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Friday, July 1, 2011

Shopping for Weather

By Chris Baur

Pilots like to discuss weather even when they’re not flying. How much thought do you put into your weather sources? Over the years, our options have certainly expanded. With today’s technology, we have access to weather in nearly every phase of flight. Only a few decades ago, our sources of weather were somewhat limited and not altogether mobile. It often required a trip over to the flight service station or base operations for a weather briefing.

The weather of yesteryear also required of us to understand a complete alien based language of symbols, contractions and graphics, necessitated by the teletype delivery system of the day. This created unintentional “field of weather interpretation”. Every flight department, squadron and hangar had the guy that could decipher the code faster than a WWII Enigma Machine, and the uniquely honed skills to interpret and revise observations and forecasts. Understanding weather and its interpretation was a hallmark of any check ride oral, many interview screenings and a chunk of my FAA dispatcher practical exam. So while I might have choked on the urgent pilot report submitted by the “Free Air Dirigible,” I’ve always felt there was more emphasis on the packaging than understanding what was inside.

Today there are more options for aviation weather than ever before and it presents quite the opportunity for us to “go shopping for weather”. (I bet some of you thought I was going to discuss the perils of shopping for weather). Well, back at the dawn of color TV, you could tune in at 0600 to the PBS program of “AM Weather.” If you missed it, there was always the crop report. With high-speed Internet, wi-fi and 3G/4G, there are a host of government, commercial and free weather portals you can access for reports, charts and graphics. During flight, satellite-based XM Weather and WSI can stream live nexrad radar into your cockpit. How much weather do you really need? It depends. When I flew in the Air Force, our weather briefing was very through, but it was skewed towards fixed-wing and included a lot of information about freezing levels I couldn’t reach in a helicopter, runway bird activity reports, and high-altitude turbulence forecasts. The nice feature of shopping for weather is you can get what you need when you need it, kind of like the fast lane at the supermarket.

One tool specifically designed for low-altitude helicopter flight is the HEMS Low Altitude Flight Tool. I wanted to find out more about it, so I spent some time with Capt. Eric Luger, corporate safety manager at Englewood, Colo.-based Air Methods. The HEMS tool was conceived during a March 2006 FAA weather summit and funded from a $100,000 grant from the National Center Atmospheric Research. Luger and other members of the group envisioned a single source for weather and low altitude flight planning. The HEMS tool provides pilots and dispatchers a desktop-driven weather tool that provides more than the traditional text of METARS, TAFS and PIREPS. Users can create a tailored product that depicts a graphic display of menu-selected phenomena such as ceilings and visibilities overlayed on a user-defined local area. Depending on the desired amount of data, counties, highways and aeronautical data can be displayed and set into motion with an animation tool. “People outside the medevac community may not be aware of the HEMS tool. It is an excellent source of information when pilots are looking for weather outside of the traditionally 5 sm METAR,” said Luger.He pointed out many helicopter pilots are restricted using the area forecast, which can provide pilots with either an overly optimistic view of conditions or unnecessarily restrictive forecast of turbulence or icing conditions.

I’m not here to sell anyone on one particular source during your weather shopping spree, as what works for one pilot might not be suitable for another. Timely information and knowledge are key so you can have the right amount of information where and when you need it, packaged so you can understand it and use it to make decisions about your flight. Longtime DUAT users with smartphones may not be aware they can also use their DUAT account on a mobile device, or install aviation weather applications such as AirWX.

If you depend on high frequency radios or satellites for communications and navigation, or operate at or near the poles, you might want to visit the Space Weather site.

So whether you’re using a Weather Rock or Weather Bug, let your level of technology work for you and get the products and services you need, when and where you need them.

Weather Resources:

Alaska Weather Cameras
http://akweathercams.faa.gov/

Offshore Weather
http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/

AWOS/ASOS Telephone
http://www.anyawos.com/

Hurricane/Typhoon
http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/

Weather Underground
http://www.wunderground.com/

FlightPlan.com
http://www.fltplan.com/

HEMS Tool
http://weather.aero/hems/

DUAT
http://www.duat.com
http://www.duats.com

Space Weather
http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/
http://www.spaceweather.com/

Military
http://www.baseops.net/

Weather Bug
http://weather.weatherbug.com/

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