Thunderstorms and ATC -It’s Working*

August 28, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

NTSB recently issued a safety alert on IFR flights and thunderstorms. Back in 2004 we had  10 accidents ( 9 fatal) involving aircraft on IFR flight plans that tangled with thunderstorms.  ASF, FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, Flight Standards, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association ( NATCA ) and the National Weather Service worked together to help produce ASF’s online course  Weatherwise: Thunderstorms and ATC. So far, more than 32,000 pilots have completed online but that’s still not enough!!

ASF also produced a controller’s version of the course, jointly funded by FAA and ASF, to help controllers understand the challenges faced by pilots. This was required training for Center controllers this year. Additionally we sent out almost 200,000 CDs to IFR pilots and thousands of safety advisors on how to use the system intelligently and safety.

Preliminary numbers

2004:    10 accidents, 9 fatal
2005:    6 accidents, 4 fatal
2006:    5 accidents, all 5 fatal
2007:    3 accidents, all 3 fatal
2008:    2 accidents to date, 1 fatal

We are doing much better for two reasons. Pilots are asking for information about the weather and ATC is providing it. But we’re not at 100% yet as the Scott Crossfield accident in 2006 showed ( hence the asterisk) but there is much improvement.

Three points for discussion:

  • ATC is REQUIRED to advise pilots of significant precipitation ( the radar shows precip not thunderstorms per se) when they see it on the scope.
  • Pilots should ASK for information on precip if there is any uncertainty.
  • YOU are PIC and must make the decisions regarding safety of flight. ATC can assist but it’s your choice – this also means that you do not have to accept routing into weather that would jeopardize your safety. However, a significant disruption may require some explanation.

We’ve all had ATC interactions regarding weather and it’s critical to understand how the system works. For VFR pilots, even though this is geared to IFR, you can learn a lot. If you haven’t taken this course – I strongly recommend it. Many, if not all, of the accident pilots would be alive today if they had.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Karen Anderson

    In my experience, flying IFR, I have found nearly 100% of controllers most helpful and willing to suggest headings to avoid precip. They have also accepted my requests for deviations from assigned routes or headings for weather avoidance to the best of their ability, given their primary responsibility to separate aircraft. Controllers have the equipment to see the big picture, and we, as pilots, can often see the immediate picture through our windshields. Working together we have a great system for safe weather flying!!

  • Cary Alburn

    Agreed–it’s so much better now, since current ATC and FSS radar is so much better than it was 30 years ago, at showing weather. I’m looking forward to datalink, which I don’t have, to supplement what I can see and what they’re telling me. But meanwhile, today’s controllers have the equipment and almost universally the desire to be helpful–but we have to work together, because sometimes what we see out the windshield doesn’t show up on their screens at all.