This Watch Keeps on Ticking

Checking weather en route should be part of your survival kit


The student pilot was headed north-west on one of his first solo cross-country flights. The planned track took him from Dalhart, Texas, to the Denver, Colo., area. Preflight weather contained nothing ominous or unusual.Once airborne, everything was going routinely, except that the clouds began to thicken imperceptibly as he eased across the border into Colorado and a light chop began to develop.

Suddenly, the pilot found a solid overcast beneath him with thickening clouds and even more rapidly deteriorating weather.

On the ground, convective Sigmets unexpectedly appeared – as they often can in areas near the significant influence of the Rocky Mountains.Insidiously, two distinct lines of thunderstorms, both oriented north/south, had developed. There was a line on either side of the new pilot. All visual contact with the ground was lost, then came realization of the real danger he was in.

Every day, many pilots fail to get an adequate preflight weather briefing. A recent check of the accident record showed that more than 50 percent of accident flights showed no record of a preflight weather briefing.

FAR 91.103 says that the PIC must become familiar with all available information concerning any flight upon which he or she is about to embark.Specifically, for an IFR flight or one not in the vicinity of an airport that includes weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC. Rules notwithstanding, the safety of any flight hinges on the weather the aircraft will have to negotiate – even if its a local flight.

There are thousands of excuses for skipping the preflight weather briefing; none can withstand the scrutiny of an accident investigation.Suffice it to say that a good weather briefing needs to go far beyond a quick look at the Weather Channel.

Getting Reliable Weather Inflight
There is one sure-fire way to obtain good information about the weather in flight: Call Flight Watch on VHF frequency 122.0. Regardless of where you are, a Flight Watch specialist will probably be able to hear you calling.Even in the midst of impending disaster caused or abetted by adverse weather, Flight Watch is the friend you need if you have any hope of extricating yourself. After all, decisions are only as good as the information on which they are based.

Flight Watch, more formally named the Enroute Flight Advisory Service, is available virtually throughout the continental United States.

The air traffic control specialist manning the Flight Watch desk in the FSS is specially trained to do that job. During a typical two- to four-hour Flight Watch shift, the specialist is solely devoted to the job of updating weather for a pilots current flight, as one Flight Watch specialist puts it. In addition, specialists also provide current information on Airmets and Sigmets that could apply to the pilots route of flight.

Each of the FAAs Air Route Traffic Control Centers has a desk dedicated exclusively to inflight weather, usually physically located in one of the centers Flight Service Stations but available to all aircraft within the centers airspace on 122.0. High altitude aircraft (FL 180 and above) are then given a separate frequency for high-altitude information.

While at the Flight Watch position, these specialists are not involved in preflight briefing, talking on the phone, providing clearances, keeping track of VFR traffic, issuing NOTAMs, providing routine non-weather information to pilots, or anything else that is normally done in the Flight Service Station.Their sole mission is to provide enroute pilots with weather information concerning their current flights. You have their undivided attention.

Making Initial Contact
During a recent visit to Flight Watch at the Denver FSS, there were four pilots in line on three separate occasions during the three hour period waiting to pass pilot reports or get information – and the weather was clear and a million outside. At one time, there were five waiting.

With delays like this during fine weather, you can imagine how hectic things can get when there are fast moving snow storms rolling in over the Rockies or when thunderstorm tops are building to FL 450 and pilots are anxiously standing by for information about deteriorating conditions.

Make your reports focused and current or dont clutter up the radio. The word is: Get in, get what you want and get out. And always give a PIREP in the right order. The specialist is waiting to take your information so it can be passed on to help others.

Having said that, dont hesitate to use Flight Watch if you have any information to give them or need information yourself, regardless of how busy you believe the frequency might be. Thats what its for.

Although the specialist may have other tasks, including updating advisories and checking facilities, nothing takes priority over enroute pilots calling on the radio for weather information. Sometimes it seems like every pilot in the sector calls at once. In Denver, 16 separate Flight Watch receivers and collocated transmitters are usually available (13 low and three high altitude) at any one time. All are identified by geographical location labels on the console.

If, for example, three aircraft request service all at once – and that happened more than once during our visit – three lights simultaneously illuminate at three different locations and all three pilots radio transmissions step on one another. The controller then identifies the pilots locations, picks one to help first, mutes all but the desired receiver and requests the remaining aircraft to stand by.

Pilots can do something to minimize congestion. Begin with a simple initial call similar to what youd say contacting any other air traffic facility: 1) Call Flight Watch or use the specific Flight Watch name, available from an Airport/Facilities Directory; 2) Give your call sign; and 3) Specify your position with respect to a VOR or other prominent location and stand by for Flight Watch acknowledgment.

Your position relative to some prominent identifiable fix is important. Rabbit Ears Pass or The Four Corners area just isnt definitive enough to mark where you are. Even if the specialist does happen to know it, hell have to translate it to a more identifiable location so other pilots can understand where and what youve reported. Your position also dictates which radio Flight Watch uses to communicate best with you.

Out of about 20 Flight Watch requests and PIREPs we observed, the specialist had to actually look up the bearing and distance for five separate locations given by pilots – and he had worked the Flight Watch desk console in Denver for over three years and was very familiar with the area. Transient pilots have it even worse because they dont know local landmarks. Use radio fixes or bearings and distances from published fix locations. It helps the briefer help others.

Keep It Focused and Professional
When you are waiting for vital weather information on which to base a critical decision, it seems like an eternity passes. Remember that it seems like that to others, too. When your time comes to talk, know ahead of time what you want to say, know what specific information you need, have your PIREP already prepared in the proper format, use standard communications terminology and be professional in your contacts. As with any air traffic controller, time on frequency is precious.

Identify your takeoff point, destination, route of flight (if it is other than a direct route), and say what you want.

Heres a sample Flight Watch call to think about:

Flight Watch, Arrow 4524X, Birmingham. Then wait for your call to be answered. After acknowledgment by Flight Watch, your transmission might continue something like this.

Roger, Birmingham. N4524X is a P28R (Arrow), 11,500 feet, 20 miles south of the Birmingham VOR enroute from Jackson, Miss., to Charlotte, N.C. Request present Charlotte weather, Atlanta area PIREPs and Charlotte forecast for 2+00 (or specify your ETA). Ive got a PIREP for you. Advise ready to copy.

When you receive the information youve requested, Ensure that you understand it and that it is what you asked for. If not, ask further questions until you are satisfied. Remember, however, that Flight Watch will not tell you if conditions ahead are too bad for your aircraft. If faced with storms, icing, turbulence or other bad weather, its up to the pilot to decide how bad is too bad and what actions may need to be taken.

When issuing a PIREP, there are specific bits of information that will greatly help Flight Watch.

In order, the elements of a PIREP are: UA or UAA, OV, TM, FL, TP, SK, WX, TA, WV, TB, IC, and RM.

UA or UAA is the only tricky one. It identifies your report as either a normal PIREP (UA) or a priority PIREP that contains some urgent information (UAA) you think should get out to others as soon as possible. From there on, the symbols sound almost like what they mean: OV = over a specific point or a DME fix; TM = time in coordinated universal time; FL = your flight level or flight altitude; TP = type of aircraft, and remember to use the new designators; SK = sky cover and condition; WX = weather, including visibility and precipitation; TA = temperature aloft in Celsius; WV = wind velocity in magnetic direction and knots; TB = any turbulence you are experiencing; IC = any icing you are experiencing; RM = remarks.

Your altitude, type of aircraft, and route of flight are important.Turbulence and icing correlate with your type of aircraft and help weather personnel to evaluate your actual conditions of flight. What might be severe turbulence to a Skylane, for instance, might not even be a ripple on the water to a B-747.

If transmitted to EFAS in the prescribed sequence above, it is not necessary to speak the headings shown; the controller merely types your information directly in to the computer in the order you read it. Heres an example of the hypothetical PIREP south of Birmingham:

N4524X, 20 miles south of the Birmingham VOR, 1850Z, 11 thousand 500, P28R, overcast below, broken at flight level, scattered above, 5 miles in light rain, temperature +3 degrees, wind from the southwest at 40 knots, light to moderate turbulence, negative icing, negative remarks.

Prepare your PIREP ahead of time and just read it off. Flight Watch and other pilots will appreciate your courtesy and professionalism, especially when conditions are rapidly changing.

Once the PIREP is in the computer, it is automatically available to the entire Flight Service and EFAS network and to the National Weather Service.NWS also uses the information for input to forecast models and other products available to pilots and pilot briefers nationwide. PIREPs are kept by Flight Watch for one hour, then deleted because they are no longer current.

Whats Available at Flight Watch
The Enroute Flight Advisory Service strives to make its information accurate and easily available. Fewer than half of the workers in the Denver FSS are qualified at any one time to work the EFAS desk because of the training involved. Flight Watch-qualified FSS specialists are trained to provide and interpret weather data and locally unique effects and phenomena. After serving in routine Flight Service Station duties for at least two years, those headed for Flight Watch duty attend an intense five-week qualification course at the FAAs training facilities in Oklahoma City. The course is focused exclusively on weather and the skills needed to effectively perform as an EFAS specialist.

Subjects contained in the Flight Watch curriculum include weather satellites, radar, weather producing systems, weather charts, forecasts, hazards and more. Laboratories are also an important part of the course syllabus, which is largely taught by the National Weather Service.

After formal training, specialists focus on the local environmental and terrain influences that can modify standard weather phenomena in their specific locations. For example, mountain peaks extending over 14,000 feet MSL and activity along the severely down-sloping eastern edge of the mountains, for instance, are particular influences along the Rocky Mountains Front Range south of Denver Flight Watch. A high ridge reaching above 7,000 feet MSL between Denver (5,280) and Pueblo (4,700) also has great influence, causing often-unexpected up slope effects. Similar knowledge of local weather phenomena is the stock-in-trade of experienced EFAS personnel throughout the country.

Although their main job is to provide enroute weather information, Flight Watch specialists have instant access to a comprehensive range of weather products. The list includes Airmets, Sigmets and Convective Sigmets, Center Weather Advisories, winds aloft, route forecasts, nationwide weather observations, wide area and terminal area forecasts for all U.S. airfields and locations with reporting/forecast capability, PIREPs, visible and infrared satellite imagery, radar imagery and radar summary charts, surface analyses and significant weather prog charts.

The Rest of the Story…
If youre wondering what happened to our student pilot, heres the rest of the story. After he called Denver Flight Watch for help, the specialist identified the lost pilots position by DF steer plotting, accessed visual satellite imagery near the distressed aircrafts location, identified a hole in the clouds back along the pilots track, turned him around to reach the area where he could descend in VMC, led him to a hole through which he descended VFR, helped the pilot to visually identify definite landmarks, and gave him a vector that resulted in a successful landing at the La Junta, Colo., airport.

A thorough preflight aviation weather briefing and early inflight coordination with Flight Watch, when you need it, can produce wonders for yourself – or perhaps someone else behind you on the route. Dont be afraid to spend your Flight Watch tax dollars, but do it right.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “PIREP Report Sequence.”

-by Wally Miller

Wally Miller is an ATP with nearly 7,000 hours and an active CFI and FAA Safety Counselor.


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