Storm Trackers

Advancing technology puts weather downloads in the cockpit alongside the stalwart radar and sferics. The ideal setup is driven by budget


by Ryan Ferguson

With every passing year, the arrival of summer means more choices for thunderstorm avoidance tools. The result is a wide variety of choices to fit different aircraft, budgets and missions.

The technology bar is ever rising in new airplanes, with the Cessna 182S, Cirrus SR-22, Diamond DA-40, and Mooney Ovation and Bravo now featuring all glass panels. These advanced panels contain integrated combinations of datalink weather, lightning strike detection and traffic avoidance in the aircrafts multi-function display. Thats good for them, but owners of older airplanes can reap many of the same benefits.

There are many ways to avoid thunderstorms. Each has its shortcomings, so it makes sense to put several of them to work at the same time. Some are – or should be – a routine part of flying. Understand the weather and the mechanisms in place that might lead to the development of thunderstorms. Enlist the help of controllers and Flight Service Stations to help you steer clear of trouble. Use your eyes and your good sense to reduce your risk.

OK, that takes care of the free ones. Now its time to spend some money.

Weather Radar
Weather radar has faithfully served the pilots for decades, and its role in thunderstorm cell avoidance and tactical applications remains assured for the foreseeable future. Weather radar installations typically feature a 1,000-watt or greater transmitter, a dedicated or integrated cockpit display, and the ability to penetrate up to 240nm ahead.

Weather radar remains the only immediate means of sensing the azimuth, range and vertical profile of embedded thunderstorm cells. However, the owner pilot must evaluate cost and installation of the unit, available panel space, and weight when considering weather radar.

For most single-engine airplanes, mounting the antenna is problematic. A few high-end singles, such as Piper Malibu derivatives and the Socata TBM-700, sling a radar pod under the wing. In-wing radar pod installations have met with limited success.

Airborne radar is more common on light twins, where the antenna lives in the nose. Even then, however, antenna size limits the utility of the radar.

For those with an aircraft that can support the installation, the Bendix-King RDR-150 and RDR-160 (color) radars represent a value price point at $8,000 to $13,000 (reconditioned). The Bendix-King RDS-81 ($13,000 reconditioned) and RDS-82 ($14,000 reconditioned) remain popular choices.

Traditional displays are giving way to multifunction displays that allow the radar information to overlay navigation information, a development that eases the panel space problem and also increases the usefulness of the information.

But radar, despite its advantages, will remain outside the reach of most general aviation aircraft.

Lightning Detection
Lightning detection via sferics devices such as the Insight Strikefinder and the L-3 Avionics Stormscope series has long been popular in GA cockpits. When flying behind a sferics device, the pilot enjoys the ability to detect azimuth and intensity of thunderstorm cells with reasonable accuracy. They also give real-time information, showing storms as they are born, mature and die.

The inherent limitation of sferics is accurately ranging the strikes. The devices may display weak lighting as an average storm farther away. They also will not protect you from a storm that is developing but has not yet given birth to lightning. You can get yourself into trouble in areas where the lightning detector remains clear.

Lightning detectors are fairly affordable and fit in most cockpits. One unit, the L-3 WX-500, displays on map/comms such as the Garmin 430/530 series, the Sandel electronic HSI and virtually any multifunction display. The other lightning detectors fit in a standard 3-inch panel hole.

Insights latest version of the Strikefinder features a new Ultra Bright display, and can be slaved to an HSI or compass system to synchronize the strike data to reference the aircrafts heading. Insight claims the Strikefinders strike detection range is up to 200nm.

L-3s WX-1000, WX-950 and WX-500 also include heading stabilization. The budget priced WX-900 represents a reasonable entry point, at $2,989 reconditioned, although installation can be time consuming in some airplanes because the antenna must be put in a spot where there is minimal electrical interference from the airplanes equipment.

Installed Weather Datalink
The last few years has seen rapid advancement in NEXRAD imagery and text weather piped directly to the cockpit. Originally plagued by slow data transfer links and outdated images, service has improved markedly.

Manufacturers have adopted two different strategies, downloading data from satellite transmissions and receiving ground-based transmissions.

The Bendix-King KDR-510 receiver ($5,295) tunes in one of 220 ground broadcast stations and puts text weather and Pireps on the multifunction display. To get NEXRAD images, you must subscribe to one of three services. The data is continually broadcast on a five minute cycle. You get what they send out and you cant ask for anything else, as some other systems allow. Cost for the subscriptions is $50 to $60 per month, but the packages and their pricing are still in flux.

WSI Inflight employs satellite signals to provide real time weather data directly to the portable display of your choice. A $50 per month subscription and the Inflight AV-200 satellite transceiver ($4,995) provide continuous five-minute update cycles of METARs, TAFs, SPECIs, SIGMETs, and AIRMETs, Echo Tops, History loops for radar and graphical AIRMETS, SIGMETS, and METARS, and a high resolution NOWRad radar mosaic product which promises a higher data resolution than other NEXRAD products.

Garmins GDL-49 Satellite Data Link Transceiver will be of direct interest to owner pilots who already have a Garmin 400 or 500 series GPS/nav/com installed in their panel. The $3,500 GDL-49, combined with an Echo Flight subscription, allows the pilot to receive NEXRAD, TAF, and METARs on a request basis, output directly to the Garmin 400 or 500 series display.

Some pilots have elected to wait for Garmins second generation attempt at this technology due to reportedly slower download speeds and the request-basis data retrieval method. Others are pleased to have this capability installed and certified, today, for a reasonable price.

Portable Weather Datalink
If these options are too rich for your blood, take heart – you still have choices. Vendors such as XM, WxWorx, TurboWx, and AnywhereWx have taken on the challenge of providing real time weather data to the cockpit for a minimum of expense and hassle.

AnywhereWx is a member of Control Visions PDA software product line, which also includes AnywhereMap, AnywhereAI, and PocketPlates. The companys products are designed to integrate with the Compaq iPAQ PDA model 2210 or 5550.

AnywhereWx, including the 5550 series PDA, software and satellite phone is $2,500 direct from the manufacturer. Users give high marks for ease of use, reliability, and capability. Some users indicate that the maze of cables and gadgetry overwhelms smaller cockpits.

Control Vision claims their AnywhereWx product will beat most broadcast-oriented certified data link systems in terms of data age and retrieval speeds, but users must request the data rather than receive it autonomously.

WxWorx and XM Satellite Radio have teamed up to provide a portable weather data link that uses WxWorxs XM receiver and an XM weather subscription. The service provides NEXRAD, text weather, lightning strikes, and Storm Cell Indentification and Tracking to a variety of portable displays, such as tablet or laptop computers. Cabin space constraints may make this a less desirable option for some flight decks. The XM Satellite Data Receiver retails for $850, plus your display.

Finally, for the truly budget-minded, a roll your own approach can provide serious weather detection capability for a truly tiny investment. Using a PalmOS based PDA utilizing the Palm.Net service, the resourceful and budget-minded pilot can retrieve real time NEXRAD, text weather, PIREPs, winds aloft, and more using an innovative and low-cost application called TurboWx.

The Budget Choice
Breaking it down into components, consider using the Palm VIIx or i705 PDA. Neither is considered a cutting-edge PDA and only the Palm i705 is still manufactured. Both the VIIx and the i705 can be found cheaply on eBay.

Both handhelds feature integrated service, which provides national connectivity that is not cellular-based, and is therefore legal to use in-flight.Coverage is good whether youre on the ground or in the air.

The subscription, at $19.95 per month, provides reasonable coverage at all altitudes over the majority of the contiguous United States, although coverage can be weak in some remote areas. With the retrieval mechanism in place, all thats needed is a PDA application to bring weather into the cockpit.

Enter TurboWx, an aviation weather application designed specifically to work with handheld computers and smartphones. The application is sold on a subscription basis. It costs $70 per year, or $40 per six-month period. A free trial is available from the website.

TurboWxs features include the usual complement of text weather, including METARs, TAFs, and PIREPs, as well as NEXRAD weather imagery. Also included are winds aloft, Area Forecasts, satellite weather imagery and forecasts. The user can select a nearby navaid to center the weather imagery around the aircrafts present position.

This combination of software and hardware offers the best bang for the buck in weather detection. In addition to weather displays, you can also use e-mail in flight. Combined with a Stormscope or Strikefinder, the user enjoys a compromise between tactical and big-picture weather detection.

The growing intrusion of technology into the cockpit is a blessing when it comes to weather awareness. Finding a technology that meets your needs and budget is getting easier even as the range of choices increases.

-Ryan Ferguson is an airplane and helicopter CFI and CFII who owns a Piper Twin Comanche.


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