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How's Your Weather Know-How?

By Tom Hoffmann

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, March/April 2020

lightning storm

Unfortunately, despite increased availability of weather data, Mother Nature remains a major contributor to general aviation fatal accidents. Weather data is only helpful if you’re able to distill it into what you really need to make sound aeronautical decisions. The good news is that with a greater variety of mediums and methods of obtaining weather information — many boasting unparalleled fidelity and accuracy — you’re more likely to find the source that suits your needs. The challenge is finding what weather resources work for you and knowing how to properly leverage the information they provide. Here are a few tips.

Before your next flight, make a conscious effort to ensure you thoroughly understand the weather data at your disposal. Does a 15-knot crosswind or 3/4 mile visibility in fog align with your personal minimums and aircraft capabilities? If it’s been a while since you last assessed your personal weather minimums, consider what red-flag items would give you pause and how you would address them. Don’t wait until you’re in the thick of it to figure out how you would handle a weather emergency. Rerouting or diverting is much easier — and less stressful — when you have some wiggle room and pre-decided alternates to choose from.

In reviewing weather data, always consider its shelf life. Some weather products could be hours old when you receive them. Note the observation times in any particular report and/or the product validity time span so you always know if you have the latest and greatest versions. Comparing forecasts with more current weather information is also a good way to see the “big picture” and if weather is developing as expected. Don’t overlook the value of area forecast discussions too. These plain language discussions cover conditions that that will create expected weather.

It also helps to think of how three basic elements of weather (temperature, wind, and humidity) can combine to impact a flight in terms of visibility, turbulence, and aircraft performance. This approach can help you assess whether both pilot and plane are up for the challenge.

Don’t rely too much on in-cockpit weather displays. Yes, they are excellent tools to improve your weather situational awareness, but the information they relay may not tell the whole story, no matter how sophisticated they are. Bottom line: Don’t fixate on a NEX-RAD display to the exclusion of your other flight management tasks — and that includes looking out the window. Weather displays should be used strategically, not tactically.

Finally, strive to continue learning about weather and get familiar with as many available resources as possible (see Learn More). A little extra weather know-how can go a long way towards a safe flight!

Learn More

Personal Minimum Checklist for Weather - https://www.faa.gov/news/safety_briefing/2015/media/MarApr2015.pdf, pg 30

“I’ve Got Weather — Now What Do I Do With It?” Mar/Apr 2015, FAA Safety Briefing, page 26 bit.ly/SBMar15

GA Pilot’s Guide to Preflight Weather Planning, Weather Self-Briefings, and Weather Decision-Making - https://www.faasafety.gov/files/gslac/courses/content/33/346/GA%20Weather%20Decision-Making%20Aug06.pdf

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.

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