Speak up

September 11, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

In the blog two weeks ago, “It’s working,” I misspoke in saying that controllers were required to provide pilots information on precipitation. After some discussion with FAA officials, while they agreed that safety advisories are critical, would not go so far as to use the “R” word. So, be advised that while FAA is working hard to “encourage” controllers to let you know if there is precip ahead, it’s up to pilots to ask.

The proof on the variability of ATC services came shortly after the conversation. Last week, while I was flying to Michigan, the remains of Hurricane Gustav were raining themselves out over the upper Midwest. The aircraft is equipped with weather datalink so I was getting a reasonably good picture ahead. As you can see, there was a diffuse area of rain farther out and one heavier shower much closer.

Hearing nothing, I asked the controller what he saw. The response was ” There’s precip all along your route to destination.” While accurate, it provided no real information and there was no mention of the shower. When nudged, the controller acknowledged that there was an area of heavier precip. He offered no vectors so we just advised him that we were going to make a small deviation to the West.

Contrast that with the return trip and a weak cold front penetration – again, nothing of real consequence but the controller volunteered that there “was a band of precip about 20 miles wide showing mostly light but some moderate and that preceeding aircraft reported a smooth ride. Based on visual observation, knowledge of the weather system, the data link picture and the controller’s input we decided to press on and emerged on the far side with a little light rain and light turbulence.

The point is be proactive and cautious in gathering weather information. Some controllers will be most helpful and with others you’ll have to work at it. Not unlike pilots.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Robert Sheridan

    More whining. Tiresome.

  • Dan

    Then don’t read it. I found it informative.

  • Brad

    I like looking at my 496 GPS for weather. There, a pro-gadget statement. Why should ATC be “required” to inform? If something goes wrong NTSB will always go back to PIC is responsible. I will ask for ATC for info to double check.

  • Dwane Rigg

    As a retired controller (ZLA) and pilot, I always put myself into every cockpit I had on my scope. Knowing both sides of the coin, so to say, Weather and Turbulance were always issued, unless I was covered in “shrimp boats”. All too often this was the case, and we were always short handed of qualified controllers. With the way I have seen the FAA go since retirement, fewer controllers are pilots, and many may have not flown except with air carriers.
    Maybe more pilots should invite a controller along…let them see the other side of the scope. I know the old SF160 program, controllers in the cockpit, and military fams sure made a difference for me and I am sure many new controllers could learn and gain real world knowledge. At least it would be better than MS Flight Sim.

  • William Eaton

    As an Air Traffic Controller at the Denver ARTCC I am sorry that you received less than a high level of service on your outbound leg. Although I am pleased the return side had a better result. My comment is towards the first leg when you mentioned “He offered no vectors” The weather data that is displayed on our scopes can be as much as 10 ( yes that’s ten ) minutes old. I or any controller would and should be reluctant to volunteer vectors knowing I might actually steer you into a weather cell. I would never declined a request for a vector. When a pilot asks for a vector I will advise them that my data can be old and let me know if I turn them towards anything they see visually and do not like. If you desire vectors for weather you probably will need to ask for them.

  • Paul McGhee

    Good reminder. A relatively new instrument pilot, I’ve been ducking thunderstorms all summer aided by XM weather on a Garmin 496. My experience has been that TRACON controllers will volunteer information about precipitation returns, while ARTCC controllers are less likely to volunteer help. I heard a Cleveland center controller east of Pittsburgh tell a pilot, “my radar doesn’t really show a lot about the weather.” Another thing I’ve noticed is that controllers–approach and center–are more likely to update pilots on precipitation if the pilot starts the conversation by asking about returns along the route. If you say nothing, nothing is what you may get.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    That’s exactly the point. You have to ask. I’ve also found that even though our aircraft is equipped with datalink wx it’s good to gather additional info from multiple sources. As mentioned, you can often get ride reports. That’s not a guarantee because what was true 10 minutes ago may not be what you encounter.

    Duane and William – thanks for your perspectives. Ride along is great idea and perhaps we should implement a program to do that..

  • Mike Grahn

    Being a new VFR pilot this makes me feel warm and fuzzy, it also confirms my thoughts on purchasing the best GPS with full weather capability as quickly as I can. Thanks for the great information.

  • George Horn

    THERE’S AN ARGUMENT for more pilot starts! Require every controller to be a rated pilot and to stay current!! It should raise both controller AND pilot salaries, improve the economy, as well as make a safer ATC system.

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