Archive for July, 2014

Moving Wx Into the 21st Century

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

IMG_0016PSsmActually the weather has moved quite nicely into this century on its own accord, but some of our forecasting products have not. For example, the venerable FA—that’s the area forecast. It’s produced by the National Weather Service’s Aviation Weather Center (AWC) in Kansas City and is firmly rooted in the middle of the last century. The FA is supposed to fill in the blanks between all the airports with Terminal Area Forecasts (TAFs). It’s well past time for an upgrade. But you need to VOTE—we’ll get to that.

The area forecast speaks in general terms about what you might encounter in the gibberish of teletype because the number of characters is constrained by some long-ago formatting requirement. (Note—the teletype is unlikely to make a comeback.)

The FA is not very precise and extremely time-consuming for the AWC forecasters to build—something on the nature of several hours per shift. Here’s another bit of aggravating trivia: When you reach the man-made boundary of the FA the weather stops, and the forecaster for the adjacent area has to weigh in—with often a different view. It’s my observation that weather isn’t affected by gerrymandering nearly as much as politics is.

The FAA and NWS want to replace the FA with some newer and more intuitive products.

But wait! How to determine if an alternate airport is required, and how to choose one if there is no TAF for the places in question? A friend writes, “I couldn’t agree more in terms of the report itself being delivered in an outdated format; however, …my concern is not having access to some key pieces of information contained in the Area Forecast within the suggested list of alternatives (e.g., ceiling information, cloud tops, etc.). I also haven’t been able to reconcile how one would meet the alternate airport regulatory requirement for IFR flight if not operating to an airport served by a TAF in the absence of an FA.”

Let’s start with the last part first: FAR 91.169 requires that an alternate airport be designated unless weather conditions are at least at, or better than, the 1-2-3 rule (one hour either side of the ETA, a forecast of at least 2,000’ ceilings and 3 miles visibility) based on “…Appropriate weather reports or weather forecasts, or a combination of them….”

The same wording applies to selecting an alternate, if one is required (the forecast required weather is different: 600’/2sm and 800’/2sm, depending if it’s a precision or non-precision approach).

My interpretation is that there is no requirement for this to be an FA. Between integrating nearby TAFS, airmets, sigmets, pireps, and the prog charts one can determine whether an alternate is required or not.

A quick comparison…

An FA reads like this:

“NRN HLF…BKN090 TOP 120. OVR LAND AREAS VIS 3-5SM BR. 14Z SCT080 BKN CI. 18Z BKN060 TOP FL180. SCT -SHRA. OTLK…VFR SHRA.SRN HLF…BKN100 TOP 150. OCNL VIS 3-5SM BR. 14Z SCT060. 18ZBKN060 TOP FL180. SCT -SHRA/ISOL -TSRA. CB TOP FL320. OTLK…VFRSHRA.”

Note that it doesn’t say anything about IFR.

Here is the graphical airmet for the same time. The time blocks can be selected from the drop down box:

Graphical Airmet

Here is the prog chart showing some MVFR:

Prog chart cropped

This is a regional TAF plot showing everything from LIFR to MVFR in the Michigan area:

TAF cropped

Finally we could get into the forecaster’s mind if desired:

(FOR THE 06Z TAFS THROUGH 06Z WEDNESDAY NIGHT)

ISSUED AT 1122 PM EDT TUE JUL 29 2014

NOT TOO MUCH CHANGE IN MY THINKING, EXCEPT I ADDED SOME MVFR MIST IN THE TAFS AROUND SUNRISE AS WINDS ARE LIGHT AND TEMPERATURES SHOULD BE GETTING CLOSE THE DEW POINT. THE SHORTWAVE FROM SOUTHERN CANADA SHOULD BRING A BAND OF CLOUDS THROUGH THE CWA TOWARD MORNING BUT IT WILL NOT LAST LONG…. ONCE THE SECONDARY COLD FRONT COMES THROUGH SKIES SHOULD CLEAR. ONLY A FEW AFTERNOON CUMULUS CLOUDS ARE EXPECTED.

We could then take a look at the specific TAFs if desired, but my interpretation on all this is that VFR flights will have to wait a bit and IFR flights that have destinations in the affected area will need an alternate. None of that detail is picked up on the FA.

Why is it important to save forecasters’ time? After all, they’re on duty anyway. GA needs better forecasts and much better accuracy on the size and depth of airmets and the ability for them to be updated quickly via pireps (that’s our job to provide them). If the forecaster is busy creating the antiquated FA, those higher priority tasks often don’t get done. We get “Cry Wolf” airmets too often and sometimes don’t get warned when the wolf really is there. Think of this as we’re not losing the FA, we are gaining much better products.

The Air Safety Institute participated with an FAA and NWS advisory group to look at improving the overall weather dissemination process—it’s arcane, even boring at times, and absolutely essential. Your input is requested by Monday, August 4—do it now by submitting your comments to: kiley@avmet.com. Comments can be very brief. (If you wish to mail comments, please send them to: Federal Aviation Administration, NextGen Aviation Weather Division (ANG-C6), Attn: Richard Heuwinkel, 800 Independence Avenue, SW , Washington, DC  20591.)

Our view is that the FA has served well and needs to retire!

Media Bogusity and Truth

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014
ID-100179230-blog

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and media must rake muck even if it’s wrong. Facts, apparently, are no longer required. The New York Times, which once proclaimed “All the news that’s fit to print,” has now switched to “All the news that fits (our preconceived notion) we print.” Last week the NYT printed a poorly researched op-ed that tried to equate GA’s safety record to the airlines—again. This follows USA Today’s so-called “investigative report” several weeks ago that cited this invalid comparison. We’ve written about this bogusity many times (a new word I just coined—derived from Bogus).

Rather than refute the NYT point by point, which AOPA President Mark Baker did immediately in a letter to the NYT editor, let’s try a different tack: News flash…GA is NOT the airlines, and the most dangerous part of the trip is NOT the drive to the airport!

GA is not as safe as the airlines—(except where we fly multiengine, multi-crewed turbojet aircraft—that record is as good as or better than the airlines). Light GA accidents (light GA is where most of the crashes occur) result from pilots’ misjudgment/poor skill. Did the system fail or the individual? Were pilots not aware of the risks they were taking? In most cases I believe they were. Listed below is an ASI safety education program for each risk area (and in many cases there are additional safety courses, publications, videos, and case studies covering a particular risk topic). No other personal activity goes to the effort GA does, in general, and the Air Safety Institute, in particular, to lay out the risks. No other activity is as heavily regulated, and it’s almost impossible to crash without breaking some specific or common sense rule.

  • VFR into IMC?—What part of cloud don’t you understand?
  • Thunderstorms?—Shredded airframes and extreme upset await.
  • Ice?—Most light aircraft do not fly well in it.
  • Stalls?—It’s angle, not speed. Failure to understand this geometry is to not understand the essence of flight.
  • Gas?—Gotta have it.
  • Takeoff and landing?—Minimum safe runways lengths must include a margin well beyond what the test pilots found in certification. Try the ASI 50/50 solution.
  • Weather?—It’s what you see—not what was forecast.
  • Old aircraft?—Not that much of a problem, but like all things they must be maintained, and there are too many examples of shoddy maintenance and deliberate shortcuts by owners.
  • Buzz jobs?—Totally dumb—’nough said!
  • Decision Making?—For obvious reasons.
  • IFR Procedures?—ASI offers eight courses dedicated to IFR charts, regulations, procedures, and more.

Our fatality numbers have improved by about 40% over the last two decades—something that’s lost on media and sometimes on the regulatory authorities in the rush to do what they do. There is less flying, so the rate reduction as near as we can measure it isn’t as much—but it is lower. In comparison to other risky activities, GA losses are small and innocents are seldom involved (but let’s strive not to have any).

So why all the attention? See the opening sentence. We’re pushing back and you can too. Note the bulleted list, train regularly, and help fellow pilots understand that arrogance or ignorance is not life-prolonging.

We can do better–GA can be safer. Death and destruction are poor selling points and bad for business—this is true in motorcycles, skydiving, personal watercraft, ATV riding, skiing, and mountain climbing. But in any performance activity there is a natural accountability—something that’s missing in too much of today’s journalism, which is all about sell—not truth.

Does GA’s training system have some holes? It does. We should be, and are, working to address that. But show me any human activity that doesn’t. Risk management unfortunately doesn’t equate to risk elimination. The airlines are a business: and for a business it’s about money. But for us: it’s about being as safe as you choose to make it—your life, your passengers, and our collective reputation ride on it. Do it well!

Want to help? Make a contribution to the AOPA Foundation Image program.

What was I Thinking?

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

LostMyJobToday1“I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking” should be the mantra of any of us who’ve done something aeronautically that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but perhaps not so much in retrospect. Country music fans will immediately recognize a Dierks Bentley signature song. Had the privilege of meeting Dierks last week while visiting Cirrus Design, located in Duluth, Minnesota, where a friend describes upper Midwest weather as “Nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment.” However, on this one day the weather was spectacular and so was the mood.

Cirrus delivered several aircraft this week and Dierks delivered two concerts: one for the folks in downtown D and a gratis hangar mini-concert for Cirrus employees and customers. He is the embodiment of what we need in GA—a hardworking, unassuming guy who’s very good at what he does. Anyone who thinks a musician’s gig is easy should try it. (I played in college and decided that the world would be far better off if I took up flying—that choice might be debated, as well.)

Dierks’ schedule has him on the road every weekend until sometime in December. With children and a wife, this creates problems unless there’s access to one of our time machines. He’s a most enthusiastic proponent of GA and uses the aircraft to commute home every week. Unless traveling from the 30 biggest airports, schedule will be at the airlines’ convenience. If the dominoes start to fall due to weather or the usual hub-and-spoke issues, you’d better factor in a lot of flex/delay. This is not to imply that GA is delay free, but my absolute worst scheduling snafus have been on common carriers—sometimes extending into days. That hasn’t happened flying myself—yet. The Cirrus transports Dierks with a high degree of reliability, and he’s even infected a couple of band members with aviation fever.

Dierks played two songs that resonate GA safety. We often ask after an accident, “What was the pilot thinking?” The lyrics of the first song, “What was I Thinkin’,” aren’t slanted toward aviation but rather a sweet young lady’s shotgun-toting daddy. Bad outcomes abound whether it’s VFR into IMC or the business end of a shotgun.

The second song, “Drunk on a Plane,” also has obvious nasty implications if you’re PIC. But, if seated in Row 7 A and getting over a personal problem—maybe that’s different.

Here’s to Cirrus and Dierks for bringing some extra spirit to GA. Spread the word!