It's hard to overstate the benefits of having access to a wealth of weather-related information in flight. Armed with a full arsenal of datalink weather capability, onboard weather radar and lightning strike detection gear (not to mention what we can often see in front of us with our own eyes), pilots today are able to fly more trips with greater confidence than ever before.
For strategic decision-making, the datalink weather information that we can call up in flight is a true boon to safety. When conditions turn out to be worse than forecast, we can see the location of fronts and storm systems hundreds of miles away and plan accordingly. There’s no telling how many lives have been saved or bad situations avoided because of datalink weather gear. Without question, the technology has changed the way we fly for the better.
Still, as is the case with any advanced cockpit capability, there are caveats to consider. For example, studies have found that pilots who regularly fly with in-cockpit weather technology are more likely to take risks and fly closer to storms than those without access to such information. A 2003 study showed that the better the resolution of the Nexrad radar data, the more time pilots spent looking at their weather displays and the longer they waited until diverting around dangerous thunderstorms.
When it comes to tangling with storms, we pilots know the magic “safe” number by heart: 20 miles. That’s the minimum distance we’re told we should maintain when flying in the vicinity of convective weather. The figure was chosen because this is how far from a storm cell we can expect to encounter severe turbulence, strong outflowing updrafts and downdrafts and microbursts. And as we all know, in too many cases our airplanes might be unable to outclimb these strong localized air currents or, if we’re really unlucky, important pieces like a wing or the tail could be torn off.
Do pilots always maintain the 20-mile minimum safe distance from storms? Perhaps a better question is, which pilot is more likely to give storms a wide berth, the one whose cockpit is equipped with the latest and greatest Nexrad weather equipment or the guy who is flitting along with no weather-detection gear at all? Smart pilots know that Nexrad images downlinked from a satellite or ground station might not tell the whole story. What’s important to understand is that if you fly without onboard weather radar or a lightning strike finder, the information you see on your multifunction display might be incomplete or too old to be reliable.