We need more Pilot Reports! Alaska has the lowest density of aviation weather stations in the country. It would take 2.4 times as many stations as we have today to equal the average density of AWOS and ASOS stations that cover the contiguous 48 states. While the FAA Weather Cameras help, they too are limited in some of the places we need information the most—at choke points on VFR routes. A Pilot Report (PIREP) is a tool in our kit to help fill the holes in our observation network. They only take a little of our time for a brief conversation with ATC or Flight Service as we go about our normal flying activities.
Why so scarce?
During the last two years, several people noticed the lack of PIREPs filed by pilots trying to get to the Valdez Fly In. This is probably the largest VFR fly-in in the state, and both years the weather was challenging. Yet on the Friday and Saturday leading up to the event the number of PIREPs filed was almost zero. I say almost zero, as I counted no reports displayed on the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s PIREP page, while Flight Service indicated that they had one in their system. This obviously raised other questions about how reports are distributed, and if filtering is taking place that might limit what a pilot receives, depending on how these reports are obtained. I am pleased to report that the Alaska Flight Service Program not only distributed a questionnaire on PIREPs, but has established a working group with the aviation community and weather forecasters to dig deeper into some of the technical questions surrounding this topic.
Why file a PIREP?
During pre-flight planning, we are trained to look at current weather reports, forecasts, weather cameras, radar and satellite data—where available. While I am instrument rated, my airplane is not equipped for serious IFR operations, so my planning is for a VFR flight. Can I make it through the mountain pass? Will an alternate low-terrain route be open, if I need it? There have been numerous times it came down to a single PIREP that either convinced me to take off—or to bag it. A big thank you to the pilots who filed those reports!
The PIREP you file helps in more than one way. The National Weather Service (NWS) uses them to validate their forecasts. They would like to see reports even if there is not a threatening condition. The lack of turbulence, unforecast precipitation, ceilings and tops reports are all things that would help refine their forecats, as they too are hampered by our sparse weather reporting network.
To learn more about PIREPs, I took the AOPA’s Air Safety Institute online course, SkySpotter: PIREPs made easy (go to: http://www.aopa.org/Education/Online-Courses/Pireps-Made-Easy) This is an updated version of their original program, which gave me a new set of expectations regarding filing a report. It is free to anyone, and qualifies for FAA Wings Program credits. Consequently the course requires logging into an AOPA account, if you are a member– or setting up a free account (name, address and email) on the Air Safety Institute site. The account allows you to get a transcript of this and other courses you might take in the future.
Historically we have obtained PIREPs during pre-flight briefings or inflight from FSS or ATC. Today they are also available in graphic form, which is handy for those of us not familiar with every airport code in the system. In Alaska, the NWS Alaska Aviation Weather Unit http://aawu.arh.noaa.gov/index.php?tab=4 and the FAA Weather Camera website http://avcams.faa.gov/ both have graphic displays of PIREPs that are convenient to see at a glance where you might get some additional weather information.
Please make it a habit to routinely file pilot reports as you fly. It is particularly helpful if you are the first person out along a popular route, or are experiencing a changing weather situation. But also consider filing when you are half way in between surface weather reporting stations. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the exact format—just tell FSS or ATC the weather elements most important to the situation. Those of us still on the ground, or following behind you, will appreciate your efforts!