Embry-Riddle's study showed that pilots struggled at reading weather displays. Photo courtesy of Honeywell
When tested on their knowledge of weather information, from icing forecasts and turbulence reports to radar, 204 general aviation (GA) pilots surveyed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University researchers were stumped nearly half the time.
The findings, published in the April 2018 edition of the International Journal of Aerospace Psychology, are worrisome because GA pilots flying smaller planes at lower altitudes, usually with minimal ground-based support, have higher weather-related accident and fatality rates, according to Embry-Riddle’s Elizabeth Blickensderfer.
Four categories of GA pilots who completed the 95-question exam scored as follows:
- instrument-rated commercial pilots achieved the highest scores, with a 65% accuracy level;
- instrument-rated private pilots ranked second, with 62% correct responses;
- private pilots flying without an instrument rating scored 57%; and
- students correctly answered only 48% of the questions.
Overall, the mean score across all 204 pilots was 57.89%, based on assessments conducted on the university’s Florida campus and at a U.S. airshow.
In 2014, the NTSB named “identifying and communicating hazardous weather” one of its top 10 priorities for improving safety. Currently, however, the FAA’s "knowledge exam" allows pilots to pass even if they fail the weather portion of the test.
Blickensderfer emphasized that her research should not be interpreted solely as a symptom of faulty pilot training.
“I don’t want to blame the pilots for deficiencies in understanding weather information,” she said. “We have got to improve how weather information is displayed so that pilots can easily and quickly interpret it. At the same time, of course, we can fine-tune pilot assessments to promote learning and inform training.”
Respondents to the test might be prompted to interpret cryptic meteorological terminal aviation routine weather report (METAR) information, which helps pilots prepare for safe flights: “You notice the comment, 'CB DSNT N MOV N.’ Based on this information, which of the following is true?”
Pilots should understand the METAR comment to mean, “Cumulonimbus clouds are more than 10 statute (land-measured) miles north of and moving away from the airport.”
As another example, pilots might be asked to interpret a ground-based radar cockpit display, which would only show recent thunderstorm activity — not current conditions. Or, the survey might ask pilots to look at an infrared satellite image and determine where the highest-altitude clouds would most likely be found.
The study found that respondents, who were mostly low-hour pilots, tended to perform better on automated products than traditional ones. The sample size, which was noted as being a limitation, prevented it from determining whether that trend would hold for more experienced, older pilots.
Thomas A. Guinn, an associate professor of meteorology at Embry-Riddle and a co-author on the study, noted that it’s critical for pilots to assess big-picture weather issues before takeoff. In addition, they need to understand that radar displayed inside a cockpit shows what was happening up to 15 minutes earlier.
“If you’re flying 120 miles per hour and you don’t understand that there’s a lag time in ground-based radar data reaching your cockpit,” Guinn said, “that can be deadly.”
All test questions were designed to push pilots beyond whatever facts they had memorized, so that “they had to think about it and answer the question using the same thought processes as if they were performing a pre-flight check,” said Robert Thomas, another co-author of the study who is a Gold Seal Certified Flight Instructor and an assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle.
The research, supported by $491,000 in funding from the FAA, could help guide pilot training and assessments. A follow-up study, involving about 1,000 GA pilots across the U.S., is now underway.