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Will You Make Good Decisions About Bad Weather?

The FAA’s Weather Research Program Has Answers

By Jennifer Caron

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, March/April 2020

Which type of weather data would you rather have in the cockpit? Do you want weather data that is valid at the current time, includes a forecast, but is not completely accurate? Or, would you rather have a weather display that’s picture perfect, but anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes old? Of these, which would you use to make a good decision to avoid bad weather?

These are the kinds of questions that the FAA’s Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC) program examines to find the most effective ways to present weather information in the cockpit so pilots can consistently and accurately interpret that information, understand its limitations, and use it effectively to avoid adverse weather.

WTIC is one of two research programs in the FAA’s Next Generation (NextGen) Aviation Weather Division. Along with the Aviation Weather Research Program (AWRP), the WTIC program seeks to enhance aviation safety by minimizing the impact of adverse weather on flights operating within the National Airspace System.

Let’s take a look at how the WTIC program is identifying solutions to help improve your knowledge and interpretation of the weather conditions ahead. We’ll also talk about recommendations the WTIC program has made to industry on how to deliver weather in a format that’s not only man-ageable, but is easy to understand.

The Challenge

According to a 2005 safety study by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “errors in decision-making, such as plan continuation errors or incorrect assessments of weather-related risk, may be made by pilots who are either unfamiliar with the [weather conditions prevailing in an area in general, or over a long period of time], who lack total and/or recent experience identifying marginal weather conditions, or who lack experience getting or reading weather reports.”

The Solution

Granted, pilots are not meteorologists. However, a pilot does need to know how weather may impact his/her flight, the capabilities and limitations of the airplane, and his/her personal minimums. This is where the FAA’s WTIC program comes in. “We need to find a better way to teach pilots the weather, and determine areas where pilots have a weakness,” says Ian Johnson, an engineering psychologist and human factors researcher in the WTIC program. One of WTIC’s main objectives is to uncover gaps in pilot training, as well as gauge the pilots’ understanding and interpretation of cockpit weather sources (e.g., SIGMETs) and weather products (e.g., METARs).

In 2015, the WTIC program reached out to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) for help in addressing gaps in pilot weather training. In response, ERAU developed 95 weather-related, multiple choice questions to assess GA pilots’ knowledge of aviation weather concepts and principles, where to obtain the aviation weather products, and how to interpret the aviation weather products (e.g., forecasts, observations, etc.). The sample of pilots evaluated included pilots of all ages and genders, with a variety of flight time, whose certificates and/or ratings ranged from student pilots, to private and commercial pilots, with and without an instrument rating.

It was no surprise that instrument rated commercial pilots had the highest scores, but their scores were not significantly higher than private pilots either with or without an instrument rating. Student pilots had the lowest levels of aviation weather knowledge.

Overall, pilots scored higher on weather sources (e.g., SIGMETs, surface charts, and upper level charts), but lower (50-percent or less, which means they failed) on interpretation of weather products (e.g., radar, AIRMETs, satellite data, METARs, and PIREPs).

“The takeaway from these results is that GA pilots struggle to interpret weather products, which places them at a greater risk of flying directly into hazardous weather,” Johnson explains. “It was clear that GA pilots need more training on basic principles of weather phenomena and weather product interpretation to diagnose bad weather in advance,” says Johnson.

To address these concerns, WTIC sponsored two areas of weather training development. They reached out to the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI) to develop a training course aimed at improving weather knowledge and interpretation. WTIC assisted NAFI in creating a course to help flight instructors improve their ability to teach aviation weather to pilots; specifically, in areas where pilots demonstrated a weakness, as was noted from the results of the ERAU study. A second course was created to help pilots enhance weather decision making during flight.

You can find both courses online, and they’re free. Flight instructors, visit bit.ly/WxNAFI. Pilots, go to FAASafety.gov and enter ALC-521: Enhancing Wx Knowledge and Training in the search bar. Be sure to register or log in to your account to receive WINGS credit for the course.

NEXRAD Images — Delayed, Not Live

WTIC further found that many GA pilots do not understand that in-cockpit weather displays are latent — not presented in real-time. The only source for real-time, radar imagery is an airborne weather radar in your cockpit. Unless you have this equipment, data-linked cockpit gadgets will always show delayed images.

Just for example, Next Generation Radar (NEXRAD) mosaic images can be delayed anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes. It is not a five minute delay, as is commonly thought. Also, remember that the time stamp on the display reflects a delay from ground radar, in addition to the time it takes to create the graphic, and the time delay in reaching your cockpit display. For more, read the NTSB’s safety alert at bit.ly/NTSBAlert.

“What you see out the window is real, what you see on the display is delayed,” Johnson explains. “Don’t fly the airplane solely based on what you see on that data-linked display.”

Cockpit displays of data-linked weather, like NEXRAD, are meant to be used for strategic planning to help fly a wide berth around a line of thunderstorms that can be 100 or more miles ahead. Unfortunately, some pilots make the mistake of trying to navigate through perceived "holes" in the storms which could disappear entirely by the time the airplane actually arrives, resulting in an aircraft getting dangerously close to adverse weather.

Results from Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) reports and a small ERAU study showed that 33- to 50-percent of the time pilots thought the weather on their route and at their destination was better than it really was.

"Weather is not linear, it is dynamic,” explains Gary Pokodner, the WTIC program manager. “You can’t forecast growth and decay. A new thunderstorm cell can pop up behind the one a pilot is watching, and this can happen in a matter of minutes. Don’t cut corners or shoot gaps, just steer clear.”

Wild, Wild Simulated Weather

weather information latency demonstrator

To help GA pilots understand how easy it is to misread in-cockpit weather information, WTIC worked with the Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability (PEGASAS), which is a group of universities on a research grant from the FAA. Together they developed the Weather Information Latency Demonstrator, or WILD.

WILD is a desktop simulator designed to teach pilots about the effects of latency, how to better spot weather change color cues on the display, and to observe the potential differences between cockpit NEXRAD imagery and out-the-window conditions. In the WILD simulation, pilots fly a scenario with a thunderstorm ahead of the aircraft. Many pilots who tried it thought they could watch the storm and anticipate where it would be in 5-10 minutes. They were surprised when the virtual flight took them straight into a new thunderstorm cell or low visibility. Pilots using WILD have thus been able to learn more about the dangers of latency and poor visibility and make better weather avoidance decisions.

WTIC is transitioning its findings from the WILD to flight simulator providers, as well as data-linked weather manufacturers. They are recommending better ways for manufacturers to format displays and add industry-wide consistency to weather change color schemes. Thanks to Mindstar Aviation, pilots had an opportunity to fly the WILD capabilities in the Pilot Proficiency Center during EAA AirVenture 2019.

Meanwhile, here are some online — free! — courses that can teach you more about the limitations of weather displays in the cockpit.

weather displays in cockpit

nexrad training

Conditions Ahead

WTIC continues work on a wide range of projects. First is the FAA’s “Shark Tank” project. The winner of the Shark Tank competition suggested using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) reports to get turbulence information. This revolutionary idea was picked up by WTIC for research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and is showing great promise in providing accurate turbulence observations.

WTIC also has two activities related to visibility determination. First, is the WeatherXplore app. It is an augmented reality training aid where you can use your phone or tablet to connect with links to aviation weather web content and training modules. It’s available now as a prototype. Visit the Apple Store or Google Play to download it for free. The second visibility project is the triangulation method for estimating distances. It applies the slant-range technique of using reference points on the aircraft, and points on the ground, to judge distance. In lab tests, pilots learned this technique easily, and it resulted in statistically significant improvements over their current methods, which basically involves just guessing to estimate distances.

WTIC has completed the process to “null out” the latency in NEXRAD by using forecast information from models and it works. A demonstration plan has been created to see how well pilots understand the information and use it. The FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) will run the demonstration in the next few months.

Intrigued? Stay tuned; we’ll keep you posted on the large portfolio of WTIC projects to help you make good decisions about bad weather.

Learn More

FAA’s WTIC Program - bit.ly/FAAWTIC

National Weather Service, Pilot’s Guide for Aviation Weather - bit.ly/NWSAvWx

Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge - bit.ly/PHAKCh13

NTSB Safety Study: Risk Factors Associated with Weather-Related GA Accidents - bit.ly/NTSBWxStudy

Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in aviation safety and flight standards.

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