Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Weather Man (and Woman)

With this week's awful weather I have been spending more time at my university office, doing research and getting ready to teach a new course in the Fall. The work expands to fill the available time...

The graduate director came by to introduce a new graduate student. "He's a retired meteorologist," she said.

She turned to him "Jim is a pilot." She has flown with me to several conferences, and her husband has flown with me for fun.

And this is where it gets weird. "'Mister, I met a man once,' it always begins."1 The man (it's always been a man) is a professional or military pilot. "The weather was awful and I said 'Do you want to fly in this?' I don't think so..."

"What was the weather?"

"Really low. 300 overcast." It's always 300. Going to an airport with an ILS. Not 100; that's below minimums, so nobody would go. Not 200; that's at minimums, increasing the pucker factor. But always 300. Now, depending on who you are and what you fly, 300 overcast may or may not be low. To a military pilot in a jet, it's no problem (assuming there's an ILS). To an ATP in a turbine airplane, it is definitely no problem. To a student pilot, or to a guy in a J-3, it's probably a big problem. But they're never briefing a student in these stories.

In defiance of all logic, meteorologists and pilots can't communicate. I got a hint of this in November, when a student and I visited the local Weather Service office. A couple of other encounters reinforced the feeling, because I keep hearing the same story.

Their point is that we don't listen to them; mine is that they don't listen to us. Conclusion: they don't know much about flying. We don't know much about weather. Yikes!

I've had lots of wacky briefings from meteorologists. There was the Base Meteorologist (I flew with an Air Force Aero Club). He spent his day briefing C-5s and B-52s. "I dunno," he shook his head, "moderate ice at Flight Level 230." But I was flying an Archer!

I told one of our local forecasters a story about a flight over town. "There was a rotor cloud, and I had my student fly along the edge of it so he could get a feel for the turbulence."

The forecaster turned white. "You flew below a rotor? You're lucky to be alive!" Well, I disagree. Pilots fly into rotors all the time (glider pilots routinely do it when towing into the wave, and that's in formation). They are very rough, but airplanes are very tough. When I was flying turboprops I would go out of my way to avoid rotors, only because it might make the passengers uncomfortable. But I least I knew where to look.

It seems like to most meteorologists we still fly "Piper Cubs" into dirt strips, and that's their idea of a G-1000 Turbocharged 206. But of course the 206 can reach that ice at 2-3-0 (that's bad), and the 206 at least has XM weather so has a chance to dodge those thunderstorms (that's good). And a proficient instrument pilot can shoot an ILS to minimums in an Archer while pouring a coffee and telling a dirty joke. I don't think they know about LPV approaches with a 250 foot decision height.

But we pilots are worse. We don't turn white when they tell their stories; we just nod off.

Whose fault is this? The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within the stars, but within ourselves.2. The fact is, pilots are not demanding that the National Weather Service provide quality briefings, and we are not helping them give us quality briefings. We have not told them what we need, and what we can and cannot do.

And it's too late.

Since the privatization of Flight Service, the National Weather Service is not allowed to do pilot weather briefings. They make aviation forecasts; they enjoy discussing the weather with us; they make the observations (or, should I say, supplement the observations?). But they may not brief us!

And so we have reached the era where pilots brief themselves. We use DUATS or DUAT or, supplemented with NWS's Aviation Digital Data Service. These give us the facts, but we also need that extra insight from the experienced weather guy.

Sometimes, he's right.

2Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

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At June 19, 2009 at 6:34 AM , Blogger Sarah said...

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