Sarah Nilsson JD, PhD, MAS
Sarah NilssonJD, PhD, MAS

UA.III.A.K5 - Automated Surface Observing Systems (ASOS) and Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS) 

Remote pilot sUAS study guide

Surface Aviation Weather Observations

Surface aviation weather observations are a compilation of elements of the current weather at individual ground stations across the United States. The network is made up of government and privately contracted facilities that provide continuous up-to-date weather information. Automated weather sources, such as the Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS), Automated Surface Observing Systems (ASOS), as well as other automated facilities, also play a major role in the gathering of surface observations.

Surface observations provide local weather conditions and other relevant information for a specific airport. This information includes the type of report, station identifier, date and time, modifier (as required), wind, visibility, runway visual range (RVR), weather phenomena, sky condition, temperature/dew point, altimeter reading, and applicable remarks. The information gathered for the surface observation may be from a person, an automated station, or an automated station that is updated or enhanced by a weather observer. In any form, the surface observation provides valuable information about individual airports around the country. These reports cover a small area and will be beneficial to the remote pilot. 

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS). Automated weather reporting system consisting of various sensors, a processor, a computer-generated voice subsystem, and a transmitter to broadcast weather data.


AIM 7−1−11

Weather Observing Programs

a. Manual Observations. With only a few exceptions, these reports are from airport locations staffed by FAA personnel who manually observe, perform calculations, and enter these observations into the (WMSCR) communication system. The format and coding of these observations are contained in Paragraph 7−1−29, Key to Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR) and Aerodrome Forecasts (TAF).


b. Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS).

1. Automated weather reporting systems are increasingly being installed at airports. These systems consist of various sensors, a processor, a computer-generated voice subsystem, and a transmitter to broadcast local, minute-by-minute weather data directly to the pilot.

NOTE− When the barometric pressure exceeds 31.00 inches Hg., see Paragraph 7−2−2, Procedures, for the altimeter setting procedures.


2. The AWOS observations will include the prefix “AUTO” to indicate that the data are derived from an automated system. Some AWOS locations will be augmented by certified observers who will provide weather and obstruction to vision information in the remarks of the report when the reported visibility is less than 7 miles. These sites, along with the hours of augmentation, are to be published in the Chart Supplement U.S. Augmentation is identified in the observation as “OBSERVER WEATHER.” The AWOS wind speed, direction and gusts, temperature, dew point, and altimeter setting are exactly the same as for manual observations. The AWOS will also report density altitude when it exceeds the field elevation by more than 1,000 feet. The reported visibility is derived from a sensor near the touchdown of the primary instrument runway. The visibility sensor output is converted to a visibility value using a 10−minute harmonic average. The reported sky condition/ceiling is derived from the ceilometer located next to the visibility sensor. The AWOS algorithm integrates the last 30 minutes of ceilometer data to derive cloud layers and heights. This output may also differ from the observer sky condition in that the AWOS is totally dependent upon the cloud advection over the sensor site.


3. These real-time systems are operationally classified into nine basic levels:

(a) AWOS−A only reports altimeter setting;

NOTE− Any other information is advisory only.

(b) AWOS−AV reports altimeter and visibility;

NOTE− Any other information is advisory only.

(c) AWOS−l usually reports altimeter setting, wind data, temperature, dew point, and density altitude;

(d) AWOS−2 provides the information provided by AWOS−l plus visibility; and

(e) AWOS−3 provides the information provided by AWOS−2 plus cloud/ceiling data.

(f) AWOS− 3P provides reports the same as the AWOS 3 system, plus a precipitation identification sensor.

(g) AWOS− 3PT reports the same as the AWOS 3P System, plus thunderstorm/lightning reporting capability.

(h) AWOS− 3T reports the same as AWOS 3 system and includes a thunderstorm/lightning reporting capability.

(i) AWOS− 4 reports the same as the AWOS 3 system, plus precipitation occurrence, type and accumulation, freezing rain, thunderstorm, and runway surface sensors.


4. The information is transmitted over a discrete VHF radio frequency or the voice portion of a local

NAVAID. AWOS transmissions on a discrete VHF radio frequency are engineered to be receivable to a maximum of 25 NM from the AWOS site and a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet AGL. At many locations, AWOS signals may be received on the surface of the airport, but local conditions may limit the maximum AWOS reception distance and/or altitude. The system transmits a 20 to 30 second weather message updated each minute. Pilots should monitor the designated frequency for the automated weather broadcast. A description of the broadcast is contained in subparagraph c. There is no two-way communication capability. Most AWOS sites also have a dial-up capability so that the minute-by-minute weather messages can be accessed via telephone.


5. AWOS information (system level, frequency, phone number, etc.) concerning specific locations is published, as the systems become operational, in the Chart Supplement U.S., and where applicable, on published Instrument Approach Procedures. Selected individual systems may be incorporated into nationwide data collection and dissemination networks in the future.


c. AWOS Broadcasts. Computer-generated voice is used in AWOS to automate the broadcast of the minute-by-minute weather observations. In addition, some systems are configured to permit the addition of an operator-generated voice message; e.g., weather remarks following the automated parameters. The phraseology used generally follows that used for other weather broadcasts. Following are explanations and examples of the exceptions.


1. Location and Time. The location/name and the phrase “AUTOMATED WEATHER OBSERVATION,” followed by the time are announced.

(a) If the airport’s specific location is included in the airport’s name, the airport’s name is announced.


“Bremerton National Airport automated weather observation, one four five six zulu;”

“Ravenswood Jackson County Airport automated weather observation, one four five six zulu.”

(b) If the airport’s specific location is not included in the airport’s name, the location is announced followed by the airport’s name.


“Sault Ste. Marie, Chippewa County International Airport automated weather observation;”

“Sandusky, Cowley Field automated weather observation.”

(c) The word “TEST” is added following “OBSERVATION” when the system is not in commissioned status.


“Bremerton National Airport automated weather observation test, one four five six zulu.”

(d) The phrase “TEMPORARILY INOPERATIVE” is added when the system is inoperative.


“Bremerton National Airport automated weather observing system temporarily inoperative.”


2. Visibility.

(a) The lowest reportable visibility value in AWOS is “less than 1/4.” It is announced as


(b) A sensor for determining visibility is not included in some AWOS. In these systems, visibility is not announced. “VISIBILITY MISSING” is announced only if the system is configured with a visibility sensor and visibility information is not available.


3. Weather. In the future, some AWOSs are to be configured to determine the occurrence of precipitation. However, the type and intensity may not always be determined. In these systems, the word “PRECIPITATION” will be announced if precipitation is occurring, but the type and intensity are not determined.


4. Ceiling and Sky Cover.

(a) Ceiling is announced as either “CEILING” or “INDEFINITE CEILING.” With the exception of indefinite ceilings, all automated ceiling heights are measured.


“Bremerton National Airport automated weather observation, one four five six zulu. Ceiling two thousand overcast;”

“Bremerton National Airport automated weather observation, one four five six zulu. Indefinite ceiling two hundred, sky obscured.”

(b) The word “Clear” is not used in AWOS due to limitations in the height ranges of the sensors.

No clouds detected is announced as “NO CLOUDS BELOW XXX” or, in newer systems as “CLEAR

BELOW XXX” (where XXX is the range limit of the sensor).


“No clouds below one two thousand.”

“Clear below one two thousand.”

(c) A sensor for determining ceiling and sky cover is not included in some AWOS. In these systems, ceiling and sky cover are not announced.

“SKY CONDITION MISSING” is announced only if the system is configured with a ceilometer and the ceiling and sky cover information is not available.


5. Remarks. If remarks are included in the observation, the word “REMARKS” is announced following the altimeter setting.

(a) Automated “Remarks.”

(1) Density Altitude.

(2) Variable Visibility.

(3) Variable Wind Direction.

(b) Manual Input Remarks. Manual input remarks are prefaced with the phrase “OBSERVER

WEATHER.” As a general rule the manual remarks are limited to:

(1) Type and intensity of precipitation.

(2) Thunderstorms and direction; and

(3) Obstructions to vision when the visibility is 3 miles or less.


“Remarks ... density altitude, two thousand five hundred ... visibility variable between one and two ... wind direction variable between two four zero and three one zero ...observed weather ... thunderstorm moderate rain showers and fog ... thunderstorm overhead.”

(c) If an automated parameter is “missing” and no manual input for that parameter is available, the parameter is announced as “MISSING.” For example, a report with the dew point “missing” and no manual input available, would be announced as follows:


“Ceiling one thousand overcast ... visibility three ... precipitation ... temperature three zero, dew point missing ... wind calm ... altimeter three zero zero one.”

(d) “REMARKS” are announced in the following order of priority:

(1) Automated “REMARKS.”

[a] Density Altitude.

[b] Variable Visibility.

[c] Variable Wind Direction.

(2) Manual Input “REMARKS.”

[a] Sky Condition.

[b] Visibility.

[c] Weather and Obstructions to Vision.

[d] Temperature.

[e] Dew Point.

[f] Wind; and

[g] Altimeter Setting.


“Remarks ... density altitude, two thousand five hundred ... visibility variable between one and two ... wind direction variable between two four zero and three one zero ... observer ceiling estimated two thousand broken ... observer temperature two, dew point minus five.”


Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). Weather reporting system which provides surface observations every minute via digitized voice broadcasts and printed reports.



d. Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS)/Automated Weather Sensor System (AWSS). The ASOS/AWSS is the primary surface weather observing system of the U.S. (See Key to Decode an ASOS/AWSS (METAR) Observation, FIG 7−1−5 and FIG 7−1−6.) The program to install and operate these systems throughout the U.S. is a joint effort of the NWS, the FAA and the Department of Defense. AWSS is a follow−on program that provides identical data as ASOS. ASOS/AWSS is designed to support aviation operations and weather forecast activities. The ASOS/AWSS will provide continuous minute-by-minute observations and perform the basic observing functions necessary to generate an aviation routine weather report (METAR) and other aviation weather information. The information may be transmitted over a discrete VHF radio frequency or the voice portion of a local NAVAID. ASOS/AWSS transmissions on a discrete VHF radio frequency are engineered to be receivable to a maximum of 25 NM from the ASOS/AWSS site and a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet AGL. At many locations, ASOS/AWSS signals may be received on the surface of the airport, but local conditions may limit the maximum reception distance and/or altitude.

While the automated system and the human may differ in their methods of data collection and interpretation, both produce an observation quite similar in form and content. For the “objective” elements such as pressure, ambient temperature, dew point temperature, wind, and precipitation accumulation, both the automated system and the observer use a fixed location and time-averaging technique. The quantitative differences between the observer and the automated observation of these elements are negligible. For the “subjective” elements, however, observers use a fixed time, spatial averaging technique to describe the visual elements (sky condition, visibility and present weather), while the automated systems use a fixed location, time averaging technique. Although this is a fundamental change, the manual and automated techniques yield remarkably similar results within the limits of their respective capabilities.


1. System Description.

(a) The ASOS/AWSS at each airport location consists of four main components:

(1) Individual weather sensors.

(2) Data collection and processing units.

(3) Peripherals and displays.

(b) The ASOS/AWSS sensors perform the basic function of data acquisition. They continuously sample and measure the ambient environment, derive raw sensor data and make them available to the collection and processing units.


2. Every ASOS/AWSS will contain the following basic set of sensors:

(a) Cloud height indicator (one or possibly three).

(b) Visibility sensor (one or possibly three).

(c) Precipitation identification sensor.

(d) Freezing rain sensor (at select sites).

(e) Pressure sensors (two sensors at small airports; three sensors at large airports).

(f) Ambient temperature/Dew point temperature sensor.

(g) Anemometer (wind direction and speed sensor).

(h) Rainfall accumulation sensor.


3. The ASOS/AWSS data outlets include:

(a) Those necessary for on-site airport users.

(b) National communications networks.

(c) Computer-generated voice (available through FAA radio broadcast to pilots, and dial-in telephone line).

NOTE− Wind direction broadcast over FAA radios is in reference to magnetic north.


4. An ASOS/AWOS/AWSS report without human intervention will contain only that weather data capable of being reported automatically. The modifier for this METAR report is “AUTO.” When an observer augments or backs−up an ASOS/AWOS/AWSS site, the “AUTO” modifier disappears


5. There are two types of automated stations, AO1 for automated weather reporting stations without a precipitation discriminator, and AO2 for automated stations with a precipitation discriminator.

As appropriate, “AO1” and “AO2” must appear in remarks. (A precipitation discriminator can determine the difference between liquid and frozen/freezing precipitation).

NOTE− To decode an ASOS/AWSS report, refer to FIG 7−1−5 and FIG 7−1−6. 

REFERENCE− A complete explanation of METAR terminology is located in AIM, Paragraph 7−1−29, Key to Aerodrome Forecast (TAF) and Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR).


UA.III.B.K1 - Weather factors and their effects on performance

Air Safety Institute Interactive module: Air Masses and Fronts
Air Safety Institute Interactive module: Ceiling and Visibility
Air Safety Institute Interactive module: Precipitation and Icing
Air Safety Institute Interactive module: Thunderstorms and ATC



Remote pilot sUAS study guide


This chapter discusses the factors that affect aircraft performance, which include the aircraft weight, atmospheric conditions, runway environment, and the fundamental physical laws governing the forces acting on an aircraft.

Since the characteristics of the atmosphere have a major effect on performance, it is necessary to review two dominant factors—pressure and temperature. 

Remote pilot sUAS study guide


The manufacturer may provide operational and performance information that contains the operational performance data for the aircraft such as data pertaining to takeoff, climb, range, endurance, descent, and landing. To be able to make practical use of the aircraft’s capabilities and limitations, it is essential to understand the significance of the operational data. The use of this data in flying operations is essential for safe and efficient operation. It should be emphasized that the manufacturers’ information regarding performance data is not standardized. If manufacturer-published performance data is unavailable, it is advisable to seek out performance data that may have already been determined and published by other users of the same small UA manufacturer model and use that data as a starting point. 


UA.III.B.K1a - Density altitude

Remote pilot sUAS study guide

The more appropriate term for correlating aerodynamic performance in the nonstandard atmosphere is density altitude—the altitude in the standard atmosphere corresponding to a particular value of air density.

As the density of the air increases (lower density altitude), aircraft performance increases. Conversely, as air density decreases (higher density altitude), aircraft performance decreases. A decrease in air density means a high density altitude; an increase in air density means a lower density altitude. Density altitude has a direct effect on aircraft performance.

Air density is affected by changes in altitude, temperature, and humidity. High density altitude refers to thin air while low density altitude refers to dense air. The conditions that result in a high density altitude are high elevations, low atmospheric pressures, high temperatures, high humidity, or some combination of these factors. Lower elevations, high atmospheric pressure, low temperatures, and low humidity are more indicative of low density altitude. 

Remote pilot sUAS study guide

Measurement of Atmosphere Pressure

To provide a common reference, the International Standard Atmosphere (ISA) has been established. These standard conditions are the basis for most aircraft performance data. Standard sea level pressure is defined as 29.92 "Hg and a standard temperature of 59 °F (15 °C). Atmospheric pressure is also reported in millibars (mb), with 1 "Hg equal to approximately 34 mb. Standard sea level pressure is 1,013.2 mb. Typical mb pressure readings range from 950.0 to 1,040.0 mb. Surface charts, high and low pressure centers, and hurricane data are reported using mb.

Since weather stations are located around the globe, all local barometric pressure readings are converted to a sea level pressure to provide a standard for records and reports. To achieve this, each station converts its barometric pressure by adding approximately 1 "Hg for every 1,000 feet of elevation. For example, a station at 5,000 feet above sea level, with a reading of 24.92 "Hg, reports a sea level pressure reading of 29.92 "Hg.

By tracking barometric pressure trends across a large area, weather forecasters can more accurately predict movement of pressure systems and the associated weather. For example, tracking a pattern of rising pressure at a single weather station generally indicates the approach of fair weather. Conversely, decreasing or rapidly falling pressure usually indicates approaching bad weather and, possibly, severe storms. 

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Atmospheric Pressure

Although there are various kinds of pressure, pilots are mainly concerned with atmospheric pressure. It is one of the basic factors in weather changes, helps to lift an aircraft, and actuates some of the important flight instruments. These instruments are the altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, and manifold pressure gauge.

Air is very light, but it has mass and is affected by the attraction of gravity. Therefore, like any other substance, it has weight, and because of its weight, it has force. Since it is a fluid substance, this force is exerted equally in all directions, and its effect on bodies within the air is called pressure. Under standard conditions at sea level, the average pressure exerted by the weight of the atmosphere is approximately 14.70 pounds per square inch (psi) of surface, or 1,013.2 millibars (mb). Its thickness is limited; therefore, the higher the altitude, the less air there is above. For this reason, the weight of the atmosphere at 18,000 feet is one-half what it is at sea level.

The pressure of the atmosphere varies with time and location. Due to the changing atmospheric pressure, a standard reference was developed. The standard atmosphere at sea level is a surface temperature of 59 °F or 15 °C and a surface pressure of 29.92 inches of mercury ("Hg), or 1,013.2 mb. [Figure 3-1] temperature is considered constant up to 80,000 feet. A standard pressure lapse rate is one in which pressure decreases at a rate of approximately 1 "Hg per 1,000 feet of altitude gain to 10,000 feet. [Figure 3-2] The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has established this as a worldwide standard, and it is often referred to as International Standard Atmosphere (ISA) or ICAO Standard Atmosphere. Any temperature or pressure that differs from the standard lapse rates is considered nonstandard temperature and pressure.

Since aircraft performance is compared and evaluated with respect to the standard atmosphere, all aircraft instruments are calibrated for the standard atmosphere. In order to account properly for the nonstandard atmosphere, certain related terms must be defined.

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Pressure Altitude

Pressure altitude is the height above a standard datum plane (SDP), which is a theoretical level where the weight of the atmosphere is 29.92 "Hg (1,013.2 mb) as measured by a barometer. An altimeter is essentially a sensitive barometer calibrated to indicate altitude in the standard atmosphere. If the altimeter is set for 29.92 "Hg SDP, the altitude indicated is the pressure altitude. As atmospheric pressure changes, the SDP may be below, at, or above sea level. Pressure altitude is important as a basis for determining airplane performance, as well as for assigning flight levels to airplanes operating at or above 18,000 feet.


The pressure altitude can be determined by either of two methods:

1. Setting the barometric scale of the altimeter to 29.92 and reading the indicated altitude.

2. Applying a correction factor to the indicated altitude according to the reported altimeter setting.


Density Altitude

SDP is a theoretical pressure altitude, but aircraft operate in a nonstandard atmosphere and the term density altitude is used for correlating aerodynamic performance in the nonstandard atmosphere. Density altitude is the vertical distance above sea level in the standard atmosphere at which a given density is to be found. The density of air has significant effects on the aircraft’s performance because as air becomes less dense, it reduces:

• Power because the engine takes in less air.

• Thrust because a propeller is less efficient in thin air.

• Lift because the thin air exerts less force on the airfoils.

Density altitude is pressure altitude corrected for nonstandard temperature. As the density of the air increases (lower density altitude), aircraft performance increases and conversely as air density decreases (higher density altitude), aircraft performance decreases. A decrease in air density means a high density altitude; an increase in air density means a lower density altitude. Density altitude is used in calculating aircraft performance, because under standard atmospheric conditions, air at each level in the atmosphere not only has a specific density, its pressure altitude and density altitude identify the same level.

The computation of density altitude involves consideration of pressure (pressure altitude) and temperature. Since aircraft performance data at any level is based upon air density under standard day conditions, such performance data apply to air density levels that may not be identical with altimeter indications. Under conditions higher or lower than standard, these levels cannot be determined directly from the altimeter.

Density altitude is determined by first finding pressure altitude, and then correcting this altitude for nonstandard temperature variations. Since density varies directly with pressure, and inversely with temperature, a given pressure altitude may exist for a wide range of temperature by allowing the density to vary. However, a known density occurs for any one temperature and pressure altitude. The density of the air has a pronounced effect on aircraft and engine performance.

Regardless of the actual altitude at which the aircraft is operating, it will perform as though it were operating at an altitude equal to the existing density altitude.

Air density is affected by changes in altitude, temperature, and humidity. High density altitude refers to thin air while low density altitude refers to dense air. The conditions that result in a high density altitude are high elevations, low atmospheric pressures, high temperatures, high humidity, or some combination of these factors. Lower elevations, high atmospheric pressure, low temperatures, and low humidity are more indicative of low density altitude.


Effect of Pressure on Density

Since air is a gas, it can be compressed or expanded. When air is compressed, a greater amount of air can occupy a given volume. Conversely, when pressure on a given volume of air is decreased, the air expands and occupies a greater space. At a lower pressure, the original column of air contains a smaller mass of air. The density is decreased because density is directly proportional to pressure. If the pressure is doubled, the density is doubled; if the pressure is lowered, the density is lowered. This statement is true only at a constant temperature.


Effect of Temperature on Density

Increasing the temperature of a substance decreases its density. Conversely, decreasing the temperature increases the density. Thus, the density of air varies inversely with temperature. This statement is true only at a constant pressure.

In the atmosphere, both temperature and pressure decrease with altitude, and have conflicting effects upon density. However, the fairly rapid drop in pressure as altitude is increased usually has the dominating effect. Hence, pilots can expect the density to decrease with altitude.


Effect of Humidity (Moisture) on Density

The preceding paragraphs refer to air that is perfectly dry. In reality, it is never completely dry. The small amount of water vapor suspended in the atmosphere may be almost negligible under certain conditions, but in other conditions humidity may become an important factor in the performance of an aircraft. Water vapor is lighter than air; consequently, moist air is lighter than dry air. Therefore, as the water content of the air increases, the air becomes less dense, increasing density altitude and decreasing performance. It is lightest or least dense when, in a given set of conditions, it contains the maximum amount of water vapor.

Humidity, also called relative humidity, refers to the amount of water vapor contained in the atmosphere, and is expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold. This amount varies with temperature. Warm air holds more water vapor, while colder air holds less. Perfectly dry air that contains no water vapor has a relative humidity of zero percent, while saturated air, which cannot hold any more water vapor, has a relative humidity of 100 percent. Humidity alone is usually not considered an important factor in calculating density altitude and aircraft performance, but it does contribute.

As temperature increases, the air can hold greater amounts of water vapor. When comparing two separate air masses, the first warm and moist (both qualities tending to lighten the air) and the second cold and dry (both qualities making it heavier), the first must be less dense than the second. Pressure, temperature, and humidity have a great influence on aircraft performance because of their effect upon density. There are no rules of thumb that can be easily conveyed but the affect of humidity can be determined using online formulas. In the first case, the pressure is needed at the altitude for which density altitude is being sought. Using Figure 3-2, select the barometric pressure closest to the associated altitude. As an example, the pressure at 8,000 feet is 22.22 "Hg. Using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website for density altitude, enter the 22.22 for 8,000 feet in the station pressure window. Entering a temperature of 80° and a dew point of 75°. The result is a density altitude of 11,564 feet. With no humidity, the density altitude would be almost 500 feet lower.

Another site ( provides a more straight forward method of determining the effects of humidity on density altitude without using additional interpretive charts. In any case, the effects of humidity on density altitude include a decrease in overall performance in high humidity conditions.

Density altitude—pressure altitude corrected for variations from standard temperature. When conditions are standard, pressure altitude and density altitude are the same. If the temperature is above standard, the density altitude is higher than pressure altitude. If the temperature is below standard, the density altitude is lower than pressure altitude. This is an important altitude because it is directly related to the aircraft’s performance.


What effect does high density altitude have on the efficiency of a UA propeller?

  1. Propeller efficiency is increased
  2. Propeller efficiency is decreased
  3. Density altitude does not affect propeller efficiency

UA.III.B.K1b - Wind and currents

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Wind and Currents

Air flows from areas of high pressure into areas of low pressure because air always seeks out lower pressure. Air pressure, temperature changes, and the Coriolis force work in combination to create two kinds of motion in the atmosphere—vertical movement of ascending and descending currents, and horizontal movement in the form of wind. Currents and winds are important as they affect takeoff, landing, and cruise flight operations. Most importantly, currents and winds or atmospheric circulation cause weather changes.


Wind Patterns

In the Northern Hemisphere, the flow of air from areas of high to low pressure is deflected to the right and produces a clockwise circulation around an area of high pressure. This is known as anticyclonic circulation. The opposite is true of low-pressure areas; the air flows toward a low and is deflected to create a counterclockwise or cyclonic circulation. [Figure 11-10]


High pressure systems are generally areas of dry, stable, descending air. Good weather is typically associated with high pressure systems for this reason. Conversely, air flows into a low pressure area to replace rising air. This air tends to be unstable, and usually brings increasing cloudiness and precipitation. Thus, bad weather is commonly associated with areas of low pressure.

A good understanding of high and low pressure wind patterns can be of great help when planning a flight, because a pilot can take advantage of beneficial tailwinds. [Figure 11-11] When planning a flight from west to east, favorable winds would be encountered along the northern side of a high pressure system or the southern side of a low pressure system. On the return flight, the most favorable winds would be along the southern side of the same high pressure system or the northern side of a low pressure system. An added advantage is a better understanding of what type of weather to expect in a given area along a route of flight based on the prevailing areas of highs and lows.

While the theory of circulation and wind patterns is accurate for large scale atmospheric circulation, it does not take into account changes to the circulation on a local scale. Local conditions, geological features, and other anomalies can change the wind direction and speed close to the Earth’s surface.

Convective Currents

Different surfaces radiate heat in varying amounts. Plowed ground, rocks, sand, and barren land give off a large amount of heat; water, trees, and other areas of vegetation tend to absorb and retain heat. The resulting uneven heating of the air creates small areas of local circulation called convective currents.

Convective currents cause the bumpy, turbulent air sometimes experienced when flying at lower altitudes during warmer weather. On a low altitude flight over varying surfaces, updrafts are likely to occur over pavement or barren places, and downdrafts often occur over water or expansive areas of vegetation like a group of trees. Typically, these turbulent conditions can be avoided by flying at higher altitudes, even above cumulus cloud layers. [Figure 11-12]

Convective currents are particularly noticeable in areas with a land mass directly adjacent to a large body of water, such as an ocean, large lake, or other appreciable area of water. During the day, land heats faster than water, so the air over the land becomes warmer and less dense. It rises and is replaced by cooler, denser air flowing in from over the water. This causes an onshore wind, called a sea breeze. Conversely, at night land cools faster than water, as does the corresponding air. In this case, the warmer air over the water rises and is replaced by the cooler, denser air from the land, creating an offshore wind called a land breeze. This reverses the local wind circulation pattern. Convective currents can occur anywhere there is an uneven heating of the Earth’s surface. [Figure 11-13]

Convective currents close to the ground can affect a pilot’s ability to control the aircraft. For example, on final approach, the rising air from terrain devoid of vegetation sometimes produces a ballooning effect that can cause a pilot to overshoot the intended landing spot. On the other hand, an approach over a large body of water or an area of thick vegetation tends to create a sinking effect that can cause an unwary pilot to land short of the intended landing spot. [Figure 11-14]

Remote pilot sUAS study guide

Effect of Obstructions on Wind

Another atmospheric hazard exists that can create problems for pilots. Obstructions on the ground affect the flow of wind and can be an unseen danger. Ground topography and large buildings can break up the flow of the wind and create wind gusts that change rapidly in direction and speed. These obstructions range from manmade structures like hangars to large natural obstructions, such as mountains, bluffs, or canyons. It is especially important to be vigilant when flying in or out of airports that have large buildings or natural obstructions located near the runway. [Figure 11-15] 

The intensity of the turbulence associated with ground obstructions depends on the size of the obstacle and the primary velocity of the wind. This can affect the takeoff and landing performance of any aircraft and can present a very serious hazard. During the landing phase of flight, an aircraft may “drop in” due to the turbulent air and be too low to clear obstacles during the approach.

This same condition is even more noticeable when flying in mountainous regions. [Figure 11-16] 

While the wind flows smoothly up the windward side of the mountain and the upward currents help to carry an aircraft over the peak of the mountain, the wind on the leeward side does not act in a similar manner. As the air flows down the leeward side of the mountain, the air follows the contour of the terrain and is increasingly turbulent. This tends to push an aircraft into the side of a mountain. The stronger the wind, the greater the downward pressure and turbulence become.

Due to the effect terrain has on the wind in valleys or canyons, downdrafts can be severe. Before conducting a flight in or near mountainous terrain, it is helpful for a pilot unfamiliar with a mountainous area to get a checkout with a mountain qualified flight instructor.


Low-Level Wind Shear

Wind shear is a sudden, drastic change in wind speed and/or direction over a very small area. Wind shear can subject an aircraft to violent updrafts and downdrafts, as well as abrupt changes to the horizontal movement of the aircraft. While wind shear can occur at any altitude, low-level wind shear is especially hazardous due to the proximity of an aircraft to the ground. Directional wind changes of 180° and speed changes of 50 knots or more are associated with low-level wind shear. Low-level wind shear is commonly associated with passing frontal systems, thunderstorms, and temperature inversions with strong upper level winds (greater than 25 knots).

Wind shear is dangerous to an aircraft for several reasons. The rapid changes in wind direction and velocity change the wind’s relation to the aircraft disrupting the normal flight attitude and performance of the aircraft. During a wind shear situation, the effects can be subtle or very dramatic depending on wind speed and direction of change. For example, a tailwind that quickly changes to a headwind causes an increase in airspeed and performance. Conversely, when a headwind changes to a tailwind, the airspeed rapidly decreases and there is a corresponding decrease in performance. In either case, a pilot must be prepared to react immediately to the changes to maintain control of the aircraft.

In general, the most severe type of low-level wind shear is associated with convective precipitation or rain from thunderstorms. One critical type of shear associated with convective precipitation is known as a microburst. A typical microburst occurs in a space of less than one mile horizontally and within 1,000 feet vertically. The lifespan of a microburst is about 15 minutes during which it can produce downdrafts of up to 6,000 feet per minute (fpm). It can also produce a hazardous wind direction change of 45 degrees or more, in a matter of seconds.

When encountered close to the ground, these excessive downdrafts and rapid changes in wind direction can produce a situation in which it is difficult to control the aircraft. [Figure 11-17] During an inadvertent takeoff into a microburst, the plane first experiences a performance-increasing headwind (1), followed by performance-decreasing downdrafts (2). Then, the wind rapidly shears to a tailwind (3), and can result in terrain impact or flight dangerously close to the ground (4).

Microbursts are often difficult to detect because they occur in relatively confined areas. In an effort to warn pilots of low-level wind shear, alert systems have been installed at several airports around the country. A series of anemometers, placed around the airport, form a net to detect changes in wind speeds. When wind speeds differ by more than 15 knots, a warning for wind shear is given to pilots. This system is known as the low-level wind shear alert system (LLWAS).

It is important to remember that wind shear can affect any flight and any pilot at any altitude. While wind shear may be reported, it often remains undetected and is a silent danger to aviation. Always be alert to the possibility of wind shear, especially when flying in and around thunderstorms and frontal systems.


Wind and Pressure Representation on Surface Weather Maps

Surface weather maps provide information about fronts, areas of high and low pressure, and surface winds and pressures for each station. This type of weather map allows pilots to see the locations of fronts and pressure systems, but more importantly, it depicts the wind and pressure at the surface for each location. For more information on surface analysis and weather depiction charts, see Chapter 12, Weather Aviation Services.

Wind conditions are reported by an arrow attached to the station location circle. [Figure 11-18] The station circle represents the head of the arrow, with the arrow pointing in the direction from which the wind is blowing. Winds are described by the direction from which they blow, thus a northwest wind means that the wind is blowing from the northwest toward the southeast. The speed of the wind is depicted by barbs or pennants placed on the wind line. Each barb represents a speed of ten knots, while half a barb is equal to five knots, and a pennant is equal to 50 knots.

The pressure for each station is recorded on the weather chart and is shown in mb. Isobars are lines drawn on the chart to depict areas of equal pressure. These lines result in a pattern that reveals the pressure gradient or change in pressure over distance. [Figure 11-19] Isobars are similar to contour lines on a topographic map that indicate terrain altitudes and slope steepness. For example, isobars that are closely spaced indicate a steep wind gradient and strong winds prevail. Shallow gradients, on the other hand, are represented by isobars that are spaced far apart, and are indicative of light winds. Isobars help identify low and high pressure systems as well as the location of ridges, troughs, and cut-off lows (cols). A high is an area of high pressure surrounded by lower pressure; a low is an area of low pressure surrounded by higher pressure. A ridge is an elongated area of high pressure, and a trough is an elongated area of low pressure. A col is the intersection between a ridge and a trough, or an area of neutrality between two highs or two lows.

Isobars furnish valuable information about winds in the first few thousand feet above the surface. Close to the ground, wind direction is modified by the surface and wind speed decreases due to friction with the surface. At levels 2,000 to

3,000 feet above the surface, however, the speed is greater and the direction becomes more parallel to the isobars. Therefore, the surface winds are shown on the weather map, as well as the winds at a slightly higher altitude.

Generally, the wind 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL) is 20° to 40° to the right of surface winds, and the wind speed is greater. The change of wind direction is greatest over rough terrain and least over flat surfaces, such as open water. In the absence of winds aloft information, this rule of thumb allows for a rough estimate of the wind conditions a few thousand feet above the surface.

Which of the following geographical features may create downdrafts that affect UAS performance?

  1. Rocks or sand
  2. Plowed ground or barren land
  3. Water or vegetation 


While operating around buildings, the Remote Pilot in Command should be aware of the creation of wind gusts that:

  1. Enhance stability and imagery
  2. Increase performance of the aircraft
  3. Change rapidly in direction and speed causing turbulence

UA.III.B.K1c - Atmospheric stability, pressure, and temperature

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Atmospheric Stability

The stability of the atmosphere depends on its ability to resist vertical motion. A stable atmosphere makes vertical movement difficult, and small vertical disturbances dampen out and disappear. In an unstable atmosphere, small vertical air movements tend to become larger, resulting in turbulent airflow and convective activity. Instability can lead to significant turbulence, extensive vertical clouds, and severe weather.

Rising air expands and cools due to the decrease in air pressure as altitude increases. The opposite is true of descending air; as atmospheric pressure increases, the temperature of descending air increases as it is compressed. Adiabatic heating and adiabatic cooling are terms used to describe this temperature change.

The adiabatic process takes place in all upward and downward moving air. When air rises into an area of lower pressure, it expands to a larger volume. As the molecules of air expand, the temperature of the air lowers. As a result, when a parcel of air rises, pressure decreases, volume increases, and temperature decreases. When air descends, the opposite is true. The rate at which temperature decreases with an increase in altitude is referred to as its lapse rate. As air ascends through the atmosphere, the average rate of temperature change is 2 °C (3.5 °F) per 1,000 feet.

Since water vapor is lighter than air, moisture decreases air density, causing it to rise. Conversely, as moisture decreases, air becomes denser and tends to sink. Since moist air cools at a slower rate, it is generally less stable than dry air since the moist air must rise higher before its temperature cools to that of the surrounding air. The dry adiabatic lapse rate (unsaturated air) is 3 °C (5.4 °F) per 1,000 feet. The moist adiabatic lapse rate varies from 1.1 °C to 2.8 °C (2 °F to 5 °F) per 1,000 feet.

The combination of moisture and temperature determine the stability of the air and the resulting weather. Cool, dry air is very stable and resists vertical movement, which leads to good and generally clear weather. The greatest instability occurs when the air is moist and warm, as it is in the tropical regions in the summer. Typically, thunderstorms appear on a daily basis in these regions due to the instability of the surrounding air.



As air rises and expands in the atmosphere, the temperature decreases. There is an atmospheric anomaly that can occur; however, that changes this typical pattern of atmospheric behavior. When the temperature of the air rises with altitude, a temperature inversion exists. Inversion layers are commonly shallow layers of smooth, stable air close to the ground. The temperature of the air increases with altitude to a certain point, which is the top of the inversion. The air at the top of the layer acts as a lid, keeping weather and pollutants trapped below. If the relative humidity of the air is high, it can contribute to the formation of clouds, fog, haze, or smoke, resulting in diminished visibility in the inversion layer.

Surface based temperature inversions occur on clear, cool nights when the air close to the ground is cooled by the lowering temperature of the ground. The air within a few hundred feet of the surface becomes cooler than the air above it. Frontal inversions occur when warm air spreads over a layer of cooler air, or cooler air is forced under a layer of warmer air.


Moisture and Temperature

The atmosphere, by nature, contains moisture in the form of water vapor. The amount of moisture present in the atmosphere is dependent upon the temperature of the air. Every 20 °F increase in temperature doubles the amount of moisture the air can hold. Conversely, a decrease of 20 °F cuts the capacity in half.

Water is present in the atmosphere in three states: liquid, solid, and gaseous. All three forms can readily change to another, and all are present within the temperature ranges of the atmosphere. As water changes from one state to another, an exchange of heat takes place. These changes occur through the processes of evaporation, sublimation, condensation, deposition, melting, or freezing. However, water vapor is added into the atmosphere only by the processes of evaporation and sublimation.

Evaporation is the changing of liquid water to water vapor. As water vapor forms, it absorbs heat from the nearest available source. This heat exchange is known as the latent heat of evaporation. A good example is the evaporation of human perspiration. The net effect is a cooling sensation as heat is extracted from the body. Similarly, sublimation is the changing of ice directly to water vapor, completely bypassing the liquid stage. Though dry ice is not made of water, but rather carbon dioxide, it demonstrates the principle of sublimation, when a solid turns directly into vapor.


Relative Humidity

Humidity refers to the amount of water vapor present in the atmosphere at a given time. Relative humidity is the actual amount of moisture in the air compared to the total amount of moisture the air could hold at that temperature. For example, if the current relative humidity is 65 percent, the air is holding 65 percent of the total amount of moisture that it is capable of holding at that temperature and pressure. While much of the western United States rarely sees days of high humidity, relative humidity readings of 75 to 90 percent are not uncommon in the southern United States during warmer months. [Figure 11-20]

Temperature/Dew Point Relationship

The relationship between dew point and temperature defines the concept of relative humidity. The dew point, given in degrees, is the temperature at which the air can hold no more moisture. When the temperature of the air is reduced to the dew point, the air is completely saturated and moisture begins to condense out of the air in the form of fog, dew, frost, clouds, rain, hail, or snow.

As moist, unstable air rises, clouds often form at the altitude where temperature and dew point reach the same value. When lifted, unsaturated air cools at a rate of 5.4 °F per 1,000 feet and the dew point temperature decreases at a rate of 1 °F per 1,000 feet. This results in a convergence of temperature and dew point at a rate of 4.4 °F. Apply the convergence rate to the reported temperature and dew point to determine the height of the cloud base.


Temperature (T) = 85 °F

Dew point (DP) = 71 °F

Convergence Rate (CR) = 4.4°

T – DP = Temperature Dew Point Spread (TDS)

TDS ÷ CR = X

X . 1,000 feet = height of cloud base AGL


85 °F–71 °F = 14 °F

14 °F ÷ 4.4 °F = 3.18

3.18 . 1,000 = 3,180 feet AGL

The height of the cloud base is 3,180 feet AGL.


With an outside air temperature (OAT) of 85 °F at the surface, and dew point at the surface of 71 °F, the spread is 14°. Divide the temperature dew point spread by the convergence rate of 4.4 °F, and multiply by 1,000 to determine the approximate height of the cloud base.


Methods by Which Air Reaches the Saturation Point

If air reaches the saturation point while temperature and dew point are close together, it is highly likely that fog, low clouds, and precipitation will form. There are four methods by which air can reach the complete saturation point. First, when warm air moves over a cold surface, the air temperature drops and reaches the saturation point. Second, the saturation point may be reached when cold air and warm air mix. Third, when air cools at night through contact with the cooler ground, air reaches its saturation point. The fourth method occurs when air is lifted or is forced upward in the atmosphere.

As air rises, it uses heat energy to expand. As a result, the rising air loses heat rapidly. Unsaturated air loses heat at a rate of 3.0 °C (5.4 °F) for every 1,000 feet of altitude gain. No matter what causes the air to reach its saturation point, saturated air brings clouds, rain, and other critical weather situations.


Dew and Frost

On cool, calm nights, the temperature of the ground and objects on the surface can cause temperatures of the surrounding air to drop below the dew point. When this occurs, the moisture in the air condenses and deposits itself on the ground, buildings, and other objects like cars and aircraft. This moisture is known as dew and sometimes can be seen on grass in the morning. If the temperature is below freezing, the moisture is deposited in the form of frost. While dew poses no threat to an aircraft, frost poses a definite flight safety hazard. Frost disrupts the flow of air over the wing and can drastically reduce the production of lift. It also increases drag, which, when combined with lowered lift production, can adversely affect the ability to take off. An aircraft must be thoroughly cleaned and free of frost prior to beginning a flight.



Clouds are visible indicators and are often indicative of future weather. For clouds to form, there must be adequate water vapor and condensation nuclei, as well as a method by which the air can be cooled. When the air cools and reaches its saturation point, the invisible water vapor changes into a visible state. Through the processes of deposition (also referred to as sublimation) and condensation, moisture condenses or sublimates onto miniscule particles of matter like dust, salt, and smoke known as condensation nuclei. The nuclei are important because they provide a means for the moisture to change from one state to another.

Cloud type is determined by its height, shape, and behavior. They are classified according to the height of their bases as low, middle, or high clouds, as well as clouds with vertical development. [Figure 11-22] 

Low clouds are those that form near the Earth’s surface and extend up to 6,500 feet AGL. They are made primarily of water droplets, but can include supercooled water droplets that induce hazardous aircraft icing. Typical low clouds are stratus, stratocumulus, and nimbostratus. Fog is also classified as a type of low cloud formation. Clouds in this family create low ceilings, hamper visibility, and can change rapidly. Because of this, they influence flight planning and can make visual flight rules (VFR) flight impossible.

Middle clouds form around 6,500 feet AGL and extend up to 20,000 feet AGL. They are composed of water, ice crystals, and supercooled water droplets. Typical middle-level clouds include altostratus and altocumulus. These types of clouds may be encountered on cross-country flights at higher altitudes. Altostratus clouds can produce turbulence and may contain moderate icing. Altocumulus clouds, which usually form when altostratus clouds are breaking apart, also may contain light turbulence and icing.

High clouds form above 20,000 feet AGL and usually form only in stable air. They are made up of ice crystals and pose no real threat of turbulence or aircraft icing. Typical high level clouds are cirrus, cirrostratus, and cirrocumulus.

Clouds with extensive vertical development are cumulus clouds that build vertically into towering cumulus or cumulonimbus clouds. The bases of these clouds form in the low to middle cloud base region but can extend into high altitude cloud levels. Towering cumulus clouds indicate areas of instability in the atmosphere, and the air around and inside them is turbulent. These types of clouds often develop into cumulonimbus clouds or thunderstorms. Cumulonimbus clouds contain large amounts of moisture and unstable air, and usually produce hazardous weather phenomena, such as lightning, hail, tornadoes, gusty winds, and wind shear. These extensive vertical clouds can be obscured by other cloud formations and are not always visible from the ground or while in flight. When this happens, these clouds are said to be embedded, hence the term, embedded thunderstorms.

To pilots, the cumulonimbus cloud is perhaps the most dangerous cloud type. It appears individually or in groups and is known as either an air mass or orographic thunderstorm. Heating of the air near the Earth’s surface creates an air mass thunderstorm; the upslope motion of air in the mountainous regions causes orographic thunderstorms. Cumulonimbus clouds that form in a continuous line are nonfrontal bands of thunderstorms or squall lines.

Since rising air currents cause cumulonimbus clouds, they are extremely turbulent and pose a significant hazard to flight safety. For example, if an aircraft enters a thunderstorm, the aircraft could experience updrafts and downdrafts that exceed 3,000 fpm. In addition, thunderstorms can produce large hailstones, damaging lightning, tornadoes, and large quantities of water, all of which are potentially hazardous to aircraft.

A thunderstorm makes its way through three distinct stages before dissipating. It begins with the cumulus stage, in which lifting action of the air begins. If sufficient moisture and instability are present, the clouds continue to increase in vertical height. Continuous, strong updrafts prohibit moisture from falling. The updraft region grows larger than the individual thermals feeding the storm. Within approximately 15 minutes, the thunderstorm reaches the mature stage, which is the most violent time period of the thunderstorm’s life cycle. At this point, drops of moisture, whether rain or ice, are too heavy for the cloud to support and begin falling in the form of rain or hail. This creates a downward motion of the air. Warm, rising air; cool, precipitation-induced descending air; and violent turbulence all exist within and near the cloud. Below the cloud, the down-rushing air increases surface winds and decreases the temperature. Once the vertical motion near the top of the cloud slows down, the top of the cloud spreads out and takes on an anvil-like shape. At this point, the storm enters the dissipating stage. This is when the downdrafts spread out and replace the updrafts needed to sustain the storm. [Figure 11-23]

It is impossible to fly over thunderstorms in light aircraft. Severe thunderstorms can punch through the tropopause and reach staggering heights of 50,000 to 60,000 feet depending on latitude. Flying under thunderstorms can subject aircraft to rain, hail, damaging lightning, and violent turbulence. A good rule of thumb is to circumnavigate thunderstorms identified as severe or giving an intense radar echo by at least 20 nautical miles (NM) since hail may fall for miles outside of the clouds. If flying around a thunderstorm is not an option, stay on the ground until it passes.

Cloud classification can be further broken down into specific cloud types according to the outward appearance and cloud composition. Knowing these terms can help a pilot identify visible clouds.

The following is a list of cloud classifications:

• Cumulus—heaped or piled clouds

• Stratus—formed in layers

• Cirrus—ringlets, fibrous clouds, also high level clouds above 20,000 feet

• Castellanus—common base with separate vertical development, castle-like

• Lenticularus—lens shaped, formed over mountains in strong winds

• Nimbus—rain-bearing clouds

• Fracto—ragged or broken

• Alto—meaning high, also middle level clouds existing at 5,000 to 20,000 feet



For aviation purposes, a ceiling is the lowest layer of clouds reported as being broken or overcast, or the vertical visibility into an obscuration like fog or haze. Clouds are reported as broken when five-eighths to seven-eighths of the sky is covered with clouds. Overcast means the entire sky is covered with clouds. Current ceiling information is reported by the aviation routine weather report (METAR) and automated weather stations of various types.



Closely related to cloud cover and reported ceilings is visibility information. Visibility refers to the greatest horizontal distance at which prominent objects can be viewed with the naked eye. Current visibility is also reported in METAR and other aviation weather reports, as well as by automated weather systems. Visibility information, as predicted by meteorologists, is available for a pilot during a preflight weather briefing.



Precipitation refers to any type of water particles that form in the atmosphere and fall to the ground. It has a profound impact on flight safety. Depending on the form of precipitation, it can reduce visibility, create icing situations, and affect landing and takeoff performance of an aircraft.

Precipitation occurs because water or ice particles in clouds grow in size until the atmosphere can no longer support them. It can occur in several forms as it falls toward the Earth, including drizzle, rain, ice pellets, hail, snow, and ice.

Drizzle is classified as very small water droplets, smaller than 0.02 inches in diameter. Drizzle usually accompanies fog or low stratus clouds. Water droplets of larger size are referred to as rain. Rain that falls through the atmosphere but evaporates prior to striking the ground is known as virga. Freezing rain and freezing drizzle occur when the temperature of the surface is below freezing; the rain freezes on contact with the cooler surface.

If rain falls through a temperature inversion, it may freeze as it passes through the underlying cold air and fall to the ground in the form of ice pellets. Ice pellets are an indication of a temperature inversion and that freezing rain exists at a higher altitude. In the case of hail, freezing water droplets are carried up and down by drafts inside clouds, growing larger in size as they come in contact with more moisture. Once the updrafts can no longer hold the freezing water, it falls to the Earth in the form of hail. Hail can be pea sized, or it can grow as large as five inches in diameter, larger than a softball.

Snow is precipitation in the form of ice crystals that falls at a steady rate or in snow showers that begin, change in intensity, and end rapidly. Falling snow also varies in size, being very small grains or large flakes. Snow grains are the equivalent of drizzle in size.

Precipitation in any form poses a threat to safety of flight. Often, precipitation is accompanied by low ceilings and reduced visibility. Aircraft that have ice, snow, or frost on their surfaces must be carefully cleaned prior to beginning a flight because of the possible airflow disruption and loss of lift. Rain can contribute to water in the fuel tanks. Precipitation can create hazards on the runway surface itself, making takeoffs and landings difficult, if not impossible, due to snow, ice, or pooling water and very slick surfaces.



Remote pilot sUAS study guide

Since rising air currents cause cumulonimbus clouds, they are extremely turbulent and pose a significant hazard to flight safety. For example, if a small UA enters a thunderstorm, the small UA could experience updrafts and downdrafts that exceed 3,000 fpm. In addition, thunderstorms can produce large hailstones, damaging lightning, tornadoes, and large quantities of water, all of which are potentially hazardous to an aircraft.


Standing Lenticular Altocumulus Clouds.

Standing lenticular altocumulus clouds are formed on the crests of waves created by barriers in the wind flow. The clouds show little movement, hence the name standing. Wind, however, can be quite strong blowing through such clouds. They are characterized by their smooth, polished edges. The presence of these clouds is a good indication of very strong turbulence and should be avoided. 



Stability of an air mass determines its typical weather characteristics. When one type of air mass overlies another, conditions change with height. Characteristics typical of an unstable and a stable air mass are as follows: 



What are characteristics of stable air?

  1. Good visibility and steady precipitation
  2. Poor visibility and steady precipitation
  3. Poor visibility and intermittent precipitation


UA.III.B.K1d - Air masses and fronts

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Air Masses

Air masses are classified according to the regions where they originate. They are large bodies of air that take on the characteristics of the surrounding area, or source region. A source region is typically an area in which the air remains relatively stagnant for a period of days or longer. During this time of stagnation, the air mass takes on the temperature and moisture characteristics of the source region. Areas of stagnation can be found in polar regions, tropical oceans, and dry deserts. Air masses are generally identified as polar or tropical based on temperature characteristics and maritime or continental based on moisture content.

A continental polar air mass forms over a polar region and brings cool, dry air with it. Maritime tropical air masses form over warm tropical waters like the Caribbean Sea and bring warm, moist air. As the air mass moves from its source region and passes over land or water, the air mass is subjected to the varying conditions of the land or water, and these modify the nature of the air mass. [Figure 11-24]

An air mass passing over a warmer surface is warmed from below, and convective currents form, causing the air to rise. This creates an unstable air mass with good surface visibility. Moist, unstable air causes cumulus clouds, showers, and turbulence to form.

Conversely, an air mass passing over a colder surface does not form convective currents, but instead creates a stable air mass with poor surface visibility. The poor surface visibility is due to the fact that smoke, dust, and other particles cannot rise out of the air mass and are instead trapped near the surface. A stable air mass can produce low stratus clouds and fog



As an air mass moves across bodies of water and land, it eventually comes in contact with another air mass with different characteristics. The boundary layer between two types of air masses is known as a front. An approaching front of any type always means changes to the weather are imminent.

There are four types of fronts, which are named according to the temperature of the advancing air relative to the temperature of the air it is replacing: [Figure 11-25]

• Warm

• Cold

• Stationary

• Occluded

Any discussion of frontal systems must be tempered with the knowledge that no two fronts are the same. However, generalized weather conditions are associated with a specific type of front that helps identify the front.

Warm Front

A warm front occurs when a warm mass of air advances and replaces a body of colder air. Warm fronts move slowly, typically 10 to 25 miles per hour (mph). The slope of the advancing front slides over the top of the cooler air and gradually pushes it out of the area. Warm fronts contain warm air that often have very high humidity. As the warm air is lifted, the temperature drops and condensation occurs.

Generally, prior to the passage of a warm front, cirriform or stratiform clouds, along with fog, can be expected to form along the frontal boundary. In the summer months, cumulonimbus clouds (thunderstorms) are likely to develop. Light to moderate precipitation is probable, usually in the form of rain, sleet, snow, or drizzle, accentuated by poor visibility. The wind blows from the south-southeast, and the outside temperature is cool or cold, with an increasing dew point. Finally, as the warm front approaches, the barometric pressure continues to fall until the front passes completely.

During the passage of a warm front, stratiform clouds are visible and drizzle may be falling. The visibility is generally poor, but improves with variable winds. The temperature rises steadily from the inflow of relatively warmer air. For the most part, the dew point remains steady and the pressure levels off.

After the passage of a warm front, stratocumulus clouds predominate and rain showers are possible. The visibility eventually improves, but hazy conditions may exist for a short period after passage. The wind blows from the south-southwest. With warming temperatures, the dew point rises and then levels off. There is generally a slight rise in barometric pressure, followed by a decrease of barometric pressure.


Flight Toward an Approaching Warm Front

By studying a typical warm front, much can be learned about the general patterns and atmospheric conditions that exist when a warm front is encountered in flight. Figure 11-26 depicts a warm front advancing eastward from St. Louis, Missouri, toward Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

At the time of departure from Pittsburgh, the weather is good VFR with a scattered layer of cirrus clouds at 15,000 feet. As the flight progresses westward to Columbus and closer to the oncoming warm front, the clouds deepen and become increasingly stratiform in appearance with a ceiling of 6,000 feet. The visibility decreases to six miles in haze with a falling barometric pressure. Approaching Indianapolis, the weather deteriorates to broken clouds at 2,000 feet with three miles visibility and rain. With the temperature and dew

point the same, fog is likely. At St. Louis, the sky is overcast with low clouds and drizzle and the visibility is one mile. Beyond Indianapolis, the ceiling and visibility would be too low to continue VFR. Therefore, it would be wise to remain in Indianapolis until the warm front had passed, which might require a day or two.

Cold Front

A cold front occurs when a mass of cold, dense, and stable air advances and replaces a body of warmer air.

Cold fronts move more rapidly than warm fronts, progressing at a rate of 25 to 30 mph. However, extreme cold fronts have been recorded moving at speeds of up to 60 mph. A typical cold front moves in a manner opposite that of a warm front. It is so dense, it stays close to the ground and acts like a snowplow, sliding under the warmer air and forcing the less dense air aloft. The rapidly ascending air causes the temperature to decrease suddenly, forcing the creation of clouds. The type of clouds that form depends on the stability of the warmer air mass. A cold front in the Northern Hemisphere is normally oriented in a northeast to southwest manner and can be several hundred miles long, encompassing a large area of land.

Prior to the passage of a typical cold front, cirriform or towering cumulus clouds are present, and cumulonimbus clouds are possible. Rain showers and haze are possible due to the rapid development of clouds. The wind from the south-southwest helps to replace the warm temperatures with the relative colder air. A high dew point and falling barometric pressure are indicative of imminent cold front passage.

As the cold front passes, towering cumulus or cumulonimbus clouds continue to dominate the sky. Depending on the intensity of the cold front, heavy rain showers form and might be accompanied by lightning, thunder, and/or hail. More severe cold fronts can also produce tornadoes. During cold front passage, the visibility is poor, with winds variable and gusty, and the temperature and dew point drop rapidly. A quickly falling barometric pressure bottoms out during frontal passage, then begins a gradual increase.

After frontal passage, the towering cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds begin to dissipate to cumulus clouds with a corresponding decrease in the precipitation. Good visibility eventually prevails with the winds from the west-northwest. Temperatures remain cooler and the barometric pressure continues to rise.


Fast-Moving Cold Front

Fast-moving cold fronts are pushed by intense pressure systems far behind the actual front. The friction between the ground and the cold front retards the movement of the front and creates a steeper frontal surface. This results in a very narrow band of weather, concentrated along the leading edge of the front. If the warm air being overtaken by the cold front is relatively stable, overcast skies and rain may occur for some distance ahead of the front. If the warm air is unstable, scattered thunderstorms and rain showers may form. A continuous line of thunderstorms, or squall line, may form along or ahead of the front. Squall lines present a serious hazard to pilots as squall type thunderstorms are intense and move quickly. Behind a fast-moving cold front, the skies usually clear rapidly and the front leaves behind gusty, turbulent winds and colder temperatures.


Flight Toward an Approaching Cold Front

Like warm fronts, not all cold fronts are the same. Examining a flight toward an approaching cold front, pilots can get a better understanding of the type of conditions that can be encountered in flight. Figure 11-27 shows a flight from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, toward St. Louis, Missouri

At the time of departure from Pittsburgh, the weather is VFR with three miles visibility in smoke and a scattered layer of clouds at 3,500 feet. As the flight progresses westward to Columbus and closer to the oncoming cold front, the clouds show signs of vertical development with a broken layer at 2,500 feet. The visibility is six miles in haze with a falling barometric pressure. Approaching Indianapolis, the weather has deteriorated to overcast clouds at 1,000 feet, and three miles visibility with thunderstorms and heavy rain showers. At St. Louis, the weather gets better with scattered clouds at 1,000 feet and a ten mile visibility.

A pilot using sound judgment based on the knowledge of frontal conditions would most likely remain in Indianapolis until the front had passed. Trying to fly below a line of thunderstorms or a squall line is hazardous, and flight over the top of or around the storm is not an option. Thunderstorms can extend up to well over the capability of small airplanes and can extend in a line for 300 to 500 miles.


Comparison of Cold and Warm Fronts

Warm fronts and cold fronts are very different in nature as are the hazards associated with each front. They vary in speed, composition, weather phenomenon, and prediction. Cold fronts, which move at 20 to 35 mph, move very quickly in comparison to warm fronts, which move at only 10 to 25 mph. Cold fronts also possess a steeper frontal slope. Violent weather activity is associated with cold fronts, and the weather usually occurs along the frontal boundary, not in advance. However, squall lines can form during the summer months as far as 200 miles in advance of a severe cold front. Whereas warm fronts bring low ceilings, poor visibility, and rain, cold fronts bring sudden storms, gusty winds, turbulence, and sometimes hail or tornadoes.

Cold fronts are fast approaching with little or no warning, and they make a complete weather change in just a few hours. The weather clears rapidly after passage and drier air with unlimited visibilities prevail. Warm fronts, on the other hand, provide advance warning of their approach and can take days to pass through a region.

Wind Shifts

Wind around a high pressure system rotates in a clockwise fashion, while low pressure winds rotate in a counter-clockwise manner. When two pressure systems are adjacent, the winds are almost in direct opposition to each other at the point of contact. Fronts are the boundaries between two areas of pressure, and therefore, wind shifts are continually occurring within a front. Shifting wind direction is most pronounced in conjunction with cold fronts.


Stationary Front

When the forces of two air masses are relatively equal, the boundary or front that separates them remains stationary and influences the local weather for days. This front is called a stationary front. The weather associated with a stationary front is typically a mixture that can be found in both warm and cold fronts.


Occluded Front

An occluded front occurs when a fast-moving cold front catches up with a slow-moving warm front. As the occluded front approaches, warm front weather prevails, but is immediately followed by cold front weather. There are two types of occluded fronts that can occur, and the temperatures of the colliding frontal systems play a large part in defining the type of front and the resulting weather. A cold front occlusion occurs when a fast moving cold front is colder than the air ahead of the slow moving warm front. When this occurs, the cold air replaces the cool air and forces the warm front aloft into the atmosphere. Typically, the cold front occlusion creates a mixture of weather found in both warm and cold fronts, providing the air is relatively stable. A warm front occlusion occurs when the air ahead of the warm front is colder than the air of the cold front. When this is the case, the cold front rides up and over the warm front. If the air forced aloft by the warm front occlusion is unstable, the weather is more severe than the weather found in a cold front occlusion. Embedded thunderstorms, rain, and fog are likely to occur.

Figure 11-28 depicts a cross-section of a typical cold front occlusion. The warm front slopes over the prevailing cooler air and produces the warm front type weather. Prior to the passage of the typical occluded front, cirriform and stratiform clouds prevail, light to heavy precipitation is falling, visibility is poor, dew point is steady, and barometric pressure is falling. During the passage of the front, nimbostratus and cumulonimbus clouds predominate, and towering cumulus may also be possible. Light to heavy precipitation is falling, visibility is poor, winds are variable, and the barometric pressure is leveling off. After the passage of the front, nimbostratus and altostratus clouds are visible, precipitation is decreasing and clearing, and visibility is improving.



What are characteristics of a moist, unstable air mass?

  1. Turbulence and showery precipitation
  2. Poor visibility and smooth air
  3. Haze and smoke

UA.III.B.K1e - Thunderstorms and microbursts

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge


For a thunderstorm to form, the air must have sufficient water vapor, an unstable lapse rate, and an initial lifting action to start the storm process. Some storms occur at random in unstable air, last for only an hour or two, and produce only moderate wind gusts and rainfall. These are known as air

mass thunderstorms and are generally a result of surface heating. Steady-state thunderstorms are associated with weather systems. Fronts, converging winds, and troughs aloft force upward motion spawning these storms which often form into squall lines. In the mature stage, updrafts become stronger and last much longer than in air mass storms, hence the name steady state. [Figure 11-29]

Knowledge of thunderstorms and the hazards associated with them is critical to the safety of flight.


Weather can pose serious hazards to flight and a thunderstorm packs just about every weather hazard known to aviation into one vicious bundle. These hazards occur individually or in combinations and most can be found in a squall line.


Squall Line

A squall line is a narrow band of active thunderstorms. Often it develops on or ahead of a cold front in moist, unstable air, but it may develop in unstable air far removed from any front. The line may be too long to detour easily and too wide and severe to penetrate. It often contains steady-state thunderstorms and presents the single most intense weather hazard to aircraft. It usually forms rapidly, generally reaching maximum intensity during the late afternoon and the first few hours of darkness.

UA.III.B.K1f - Tornadoes

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge


The most violent thunderstorms draw air into their cloud bases with great vigor. If the incoming air has any initial rotating motion, it often forms an extremely concentrated vortex from the surface well into the cloud. Meteorologists have estimated that wind in such a vortex can exceed 200 knots with pressure inside the vortex quite low. The strong winds gather dust and debris and the low pressure generates a funnel-shaped cloud extending downward from the cumulonimbus base. If the cloud does not reach the surface, it is a funnel cloud; if it touches a land surface, it is a tornado.

Tornadoes occur with both isolated and squall line thunderstorms. Reports for forecasts of tornadoes indicate that atmospheric conditions are favorable for violent turbulence. An aircraft entering a tornado vortex is almost certain to suffer structural damage. Since the vortex extends well into the cloud, any pilot inadvertently caught on instruments in a severe thunderstorm could encounter a hidden vortex.

Families of tornadoes have been observed as appendages of the main cloud extending several miles outward from the area

of lightning and precipitation. Thus, any cloud connected to a severe thunderstorm carries a threat of violence.



Potentially hazardous turbulence is present in all thunderstorms, and a severe thunderstorm can destroy an aircraft. Strongest turbulence within the cloud occurs with shear between updrafts and downdrafts. Outside the cloud, shear turbulence has been encountered several thousand feet above and 20 miles laterally from a severe storm. A low-level turbulent area is the shear zone associated with the gust front. Often, a “roll cloud” on the leading edge of a storm marks the top of the eddies in this shear and it signifies an extremely turbulent zone. Gust fronts often move far ahead (up to 15 miles) of associated precipitation. The gust front causes a rapid and sometimes drastic change in surface wind ahead of an approaching storm. Advisory Circular (AC) 00-50A, Low Level Wind Shear, explains in detail the hazards associated with gust fronts. Figure 1 in the AC shows a schematic truss section of a thunderstorm with areas outside the cloud where turbulence may be encountered.


UA.III.B.K1g - Icing

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Icing: Updrafts in a thunderstorm support abundant liquid water with relatively large droplet sizes. When carried above the freezing level, the water becomes supercooled. When temperature in the upward current cools to about -15 °C, much of the remaining water vapor sublimates as ice crystals. Above this level, at lower temperatures, the amount of supercooled water decreases.

Supercooled water freezes on impact with an aircraft. Clear icing can occur at any altitude above the freezing level, but at high levels, icing from smaller droplets may be rime or mixed rime and clear ice. The abundance of large, supercooled water droplets makes clear icing very rapid between 0 °C and –15 °C and encounters can be frequent in a cluster of cells. Thunderstorm icing can be extremely hazardous.

Thunderstorms are not the only area where pilots could encounter icing conditions. Pilots should be alert for icing anytime the temperature approaches 0 °C and visible moisture is present.


UA.III.B.K1h - Hail

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge


Hail competes with turbulence as the greatest thunderstorm hazard to aircraft. Supercooled drops above the freezing level begin to freeze. Once a drop has frozen, other drops latch on and freeze to it, so the hailstone grows—sometimes into a huge ice ball. Large hail occurs with severe thunderstorms with strong updrafts that have built to great heights. Eventually, the hailstones fall, possibly some distance from the storm core. Hail may be encountered in clear air several miles from thunderstorm clouds.

As hailstones fall through air whose temperature is above 0 °C, they begin to melt and precipitation may reach the ground as either hail or rain. Rain at the surface does not mean the absence of hail aloft. Possible hail should be anticipated with any thunderstorm, especially beneath the anvil of a large cumulonimbus. Hailstones larger than one-half inch in diameter can significantly damage an aircraft in a few seconds.

UA.III.B.K1i - Fog

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge


Fog is a cloud that begins within 50 feet of the surface. It typically occurs when the temperature of air near the ground is cooled to the air’s dew point. At this point, water vapor in the air condenses and becomes visible in the form of fog. Fog is classified according to the manner in which it forms and is dependent upon the current temperature and the amount of water vapor in the air.

On clear nights, with relatively little to no wind present, radiation fog may develop. [Figure 11-21] Usually, it forms in low-lying areas like mountain valleys. This type of fog occurs when the ground cools rapidly due to terrestrial radiation, and the surrounding air temperature reaches its dew point. As the sun rises and the temperature increases, radiation fog lifts and eventually burns off. Any increase in wind also speeds the dissipation of radiation fog. If radiation fog is less than 20 feet thick, it is known as ground fog.

When a layer of warm, moist air moves over a cold surface, advection fog is likely to occur. Unlike radiation fog, wind is required to form advection fog. Winds of up to 15 knots allow the fog to form and intensify; above a speed of 15 knots, the fog usually lifts and forms low stratus clouds. Advection fog is common in coastal areas where sea breezes can blow the air over cooler landmasses.

Upslope fog occurs when moist, stable air is forced up sloping land features like a mountain range. This type of fog also requires wind for formation and continued existence. Upslope and advection fog, unlike radiation fog, may not burn off with the morning sun, but instead can persist for days. They can also extend to greater heights than radiation fog.

Steam fog, or sea smoke, forms when cold, dry air moves over warm water. As the water evaporates, it rises and resembles smoke. This type of fog is common over bodies of water during the coldest times of the year. Low-level turbulence and icing are commonly associated with steam fog.

Ice fog occurs in cold weather when the temperature is much below freezing and water vapor forms directly into ice crystals. Conditions favorable for its formation are the same as for radiation fog except for cold temperature, usually –25 °F or colder. It occurs mostly in the arctic regions, but is not unknown in middle latitudes during the cold season.


You have received an outlook briefing from flight service through The briefing indicates you can expect a low-level temperature inversion with high relative humidity. What weather conditions would you expect?

  1. Smooth air, poor visibility, fog, haze, or low clouds
  2. Light wind shear, poor visibility, haze, and light rain
  3. Turbulent air, poor visibility, fog, low stratus type clouds, and showery precipitation

Remote pilot sUAS study guide

Mountain Flying

When planning a flight over mountainous terrain, gather as much preflight information as possible on cloud reports, wind direction, wind speed, and stability of air. Satellites often help locate mountain waves. Adequate information may not always be available, so remain alert for signposts in the sky.

Wind at mountain top level in excess of 25 knots suggests some turbulence. Wind in excess of 40 knots across a mountain barrier dictates caution. Stratified clouds mean stable air. Standing lenticular and/or rotor clouds suggest a mountain wave; expect turbulence many miles to the lee of mountains and relative smooth flight on the windward side. Convective clouds on the windward side of mountains mean unstable air; expect turbulence in close proximity to and on either side of the mountain.

Structural Icing

Two conditions are necessary for structural icing in flight:

  1. The aircraft must be flying through visible water such as rain or cloud droplets

  2. The temperature at the point where the moisture strikes the aircraft must be 0° C or colder.

Aerodynamic cooling can lower temperature of an airfoil to 0° C even though the ambient temperature is a few degrees warmer. 

UA.III.B.K1j - Ceiling and visibility

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge

Ceiling and Visibility

Generally, visibility is near zero within a thunderstorm cloud. Ceiling and visibility also may be restricted in precipitation and dust between the cloud base and the ground. The restrictions create the same problem as all ceiling and visibility restrictions; but the hazards are multiplied when associated with the other thunderstorm hazards of turbulence, hail, and lightning.

UA.III.B.K1k - Lightning

Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge


A lightning strike can puncture the skin of an aircraft and damage communications and electronic navigational equipment. Although lightning has been suspected of igniting fuel vapors and causing an explosion, serious accidents due to lightning strikes are rare. Nearby lightning can blind the pilot, rendering him or her momentarily unable to navigate either by instrument or by visual reference. Nearby lightning can also induce permanent errors in the magnetic compass. Lightning discharges, even distant ones, can disrupt radio communications on low and medium frequencies. Though lightning intensity and frequency have no simple relationship to other storm parameters, severe storms, as a rule, have a high frequency of lightning.


If you still feel that weather is a hard concept to grasp, and you'd like a more detailed explanation of weather phenomena, please see AC00-45 and AC00-6


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