Aviation Weather Class 2

My flight school is owned by a CFI who is a weather guru with many years as a military aviation meteorologist. He requires all students in the flight school to take his aviation weather class. Tonight was class #2 of 2.

Tonight we covered thunderstorms, air masses and fronts, and Alaskan weather products (mostly Alaskan Aviation Weather Unit’s website).

This class was much more fun than yesterday. CFI2 provided anecdotes from his days as a weather forcaster – I would have really enjoyed a session of just anecdotes. The best one: while writing a forecast after staying up all night, he wrote something like: ‘it’s clear, may become few, scattered, broken, or overcast; chance of rain, fog, or snow, […].’ – I forget the exact words but it was cleverly written so no matter what the weather did, he wouldn’t be required by regulations to issue any amendments during his work day. Cue major yelling from the base commander in the middle of nap time. Sigh, I’m not surprised CFI2 would do that 😉 such a character.

My most important class take-aways (stuff I didn’t already know):

  • Weather prediction centers: they issue 2 forecasts – one for the general public (tv news, radio, internet, etc), one for pilots. Each is handled by a separate person. Because the general public forecast is seen by so many people, there is more pressure not to screw up; a very experienced forecaster does this one. A rookie forecaster handles aviation weather. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when aviation weather reports are inaccurate.
Tisk tisk. Weather Forecasters. [http://toonclips.com/design/947]
  • When CFI2 was weather forecasting in the midwest USA, he once saw a severe thunderstorm extend above the normal tropopause (!). He went to issue a weather warning, but was told by a supervisor not to because only ~10 people lived in the area to be hit. When weather warnings are issued, there must be a follow-up where any damage must be accounted for. Because the area was so sparsely populated, no damage would be expected. After the storm passed, this was verified – no damage reported. This makes me wonder about weather reporting in Alaska. Over 30,000 people live in Fairbanks, sure, but when I fly somewhere like Manley (pop. 100), do I need to worry about warnings not being put out? I’m supposing forecasters here err on the side of caution (many warnings) because aviation is the only ‘road’ to so many communities.
  • The importance of the area forecast discussion – I always ignored this but it is important to know how much the forecast models may have diverged before the final products were issued.
  • Alaska weather changes ridiculously rapidly: ex1. Outrageous rain on a 40 minute flight (ie Fairbanks to Fort Yukon), refuel, completely clear skies on the leg back. ex2. Summer Fairbanks thunderstorms (what few we get) can take about 10 minutes to move out of the way. Intentional minor delays can pay off huge in safety.
  • Rule of thumb: horizontal visibility of 1/2 miles generally means vertical visibility of 500 ft.
  • Why W0X0F is significant to CFI2  – and why it’s prominently displayed on his car, hahaaaa, funny. W0X0F  is weather code for ‘indefinite ceiling, zero visibility, zero due to fog’.
  • Weather phenomena code FFG – stands for freezing fog. No need to freak out as a pilot, it doesn’t mean the fog is sticking to your plane as ice – it just means the [ground] air temperature is below 0°C (ice particle fog).
  • You can call and talk to forecasters to have them clarify their predictions (example from a canceled flight of mine: ‘you didn’t predict fog until 9pm, I’m seeing fog at 3pm; why is this and is it going to lift any time soon?’).
    • Commercial pilots have been known to call the weather predictors to get them to revise their forecasts to better meet current conditions and weather trends (to allow for commercial flights when the original forecasts unnecessarily grounded them per FARs – remember aviation forecasters are usually more inexperienced). [I think this statement I read somewhere sums it up nicely: ‘Lucklily(?), the FAA doesn’t care if you kill yourself {in bad weather}, but they really freak out if you kill someone else’]
  • Radar products are only really accurate up to a 80nm radius (and data holes can exist when heavy precipitation is close to the radar)
  • Radar coverage in Alaska is soooooo bad!!!!!! Oh the radars work fine, but for a state which is larger than Texas, Montana, and California combined, there are only 7 radars, only 1 in the interior of the state (see maps below).
Alaska is huge!
Compare the number of weather radars in the lower 48 with that of Alaska. Shocking! Fairbanks is the AK ‘+’ site in the middle of the state. Data doesn’t exists for the darker browns&blues. Almost everywhere I fly in Alaska is dark brown. Reminds me to take AK weather products with a grain of salt. [http://www.wunderground.com/radar/map.asp]


Overall, I think the time and money for the class was worth it; most of it (~90%?) I already learned from the Jeppesen online course (basic theory) and poking around the flight school’s weather briefing links/AAWU, but repetition is the best way to get the knowledge ingrained in one’s head, so it is okay. Even CFI2, with his decades of practical weather experience, still learns new weather knowledge all the time (even with all the science available, forecasting is still more of an art). Plus, the break time ginger cookies were made with real, fresh ginger: awesome! 😀


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