Let’s play “Decode That TAF”

On Feb. 1, when the winds were howling and the rest of the country was buckling their seatbelts for a bumpy winter ride, AOPA’s Chief Flight Instructor JJ Greenway sent this challenge to several staff pilots: Decode the following metar/TAF without resorting to the Internet, the FAR/AIM, or anything else. He sweetened the challenge by offering a prize to the first pilot who correctly responded.

KDFW 011242Z 35022G28KT 1 1/2SM R17C/5500VP6000FT -SN BR SCT009 BKN017 OVC027 M06/M07 A2988 RMK AO2 PK WND 33040/1202 SFC VIS 1 3/4 PLE16 PRESFR

KORD FM020400 02029G44KT 1/4SM +SN BLSN VV001

It was a fun way to exercise our weather-decoding skills and keep us thinking about this important aspect of piloting during a crummy time of year.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t the winner. Here’s the answer:

Dallas Ft. Worth International Airport, First day of the month at 1242Z (6:42 a.m. Central Standard Time) Wind 350 degrees (true) at 22 knots gusting to 28 knots, visibility one and one half statute miles. Runway One Seven Center RVR (Runway Visual Range) five thousand five hundred feet variable to (plus) (more than) six thousand feet. Light Snow, Mist. Scattered clouds at nine hundred feet above ground level, broken clouds at 1,700′ AGL, overcast clouds at 2,700′ AGL temperature minus six, dew point minus 7, altimeter setting 29.88. Remarks: something to do with the automated type of precipitation indicator, peak wind 330 degrees (true) at 40 knots at 1202 Zulu. Surface visibility 1 3/4 miles, pellets ended at :16 past the hour, pressure falling rapidly.
Chicago O’Hare, from the second day of the month at 0400 Zulu (10:00 p.m. tonight) wind 020 degrees at 29 knots gusting 44 knots, visibility 1/4 statute mile in heavy snow and blowing snow. Vertical visibility one hundred feet.


How did you do?

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  • http://blog.aopa.org/flighttraining/?p=295 Bobk

    To you, “It was a fun way to exercise our weather-decoding skills and keep us thinking about this important aspect of piloting during a crummy time of year.”

    To me, it’s another totally unnecessary block in the wall that prevents so many of today’s student pilots from becoming pilots. There’s no viable reason why, with the advances in communication devices and transmission methods, any pilot should have to worry about learning 75 year old ticker tape weather decoding skills instead of weather navigation and avoidance skills.

  • thomas boyle

    When I learned to read TAFs it was 25 years ago. Even then, all of us in my ground school class laughed at the idea that a cryptic code spewed from a teletype machine was the standard for aviation weather. We already had early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator running on desktop computers, and even then none of us had ever actually seen a teletype machine. We all assumed that we would be among the last people in history to learn to decode a TAF.

    We should have been. The fact that this system still exists, and that pilots are expected to decrypt it, is an embarrassing joke on us all.

  • http://aspiringpilots.com Andrew Smolenski

    Yes, it’s an antiquated system; however, claiming it’s a reason why many student pilots don’t become pilots?! Really?! Honestly, if you can’t learn something as simple as reading a METAR/TAF, then you probably shouldn’t be a pilot. I haven’t flown in about 7 years, with only about 250 hours under my belt before my hiatus and I can still look at the TAF/METAR’s and read them withouth hesitation. It’s not about decrypting. It’s actually pretty easy.

    Plus, have you SEEN the texts and tweets today’s generations send out?! They’re harder to decrypt than any METAR/TAF ever could be!

  • http://www.myflightcoach.com Chris Findley

    I agree that it’s an antiquated system and with advances in weather data dissemination, there’s a better way. I don’t know many pilots who read these in their raw format unless absolutely necessary (which is rare).

    However, I disagree that having to learn to decode a TAF/METAR etc. is a “block in the wall that prevents so many of today’s student pilots from becoming pilots.” A hassle perhaps, but it’s really not that hard to learn. If reading a TAF prevents someone from becoming a pilot then we got other issues….

  • Alex Scott

    With technology available today there is no excuse for needing to decode TAF and METAR. All it takes is money and there’s always an abundance of that.

  • thomas boyle

    The TAF/METAR game is a good example of the “let’s make flying look as painfully difficult as we can” philosophy that pervades aviation, in which we emphasize how clever we all are, how superior we are to the mere groundlings who foolishly aspire to become godlike pilots, like us.

    I’ve never heard someone say they dropped out of flying because of TAFs. But I have been told they dropped out because it wasn’t much fun. Guess what makes it “not fun?” “Gotcha” stuff, like this, is not fun.

    It has been at least two decades since there has been any excuse for requiring pilots to decode TAFs, or METARs. That’s not to say people can’t do it – or learn to decode HTML, or ethernet packet headers – but there’s no reason any of them should be a required skill for pilots.

  • Charles

    It seems to me something with as significant an impact on safety as weather deserves to be communicated with all possible clarity while diminishing as much possibility for human error and mis interpretation as possible. Is this a good example of our efforts to promote safety?

  • JJ

    As a private pilot, i still participate in informal, ground school refreshers held on a weekly basis at out local FBO…partly for my own knowledge/fun, and partly to act as a mentor to other aspiring pilots.
    Monday night we discussed weather/metars/tafs, etc….afterwards, the look on about five of the student’s’ faces told all; I had to talk two young ladies and one grown man off a ledge after we went through metars/tafs/sigmets.
    There simply is no reason we can’t make the system more user-friendly…listen folks; not every change is due to NEED, sometimes things are done for convenience. How many use a GPS, a cell phone, or even cruise control in their car? The “old way” worked fine, didn’t it?.?.

  • Morgan

    While most of us never act as PIC internationally, having an international standard for weather reporting means that language is never a barrier to reading weather reports. METARs and TAFs are the same whether you are in Sydney, Paris, or New York.

    I agree that this code is no more difficult than today’s “TwitterTalk,” but would add that at least there are very accurate decoders for aviation weather products.

  • Susannah

    I actually really like reading TAFs and METARs in their raw form. I think they are much faster to read, and I can compare the trend throughout the day at a glance. I often use them to look at weather even on days when I’m not flying.

    It’s a matter of taste, and many FAA-approved sources like DUAT and DUATS do offer a translation. If we know a student who is intimidated, then we should show them how to get translated results.

    Morgan also makes a really good point. Even though it’s a situation we may never see, it’s something that affects a large percentage of aviation.

  • SamB

    It means don’t go. Or it means CFIT

  • Ann

    I am so grateful my instructor insisted I learn to decode METARs and TAFs. It’s a quicker read, easier to grab one tidbit of information, like the winds, and I like the challenge. It keeps me sharp and on my toes. If decoding this is too much to handle, what happens when you have you have an emergency? Will someone step in and “translate” the emergency checklist for you too? When did we become so soft and lazy?

  • Jessie J.

    Thomas Boyle said:
    “The TAF/METAR game is a good example of the “let’s make flying look as painfully difficult as we can” philosophy that pervades aviation, in which we emphasize how clever we all are, how superior we are to the mere groundlings who foolishly aspire to become godlike pilots, like us.”

    Wow! The above paragraph could be a summary of the attitude of a CFI I had the misfortune of training with at one time. An excellent example of why GA is struggling. High costs combined with arrogant attitudes do not encourage potential pilots.

  • Dave

    Bobk has it absolutely right. This is NOT FUN. It is not HELPFUL. It is just stupid. This system came about in an ancient non-techno world and there is absolutely no excuse for it any more. A simple weather request for a 40 mile flight gets you all sorts of nonsense for half the country. This DOES NOT promote safety as we mostly just ignore the noise and go to weather.com or the weather channel to cut through the nonsense.

  • kibsaero

    I enjoyed that. The only thing i missed was the runway rvr and the pellets ending time also the pressure falling thanx.

  • scott

    I actually enjoy reading metars and tafs. They give me everything i need to know in a short and succinct manner.

    This was a nice exercise…thanks. (although I usually see pressure falling rapidly as PSFR not PRESFR)

  • Doug

    I always enjoy a chance to practice my Metars/Tafs. I think this system is a lot easier and yet decodes a lot more than the old 1960/70s system….but still very similar also.
    If the guys like the Metars/Tafs, AOPA’s website has several courses & quiz’s they can practice on. Also FAA Safety has a few more.

  • Doug

    If you want more chances to practice your Metars/Tafs. AOPA’s online courses website has several courses & quiz’s they can practice on. Also FAA Safety has a few more.

    I found a really nice place to do flight planning and also read Metars/Tafs. The website is http://www.skyvector.com This website displays any sectional or other aviation charts on screen so you can plan your flight or just look at the meters/Tafs.
    The way you get the weather is just hover the mouse over the airport of interest and they appear.

  • GregV

    I’m a new pilot, but have been an IT consultant for 30 years. My favorite comparison of aviation to the IT world is that aviation is still running green screen MS-DOS v2 over a 1200 bps dialup connection in a wireless, iPad/3G world. TAF/METAR-speak is only one minor example of that dilemma. We’ll never get any critical mass of entrants into aviation until we change that, and we’ll be saddled with paying top dollar for it until then as well.

    Suppose I could do a cell phone cost analogy too…

    Ok, rant is over.

  • Frank

    Once you get past learning the format, it’s much faster to read untranslated METARs and TAFs. There are only a handful of codes you need for fair weather VFR flying, if you see something you don’t recognize, as SamB said, it probably means “don’t go”. For IFR, you need to be familiar with more codes, but that’s just a small part of the additional knowledge you need. Another big benefit is having a solid shorthand to use when you check the weather enroute.

  • KenB

    It’s not that it’s extremely difficult or hard to learn. Its that some of the less used codes might be misinterpreted on the fly and might put a mid-time pilot and passengers in danger.

    This is sort of like the Y2k delima. When computer memory was scarce, programmers used 2 digit codes to describe the year. It continued since there was no necessity to change coding until the compelling event of the year 2000.

    Let’s hope the TAF/METAR compelling event isn’t a serious crash due to misinterpretation.

  • AliAd

    TAFs/METARs are not my favorite part of the pre-flight but they are necessary to having a sound understanding of Wx in dangerous convective and icing conditions. I read somewhere that the METARs are actually an advancement of an older weather symbology that was originally available only in the USA and was ‘synchronized’ with the international (ICAO) standards. I may tend to disagree that the ability to decode these can keep someone from becoming a Private or even Commercial pilot. It is indeed confusing given modern technology, but there is always the FSS to decrypt it at your request and online @ aviationweather.gov . Now try decoding a PIREP or NOTAM and there you’ll find the real challenge! It’s good thing us contemporary pilots don’t have to remember Morse code as in the old days!

  • Gary Stegall

    What’s all the whining about. Learn it and get over it!