US Weather Briefing For Pilots

The average Englishman’s preoccupation with weather is surpassed, it would seem, only by the weather-obsessed American aviation community. In fact, a pilot wishing to take to the US skies has such a bewildering number of weather information options at his disposal that it’s almost self-caricature – and all, of course, with dandy American acronyms: ASOS, AWOS, ATIS, WXBRIEF, FSS, HIWAS – The list goes on and on. And it’s all as free as the air.

The pilot’s first line of defense in getting flight-related weather briefings is to dial, from any phone in the country, 1-800-992-7433. The handy mnemonic for this number is to spell out 800-WX-BRIEF on a Touch-Tone keypad. No matter where you are in the country, this number will connect you with your regional Flight Service Station (FSS) weather briefer, who is a trained professional weather observer and aviation weather reporter.

A FSS also provides many services such as opening and closing flight plans, giving out NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen), PIREPs (Pilot Reports), information on Special Use Airspaces (see accompanying story) and other details crucial to a flight. In the air, you can always contact a FSS Flight Watch (122.0) to get up to the second weather news and guidance should you run into unexpected weather. This is a potentially life-saving service.

Some may be gruff, and some are more helpful than others but as a rule, aviation weather briefers in the US are superbly competent. “The first thing we’re going to do after we get the background of what the pilot is contemplating,” said Ron Napurano, Manager of the New York Automated Flight Service Station, “is look at an overview of weather based on the qualifications of the pilot and the intended route of flight, and make a judgment as to whether we think you should fly or not.”

If adverse conditions are present then the briefer is legally bound to inform you that based on conditions, VFR is not recommended. The briefer will state that and then give supporting reasons. Sometimes they just state it bluntly. Other times they get a bit dramatic – I remember once being told by a briefer that a route I was contemplating was looking “Mighty ominous indeed.”

The most effective strategy, unless you’re really, really sure of yourself (ATP-rated pilots with 10,000 hours and a degree in meteorology may skip the next part), is to ask for a “Standard Briefing”.

What they need from you
The briefers are indeed professional, and even if not pilots themselves, well-trained in briefing pilots. But they’re not mind readers – you have to prepare for the call and give the briefer what they need, without them asking too many basic questions. “You can tell a person who’s been getting briefings from us for a while,” said Napurano, “if the pilot is prepared, and uses the background checklist (see box), it saves the tedious pulling of information back and forth and makes the briefing go much smoother.

WXBRIEF Checklist
Before you call WXBRIEF, have the following information at hand, and when you get the briefer on the phone, give it in this order:

  • Type of Flight Planned (VFR or IFR)
  • Aircraft ID or your name (if you don’t yet know the tail number of a rental)
  • Aircraft type
  • Departure Point
  • Route of Flight
  • Destination (and alternate)
  • Altitude(s) you intend to fly
  • Estimated Time of Departure (in Zulu) and Estimated Time of Arrival

Like so:

“Hello, I’m a pilot making a VFR flight in Cherokee 8252 Zulu, that’s a Piper PA-28 161, departing from Teterboro and flying northbound, along the Hudson River to Nyack to clear the Bravo airspace, then turning right, following the Madison VOR, Providence VOR and Boston VOR to destination Bravo Oscar Sierra, Boston Logan, with an alternate of Bravo Echo Delta, Bedford. Once I clear the Bravo airspace north of Teterboro I’ll climb to seven thousand five hundred feet. I’ll be leaving Teterboro at about twelve hundred hours Zulu or seven am local, and expect the flight to take about one hour and ten minutes.”

Now, of course, the above is the perfect, somewhat anal-retentive, by-the-book way to say it, and you might get a bit breezier over time. But you really should make an effort to be as close to this model as possible..

Effective communication with the briefer can’t be stressed enough. Every time they have to ask you a stupid question, such as “State type aircraft” or “This is a VFR flight or IFR flight?” you’ve just wasted the time of yourself, your briefer and the next pilot who will cal in.

What They Give You
In exchange for your expressiveness, you’ll get a pile of information worth its weight in gold.

This includes the following information, in the following order.

Adverse Conditions This is the first order of business: the briefer will take the information he has on you and determine whether the trip is recommendable at all. Any adverse conditions will necessarily be mentioned first and foremost. If the weather is doubtful you will, by law, get a verdict of “VNR” – VFR Not Recommended, and the supporting arguments.

Adverse conditions can be anything – from plain old IMC to mountain obscuration to icing to turbulence, especially low level wind shear and other weather that could affect takeoffs and landings. “We give them the whole nine yards on adverse conditions and the potential effects,” said Napurano.

Synopsis If weather is VFR or marginal VFR, the next step in the Standard Briefing is the Synopsis, which gives a general overview of the weather as it is at the moment: this is not specific to your trip, but rather a general overview of storms, fronts, circulation, pressure systems gathered over an 18-hour period. The briefer might give you information on specific storms, strong winds or other weather phenomena as required.

Remember, this is to give you an overall feeling for the weather in general, not specifically the weather that will affect your flight. For example, the current conditions at or near your destination airport might not be valuable if you intend to leave in three hours for a two hour flight – conditions could be significantly different five hours from the time you call!

Current Conditions The current conditions at the departure airport.

Enroute Forecast This is weather that the Center is forecasting to expect along your route, culled from National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts as well as actual Pilot Reports (PIREPs) made by pilots actually flying along the route. “They’re very specific, and that’s why we ask all pilots to give us PIREPs,” said Napurano, “We get a PIREP from a pilot in a 152 saying he’s got a light chop we probably won’t tell that to a 747 pilot, but if a 747 pilot reports a light chop, we’re certainly going to let everything smaller out there know about it.”

The Enroute forecast may or may not be consistent with current conditions – remember, it’s a forecast – but what it will give you is conditions that are expected along your entire route. So if you’re flying from Islip, Long Island to Raleigh, North Carolina, you’ll get forecasts for New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, etc, all the way down to North Carolina.

Destination Forecast The forecast at your destination is based on the Terminal Area Forecasts for larger airports; if you’re flying into Charlotte, then the forecast is specifically made to cover that. But if you’re flying into Podunk, North Carolina, you’ll get the TAF for the nearest large airport. TAFs are good for five miles around the airport they’re forecasting. It’s not legally binding or anything, but it’s an idea of what’s happening now and what NWS and thinks will happen.

Winds Aloft This section is extremely important because it also covers temperatures aloft and specifically icing – whether actual or forecast – and the temperature and winds by altitude strata. “Typically a pilot saying that he’s going to be flying at 6,000 feet will be given the winds and temperatures aloft for 3,000, 6,000 and 9,000” said Napurano, “because you’re going to pass through 3,000 to get to 6,000, and who knows, you may request a different altitude once you’re up there for any number of reasons. So we try to give you the broadest range of possibilities we can.”

NOTAMs Covers any NOTAMs of any interest whatsoever.

ATC Delays Unlikely to happen to you if you’re flying between Podunk and Kischnev, more likely the larger your destination or departure airport is. At Teterboro, ATC delays are quite common, and this would be passed on to you by the briefer.

Military Training Areas These are different from MOAs, and are areas in which military aircraft may be training. MTAs are given only on the pilot’s request – request it.

What They Want From You
At the end of a standard briefing, the briefer will request of the pilot that the pilot file a PIREP – even if the conditions are exactly as forecast, but especially if they are not, you can help other pilots by making a PIREP.

You will also be requested to contact Flight Watch (122.0) for enroute weather information.