Tom Horne

Skew-T fever

August 29, 2013 by Thomas A. Horne, Editor At Large

In last month’s AOPA Pilot I wrote my Wx Watch column about some of the dynamics behind frontal formation ( It’s a complicated subject but I tried to explain it as simply as possible given the space available. Believe me, entire volumes have been written on the subject.

My whole idea behind Wx Watch is to provide a mix of practical information with occasional introductions to some advanced concepts. Concepts that can help further an understanding of how weather works, as well as help better understand briefing products (such as Convective Outlooks). I take the same approach when giving my presentations on aviation weather at AOPA Summit. The audiences seem to enjoy knowing more about the weather than is provided in traditional pilot training materials. Seems logical to me. After all, we fly in it–be it good VMC or miserable IMC. Besides, weather-related accidents tend to have a disproportionate level of fatal outcomes.

And yet, the private pilot knowledge exam has remarkably few questions on weather. Last I checked, you could get all eight weather questions wrong, and still pass. No wonder pilots feel that weather is their weakest subject–a feeling that often can persist throughout a flying career. That said, I think that, at heart, most pilots want to know more. They ask questions that indicate an intellectual curiosity. But tune out when the explanations come.

Some are apparently defensive about this. One member wrote to say that the front formation article was aimed at meteorologists, and too esoteric to be of any practical use, adding that he is a VFR-only pilot. Oh, the irony.

Then there are those wanting more. One member wrote to ask for more coverage of Skew-T Log-P charts. Another wanted more talk about things like convergence, divergence, and vorticity. Proof that our membership is a diverse batch indeed.

Those not feeling the urge to better their understanding of weather may think of it as existing in the realm of entertainment. I like a good “there I was” or “Never Again” yarn as much as anyone. But many of them serve as poor substitutes for learning experiences. Sometimes you get the idea that these first-person accounts come from pilots who were genuinely surprised by horrific weather–even though its occurrence could have been predicted during the preflight phase. That is, if the pilot knew where to look, and what signs to watch.

So where do you stand? Do explanations of weather dynamics have a place in discussions of aviation weather, or do generalizations suffice? I suppose the answer is a mix of both. But for the squeamish, be forewarned: A Skew-T chart will appear in October’s Wx Watch! It will show a temperature profile of freezing rain, and there will be no quiz!



6 Responses to “Skew-T fever”

  1. Gerald Moon Says:

    A CFI friend introduced me to Skew-T charts last spring. With a little understanding, there is no better tool for understanding where the clouds probably are. Much better than learning where they are by flying into them for us VFR-only pilots. I look forward to your October article.

  2. David Jack Kenny Says:

    My worst shortcoming as a pilot is probably that I’m NOT fascinated by weather. I want to be able to make timely and accurate decisions about whether it’s safe to fly, but beyond that I just think of weather as a nuisance.

    I don’t know why its ever-changing complexity doesn’t fascinate me; it seems like it should, but somehow it just doesn’t. At least I have the decency to feel embarrassed about it.

  3. Mike Brown Says:

    Knowing why the weather does what it does is important in figuring out what it might do from what it is doing, if that makes any sense. As a VFR pilot, I need the ability to look at the available information and make a decision on whether I can safely fly as planned, will need to change my route, or should consider taking a nice walking tour of the nearby Civil War battlefield while the weather blows through (which is exactly what I had to do in May, when I wound up with a previously-unscheduled stop in Vicksburg).

    As to the written test, mine was more than twenty years ago, but I remember wondering why the FAA thought it was more important that I knew the NAME for the kind of fog you get when you have snow on the ground and warmer air, than it was to know the CONDITIONS under which you would get fog. Twenty years later, I can’t remember the name, but I sure do look out for the fog on winter days when it’s warm and humid.

  4. Fred Remer Says:

    I teach and do research in meteorology at an upper midwestern university that has a large aviation program. We offer a undergradaute major and minor in Atmospheric Sciences. I am always surprised by the interest in our minor program. I think that inquisitive pilots want to know more about most anything to do with aviation, including weather. I know that there are topics in aviation that some pilots would rather avoid. It’s not just limited to weather.

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