weatherOne of the most important variables in the day-to-day life of a pilot—if not the most important—is weather.

It’s easy to fixate on learning weather patterns in your hometown. After all, it’s where you live, so it just makes sense. But as you expand your horizons, you will learn that weather is called a “variable” for a reason: No two places are the same.

I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, and there’s a definite annual pattern to the weather. The summers are either hazy, hot, and humid or absolutely gorgeous. There isn’t a lot of in-between, unless you count the torrential rain storms. Lines of thunderstorms can be hit or miss as well, because the Appalachians will affect the extent of continued development before they hit my front door. Falls are brisk; winters are damp and miserable; and spring is the season in which Mother Nature can’t make a decision. Fog is rare, but we had it.

Move forward to my move to Florida, both in college and at my first airline job. There are two seasons in Central Florida, and thus two weather forecasts: pop-up thunderstorms in the summer—as opposed to the fast-moving lines of fury that I’d grown up with—and morning fog in the spring and fall. This was as predictable as Charlie Brown missing the football. And the fog was often so thick you could cut it with a spoon. Carrying extra fuel for holding patterns on morning arrivals was a necessity, as the fog could burn off as quickly as it formed.

In the Midwest, I learned to deal with the same lines of summer storms I’d grown up with, only this time I had to deal with them when they were at maximum strength and fury as they would move across the flat central portion of the country with tremendous speed, unimpeded by terrain, with tops that often exceeded the service ceiling of nearly all jets. I learned firsthand what severe and extreme turbulence feels like, and I don’t need to experience either ever again.

The Midwest also gave me my first exposure to deicing operations, especially with hoar frost, which is extremely common as temperatures begin to fall, even if the precipitation doesn’t. The winters can produce pretty thick fog. This is a major issue in some mountain valleys, especially in the evenings and early mornings. Our late-night flights to Tri-Cities, Tennessee, frequently had to race time to beat the fog that would roll in. Ashville, North Carolina, had similar issues.

Nowadays, my flying takes me around the Pacific. In the winters, the weather is virtually non-existent, and what little there is lends itself to easy visual deviations. In the summers, the storms are much more extensive, but the convective energy is much less concentrated than that in the storms over land. They simply don’t have the heating source. That said, they are to be taken seriously, yet at the same time we are much quicker to pull the trigger on diverting because airports—the islands—are so far apart, and we can only carry so much extra fuel. It’s not unheard of for the weather over or near one of the islands to be just sketchy enough that a crew won’t even attempt an approach. The fuel wasted is better saved for a possible missed approach at the alternate.

Weather and its patterns are unique, and while I don’t profess to have the most intimate understanding that others do, I have stored enough information away in my memory bank that I can put together a plan in fairly short order. Understanding what to expect based on local geography and terrain is a key component to that. In my case, more learning shall occur. I will eventually transfer back to domestic flying, and I have relatively little flying experience west of the Rockies. I’ll be relying on what I’ve read to get by, but not as much as the wisdom of those I’m flying with along with my own eyes.

Wherever your experience takes you, pay attention. It’s information you’ll need later.—Chip Wright