In aviation, weather service is a combined effort of the National Weather Service (NWS), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Defense (DOD), other aviation groups, and individuals. Because of the increasing need for worldwide weather services, foreign weather organizations also provide vital input. While weather forecasts are not 100 percent accurate, meteorologists, through careful scientific study and computer modeling, have the ability to predict weather patterns, trends, and characteristics with increasing accuracy. Through a complex system of weather services, government agencies, and independent weather observers, pilots and other aviation professionals receive the benefit of this vast knowledge base in the form of up-to-date weather reports and forecasts. These reports and forecasts enable pilots to make informed decisions regarding weather and flight safety before and during a flight.
Aviation weather reports are designed to give accurate depictions of current weather conditions. Each report provides current information that is updated at different times. Some typical reports are METARs and PIREPs. To view a weather report, go to http://www.aviationweather.gov/.
Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR): A METAR is an observation of current surface weather reported in a standard international format. While the METAR code has been adopted worldwide, each country is allowed to make modifications to the code. Normally, these differences are minor but necessary to accommodate local procedures or particular units of measure. This discussion of METAR will cover elements used in the United States.
Metars are issued hourly unless significant weather changes have occurred. A special METAR (SPECI) can be issued at any interval between routine METAR reports.
METAR KGGG 161753Z AUTO 14021G26 3/4SM +TSRA BR BKN008 OVC012CB 18/17 A2970 RMK PRESFR
A typical METAR report contains the following information in sequential order:
1. Type of report—there are two types of METAR reports. The first is the routine METAR report that is transmitted every hour. The second is the aviation selected SPECI. This is a special report that can be given at any time to update the METAR for rapidly changing weather conditions, aircraft mishaps, or other critical information.
2. Station identifier—a four-letter code as established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). In the 48 contiguous states, a unique three-letter identifier is preceded by the letter “K.” For example, Gregg County Airport in Longview, Texas, is identified by the letters “KGGG,” K being the country designation and GGG being the airport identifier. In other regions of the world, including Alaska and Hawaii, the first two letters of the four-letter ICAO identifier indicate the region, country, or state. Alaska identifiers always begin with the letters “PA” and Hawaii identifiers always begin with the letters “PH.” A list of station identifiers can be found at an FSS or NWS office.
3. Date and time of report—depicted in a six-digit group (161753Z). The first two digits are the date. The last four digits are the time of the METAR, which is always given in coordinated universal time (UTC). A “Z” is appended to the end of the time to denote the time is given in Zulu time (UTC) as opposed to local time.
4. Modifier—denotes that the METAR came from an automated source or that the report was corrected. If the notation “AUTO” is listed in the METAR, the report came from an automated source. It also lists “AO1” or “AO2” in the remarks section to indicate the type of precipitation sensors employed at the automated station. When the modifier “COR” is used, it identifies a corrected report sent out to replace an earlier report that contained an error (for example: METAR KGGG 161753Z COR).
5. Wind—reported with five digits (14021) unless the speed is greater than 99 knots, in which case the wind is reported with six digits. The first three digits indicate the direction the true wind is blowing in tens of degrees. If the wind is variable, it is reported as “VRB.” The last two digits indicate the speed of the wind in knots unless the wind is greater than 99 knots, in which case it is indicated by three digits. If the winds are gusting, the letter “G” follows the wind speed (G26). After the letter “G,” the peak gust recorded is provided. If the wind varies more than 60° and the wind speed is greater than six knots, a separate group of numbers, separated by a “V,” will indicate the extremes of the wind directions. Figure 12-7 shows how the TDWR/Weather System Processor (WSP) determines the true wind, as well as gust front/wind shear location.
6. Visibility—the prevailing visibility (. SM) is reported in statute miles as denoted by the letters “SM.” It is reported in both miles and fractions of miles. At times, runway visual range (RVR) is reported following the prevailing visibility. RVR is the distance a pilot can see down the runway in a moving aircraft. When RVR is reported, it is shown with an R, then the runway number followed by a slant, then the visual range in feet. For example, when the RVR is reported as R17L/1400FT, it translates to a visual range of 1,400 feet on runway 17 left.
7. Weather—can be broken down into two different categories: qualifiers and weather phenomenon (+TSRA BR). First, the qualifiers of intensity, proximity, and the descriptor of the weather will be given. The intensity may be light (-), moderate ( ), or heavy (+). Proximity only depicts weather phenomena that are in the airport vicinity. The notation “VC” indicates a specific weather phenomenon is in the vicinity of five to ten miles from the airport. Descriptors are used to describe certain types of precipitation and obscurations. Weather phenomena may be reported as being precipitation, obscurations, and other phenomena such as squalls or funnel clouds. Descriptions of weather phenomena as they begin or end, and hailstone size are also listed in the remarks sections of the report. [Figure 12-8]
8. Sky condition—always reported in the sequence of amount, height, and type or indefinite ceiling/height (vertical visibility) (BKN008 OVC012CB). The heights of the cloud bases are reported with a three-digit number in hundreds of feet AGL. Clouds above 12,000 feet are not detected or reported by an automated station. The types of clouds, specifically towering cumulus (TCU) or cumulonimbus (CB) clouds, are reported with their height. Contractions are used to describe the amount of cloud coverage and obscuring phenomena. The amount of sky coverage is reported in eighths of the sky from horizon to horizon. [Figure 12-9]
9. Temperature and dew point—the air temperature and dew point are always given in degrees Celsius (C) or (°C 18/17). Temperatures below 0 °C are preceded by the letter “M” to indicate minus.
10. Altimeter setting—reported as inches of mercury ("Hg) in a four-digit number group (A2970). It is always preceded by the letter “A.” Rising or falling pressure may also be denoted in the remarks sections as “PRESRR” or “PRESFR” respectively.
11. Zulu time—a term used in aviation for UTC which places the entire world on one time standard.
12. Remarks—the remarks section always begins with the letters “RMK.” Comments may or may not appear in this section of the METAR. The information contained in this section may include wind data, variable visibility, beginning and ending times of particular phenomenon, pressure information, and various other information deemed necessary. An example of a remark regarding weather phenomenon that does not fit in any other category would be: OCNL LTGICCG. This translates as occasional lightning in the clouds and from cloud to ground. Automated stations also use the remarks section to indicate the equipment needs maintenance.
METAR KGGG 161753Z AUTO 14021G26 3/4SM +TSRA BR BKN008 OVC012CB 18/17 A2970 RMK PRESFR
Routine METAR for Gregg County Airport for the 16th day of the month at 1753Z automated source. Winds are 140 at 21 knots gusting to 26. Visibility is . statute mile. Thunderstorms with heavy rain and mist. Ceiling is broken at 800 feet, overcast at 1,200 feet with cumulonimbus clouds. Temperature 18 °C and dew point 17 °C. Barometric pressure is 29.70 "Hg and falling rapidly.
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The wind direction and velocity at KJFK is from
What are the current conditions for Chicago Midway Airport (KMDW)?
Observed weather condition reports are often used in the creation of forecasts for the same area. A variety of different forecast products are produced and designed to be used in the preflight planning stage. The printed forecasts that pilots need to be familiar with are the terminal aerodrome forecast (TAF), aviation area forecast (FA), inflight weather advisories (Significant Meteorological Information (SIGMET), Aircrew’s Meteorological Information (AIRMET)), and the winds and temperatures aloft forecast (FB).
Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAF): A TAF is a report established for the five statute mile radius around an airport. TAF reports are usually given for larger airports. Each TAF is valid for a 24 or 30-hour time period, and is updated four times a day at 0000Z, 0600Z, 1200Z, and 1800Z. The TAF utilizes the same descriptors and abbreviations as used in the METAR report. The TAF includes the following information in sequential order:
1. Type of report—a TAF can be either a routine forecast (TAF) or an amended forecast (TAF AMD).
2. ICAO station identifier—the station identifier is the same as that used in a METAR.
3. Date and time of origin—time and date (081125Z) of TAF origination is given in the six-
number code with the first two being the date, the last four being the time. Time is always
given in UTC as denoted by the Z following the time block.
4. Valid period dates and times—The TAF valid period (0812/0912) follows the date/time of
forecast origin group. Scheduled 24 and 30 hour TAFs are issued four times per day, at 0000, 0600, 1200, and 1800Z. The first two digits (08) are the day of the month for the start of the TAF. The next two digits (12) are the starting hour (UTC). 09 is the day of the month for the end of the TAF, and the last two digits (12) are the ending hour (UTC) of the valid period. A forecast period that begins at midnight UTC is annotated as 00. If the end time of a valid period is at midnight UTC, it is annotated as 24. For example, a 00Z TAF issued on the 9th of the month and valid for 24 hours would have a valid period of 0900/0924.
5. Forecast wind—the wind direction and speed forecast are coded in a five-digit number group.
An example would be 15011KT. The first three digits indicate the direction of the wind in reference to true north. The last two digits state the wind speed in knots appended with “KT.” Like the METAR, winds greater than 99 knots are given in three digits.
6. Forecast visibility—given in statute miles and may be in whole numbers or fractions. If the forecast is greater than six miles, it is coded as “P6SM.”
7. Forecast significant weather—weather phenomena are coded in the TAF reports in the same format as the METAR.
8. Forecast sky condition—given in the same format as the METAR. Only CB clouds are forecast in this portion of the TAF report as opposed to CBs and towering cumulus in the METAR.
9. Forecast change group—for any significant weather change forecast to occur during the TAF
time period, the expected conditions and time period are included in this group. This information may be shown as from (FM), and temporary (TEMPO). “FM” is used when a rapid and significant change, usually within an hour, is expected. “TEMPO” is used for temporary fluctuations of weather, expected to last less than 1 hour.
10. PROB30—a given percentage that describes the probability of thunderstorms and precipitation occurring in the coming hours. This forecast is not used for the first 6 hours of the 24-hour forecast.
TAF KPIR 111130Z 111212 15012KT P6SM BKN090 TEMPO 1214 5SM BR FM1500 16015G25KT P6SM SCT040 BKN250 FM0000 14012KT P6SM BKN080 OVC150 PROB40 0004 3SM TSRA BKN030CB FM0400 1408KT P6SM SCT040 OVC080 TEMPO 0408 3SM TSRA OVC030CB
BECMG 0810 32007KT=
Routine TAF for Pierre, South Dakota on the 11th day of the month, at 1130Z, valid for 24 hours from 1200Z on the 11th to 1200Z on the 12th wind from 150 ° at 12 knots visibility greater than 6SM broken clouds at 9, 000 feet…temporarily, between 1200Z and 1400Z, visibility 5 sm in mist…from 1500Z winds from 160° at 15 knots, gusting to 25 knots visibility greater than 6 sm…clouds scattered at 4,000 feet and broken at 25,000 feet…from 0000Z wind from 140° at 12 knots…visibility greater than 6 sm…clouds broken at 8,000 feet, overcast at 15,000 feet…between 0000Z and 0400Z, there is 40 percent probability of visibility 3 sm…thunderstorm with moderate rain showers…clouds broken at 3,000 feet with cumulonimbus clouds…from 0400Z…winds from 140° at 8 knots…visibility greater than 6 miles…clouds at 4,000 scattered and overcast at 8,000…temporarily between 0400Z and 0800Z…visibility 3 miles…thunderstorms with moderate rain showers…clouds overcast at 3,000 feet with cumulonimbus clouds…becoming between 0800Z and 1000Z…wind from 320° at 7 knots…end of report (=).
Convective Significant Meteorological Information (WST)
Convective SIGMETs are issued for severe thunderstorms with surface winds greater than 50 knots, hail at the surface greater than or equal to 3⁄4 inch in diameter, or tornadoes. They are also issued to advise pilots of embedded thunderstorms, lines of thunderstorms, or thunderstorms with heavy or greater precipitation that affect 40 percent or more of a 3,000 square mile or greater region. A remote pilot will find these weather alerts helpful for flight planning.
Weather charts are graphic charts that depict current or forecast weather. They provide an overall picture of the United States and should be used in the beginning stages of flight planning. Typically, weather charts show the movement of major weather systems and fronts. Surface analysis, weather depiction, and radar summary charts are sources of current weather information. Significant weather prognostic charts provide an overall forecast weather picture.
Surface Analysis Chart
The surface analysis chart depicts an analysis of the current surface weather. [Figure 12-14] This chart is a computer prepared report that is transmitted every 3 hours and covers the contiguous 48 states and adjacent areas. A surface analysis chart shows the areas of high and low pressure, fronts, temperatures, dew points, wind directions and speeds, local weather, and visual obstructions.
Surface weather observations for reporting points across the United States are also depicted on this chart. Each of these reporting points is illustrated by a station model. [Figure 12-15] A station model includes:
• Type of observation—a round model indicates an official weather observer made the observation. A square model indicates the observation is from an automated station. Stations located offshore give data from ships, buoys, or offshore platforms.
• Sky cover—the station model depicts total sky cover and is shown as clear, scattered, broken, overcast, or obscured/partially obscured.
• Clouds—represented by specific symbols. Low cloud symbols are placed beneath the station model, while middle and high cloud symbols are placed directly above the station model. Typically, only one type of cloud will be depicted with the station model.
• Sea level pressure—given in three digits to the nearest tenth of a millibar (mb). For 1,000 mbs or greater, prefix a 10 to the three digits. For less than 1,000 mbs, prefix a 9 to the three digits.
• Pressure change/tendency—pressure change in tenths of mb over the past 3 hours. This is depicted directly below the sea level pressure.
• Precipitation—a record of the precipitation that has fallen over the last 6 hours to the nearest hundredth of an inch.
• Dew point—given in degrees Fahrenheit.
• Present weather—over 100 different weather symbols are used to describe the current weather.
• Temperature—given in degrees Fahrenheit.
• Wind—true direction of wind is given by the wind pointer line, indicating the direction from which the wind is coming. A short barb is equal to 5 knots of wind, a long barb is equal to 10 knots of wind, and a pennant is equal to 50 knots.
Weather Depiction Chart
A weather depiction chart details surface conditions as derived from METAR and other surface observations. The weather depiction chart is prepared and transmitted by computer every 3 hours beginning at 0100Z time, and is valid at the time of the plotted data. It is designed to be used for flight planning by giving an overall picture of the weather across the United States. [Figure 12-16]
This type of chart typically displays major fronts or areas of high and low pressure. The weather depiction chart also provides a graphic display of IFR, VFR, and MVFR (marginal VFR) weather. Areas of IFR conditions (ceilings less than 1,000 feet and visibility less than three miles) are shown by a hatched area outlined by a smooth line. MVFR regions (ceilings 1,000 to 3,000 feet, visibility 3 to 5 miles) are shown by a nonhatched area outlined by a smooth line. Areas of VFR (no ceiling or ceiling greater than 3,000 feet and visibility greater than five miles) are not outlined.
Weather depiction charts show a modified station model that provides sky conditions in the form of total sky cover, cloud height or ceiling, weather, and obstructions to visibility, but does not include winds or pressure readings like the surface analysis chart. A bracket ( ] ) symbol to the right of the station indicates the observation was made by an automated station. A detailed explanation of a station model is depicted in the previous discussion of surface analysis charts.
Radar Summary Chart
A radar summary chart is a graphically depicted collection of radar weather reports (SDs). [Figure 12-17] The chart is published hourly at 35 minutes past the hour. It displays areas of precipitation, as well as information regarding the characteristics of the precipitation. [Figure 12-18] A radar summary chart includes:
- No information—if information is not reported, the chart will say “NA.” If no echoes are detected, the chart will say “NE.”
- Precipitation intensity contours—intensity can be described as one of six levels and is shown on the chart by three contour intervals.
- Height of tops—the heights of the echo tops are given in hundreds of feet MSL.
- Movement of cells—individual cell movement is indicated by an arrow pointing in the direction of movement. The speed of movement in knots is the number at the top of the arrow head. “LM” indicates little movement.
- Type of precipitation—the type of precipitation is marked on the chart using specific symbols. These symbols are not the same as used on the METAR charts.
- Echo configuration—echoes are shown as being areas, cells, or lines.
- Weather watches—severe weather watch areas for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are depicted by boxes outlined with heavy dashed lines.
The radar summary chart is a valuable tool for preflight planning. It does, however, contain several limitations for the usage of the chart. This chart depicts only areas of precipitation. It will not show areas of clouds and fog with no appreciable precipitation, or the height of the tops and bases of the clouds. Radar summary charts are a depiction of current precipitation and should be used in conjunction with current METAR and weather forecasts.
Significant Weather Prognostic Charts
Significant weather prognostic charts are available for low-level significant weather from the surface to FL 240 (24,000 feet), also referred to as the 400 mb level, and high-level significant weather from FL 250 to FL 600 (25,000 to 60,000 feet). The primary concern of this discussion is the low-level significant weather prognostic chart.
The low-level chart comes in two forms: the 12– and 24–hour forecast chart, and the 36- and 48-hour surface forecast chart. The first chart is a four-panel chart that includes 12– and 24–hour forecasts for significant weather and surface weather. Charts are issued four times a day at 0000Z, 0600Z, 1200Z, and 1800Z. The valid time for the chart is printed on the lower left corner of each panel.
The upper two panels show forecast significant weather, which may include nonconvective turbulence, freezing levels, and IFR or MVFR weather. Areas of moderate or greater turbulence are enclosed in dashed lines. Numbers within these areas give the height of the turbulence in hundreds of feet MSL. Figures below the line show the anticipated base, while figures above the line show the top of the zone of turbulence. Also shown on this panel are areas of VFR, IFR, and MVFR. IFR areas are enclosed by solid lines, MVFR areas are enclosed by scalloped lines, and the remaining, unenclosed area is designated VFR. Zigzag lines and the letters “SFC” indicate freezing levels in that area are at the surface. Freezing level height contours for the highest freezing level are drawn at 4,000-foot intervals with dashed lines.
The lower two panels show the forecast surface weather and depicts the forecast locations and characteristics of pressure systems, fronts, and precipitation. Standard symbols are used to show fronts and pressure centers. Direction of movement of the pressure center is depicted by an arrow. The speed in knots is shown next to the arrow. In addition, areas of forecast precipitation and thunderstorms are outlined. Areas of precipitation that are shaded indicate at least one-half of the area is being affected by the precipitation. Unique symbols indicate the type of precipitation and the manner in which it occurs.
Figure 12-19 depicts a typical significant weather prognostic chart as well as the symbols typically used to depict precipitation. Prognostic charts are an excellent source of information for preflight planning; however, this chart should be viewed in light of current conditions and specific local area forecasts.
The 36- and 48-hour significant weather prognostic chart is an extension of the 12- and 24-hour forecast. It provides information regarding surface weather forecasts and includes a discussion of the forecast. This chart is issued twice a day. It typically contains forecast positions and characteristics of pressure patterns, fronts, and precipitation. An example of a 36- and 48-hour surface prognostic chart is shown in Figure 12-20.
As part of an overall safety risk assessment for flight, when should the Remote PIC check and consider weather conditions in the operating area?
Sarah Nilsson, J.D., Ph.D., MAS
602 561 8665
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