When we pick up the mike and file a Pilot Report (PIREP) with Flight Service or ATC, we add an observation that helps the entire aviation community.  If weather is questionable, the first aircraft out in the morning is often the “weather ship” that reports conditions back to other pilots waiting to make their decision to fly. When we are that pilot sitting at the airport, with a forecast that could go either way, it can be very frustrating to wait for that first report along the route, or from the other side of the mountain pass.  Fortunately, a lot of attention has been given to PIREPs in the last couple of years, which I am cautiously optimistic to say is starting to produce results!  I would like to share with you some of the efforts that have brought us this far.

Lack of PIREPs concerning

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

The Valdez Fly-In, that takes place nominally the second weekend in May, is the largest event of its kind in the state. When the weather allows,  several hundred aircraft fly in to participate in the short field landing contest or other competitive events, or pilots may want to observe, socialize and simply enjoy aviation.  For the past couple of years, the weather has been a little dicey flying into Valdez, and yet both in 2014 and 2015 there were almost no PIREPs filed by those that did make it in.  This would have been a tremendous tool to help those flying behind decide if it was good idea to fly into what can certainly be considered some challenging terrain.   When I shared that observation with our friends at the Alaska Flight Service Program, they were interested enough to stand up a small working group to dig into the problem.  A number of industry organizations, including the Alaska Airmen Association, Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Alaska Air Carriers Association have been meeting with FAA, the FAA Weather Camera Program, National Weather Service, National Institute of Occupational Health and others to explore issues regarding how PIREPs are collected and distributed — as well as look at ways to encourage pilots to file more of them.  Based on the work of this group, Flight Service has been more actively training their staff to solicit reports beyond the generic request normally received when pilots open a flight plan.

NTSB joins the party
Separate to this Alaska based activity, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had seen a number of cases nationally in which PIREPs — had they been shared in a timely fashion — could have averted several accidents.   We learned that the NTSB was undertaking a special investigation into PIREPs, which prompted AOPA to conduct a national survey on the topic.  Many hours went into designing, conducting, promoting and evaluating the results. Last May, approximately 700 pilots took the time to respond to the survey—thank you to those who participated!  The survey revealed some interest results, here are a few highlights:

  • 83% of the pilots said PIREPs were “very” or “extremely” important for aviation safety
  • 71% indicated the emphasis on PIREPs during initial flight training was “little” to “none.”
  • While three-quarters of the respondents said they filed reports, 84% said they did so “sometimes” or “rarely.”

There are more results from the survey, but I will save that for another time.  A couple of interesting perceptions came out of the study. There is a general feeling that ATC isn’t interested in recording PIPEPS, with one respondent stating, “I have little confidence my PIREPS are going past their ears.” It was also felt that the reports are mostly a high-altitude feature.  The chief problem expressed was a shortage of reports, especially at lower altitudes: “Too few PIREPs are available for my route of flight to be useful” and “For flying lower than 5,000 feet, there just isn’t much PIREP information available.”  There were many complaints about difficulties in filing PIREPs, some of which are related to procedures in the lower 48 states rather than here in Alaska.  The feature that pilots wanted to see the most was an automated filing ability through applications such as Foreflight.

The NTSB held a two-day PIREP Forum at the end of June in Washington, DC where these and other results were shared with an impressive mixture of industry and government aviation stakeholders.  We are expecting to see what the NTSB gleaned from their investigation, due out in a report any day now.

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

Access to PIREPs has improved
It has become easier to access PIREPs in the past two years.  In addition to getting them via phone from FSS, or in a DUATs briefing there are now several websites that have either added or upgraded their capabilities to include graphic displays of PIREPs.  The National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit has featured PIREPs for years, but now has a more dynamic zoomable map.  The FAA weather camera website has added PIREPs as a feature that the user may select to view, and SkyVector.com added reports with a graphic symbol that gives pilots a clue to the nature of the report as you plan your flight.  More details on these systems and features may be found on an earlier blog post (http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=2737).

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Results are encouraging
The good news is that the Alaska Flight Service Program reports some dramatic increases in PIREPs filed this summer in contrast to last year.  The figure below shows reports received by Flight Service for the months of July, August and September.  The graphic is a little complex, but shows a combination of the total number of 2016 PIREPs and the percent change from the same months in 2015. A third variable is the change in “traffic” for those months. By traffic, we mean the number of radio contacts FSS had with pilots that month.  For example, in July of  2016 there were over 3,000 PIREPs filed with Alaska FSS.  That was a 39% increase over July, 2015 while there was only 1.3% more traffic over the past year.  August saw a 26% increase in the PIREPs, while the number of calls to FSS was actually lower than the previous year. September was the lowest number of PIREPs received at just under 2,500, which still represented an 8 percent increase over the previous year.  I am still puzzling over whether September was such a good weather month that fewer pilots felt the need to file, but it is still very good news overall.

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2016 in comparison to 2016

Looking ahead
It is easy to look at a single set on numbers and get excited, but there is still work to be done. One thing that was clear from the NTSB Forum—there are more audiences for PIREPs than just pilots. The weather forecasters say they rely on them heavily to create and validate their forecasts.  Atmospheric scientists archive and use PIREPs to develop and test new forecasting models.  ATC uses them to decide when to change arrival and departure routes during dynamic weather situations, and of course the pilot behind you who hasn’t yet entered the mountain pass is waiting to hear what conditions are like today.

Please be sure to file a PIREP or two as you fly, even if it reporting flight good conditions. The weather forecasters are also interested in reports that confirm the lack of turbulence, or other conditions that might be better than the forecast.  They will change the extent of an AIRMET or create a SIGMET, sometimes on the strength of a single report.  If you want to contribute to improving safety in the aviation community, but feel you need to bone up on how to give a PIREP, the AOPA Air Safety Institute offers an online PIREPs Made Easy class (https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/online-courses).

The real test will be to see how many PIREPs are filed leading up the Valdez Fly-In next May!