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How to Be a Weather Wingman

Pay it Forward With PIREPs

by Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Mar/Apr 2018

In this flying-companion-based issue, we discuss in detail how teamwork among cockpit crewmembers can have a positive impact on aviation safety. But pilots, what if I told you that you could help be a good cockpit companion even when you’re not in the same plane? Better yet, how about if you had the power to potentially help save a fellow pilot’s life — maybe several pilots — with a simple click of the mic? Interested? Let’s take a look.

As pilots, we can all agree on the importance of weather and its impact on flight safety and decision making. It goes without saying that having the inside scoop on weather conditions could have serious implications on whether you decide to proceed with your flight, divert, change, or cancel your flight altogether. One way this valuable inside information can be provided is with pilot weather reports, or PIREPs.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: PIREPs are too difficult to send; I’m way too busy with other flying duties; they don’t even use my information; or, why should I? — the weather is perfectly fine. These are among the many reasons and themes that have contributed to an overall reluctance in PIREP reporting. In fact, the sad truth is that many pilots can probably count on one hand how many PIREPs they’ve submitted in recent years. According to a 2016 study conducted by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), three-quarters of their 700 respondents said they filed pilot reports, but 86-percent said they did so only “sometimes” or “rarely.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also focused its efforts on how to improve the PIREP process with a Special Investigation Report (SIR) issued in 2017. The report incorporated discussions with several PIREP user groups and looked at 16 accidents and incidents that exposed PIREP-related areas of concern.

Admittedly, drawbacks and inefficiencies in the PIREP system contribute to both submission and dissemination issues. This article aims to address some of these concerns, but also clarify some common PIREP misconceptions and highlight how future changes and emerging technologies may provide some welcome changes to the process. More importantly, I hope it encourages you to be a weather wingman on your next flight.

Can I Get a PIREP Over Here?

Let’s begin by defining a PIREP, which is a brief report made of the actual weather conditions encountered by a pilot while airborne. PIREPs are submitted to ATC or Flight Service (by radio, telephone, or electronically) and then disseminated to other pilots to improve their weather situational awareness. They can provide a more complete picture of weather for both strategic and tactical purposes. Pilots typically report weather conditions that are not forecast or are worse than forecast — which, incidentally, is one of the problems we’ll discuss later. Low visibility, turbulence, icing, and thunderstorms are good examples of conditions that may warrant a PIREP.

As an airborne observer, you might say filing a PIREP is a way to leverage your on-site insight and “pay it forward,” a term eloquently used by the NTSB in the title of its 2016 two-day PIREP safety forum and accompanying Pilot Weather Report Safety Alert, https://ntsb.gov/safety/safety-alerts/Documents/SA_064.pdf.

But PIREP value isn’t just measured by pilots. This in situ weather information is also one of the most important pieces of information that weather forecasters have when assessing the quality of their forecasts and improving graphical weather products. Even a single PIREP in some cases can influence the decision to issue (or discontinue) a hazardous weather advisory or amend its geographic area. Other beneficiaries include air traffic personnel who use PIREPs when making decisions about the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic in their area of jurisdiction and meteorologists who analyze and archive them for research purposes.

Given their widespread use and significance to NAS safety, it is important to understand the role that all participants play in submitting and disseminating PIREPs, as well as explore ways for those involved in the PIREP process to help improve its effectiveness and efficiency.

PIREP P-Factor

As helpful as it may seem, the PIREP system is only as good as the information that it receives. That means the perishable content in these time-sensitive reports can only be effective when they are plentiful, precise, and promptly processed for NAS users. Therein lie some of the roadblocks we referenced anecdotally earlier. Sparse reporting, for example, prevents air traffic controllers and other pilots from receiving information that could help them develop enhanced situational awareness of weather scenarios.

The reason for this shortage is often the result of pilots simply underestimating a PIREP’s importance. While it is conceivable for pilots to sometimes overlook just how beneficial PIREPs can be, think of the times you were on the receiving end of some juicy “intel” on turbulence or reported icing conditions that helped you and your passengers steer clear of a hazard. How helpful was it to have a near, real-time report of conditions that may have filled a critical gap in your weather planning? Or, how about when conditions were exactly as, or better than, forecast, allowing you to proceed as planned? That latter situation seems to be the area in need of some attention.

The Positive Side of Negative Reporting

One of the greatest misconceptions of PIREPs is that pilots believe they are used strictly for reporting severe or unexpected weather conditions. Pilots should actually report any observation, good or bad, to assist other pilots with flight planning and preparation. If conditions were forecasted to occur but were not encountered, a pilot should also report this null or negative observation. AOPA’s PIREP survey tells a different story however; 81-percent of the pilots who responded said they would rarely to never file a PIREP for as-forecast conditions, and 76-percent said that they would rarely to never report benign conditions.

That would certainly indicate a need for a culture change in how pilots perceive the purpose of PIREPs. It should also serve as a call to action for flight instructors to stress the importance of making PIREPs a more routine part of flying during initial training and while performing flight reviews. Real-world scenarios can be especially useful training methods when trying to illustrate the value of fair-weather versus adverse-weather PIREPs as well as how they contribute overall to flight safety. Going forward, the FAA will be looking at ways to improve education on the relevance of both adverse- and fair-weather PIREPs, and will review and revise any existing guidance that can help clarify this point accordingly.

There’s an App for That

Technology and cockpit workload tend to work hand-in-hand to present another obstacle for submitting PIREPs. Pilots are often already task-saturated when an unexpected or adverse weather condition comes their way, which puts filing PIREPs lower down on their priority list. But that reluctance can more often be attributed to the method used for submitting, which according to AOPA’s survey, is predominantly via a radio call to ATC or flight service. Although this number has likely changed since the survey was conducted in 2016, only eight-percent of the survey respondents indicated that they used on-board technology (e.g., tablets, avionics) to submit a PIREP.

That matters greatly as pilots are often deterred from reporting weather by having to interrupt communications on an already congested ATC frequency or leave an ATC frequency for fear of missing important instructions or advisories. When pilots responding to the AOPA survey were asked what would encourage more PIREPS, the most frequent comments involved making it simpler to file PIREPS, specifically the ability to automate filing via electronic technology.

The good news is that this technology does exist and is continuing to gain ground. Tablet and smartphone-friendly PIREP submission tools are becoming more popular, some with time-saving, auto-populated values based on user preferences or GPS data. And as datalink capabilities evolve, PIREP text messages may soon be on the horizon for GA. The FAA also has an electronic PIREP submission tool at the National Weather Service’s Aviation Weather Center Digital Data Service (ADDS) website. Registered users can electronically submit turbulence and icing PIREPs on the site, which are instantly displayed in graphical form and distributed nationwide. Visit www.aviationweather.gov/user/register to register and see FAA InFO 14011 – Electronic Submission of Pilot Weather Reports, https://www.faa.gov/other_visit/aviation_industry/airline_operators/airline_safety/info/all_infos/media/2014/InFO14011.pdf for more details.

While these tools help simplify the PIREP process, be aware of their limitations, including increased head-down time and connectivity issues. What’s important to remember is to use whichever PIREP-submission method that seems most appropriate for the circumstances, considering your workload, the type of weather information, and any other relevant factors. For example, for urgent weather hazards, providing your PIREP to ATC via the radio would likely result in the most rapid, local dissemination of the information.

For the record, submitting a PIREP via radio is not as cumbersome as it might seem. ATC will almost always approve a request to leave frequency for a few minutes while en route, but avoid waiting until the last minute or while in congested airspace. Don’t get too hung up on the format. ATC can usually help with coding it properly and/or prompt you if you’ve left out something critical. That leads to our next area of concern for PIREPs: data accuracy.

pirep form

pirep explanation

Precise is Nice, Especially with Ice

Figure 1 shows the form typically used for submitting a PIREP. It might help to think of it as being in a who, when, where, and what format. The what segment does require some extra detail, but be sure not to skimp on precision for the when and where sections. As was highlighted in the NTSB’s report, PIREPs without accurate position and timing information can have little to no value in some cases. Onboard technology can help with capturing time, location, and altitude, but be sure you’re keeping tabs on accurately noting and reporting this information when you see something.

Since most pilots aren’t professional meteorologists, describing the observed conditions or the “what” of a PIREP is by nature a fairly subjective process. The ability to properly assess and relay weather conditions that pilots encounter is typically linked to their training and experience. A new or low-time pilot, for example, may have a tendency to overestimate turbulence and icing intensities.

Icing intensity should be reported as trace, light, moderate, or severe and by type (rime, clear, or mixed). Be sure to include sky cover and temperature with an icing PIREP. Turbulence intensity should be reported as light, moderate, severe, or extreme and the duration as intermittent, occasional, or continuous. A common tip for estimating turbulence intensity is to imagine how a full cup of coffee would react in the cabin: from a slight slosh in light turbulence, to flat out wearing the coffee in severe or extreme conditions.

A good way to refine your reporting skills on these two phenomena is to reference the Aeronautical Information Manual paragraphs 7-1-20, -21, and -22. Also, FAA Advisory Circular 00-45H, Aviation Weather Services, contains extensive information on how to report and read PIREPs, how to apply intensity modifiers for precipitation and other weather phenomena, and how to use the remarks section to further describe the weather phenomena. The FAA is currently reviewing ways to better harmonize and possibly revise guidance in both of these references.

Promptly Processed

Our final PIREP P-factor deals with what happens on the collection and dissemination side. Delayed, missing, or improperly keyed reports not only affect data quality, but these issues may ultimately lead to a lack of faith in the system and inhibit future reporting among pilots. The NTSB’s SIR recommended changes in several areas that could help improve the efficiency and accuracy of PIREP processing. These areas focused on PIREP solicitation, guidance, collection and handling methods, verification procedures, training, and technology.

To address issues identified with these and other factors, the FAA is establishing a team of subject matter experts from across the agency’s Air Traffic Organization, including representatives from the Air Traffic Services, System Operations, Safety and Technical Training, and Mission Support Service Units. This team will analyze and determine the feasibility of adopting the NTSB’s recommendations. In addi­tion, the FAA surveyed ATC facilities across the nation to solicit ideas for procedural changes or improvements. The FAA will review this feedback as it considers ways to make PIREP processing techniques easier, less time consuming, and more accurate. Expect to see more later this summer.

5 things about pireps

The Power of PIREPs

Despite all the technological advances in weather radar and forecasting, there is still nothing more valuable than a PIREP in helping aviators avoid hazardous weather. As Susan Parson notes in her “Pipe Up With PIREPs” article (FAA Aviation News, May/June 2008), this first-hand weather report from a fellow aviator may be the single most informative piece of data you have in that stack of “all available information” you gathered before your flight. So on your next flight, pay it forward with PIREPs and be the best wingman you can be!

Learn More

FAA Advisory Circular 00-45H, Aviation Weather Services - https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/advisory_circulars/index.cfm/go/document.information/documentID/1030235

NTSB News Release on PIREP Special Investigation Report 17/02 - https://ntsb.gov/news/press-releases/Pages/pr20170417.aspx

NTSB Presentations from PIREP Seminar - https://ntsb.gov/news/events/Pages/2016_pirep_FRM_agenda.aspx

AOPA ASI course – PIREPS Made Easy - aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/online-courses

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate. Contributing to this article was Terry Lankford, an active pilot, retired FAA Flight Service Station specialist, and current FAA Safety Team representative.