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Wind Over the Beach: The Dawn of Aviation Weather

By David Hughes

Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

Kitty Hawk owes its place in aviation history to a weatherman stationed there. Though the Wright Brothers were considering several locations on the East and West Coasts for flying, they chose this particular spot because of a letter from an employee of the U.S. Weather Bureau (the precursor to NOAA’s National Weather Service) reporting the presence of steady wind over this mile-wide stretch of North Carolina beach.

first weather briefing

What a difference a century makes. Today’s pilots can obtain accurate and dependable graphical weather information instantaneously on the Internet, thanks to a collaborative research effort involving the FAA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and the National Weather Service (NWS). Using the NWS Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS) platform, pilots can analyze weather along a route, using data available for various cruising altitudes at one hour intervals over 12 hours. ADDS also offers information on current and forecast icing, turbulence, convection, wind, temperature and other conditions. Better yet, today’s graphics reduce massive amounts of complex weather data into an easy-to-interpret visual format.

For example, ADDS can display icing and turbulence data with a map showing the type and severity of these phenomena at various altitudes along a planned route of flight. NCAR periodically updates these automated tools with funding and direction from the FAA’s Aviation Weather Research Program, which is also directing most NextGen weather research.

These automated tools keep getting better as NCAR researchers work in conjunction with FAA NextGen efforts to transform weather information delivery over the next decade. A key objective of NextGen weather research is to provide weather information in four dimensions (4D), including time. Speaking of time, weather forecasting models supporting ADDS now update data hourly instead of every six hours.

One new addition to the ADDS tool is icing severity information. “This is a significant advance, because it includes not just the possible occurrence of icing but also the level of icing severity,” says Steve Abelman, Manager of the FAA’s Aviation Weather Research Team. Another fundamental improvement is turbulence forecasting. The FAA and NCAR have been working with several airlines to gather measurements of the effects of turbulence at jet cruising altitudes. NCAR project scientist Robert D. Sharman says the availability of turbulence data from airline aircraft coincided with the advent of computer models vast enough to mimic atmospheric behavior on super computers. “It’s been a major breakthrough to have a reliable data source for verification and tuning,” notes Sharman.

Some newly developed tools are being evaluated on an ADDS experimental website. Among them is the Helicopter Emergency Management System (HEMS). It has been published on the ADDS experimental website to gather comments from prospective users. HEMS could eventually be used by anyone who flies under VFR. The advantage for helicopter operators and aerial application is that HEMS provides an automated forecast of ceiling, visibility, wind, icing and turbulence conditions for off-airport locations such as an interstate, a farmer’s field, or an offshore oil rig. Researchers are using a combination of new algorithms and extrapolation from nearby airport observations and forecasts to produce this gridded information at high resolution.

The FAA’s planned transformation of aviation weather tools for this decade will bring even more accurate information to pilots and controllers. The FAA’s NextGen weather research effort aims to incorporate the use of web enabled aviation weather information directly into decision making by pilots, controllers and others who manage air traffic by tailoring the data to what they need to know for a particular type of aircraft on a specific flight path. The idea is to provide instant access to an up-to-date snapshot of current and forecast conditions so everyone is on the same page in deciding how to deal with the current weather situation.

Like aviation itself, aviation weather has truly come a long way.

Learn More
NWS Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS)

David Hughes is a writer/editor with the FAA’s Office of NextGen Performance and Outreach.

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