Given the recent change in technology, more weather information is available at pilots’ fingertips than ever before. With this improvement, pilots can turn to many different sources for weather information, instead of just Flight Service or DUATS. Pilots grab this information and form their own “self-briefings” as opposed to the formal briefings offered by Flight Service; and while these self briefings are often faster and more convenient than their traditional counterparts, they can open pilots to omitting key sources of weather information and provide incomplete briefings. Here are some tips to keep your self-briefings complete and effective.
In order to understand what the weather is doing on a local level, you must first understand what the weather is doing on a national and regional level. These large scale weather maps will begin to set the canvas for your weather picture for the day and your upcoming flight. While most pilots are not forecasters, we can still use these tools to explain the source of many weather phenomena and help fill in gaps left from smaller, local forecasts.
Many of the common used forecasts and observations, like TAFs and METARs, leave a lot of area unforecast. TAFs only forecast an area of 5-10nm around the airport, and METARs are just an observation at the airport itself; not the surrounding area. These are just some of the limitations that any one weather product has and in order to overcome these shortcomings, you need to create a mosaic of different weather products with overlapping areas and purposes to get a complete picture.
The first few items to review in your briefing should be national observation charts, like the Surface Analysis chart and the Airmet/Sigmet map for the country. These give you a high level overview of weather systems and hazardous areas for aircraft. All other forecasts and observations can be put in reference to these backdrops.
With the large scale focus still in mind, you will then want to switch to forecasts over large areas. Prognostic charts offer the best long range planning, but are still useful in the 0-12 hr range. Depending on which products you have available and which service you are using, the next charts would likely be Convective Forecasts (CCFP, Convective Outlook), Icing Forecasts (CIP/FIP, Freezing level forecast), and Turbulence (GTG if applicable). These are more detailed geographically than their Airmet/Sigmet counterparts, and provide more detailed information with respect to intensity, altitudes affected, and timeframe.
Winds Aloft forecasts come as both a graphical and textual format, but their graphical forms are convenient for altitude selections and temperature considerations, especially in the winter time while avoiding icing conditions. Also, many flight planning tools will also display similar altitudes and its winds/ETE to allow for easier fuel/time decisions.
Several new graphical prediction products are available to indicate widespread areas of cloud ceilings, and visibilities, which are easier to interpret than the former weather depiction charts and offer analysis as well as forecast time periods. Following those charts up with the textual Area Forecast products will answer any remaining questions about widespread clouds, winds and weather.
End your forecast review with TAF or MOS products from your departure to your destination and the course in between, allowing for viewing off-route as needed to fill in the gaps in forecast areas. These are the most detailed of the forecast products and give an hour-by-hour cloud, wind, visibility and precipitation forecast that are useful in determining your go/no-go decision. Although these may be the easiest to read, do not rely solely on this product. Incorporate all of the forecast products into making the best informed decision possible.
As we have worked from larger areas to smaller areas and the distant future to near future, we now need to analyze current conditions. Start with Satellite and Radar imagery to give you the biggest overview as you work smaller. Each of these products offer a different insight and will be needed when we reference back to their forecast conditions. PIREPS are also a large scale area product and offer the only direct weather observation by other pilots. Keep in mind what type of aircraft gave the report and how that difference in aircraft can affect your experience in the same weather phenomena.
End your review with the current conditions at your departure and destination using METARs or other graphical charts of current conditions, like the weather depiction chart or the newer CVA charts. Remember to compare the current information back with its forecast information to determine if conditions are changing faster or slower than originally expected, or if the forecast has gone in a different direction. This little comparison is often ahead of TAF or Area Forecast updates and can help prevent getting you into a sticky situation.
NOTAMs and TFRs are not weather products, but should always be incorporated into a complete weather briefing. The information gained is not only a legal requirement, but can prevent embarrassing situations like getting to the airport only to find out that the runway has been closed for repairs.
Keep your self-briefings organized and thorough, and you’ll stay ahead of the weather.