The reports, preliminary and final, too often contain this fateful 10-word sentence: “The pilot did not obtain a weather briefing before departing.” It runs right up there with the tried-and-failed “continued VFR into IMC.” How and why any pilot would fly without a weather briefing almost defies logic these days. Accurate weather information has never before been more plentiful or accessible.
The FAA even recognizes a pilot can fulfill all legal requirements of a pre-flight briefing without dialing a Flight Service Station on 1-800-Wx-Brief. Thanks to the wonders of technology, even flight-critical information—Notams, TFRs and the like—can be accessed independently. You just have to know where to look. The FAA recognizes several alternate sources for pre-flight information as approved contributors. Here’s how the agency, check airmen and instructors view the issue—and what you can do to assure yourself of finding what you need to know, knowing what you need to find and acting on what you know.
Start with The FAA
One of the greatest assets to humans is our opposable thumb—the appendage giving us the solid grasp we have on so many things in life, aircraft yokes and sticks among them. So why, with the gift of thumbs, do we so often fail to grasp the fundamentals?
The FAA itself provides some interesting, up-to-date tools and how-to recommendations in its General Aviation Pilot’s Guide to Preflight Weather Planning, Weather Self-Briefings, and Weather Decision Making. This free, 37-page download (a PDF file available at tinyurl.com/avsafewx) takes us through the importance of weather briefings, talks about the various available resources and how to fit them into your information-gathering/flight-planning process. It also offers a helpful tool for risk assessment—as well as guides on using the tool both pre-flight and en route. It’s what the FAA calls its “3-P Model,” and it is fully fleshed out in the guide. A more-detailed description is available in the sidebar on the opposite page.
Applying this risk-assessment tool can seem a little simplistic at first—after all, the process of obtaining, evaluating and acting on weather and other flight-related information is something we’ve been doing since pre-solo—but if you look at the current weather conditions, toss out implications of the risky things you see and act as if they can’t or won’t befall you, well, can you honestly claim you really “perceive” the weather? To genuinely “perceive” your expected weather conditions requires addressing the three guaranteed ways weather will affect you: its impact on wind, on ceiling and visibility, and on aircraft performance.
The “3-P” model offers a systematic method for accomplishing your pre-flight tasks, but also stresses constant evaluation and response to updated weather and other information you might obtain while en route.
Of course, we brief our proposed flight to learn what to expect—at departure, en route, at arrival. Depending on how much additional research and preparation we’ve already accomplished for the upcoming flight, we usually aren’t surprised. Often, though, we’ll learn something we didn’t know—an area of rain showers, for instance, or localized IMC. Especially if we’re not planning to be flying in the affected area, little follow-up is needed.
But weather alone isn’t why we obtain a pre-flight briefing. We also brief the flight for non-weather information found in Notams. This can include airport conditions, like runway closures or taxiway restrictions, or fuel availability. Often, there are unlighted towers nearby and—while we never plan to be low enough for them to pose a problem—it’s important to at least know that circling outside the traffic pattern at night might not be a good idea.
And then there’s airspace. There once was a time when someone could depart on a cross-country flight crossing one or more states and not need to talk to ATC (Flight Service is another matter). That still can be done today, but it’s much more difficult and poses a greater-than-ever risk to a pilot’s certificate. The proliferation of special-use airspace (SUA) and temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) is the principal reason. And this year’s election season promises to create more no-fly zones on short notice, something even the FAA occasionally has trouble tracking in real-time.
The bottom line is we’re often tempted to launch without a briefing, especially if local weather is clear and a million, and we’re just going for a local hop, perhaps to blow out the cobwebs. In such instances, we probably don’t need a full-blown weather briefing. But picking up the phone to call Flight Service and ask about TFRs or active SUA nearby is a prudent, safe thing to do. And specifically asking a briefer about no-fly airspace can help out at the hearing you’ll attend after entering it.
Time to Plan
Good strategic planning happens when, for example, prognoses portray don’t-want-to-go-there weather for the day you plan to fly—but not the day before. Good judgment puts us in the airplane, if at all possible, in time to arrive ahead of the garbage conditions. The longer the trip, as one rule of thumb goes, the farther ahead we should start planning—and briefing—the weather and the more we need to know about non-weather conditions. Most people you’ll talk with encourage variety in sourcing weather information; different sources often offer different strengths.
For example, online resources like The Weather Channel, Weather Underground and others often provide animated graphics visually portraying what they expect to happen and provide a perspective better than that human voice intoning “Conditions at XYZ at your arrival are forecast to be….” These excellent, professionally produced long-term forecasts and graphics usually paint a clear picture of what kind of large-scale conditions you’ll encounter.
They can be excellent for inference of winds aloft long-term; you note the frontal movements, read the direction of movement and rotation and you’ve got a pretty good idea what the wind will do to your max-range plans. Looking at the forecasters’ progs for sky conditions and humidity changes can help you start to consider the ramifications of rain or fog or clouds. But non-FAA-approved weather resources really should only be used for establishing the big picture in your mind. You’ll still need to obtain a complete briefing before launching for any flight beyond your usual stomping grounds.
And what should that complete briefing contain? The sidebar at left discusses the various types of briefings the FAA recognizes and when they’re appropriate. It should go without saying that the more dynamic the conditions—or the more you question them—the more information you need. What you most likely need is the so-called “standard briefing.”
The FAA’s standard briefing includes:
• a weather synopsis;
• sky conditions (or cloud cover);
• visibility and weather conditions at the departure, for the en route segment, and at the chosen destination point—including alternates if so requested;
• adverse conditions;
• altimeter settings;
• cloud tops;
• temperatures and dew points;
• icing conditions;
• surface winds and winds aloft;
• precipitation type, precipitation intensity and thunderstorm or lightning activity;
• visibility obscurations—smoke, fog.
And, as the infomercial folks would say, there’s more: Pilot reports (Pireps), Airmets, Sigmets, Convective Sigmets, Notams and modern times’ most dangerous condition to ignore, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs).
How far can you get in fulfilling the need for all this data without resorting to an approved resource, such as Duats, Flight Service, www.aviationweather.gov or a commercial organization such as WSI? Even on good-weather days, the answer is “not too far.”
Another monotonously repetitive phrase in too many general-aviation accident reports usually reads thus: “…was exacerbated by the pilot’s decision to continue VFR flight into deteriorating/IMC conditions, leading to…”
Before-departure steps to avoid becoming an unintended statistic begin with a risk assessment. For our purposes, the risk assessment focuses on the likelihood of the forecasts being accurate and a frank assessment of our ability to handle a worse-than-forecast situation. All the information in the world helps no one unwilling to help themselves to a new decision.
Meanwhile, continuing to fly into deteriorating weather on an expectation of improvement is folly. Absent some iron-clad, slam-dunk affirmation of better weather—a solid-gold pilot report within the past 30 minutes, or a fresh datalink satellite image showing the VFR you need—you should be implementing Plan B. What—you don’t have a Plan B?
Any pre-flight planning worthy of its name should consider alternatives—and alternates—if Plan A can’t be completed. For a local flight on a sunny day—our “blue-sky” scenario—Plan B can be as simple as turning around and going back to home plate. If all that blue you were expecting is now a foggy gray, you’ll definitely need to do something, perhaps head for the nearest ILS.
Even In Good Weather
To us, the bottom line in flight planning and pre-flight actions isn’t getting a full, standard briefing every time we launch. Flexibility is key, and there’s no need to read through the reams of data you might obtain from a Duats session for a quick local hop, presuming you’re up on the local airspace and Notams.
But stuff happens, and even the local flight on a good-weather day demands at least some kind of insight into what you might find once the wheels are off the ground. And it’s not about the weather itself: Pre-flight actions should be designed to consider airspace, TFRs, facility outages, runway closures, etc.—the kind of stuff you can’t see from the tiedown ramp. Even on a blue-sky kind of day, you need to check to make sure your plan is a good one.