellow pilots, FBOs, line boys, just about everyone. I suppose it was asked because most folks thought that, of necessity, pilots knew more about weather than anyone else.

Something has definitely changed here. When we did reader surveys at FLYING back in the 1970s, we always asked what they would like to see more of in the magazine. About equally, they picked safety, flying technique and weather.

We keep close tab on AIR FACTS readership and have noticed that weather is no longer much of a draw. Neither my recent post on fog nor John’s on three questions to ask about weather reports drew a crowd. The interest seems to be vanishing.

Because I have always had an abiding interest in flying and weather and weather flying, I thought the evolution of this relationship between pilots and weather would be something to explore.

Almost 40 years ago I wrote the book, Flying the Weather Map. Of my 15 books it was the number three best seller. What I did in the book was show the weather map for when the flight was conducted and then describe the weather conditions that were encountered along the way. We later did a video version of the book at Sporty’s.

I would like to tell you that the book title was my invention but it was not. My father wrote an article with that title in AIR FACTS long before I wrote the book. The book and the article were not much alike but in both cases we were trying to emphasize the important role that the weather map played in light airplane weather flying.

Actually, the weather map that most pilots consulted then was in the newspaper. Most papers printed one that I guess they got from what was called the Weather Bureau and is now the National Weather Service. If I recall, the maps did have a date and time on them that reflected when the map was prepared.

As TV blossomed and evolved, weather became an ever larger part of the national and local morning news shows. There was always a map and pilots really liked the maps on these shows and we did have our favorites. FLYING gave a special award to Frank Blair of the TODAY show for having the most pilot-friendly weather map on TV.

At FLYING we catered to the pilot-hunger for more on weather in a lot of different ways. I once wrote a whole article on temperature and dewpoint and how the relationship between them could be used to gauge weather. Cloud heights could be calculated and in scuzzy weather a lot could be learned about the likely ceiling and visibility from the temperature and dewpoint.

The first automatic surface observation systems measured and reported only temperature, dewpoint, wind direction, wind velocity and altimeter setting. With just that information a weather-wise pilot could get a pretty good idea of the weather at that airport.

Collins VFR-into-IMC
Collins flew his 172 for a fascinating FLYING magazine article on VFR-into-IMC.

I did a series in FLYING on VFR flying in marginal weather. Continued VFR was made up of photographs taken while exploring marginal conditions. On the first, I got special permission from the FAA to continue VFR into actual IFR conditions and then pull up, climb to the MEA and get an IFR clearance. Russell Munson got some excellent photographs on those flights.

My permission for that came from the regional office. When the real bureaucrats in DC heard about what we were doing, they were horrified. The series continued but with no more legal scofflaw flying while we covered a number of other scenarios. Taking pictures of developing severe weather, we actually got a picture of a funnel forming on a day that saw at least one small town obliterated by a tornado.

Interest in Continued VFR was quite high. There had never been anything like it. Doing it was a hoot, too.

Other than the newspaper weather maps, the primary information we had on aviation weather came from scheduled broadcasts on low frequency range stations and a bit later, into the late 1960s and early 1970s, continuous broadcasts of weather information, mainly in the form of sequence reports.

We could also call either the Weather Bureau or a Flight Service Station (which had different names over the years) and ask for specific products, such as terminal forecasts and area forecasts, in addition to sequence reports. They had charts and, on request, would describe the features on those charts but they didn’t seem to like to do that. I remember once asking someone about the synopsis and getting first silence and then word that the person I was talking with didn’t know exactly what I meant.

We learned a lot about weather from following trends on sequence reports. It took only basic knowledge to visualize the location of frontal boundaries and low pressure storm systems and most pilots did actively follow weather and try to anticipate what might come next.

Telephone weather briefings were a mixed blessing. A few of the more militant briefers were always suggesting that a pilot might be in violation if he didn’t get a legal briefing. There was really no such thing. There was a standard briefing and if you called and just asked for weather information between here and there that was what you got.

A lot of pilots liked the standard briefing but others thought it took too long and contained too much extraneous information. Most briefers would cheerfully just read off whatever specific reports that a pilot requested.

When flying, we could listen to scheduled broadcasts on navaids (15 and 45 after the hour) that contained sequence reports from the area and later weather warnings such as sigmets. We could also call any FSS and request specific weather information. If IFR, the air traffic controllers had weather information available and, if things were not too busy, most would gladly read off a few sequence reports. Later, a Flight Watch service was implemented for pilots to use when they wanted weather information.

The biggest unknown in the south central and southeastern U.S., where I began my weather education, was thunderstorm activity.

The Air Force used skew-T log-P diagrams to develop forecasts of thunderstorm possibilities. These diagrams are developed from radiosonde soundings (gathered by weather balloons, launched twice a day) and give a vertical profile of temperature and dewpoint as well as wind and other characteristics of the atmosphere. Few mere mortals could glean much from these diagrams, but I was fortunate enough to have access to USAF weather briefings for a couple of summers and was always amazed at how well they could anticipate thunderstorm development. They just couldn’t say exactly where the development would occur.

Skew-t diagram
Skew-t diagrams were once impossible to find, but now your iPad can display them all in seconds.

There was little or no weather radar information across the country and the only way the weather information system could tell of a thunderstorm was if it was reported at one of the widely separated airports where weather observation were made. A thunderstorm was reported any time thunder could be heard whether or not the raining and blowing had gotten started.

To me, thunderstorms were fairly easy to manage. We did have a screen. It was the big one above the instrument panel, the one that kept the wind out of our face and the bugs out of our teeth. If what we saw through that screen looked bad, it definitely was bad. It was simple as that.

Air mass and squall line thunderstorms are easy to see. Then you can either avoid them, or, in the case of a squall line, land and let it pass before resuming the flight. Embedded thunderstorms are another matter and we were constantly searching for answers on those in the days before weather radar or any thunderstorm information other than that based on a clap of thunder heard at an airport.

Early on, I latched on to the fact that to have even a smidgen of weather wisdom on embedded storms you had to understand the structure of warm fronts and stationary fronts and the characteristic of waves that move along stationary fronts. I wrote a lot on that and even did a whole book on the subject, Thunderstorms and Airplanes.

I knew a lot of pilots who flew DC-3s for the airlines in the time before weather radar was introduced and found their experiences and practices quite interesting.

One DC-3 guy had a rather defeatist attitude on the subject: I just cinched up the belts and waited for all hell to break loose. That didn’t sound like a lot of fun.

I did hear about an avoidance technique from a number of pilots and actually used it.

Avoiding heavy rain shafts was a good thing to do and because heavy rain equates with dark sky the procedure was to study the sky ahead while looking up 45 degrees. Because flying was all done at relatively low altitudes then, the upward look was to hopefully get a view of the wettest and most active part of the cumulonimbus cloud. Do that and steer toward the lightest areas and maybe the ride wouldn’t be bad.

The drawback was that you were not looking any distance ahead and the view could change quickly. I had done that a few times with some success when, one day, the view turned all dark. Then I remembered the other procedure and cinched up the belts and waited for all hell to break loose. It did, and I have told of the memorable time that followed many times.

Some pilots thought the ADF needle would point to a thunderstorm but that was not true.

Wind shear was not well-understood and indeed the flat-earth crowd long insisted that wind cannot affect an airplane in flight. One of the first learned discussions of this was by a TWA meteorologist in a company publication, later reprinted in AIR FACTS. The author made the point that changing wind can indeed affect an airplane in flight. Thus, wind shear became a popular topic.

Wind shear was to become a factor in a number of airline arrival or departure crashes and eventually most pilots came to understand the phenomenon. Key was an understanding of how wind close to the surface develops and huffs and puffs around thunderstorms and in frontal zones. Better to avoid wind shear than try to deal with it once encountered.

Wind shear diagram
Wind shear was not well-understood 50 years ago.

Another place where wind shear caused problems was in stratified layers of wind in frontal zones. Pilots who did not have a good understanding of frontal slopes were sometimes surprised by this and there were airline accidents in mountainous terrain that came simply because the pilot didn’t (couldn’t) keep up with his present position because of changing wind in a climb or descent.

It is awfully basic, but pilots without weather wisdom didn’t grasp the fact that light turbulence in clouds during a climb or descent usually indicated that the wind was changing in direction and/or velocity with altitude.

Occasionally there has been a push for more pilot reports, PIREPS. This has been true forever, as if pilot reports could be an important element in reducing the number of weather accidents.

What has always been true about pilot reports is that they can be exceptionally useful, useless bits of information. They are generally useful for only a short period of time, after which they become useless or even misleading.

Pilot reports on cloud tops have always been sought after but these are of value only to a pilot who understands the synopsis. There are conditions where cloud tops are uniform over a wide area but if there are active fronts or low pressure areas around, pilot reports of cloud tops are totally suspect.

Senator/General Barry Goldwater was an avid pilot and loved to hangar-fly. I thought he got the last word on cloud tops when he said: Cloud tops are simple. They are always a thousand feet above the ceiling of whatever airplane I am flying.

I always thought that pilot reports tended not to be disseminated if they did not agree with forecasts. I had one experience that illustrated this.

On September 13, 1979, I flew my nearly new P210 from Cessna Field in Wichita to my home base, Mercer County in New Jersey, with a fuel stop in Indianapolis. On September 12th, Hurricane Frederic had ravaged Mobile, Alabama, and all forecasts had it moving to the northeast.

The wind aloft forecast I got before takeoff suggested that I would have a lickedy-split trip home. When I settled in at FL190 I expected the groundspeed readout on the DME to be in the 225 range, reflecting the forecast 45 knot tailwind. Instead, it was on 180 and the drift correction that was required indicated that there was a strong southerly flow aloft, not a strong westerly flow.

I thought it important to make a pilot report on this. That hurricane to the south was progged to move toward the east, get off the Atlantic coast, and then move along the coast as a nor’easter. It was projected to be of hurricane force when passing New Jersey and New York and then slamming into Connecticut. My pilot report was a strong suggestion that this was not going to happen.

I had a nice trip home even if it was slower than usual. The next morning I got up and started preparing to catch the train and go to work in Manhattan. The news was screaming that a hurricane was coming and precautions should be taken. Ann asked me why I was going to work. I told her there would be no hurricane in the east but there would be tropical storm remnants in the Ohio Valley.

I was right. All the forecasts were based on a more westerly flow at the 500 millibar (about 18,000 foot) level, but there was a southerly flow instead. Winds at that level are generally considered steering currents for surface storms as they proved to be this day when folks to the west watched it rain and we enjoyed a fine September day in Manhattan despite the hurricane warnings.

Having said that, the most dramatic improvement in forecasting has been a result of much better information on the actual wind aloft, now downlinked from airplanes as well as from those balloons. No longer can a lone pilot in a P210 make a more accurate forecast of a hurricane track than can an NWS forecaster. When computerized flight plans first came out, the estimated time en route was often a joke. As time ran, it became quite accurate.

SiriusXM weather on iPad
“Screens full of information are not a key to operating an airplane safely.”

I don’t suppose the pilot who lacks curiosity about weather pays much attention to things like that. There is now so much spoon-fed weather information available on those screens that some pilots probably feel that all they have to do is look at the screen.

Before I close, let me say one thing: I am not one of those old coots who is anti-tech. I must love screens because in my now one-person household I have three flat screen TVs, four iPads, three iPods, two iPhones, a Kindle and a Windows laptop and I know how to use all of them and do so regularly. I will, however, confess that when I read John Grisham’s latest book, I did so with a copy in hand.

I am convinced that screens full of information are not a key to operating an airplane safely. The most important picture of all is not on a screen, it has to be in the pilot’s mind. A mental picture of where you are, where you are going, and how you are going to get there simply can’t be replaced by a picture on a screen. Nor will a screen show the churning inside a cumulonimbus. A screen will enable a pilot to have a lot of information available in the cockpit but that information has to be used with care.

The introduction of all that information in the cockpit has not solved any safety problems, either. Weather remains a major accident cause and weather accidents might even be more prevalent now than they were in pre-screen days. Over the 4th of July time I read news reports of an Aztec and a 421 that were lost, along with ten people, in areas where thunderstorms were active. Reports suggested that both airplanes broke up in flight.

Things like that have been going on forever and if pilots would only take a more active interest in the fine points of weather, a few of them might be avoided. So, AIR FACTS will keep discussing weather, as it has done since 1938. That might not be as popular as it once was, but it is still as important as it always was.

10 Comments

  • Richard, good article. My company utilizes the Apple iPad along with WSI weather through the on-board WiFi. So we always have an accurate, up-to-date picture of what’s going on around us. Even so, I am sometimes startled by the number of people I fly with who never learned to watch the OAT gauge when entering known or suspected turbulence areas. Its trending movement (sometimes only a degree or two), can be a portend of things to come. And I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Goldwater: The cloud tops are usually just about a thousand feet above our maximum attainable altitude at the time.

  • Excellent article. A declining weather interest by airmen is not good. An unexpected outcome of my studying aviation and learning to fly was an ever-growing interest in– fascination with, is a better term– weather. It was immensely rewarding to begin understanding weather phenomena, and to see in real time the relationships between the numbers and maps, and real weather-out-the-windscreen. The temperature-dew point spread sounds arcane to most ground-pounders, but for me, it was holy writ. Understanding the significance of a decreasing temp-dew point spread saved my bacon a few times. Please do keep writing about weather.

  • An excellent article indeed. Like Hunter Heath, I grew up (aeronautically) on temp/dew point spread. Only at Paine Field in Washington State did the combination ever fail me: there could be no spread at all, and yet no precipitation there.

  • In my 3 years as a flight instructor I was constantly surprised by students complete lack of interest or understanding of weather. I feel a big part of this was the over emphasis on technicalities in the required Ground School topics and test questions. (I’m a Canadian and this would be the Transport Canada requirements but I assume the FAA isn’t too different on this).

    Instead of focusing on formulas and how to expertly read ancient text formats from the days before the internet I feel the most important part of weather knowledge a pilot needs is that weather sense, the ability to look at the basics of the weather maps and forecasts and compare them to the view out the window.

    I had every student give me a weather briefing before each flight. They key question I asked is does what’s happening outside reflect the forecasts and why or why not. I’d often ask them to make their own forecast just using a surface chart and the view outside including the wind sock. They were often surprised how accurate they could be. Just practicing this every flight seemed to teach much more than ground school definitions ever did.

    I credit Richard and his air facts videos, books and articles for a lot of my weather understanding. One other key source for me was the old FAA aviation weather text that keeps it all in simple terms to give a good understanding of the basic mechanics instead of most textbooks that are written for mathematicians and engineers. Numbers and formulas arent most pilots language and the curriculum should reflect that.

  • Gosh, I hope newer pilots aren’t really less interested in weather! I didn’t have much interest in weather before I started to learn to fly back in the early 70s, but my interest really piqued as I traversed through my early years, especially when unexpected weather in a flight in 1975 caused me to make the immediate decision to pursue my instrument rating, which I started the following weekend. All these years of flying certainly hasn’t made me a weather expert, but I’ve learned a little, and the resources we have today make getting a good handle on the weather much easier than it was way back when.

    Having immediate access, either through the Internet or ADS-B In or Nexrad, to weather that at worst is only 15-20 minutes old is a whole lot better than looking at NWS faxed charts that were 4 hours old at the newest. And being able to “see” the weather in the cabin of a Skyhawk is so much better than calling Flightwatch for an update of the weather ahead, and trying to visualize what the briefer says rather than seeing it on an iPad.

    The one comment that I must disagree with, though, is that ADFs don’t point to thunderstorms. If there’s lightning, they do when turned to a low frequency, and most thunderstorms produce lightning. It’s not as good as a Stormscope or Strikefinder, but it’s better than nothing. I still use my ADF that way. Like any other real time weather indicator, it’s not 100%–the pilot has to use it like any other tool, to aid in the totality of information.

    There’s so much good information out there, better than ever before, that I sincerely hope new pilots (and old ones like you and me, Dick) are taking advantage of it.

  • Maybe waning weather interest reflects the decling use of light airplanes for transportation purposes. We flew from WI to Binghamton for 4th of July week (as we have for 12 years now) and heard very few light airplanes speaking to ATC. We’re the only light aircraft on the ramp this week at BGM, which is typical in recent years. Seems driving or waiting in line to fly commercial is the preferred method of travel. How unfortunate.

  • Great article. I have read Flying the Weather Map several times along with your book Flying IFR. They hold so much good weather knowledge. Keep writing these articles. Pilots need to understand weather better…….even for VFR where things other than storms can be an issue. The more information and sources we gather, the clearer, no pun intended, the picture of expectation becomes and can help in making decisions in conjunction with what you see out through that ” big screen above the instrument panel”. Too many rely on their electronic devices, which are wonderful aids, to give them all they need and not just for weather. Without them, they would be ‘lost’.

  • Excellent subject, Mr. Collins! With the trend toward self-briefing, pilots today need to be more curious and learn much more about weather than what’s needed to pass the written! Making an informed go/no go decision means pilots shouldn’t complacently rely on an app with a green for go light!

  • I am reminded of a point often raised by retired Boeing test pilot Dennis Newton, during our work on inflight icing certification during the late 90’s…it is theoretically possible to fail every single weather question on the ATP written exam, and still pass…

  • Can’t say much more than what has already been said. Keep up the great articles and books. Us “weather geeks” enjoy them! I particularly enjoy planning trips that I am not actually taking, and going through the weather geeking leading up to the departure date, and the seeing if my thoughts a couple of days before were correct or not.

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