The National Weather Service is looking for your help to provide comments on the Experimental Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA) covering Alaska.  This tool has been operational in the rest of the country since 2017, and is now being populated with datasets to cover Alaska.  The public notice announcing the availability of this product indicates that it is anticipated to potentially replace the text-based Area Forecast (FA) for Alaska in the future.  But the GFA really is much more than a replacement for the string of text that used to spit out of a teletype machine.  It is really an integrated display that allows pilots to visualize multiple types of information in a graphical form. This includes aviation forecasts up to 18 hours in the future, and providing current conditions—METARs, PIREPs, satellite and radar products, up to 18 hours in the past.  Along with the increase in the potential amount of weather information provided, there are additional tools for pilots to use to select the specific weather information they are looking for. These tools are different and will take some getting used to but are well worth the time to learn. For example, the ability to display a multi-leg route can help the user apply the forecast conditions to the route they are intending to fly.

Using the GFA
As a new user to the system, it helped me to realize that one first must choose whether to look at the future (Forecast button) or current and past conditions (Obs/Warn button), and that for each of these products, selecting the Map Options button allows the user to change features such as the base map, size and opacity of map features.  This is especially important when dealing with some elements, such as PIREPs.  The default for PIREPs is to display those no older than ninety minutes but using the Map Options control allows one to display them in 90 minute increments back to a maximum of 12 hours.  This is a very dynamic system—each map product has its own legend displayed at the bottom of the frame, and most have different feature settings, allowing a high degree of customization.  I personally like the ability to display airports and rivers, for geographic reference.  Learning the nuances of each map and how to customize them to your preferred view will take time and some willingness to understand the new system.

Graphic Forecast: A view of the Experimental GFA looking at the forecast ceilings and visibility for a route between Fairbanks and Anchorage via Healy River and Talkeetna. Being able to display a multi-leg route helps relate to the forecast conditions along each leg of the flight.

Some of these custom options include controls for layers that allow a user to select times and altitudes to display information specific to those settings.  These options demand some study to ensure you have correctly adjusted your settings to display the desired information.  Winds, turbulence, and icing forecasts can be selected for different altitudes. Care will also be needed when viewing PIREPs.  An altitude selector scale is provided but it might be good initially to use the ALL option to get the complete picture before focusing on a single altitude range.

For those of us long-time users of the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit website, the GFA is different—and will take getting used to.  This system combines point observations such as METARs and PIREPs with graphic layers showing the lateral extent of sky cover and includes yet a third element– spot features that forecast cloud bases, tops, and sky cover at regular intervals.  This last layer shows what we used to get in a paragraph of text for an entire forecast zone, but it is now broken into smaller elements, providing additional spatial resolution (see figure below).

Gridded Forecast: This example shows a forecast predicting sky cover, bases, and tops on a gridded basis. The pilot selected route depicted as the pink line is superimposed along with rivers and public use airports in this example help provide for geographic reference. The legend, displayed at the bottom, is never far away.

This weather evaluation product is highly customizable.  The number of features displayed change as one zooms in and out of the product, while continuing to show the route selected in the first place. I particularly like being able to turn on the major rivers for situational awareness.

Share Your Thoughts
The comment period for this experimental product is slated to run through September, 2022.  Please take some time now, during the short dark days of mid-winter, to try planning some routes you normally fly, and see how this system delivers the data. If you are unfamiliar with the GFA, a short video tutorial is available to help get started.  The Info button at the upper right corner of the window will provide a brief description, with links to the tutorial video, the product description document, and a link to the survey to provide feedback. You may also use the “Contact AWC” link in the “fine print” at the bottom of the page if you want to comment on the product.

NWS wants our feedback.  Using the Survey button near the top right corner of the frame to provide feedback will help the product designers and interface experts at the NWS better understand how to adjust the weather evaluation tool as required for Alaska and ensure the system is user-friendly and meets the needs of pilots. Please also share your thoughts on this system with AOPA by email at [email protected]. The time you invest in this today will impact the quality of the product we have to work with in the future!