Pilot Reports remain one of the best sources of information for pilots to determine what is actually happening as we plan or conduct a flight. Weather forecasters also greatly value them to confirm or discover conditions occurring in the atmosphere in places they don’t have a weather observation. But the PIREP system is a complex beast with many moving parts: these include, pilots that file reports, Flight Service and ATC staff to receive them and multiple data systems to hold and route them. We are also affected by the tools for pilots, briefers, controllers and forecasters to retrieve them. To explore some of the issues associated with this system, AOPA has launched a national survey to probe at some aspects of PIREPs. Please invest a few minutes to take this online survey and contribute to this effort.
Improvements are being made
Concerns raised at the Valdez Fly-In two years ago about the “almost” total lack of PIREPs during the biggest VFR fly-in in the Alaska led to a statewide effort to increase the number of PIREPs filed. The qualifier “almost” is because while the NWS website showed no pilot reports, Flight Service systems indicated they had one report. It took a bit of detective work to figure out why the two systems had differing results, and changes were made to address the issue. As a consequence of these efforts, the Alaska Flight Service Program has established a working group with the aviation associations (including AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association) and other government agencies to dig into these issues that appear to have a positive impacts on multiple fronts.
Initial efforts were simply encouraging pilots to file more reports, however other exciting developments have taken place which are making a difference. A pilot report layer was added to the FAA Weather Camera website, allowing pilots to view PIREPs while they were checking weather cameras. More recently, the National Weather Service’s popular Alaska Aviation Weather Unit website has re-designed their PIREP page, allowing users to zoom in on the portion of the state they are interested in and see the locations of PIREPs in much greater detail. Finally, SkyVector.com has added pilot reports as a layer on their flight planning website where the icon itself shows whether the report has to do with turbulence, ceiling or other conditions. To learn more about these developments, see New graphic tools to view PIREPs.
In parallel with these efforts, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched a nation-wide study regarding pilot reports, and are conducting interviews with stakeholders to learn more about the system. A national meeting is being planned for late June in Washington DC as part of their program.
More to come
I believe we have a lot yet to learn about the PIREP system, and the potential to see it expanded beyond what we use today. Here are a few possibilities to consider:
Mapping Route Reports
Most pilot reports describe the conditions at a fixed point in space and time. PIREPs may also be filed as a “route report” that contains two or more locations. Often I am looking for a PIREP to learn about the conditions through a mountain pass. There is a big difference between a “point” report on one side of a pass, versus a “route report” that tells me what conditions were like flying through the pass. Currently these route reports are plotted as a point, which appears to represent the mid-point of the route.
In this day and age of graphic mapping tools, I would like to see a line or other symbol between those points, so one could tell at a glance the geographic extent of the report. Obviously there are lots of details to be worked out on how to plot these reports in ways that don’t obscure other map features. Perhaps it is an option that may be toggled on and off.
Soliciting PIREPs where needed
Today when FSS solicits a report, it is often a very generic statement, something along the lines that “pilot reports are requested along your route of flight for unforecast conditions.” I would much rather have FSS or ATC ask me for specific information another pilot or a forecaster really needs. I have used this method in the past when I wanted to fly from Fairbanks to Point Barrow. North of the Brooks Range, you can fly for about 200 nautical miles with virtually no weather reporting until nearing to the coastal communities. In the past I would call Barrow Flight Service and ask them to solicit a report from the DC-6 that I knew flew the route on a daily basis. And often an hour or so later, a report would appear in the system. Why not extend that concept to the weather forecasters? I know at times they would kill to have a pilot report in some key areas to help validate their forecast. How about defining a symbol that forecasters could post on a PIREP map so that pilots as well as FSS specialists, could see where a PIREP was needed? Now we could be responding to specific needs as opposed to generic requests. The new mapping tools could support such—again probably as a layer or feature that could be toggled on and off by the user.
Flight Service in Alaska is already experimenting with the receipt of pictures provided by pilots, and using Twitter with the hash tag #GotWx as a way to add a visual element to a report. Not only is this helpful for weather, but during spring breakup, it provides valuable information to National Weather Service on the state of break-up of river ice, which poses a risk of flooding communities.
Voice your opinion
To help shape the future of the PIREP system, please take the time to respond to AOPA’s survey. Help us understand how you use the system. Provide some of the information that may be used to improve one of the best weather sources available today, to help make that critical go/no-go decision before you fly.