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Where do pilots get weather information is a question I’m commonly asked as a pilot. The answer is complex the deeper you look.
Weather information is gathered based on several factors. Where do pilots get weather information is best explored by starting with the fundamentals of weather forecasting and the agencies that gather and distribute this information. We’ll take a look at how pilots access this information as well.
I often look back at my flight training and think about the major things I learned. Flying the plane, emergency procedures, radio communication to name a few. But while everything learned contributes to my flying in a big way, none have a larger effect on my flying than the weather and the ways I collect this information.
I spent a lot of time at the local municipal airport as my dad was a flight instructor there, and my first memories are of flying as a baby. I logged thousands of hours on flight simulators so by the time I was legal to fly it was only natural that I started on my Private Pilot’s license. I soloed at 3 hours total time and have never looked back.
In my experience, weather briefing is the most important aspect of any flight. My dad used to tell me that good decisions made on a comprehensive weather briefing made the difference between good and great pilots. The idea is always to mitigate any risk, make sure you’re within your comfort zone, and keep the flight as smooth as possible.
In aviation, the weather services offered are a joint effort between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Weather Service (NWS), the Department of Defense (DOD), and other groups.
Weather forecasting will always be a moving target, but meteorologists make every effort to provide the most accurate weather information through computer modeling and scientific research and have the skills to predict weather patterns with improving accuracy. Fortunately, as pilots, we reap the benefits of systems of government agencies, weather services, and independent observers. We have access to forecasts to help us make informed decisions about our flying.
Weather observations form the foundation for all weather forecasts. We utilize three types of weather observations: Upper air observation, radar observation, and surface observation.
Upper Air Observations
Observations completed at altitudes consistent with upper air weather are much more difficult to observe than surface work. We use two methods to observe upper air weather occurrences: radiosonde observations and pilot weather reports (PIREPs). Using radio equipment, radiosonde observations are made by weather balloons. These balloons use this radio equipment to sound for the local conditions and this information is gathered twice a day. These upper air observations provide a variety of measurables including temperature, humidity, pressure, and wind data for altitudes up to and above 100,000 feet.
In addition to this, pilot observations provide vital information regarding upper air weather.
Pilots are the only true real-time source of information regarding difficult to forecast weather conditions including turbulence, icing, and cloud heights. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had pilots report icing and turbulence ahead of me that saved my flight.
Many airlines equip their aircraft with instrumentation that automatically transmits in-flight weather observations through what’s known as the DataLink system. This information is transmitted directly to that airline’s dispatcher and they’re able to relay that information to the weather forecasting authorities.
Radar weather observers utilize three types of radar to observe and distribute information about precipitation, wind, and weather systems. The WSR-88D NEXRAD radar, otherwise known as the Doppler radar, provides in-depth observations that pilots and non-pilots can use to determine conditions for the day.
The FAA terminal doppler weather radar (TDWR), installed at major airports around the country, aids in providing weather alerts and weather warnings to ATC. Terminal radars are helpful in that they ensure pilots are aware of wind shear, gust fronts, and heavy precipitation, all of which are dangerous to arriving and departing aircraft.
The third type of radar used in the detection of precipitation is the FAA airport surveillance radar. This radar has a couple of roles in that it helps with aircraft detection but it is sensitive enough to locate local precipitation and determine its intensity. This information can be used to divert aircraft around inclement weather as they approach the airport.
Surface Aviation Weather Observations
Surface aviation weather observations, otherwise known as METARs, are a compilation of current weather conditions at ground stations across the United States. This network consists of government funded facilities and private facilities that provide up-to-date weather information.
Automated weather sources such as automated weather observing systems (AWOS) and automated surface observing systems (ASOS), also play a major role in the gathering of surface observations. I sometimes call into local ASOS or AWOS stations if there’s an airport close to a location I might be driving to. I know I can rely on that weather information as it’s up to date and reliable.
Surface observations provide local weather conditions. This information includes the type of report, station identifier, date and time, wind, visibility, runway visual range (RVR), weather phenomena, sky condition, temperature/dewpoint, altimeter reading, and applicable remarks.
Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS)
The Direct User Access Terminal Service allows any pilot who is current, access to weather information and the ability to file a flight plan via computer. There are two methods used to access the DUATS system. Via the web or using a DUATS computer.
The DUATS computer method uses a modem and communications program supplied by a DUATS provider. To access the weather information and file a flight plan, pilots use a toll free telephone number to connect the user’s computer directly to the DUATS computer. The current vendors of DUATS service and the associated phone numbers may be found in Chapter 7 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).
Enroute Flight Advisory Service
This service may be used to access enroute information as requested. This service is sometimes called Flight Watch. EFAS provides weather advisories that are specific to the flight, route and cruising altitude. EFAS is probably one of the best services for weather information as it’s current and reliable.
A pilot may contact an EFAS specialist from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and the common EFAS frequency, 122.0 MHz, is accessible by aircraft flying between 5,000 feet and 17,500 feet.
Hazardous In-flight Weather Advisory (HIWAS)
HIWAS is a national program for broadcasting hazardous weather information over select navaids. The broadcasts include advisories such as AIRMETS, SIGMETS, convective SIGMETS, and urgent PIREPs. These broadcasts are summary information and should be supplemented with actual observation information.
Transcribed Weather Broadcast (TWEB)
A transcribed weather broadcast is another weather report transmitted over select navaids. On sectional charts, a “T” in the navaid box indicates TWEB availability. TWEB weather consists of route data including forecasts, forecast outlook, winds aloft, and other select weather reports for an area within 50 nautical miles (NM) of the FSS or for a 50-mile wide corridor along a specific route. A TWEB forecast is valid for 12 hours and is updated four times a day.
FAA Flight Service Station
The FSS, or FAA Flight Service Station, is my primary source for preflight weather briefings and information. A preflight weather briefing from the automated FSS (AFSS) may be obtained 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-WX BRIEF. In areas where the AFSS is not accessible, National Weather Service facilities are available and may provide weather briefings as needed. Phone numbers for these facilities and additional numbers for FSSs/AFSSs may be found in the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD).
I don’t skimp on weather information. Accurate briefings and diligence have spared me on several occasions. For local flights within a few nautical miles, local weather through AWOS and ASOS will often suffice. But when in doubt, make the phone calls and obtain weather briefings from any of the sources above.
For weather specialists to provide the appropriate weather briefing, they need to know which briefing you need—a standard briefing, an abbreviated briefing, or an outlook briefing. Other important information includes whether your flight is planned under visual flight rules (VFR) or instrument flight rules (IFR), aircraft identification and type, departure point, estimated time of departure (ETD), flight altitude, route of flight, destination, and estimated time en route (ETE).