Being Your Own Weather Briefer

Article appeared in Flying Magazine August, 2015 by Martha King – Martha_04

There was extensive damage and loss of life caused by tornadoes in central Kansas—the area from which we had departed in our airplane that very morning. There had been a wild weather rampage all the way from Oklahoma to Nebraska. The video on TV that evening was dramatic. Had I taken an extreme risk to fly home out of that? Let’s see.

It was central Kansas in late spring. It was no surprise that thunderstorms were in the Wichita forecast for the morning. Before parting after dinner, I had advised my passengers of my plan. We would meet in the hotel breakfast area by 9 am, ready to go to the airport for a tentative 10 am takeoff for San Diego. If we needed to wait for the weather to improve, we would pull out our laptops at the FBO and get some work done. If the weather did not improve, we would go back to the hotel and try again the next day.

When John and I awoke in the morning there was, of course, a thunderstorm in progress. The first thing we did was turn on our iPads and discuss the weather. On the NEXRAD weather display we could see that training thunderstorms were responsible for our weather. But we could also see a break in the weather that was headed our way. It looked like it would arrive at about our planned 10 am departure time. Also, both the NEXRAD and TAFs confirmed that as soon as we got about 100 miles to the west we would be completely clear of the weather system.

We had a leisurely breakfast, met downstairs as planned, and left the hotel at 9 am. By the time we arrived at the FBO, the rain had slacked to a drizzle. We loaded the luggage and did our preflight inspection. Just before we got in the airplane I did one last check of NEXRAD using my iPad, and confirmed that we were, indeed, smack in the middle of a break in the weather and there was no precipitation to the west all the way to home. It was a pleasant, comfortable trip.

How could I possibly have done this so comfortably and with so little risk? Because as pilots today, we all have wonderful weather resources that we could never have dreamed of a few decades ago. To begin with, on our tablets or smartphones we have NEXRAD that gives us a picture of where thunderstorms are that is only minutes old.

When John and I started flying some four decades ago, if thunderstorms weren’t almost directly over a reporting station we didn’t know where they were. In fact, no one knew. There were no national maps of thunderstorm locations and movement. The best we had was radars that served a local area. One time when we were considering departing the airport in Fargo, North Dakota, we were invited up to the tower to look at their radar. It didn’t really tell us much. All we could see was that there was one thunderstorm within range of the local radar. We didn’t know how many other thunderstorms there were, what direction they were moving, and what the overall pattern was.

Early on, getting weather information was a real trial. Every Flight Service Station had a different telephone number. We kept a list, but if we went to a new place we had to find the phone number. It wasn’t easy. They weren’t always listed the same way in the phone book. When we did get the FSS on the phone, we’d have to write down the briefing—hoping we or the Flight Service Station briefer didn’t miss something important.

One time in Bellingham, Washington we went in person to the FSS on the field. We were planning a fuel stop in Ketchikan, Alaska on our way to Fairbanks. Ketchikan was always problematic. It had an ILS, but due to the mountain ridge just west of the final approach course the minimums were high. The alternates were not close. If we weren’t going to make it into Ketchikan it was best to know it early so we could plan a different fuel stop.

As it was done then, the briefer got a teletype report of the weather and read it to us. We were expected to write it down. When he was done with the briefing, he discarded the printout. I asked the briefer if he would retrieve the printout and let me read it. I discovered he had failed to read me a NOTAM advising that the ILS was out of service. This was a big deal. If we had gotten all the way to Ketchikan before learning the ILS was out of service, and then had to go somewhere else, we would have arrived highly stressed and with minimum fuel. The problem is that having someone read a briefing to you while you write it down is a flawed system.

Part of the concern was that the pilot might not be able to read the coded weather reports. That concern is gone. Almost every flight-planning program and app provides decoded information.

Another concern was that we pilots might not be qualified to interpret the weather. That may have been a legitimate concern at one time, but I don’t think it is now. We have satellite maps, NEXRAD radar depictions, and many other graphical tools to actually see what is going on.

The final concern was that pilots are lazy and won’t bother to get a complete weather briefing. To address that concern, the FAA sponsors Lockheed-Martin’s website 1800wxbrief.com, and DUATS.com. DUATS.com also has an app. Both of these supply you a standard weather briefing and record the fact that you got one, in case something happens and the FAA comes calling.

FltPlan.com also supplies you a standard briefing. Additionally, when you have logged on to their site, they record everything you do. So if you don’t get the formal standard route briefing, but have met all the requirements by cruising the site on your own, they’ll record that too.

There are a lot of really great flight planning programs and apps and everyone has their favorite. I use FltPlan.com and get everything I need for a standard briefing from it. I like it very much. But I use a whole bunch of other apps, too.

For instance, on the morning of our departure from Wichita I used Weather Underground to check the local non-aviation weather to see what was expected farther away from the airport area itself, since the TAF only covers 5 miles around the airport.

Some apps are not nearly as comprehensive as a full planning program, but provide a really quick way to get to a specific thing. I used MyRadar as a fast way to get to the NEXRAD display so I could check it frequently. And I used AeroWeather as a fast way to check the METARs for various airports out to the west.

The Internet is a pilot’s dream. We now get far better information, including graphical displays of the current positions of thunderstorms, fronts, low ceilings and visibilities, winds aloft and about everything else you can imagine. The ease of getting the information means we get it more frequently and more recently, and with ADS-B or XM Weather from Sirius, even while in the air.

On the other hand, when we get our weather briefings online, responsibility has clearly been transferred from the FAA to us. There is no one there to tell us, “VFR not recommended.” It puts the onus on us to make sure we get the weather information we need.

With the Internet I find I am much more engaged in getting weather information. Knowing the apps to use and how to use them has become a hobby. I check the weather for the fun of it even when I am not going to fly.

So was I foolhardy to take off from Wichita with potentially killer thunderstorms in the vicinity? In the days before Internet-supplied weather information, I might have been. I don’t think so today. I had the tools to actually see the thunderstorms and mitigate the risk from them.

And perhaps more important, I had taken pressure off myself by managing the expectations of my passengers, beginning with the evening before. I had told them the departure time would be flexible according to how the weather developed. Both of these were critical to being able to make the flight while mitigating the risk, rather than just having to resort to a go or no-go decision. And that brings risk management to a higher level.

11 thoughts on “Being Your Own Weather Briefer

    1. Willis Sutherland

      Thanks Mrs. King….Lots of excellent information on weather…and I liked the emphasis on Risk Management at the end…

      Willis Sutherland
      Sarasota

      Reply
  1. Ed Watson

    You are absolutely right. I flew many a long 6+ hour flight with a keen eye out the window and a forecast that was hours old. Today it is almost ‘Cheating”.
    Ed

    Reply
  2. Ian Shere

    As a relatively new pilot, all my weather planning/briefing is done with a little trepidation lest I goof up on reading something wrong. As your article points out, there are many apps and sites that one can visit. But not all are as helpful as others.

    A friend of mine introduced me to weathermeister.com – totally brilliant. For round $70 a year it provides an incredibly comprehensive WX planning tool – all in plain language. And they, Like FltPln or DUATS, log your visit and keep them for 30 days.

    If you haven’t seen this site, I recommend you have a look. It’s wonderful.

    Reply
    1. Tom Nasser

      I agree that weathermeister.com is one of the BEST and worth the money. I’ve been using this for 10 years and surprised that a lot of people don’t know about it. Everybody likes the free stuff but this and ForeFlight are my go to apps.

      Reply
  3. Alan M Hoffberg

    Not foolish at all.

    Most of my flights are IMC in our club’s Cessna 172S. We added XM weather to the standard NAV II package, which I use in conjunction with my own Levil2-AWS receiver and my iPad running FlyQ EFB.

    The tools works well for me in Florida and the southeastern states, despite this area having pop-up thunderstorms and interesting winds caused by the collision of weather fronts.

    I have become quite proficient at accurately forecasting the weather for my flights, to the point of providing ATC with pilot reports during these flights. I know the information I share is valuable because I hear ATC pass the information on to other pilots traversing the area.

    The tools made available during the last decade has made it easier for me to plan my Angel Flight missions, including the time of departure, en-route (routing), and arrival.

    Reply
  4. Vinnie Cherico

    Thanks Martha:
    Old pilot trying to reengage the sky, I found the information very interesting.
    Sincerely. Vinnie

    Reply
  5. Brook Papworth

    Great article Martha and thank you for sharing! Very interesting post!

    I love the weather services available in the US, as with radar services.

    Just a tip for US travellers flying in Australia, I have found both Oz Runways and Avplan to be brilliant apps (I use both concurrently) however a US Pilot may find Avplan to be useful domestically as it has the option of US maps, however I find Oz Runways to be easier to use and better in an emergency as there are not to many ‘distracting options’. Both have their advantages, and Avplan has more features.

    Avplan has integrated weather overlays (on the map) whereas with Oz Runways its a separate app.

    One thing is for sure though, if coming to Australia to fly remember just like the radars down under, the cellular communication network is very limited outside of major cities. That being said, it is my opinion based on experience based on a number of Australian States, that Telstra is the only data carrier worth considering in your iPad or phone if flying.

    The current Telstra coverage map is found here:
    telstra.com.au/coverage-networks/our-coverage

    None of the others (Optus, Vodaphone, Virgin etc) offer the coverage or speed.

    I recently tested a SPOT trace tracker as well and since its has an uplink to satellites it works really well at low cost in areas that don’t have cellular or radar coverage within Australia and can be installed in the Aircraft.

    Both the advice on the carrier in your phone and iPad (Telstra) and Spot Trace could certainly save your life in Australia, assuming of course you have done John and Martha’s training and know how to safely land your aircraft 😉 and in Oz having an ADS-B transponder is a good idea if owning an aircraft, since if configured correctly you can then see your aircraft in the ‘Flight Radar 24’ app.

    In the absence of extensive radar coverage in Australia this is in my opinion, the only way to go 🙂

    Reply
  6. Sam

    Any comments on foreflight and series tech?? I am a navy vet and cots tech,, meaning off the shelf tech, in the cockpit might be a cheap way to go, but is it reliable? I’m a private, instrument, and soon to be multi commercial pilot with your courses. Is foreflight with series a good cheap way to go and be within compliance with weather ??

    Reply
  7. Wolf Parisius

    Excellent article. Started flying in 1982 and I can relate to how things have changed. Really no excuse not to have the big weather picture now.
    Blue skies
    Wolf

    Reply
  8. Charles Bowser

    I have used the Garmin Pilot App for over 6 years. I have been using Garmin systems since they started. They have been on the forefront of GPS Navigation since they left Bendix King. The Garmin cockpit systems are the best on this planet. Although not mentioned in the article above, they should have been.

    Reply

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