Let’s stop pre­tend­ing pi­lots are weather ex­perts


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Stephen Pope

Weather im­pacts pi­lots more than any other ex­ter­nal fac­tor, and yet it’s the least un­der­stood sub­ject in avi­a­tion. Many pi­lots, even in­struc­tors, are un­easy with the topic. De­spite this — or maybe be­cause of it — weather train­ing for pi­lots usu­ally touches only on the ba­sics. Mean­while, weather-re­lated ac­ci­dents con­tinue to plague gen­eral avi­a­tion. Some­thing has to be done.

The good news is re­cent ad­vances in weather ob­ser­va­tion and fore­cast ac­cu­racy mean we’ve never had ac­cess to bet­ter weather in­for­ma­tion. Yet when it comes to un­der­stand­ing weather, gen­eral avi­a­tion pi­lots re­main pretty clue­less. A case in point is a re­cent Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity sur­vey that pre­sented pi­lots with 95 ques­tions on a range of weather topics. Most who took the test failed mis­er­ably, with stu­dent pi­lots and non-in­stru­ment-rated pi­lots far­ing the worst and in­stru­ment-rated com­mer­cial pi­lots scor­ing the high­est — but man­ag­ing to an­swer just 65 per­cent of the ques­tions cor­rectly on aver­age.

I didn’t take the test, but I looked at some of the ques­tions. Could I have passed? I doubt it. One ques­tion asked pi­lots to de­code the fol­low­ing weather re­port: “CB DSNT N MOV N.” Well, we all know that CB means thunderstorms, so that’s im­por­tant. N means north. MOV means it’s mov­ing. Gee, I wish I knew where th­ese storms were.

We pi­lots are sup­posed to know this text de­notes “cu­mu­lonim­bus clouds that are at least 10 statute miles dis­tant from the re­port­ing sta­tion to the north and mov­ing away to the north.” Uh-huh. That’s not ex­actly crys­tal clear from the coded weather text, which looks like some­thing spit out by an an­cient telex ma­chine. No won­der weath­er­re­lated ac­ci­dents con­tinue to be­devil gen­eral avi­a­tion pi­lots.

Em­bry-Rid­dle’s El­iz­a­beth Blick­ens­der­fer, a pro­fes­sor in the De­part­ment of Hu­man Fac­tors and Be­hav­ioral Neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy who co-au­thored the study, ex­plains that poor pi­lot train­ing isn’t the sole cul­prit for our gaps in weather knowl­edge. “I don’t want to blame the pi­lots for de­fi­cien­cies in un­der­stand­ing weather in­for­ma­tion,” she says. “We have got to im­prove how weather in­for­ma­tion is dis­played so that pi­lots can eas­ily and quickly in­ter­pret it. At the same time, of course, we can fine-tune pi­lot as­sess­ments to pro­mote learn­ing and in­form train­ing.”

Put an­other way, gen­eral avi­a­tion pi­lots de­serve bet­ter weather in­for­ma­tion than they’re cur­rently re­ceiv­ing. It’s time we re­con­sider weather dis­sem­i­na­tion meth­ods that are caus­ing so much con­fu­sion and start fresh with a new ap­proach to pro­vide pi­lots with com­pre­hen­sive and eas­ily di­gestible tac­ti­cal and strate­gic over­views of the weather tai­lored to the needs of gen­eral avi­a­tion.

Weather train­ing for pi­lots also needs to im­prove. Sure, the weather can be fickle. And it can be hard for pi­lots to grasp com­plex me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal con­cepts. But we in GA need to do a bet­ter job of learn­ing about weather, not by rote mem­o­riza­tion of weather-re­lated terms but through sce­nario-based train­ing that chal­lenges pi­lots to gather per­ti­nent weather in­for­ma­tion so they can learn to make sound go/no-go de­ci­sions.

If we can im­prove how weather in­for­ma­tion is dis­sem­i­nated to GA pi­lots, we can start to move the safety nee­dle in the proper di­rec­tion. If we do it right, a dra­matic re­duc­tion in the num­ber of weath­er­re­lated mishaps in GA is within our grasp.

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