Graphical Forecasts for Aviation

The Graphical Forecasts for Aviation tool at the Aviation Weather Center is now operational. It supplants the text Area Forecasts in the lower 48, plus it offers more information about current weather. AOPA has published more news about the swtich to the GFA here.

For more detailed information about the GFA tool, see this description (PDF) and this tutorial.

AWC-GFA-tool

NWS to drop ALL CAPS, but not for aviation

The National Weather Service plans to drop ALL CAPS from some of its public forecast products. Alas, aviation reports and forecasts will continue to use the teletype-era format.

The NWS announcement is here. Excerpts:

April 11, 2016 LISTEN UP! BEGINNING ON MAY 11, NOAA’S NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORECASTS WILL STOP YELLING AT YOU…

Better late than never, but the slow change was not for lack of trying. The National Weather Service has proposed to use mixed-case letters several times since the 1990s, when widespread use of the Internet and email made teletype obsolete. In fact, in web speak, use of capital letters became synonymous with angry shouting. However, it took the next 20 years or so for users of Weather Service products to phase out the last of the old equipment that would only recognize teletype…

Certain forecast products with international implications, such as aviation and shipping, will continue to use upper case letters, per international agreements that standardize weather product formats across national borders. [Emphasis added]

 

What Qualifies as an Official Preflight Briefing?

As more pilots plan their flights using tools on the Web and apps on tablets like the iPad, questions continue about what qualifies as an official preflight briefing. For most people, “official briefing” means that the FAA recognizes that the data are current and accurate and that the provider of the briefing keeps a record of the briefing.

The list of services that meet both of those requirements is fairly short (the current list is available here), and includes:

Regarding record-keeping, AC 00-62 notes that:

QICPs should maintain a retrievable archive of Internet server log files as well as data received and provided in each transaction for a period of no less than 15 calendar days after the date of that transaction. In the event of receipt of notification of an accident, incident or overdue aircraft, or upon the request of the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the provider should retain the data related to that aircraft indefinitely, or until such time that the destruction of the data is authorized by law. The QICP should make this data available in the form of a readable certified true copy upon request of the FAA, the NTSB or a Federal, state or local law enforcement agency.

So, if you get a briefing, directly or indirectly from an approved source, you have obtained an official briefing. For example, many flight-planning services and apps use your DUAT account to download and record briefings, thereby meeting the requirements.

More than Weather

It’s important, however, to distinguish between checking the weather and getting a complete preflight briefing, as required by § 91.103  Preflight action, which states in part:

Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include—

(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC;

The phrase all available information concerning that flight includes NOTAMs, TFRs, and other critical details beyond the weather. Even if there’s not a cloud in the skies, it’s important to get a briefing to ensure that you’re up-to-date on important NOTAMs, restricted airspace, and related information.

Practical Advice

According to the AIM and other official documents, the FAA still considers Flight Service Stations (FSS) “the primary source for obtaining preflight briefings and inflight weather information” (AIM 7-1-4).

But an FAA document published in 2006 recognizes that times have changed, and that pilots use many resources to collect and analyze weather. General Aviation Pilot’s Guide Preflight Planning, Weather Self-Briefings, and Weather Decision Making (PDF) describes many useful resources and takes a common-sense approach to checking and analyzing the weather.

This booklet is a practical guide to using a variety of sources, including FSS, DUATS, The Aviation Weather Center, and unofficial providers, such as The Weather Channel and websites. (Aviation Weather Center, for example, is an FAA-approved, official source of weather information, but your visits aren’t recorded, so the information you obtain there doesn’t constitute an official weather briefing—and AWC doesn’t provide NOTAMs and related information.)  The introduction notes:

Although a Flight Service weather briefing is still the single most comprehensive source of weather data for GA flying, it can be difficult to absorb all the information conveyed in a telephone briefing. Pictures are priceless when it comes to displaying complex, dynamic information like cloud cover and precipitation. For this reason, you may find it helpful to begin the preflight planning process by looking at weather products from a range of providers. The goal of this self-briefing process is to develop an overall mental picture of current and forecast weather conditions, and to identify areas that require closer investigation with the help of an FSS briefer.

The document then describes a typical process for obtaining reports and forecasts that can supplement an official briefing from FSS or DUATS.

You can also find detailed information about preflight weather briefings in Aviation Weather Services (AC-0045). That AC describes all of the weather reports, forecasts, charts, and other information that are part of official weather briefings for pilots.

Flight Service Pilot Portal

Another source of an official briefing is the Flight Service website. You can sign up for a free account there and use it to obtain official, recorded briefings, file flight plans, etc. You can also set up a pilot profile that includes basic information about you, your aircraft, and typical routes that you fly. When you call FSS, the briefer sees the caller-ID information tied to your profile. Using a profile greatly reduces the number of questions the briefer must ask to conduct a briefing or file a flight plan. You can learn more about using the FSS website here (PDF) and by watching videos at the the Flight Service channel on YouTube, here.

Ceiling and Visibility Analysis Product from ADDS

The NWS Aviation Weather Center is releasing a new tool on 24 July, when the Ceiling and Visibility Analysis Product goes live on ADDS.

CVA presents simplified area maps of ceiling, visibility and flight category outlined as:

Ceiling estimates are displayed as:

(i) Possible Terrain Obscuration (pale orange) for ceilings less than 200 ft agl, (ii) less than or equal to 1000 ft agl (pale yellow) from 200 to 999 ft, agl, and (iii) 1000 ft agl or greater (pale blue).

Visibility estimates are displayed as:

(i) less than 3 miles (pale yellow), and (ii) 3 miles or greater (pale blue).

CVA is intended to accompany other aviation weather products such as METARS, AIRMETS, TAFs and Area Forecasts to help the general aviation pilot (particularly the VFR-only pilot) avoid IFR conditions. To remain current in rapidly changing conditions, CVA is updated every 5 minutes using the latest observations. The use of CVA should be followed by further examination of METARs, TAFs, AIRMETs, Area Forecasts and other weather information.

CVA primarily is intended to help the general aviation pilot; however, CVA’s quick-glance overview of ceiling and visibility conditions can be useful to others involved in flight planning or weather briefing.

CVA initially will be available only via the ADDS website at:

http://www.aviationweather.gov/adds/cv

Aviation Forecast Discussions

Like many pilots, I start watching the weather days ahead of planned trips. Unfortunately, the Outlook Briefings offered by Flight Service Stations and other official sources of aviation weather are about as useful as the tips you get from financial advisors (or bookies).

I much prefer the National Weather Service forecast discussions prepared by local NWS offices. These descriptions of current and forecast conditions, including outlooks, offer forecasters’ analysis and opinions of what the various computer models and observations imply about upcoming weather.

The easiest way to see the aviation forecast discussions for areas that interest you is via the map at the Aviation Weather Center. Click a region on the map, and up pops the text of the latest discussion. Of course, you must supplement the discussion with official reports and forecasts, all of which are available at the Aviation Weather Center, the Aviation Digital Data Service, via DUATS, and from Flight Service Stations. You can find an extensive list of weather and flight-planning links on the Aviation Resources page at my Web site, www.BruceAir.com.

To learn more about weather briefings and tools available to pilots, see Aviation Weather Services (AC 00-45F), available as a free download (.pdf) from the NWS. The General Aviation Pilot’s Weather Guide is another excellent portal to weather information.