Text-based area forecasts (FA) have for decades confounded both student and experienced pilots, at least until they completed the training to decode them. Before takeoff, an aviator might have come face-to-face with these expected weather conditions in eastern Pennsylvania: PA NJ NERN PA … SKC or SCT 060. 06Z SCT-BKN CI. OTLK … VFR, SE PA/NJ … SKC or SCT050. 00Z SKC. OTLK … VFR, WRN PA … SKC or SCT050. 04Z BKN050 LYRD FL250. WDLY SCT – SHRA/ISOL – TSRA. CB TOP FL400. 06Z OVC035. VIS 5SM SCT – SHRA BR. OTLK … MVFR CIG SHRA BR.
The aim of the new four-color graphical forecasts for aviation is to simplify the briefing process by visually concentrating the pilot’s eyes on areas of concern such as convective or icing possibilities. Despite a May 2015 announcement that the new GFAs would replace the old FAs, some pilots might find a twinge of anxiety knowing the world has taken yet one more step toward automation. While most elements of the old FA can be found in the new products offered by the NWS, there was a certain challenge in learning to fly or earning that instrument rating that included decoding FAs. There was also a sense of pride when a patch of text could create a visual map of the weather in the pilot’s head. But then, while a few hardliners may bemoan the change, it’s high time to realize the goal of the forecast should be preventing pilots from flying into weather conditions unprepared, not testing their knowledge of obscure terminology.
The GFAs are a set of web-based displays covering the CONUS from the surface up to 42,000 feet mean sea level. Wind, icing, and turbulence forecasts are available in 3,000-foot increments from the surface to 18,000 feet and in 6,000-foot increments between 18,000 feet and 42,000 feet. Turbulence forecasts are also broken into low (below 18,000 feet) and high (above 18,000 feet) graphics. A maximum icing graphic and maximum wind velocity graphic are also available. Data is time-synchronized and available hourly from 14 hours prior, to 15 hours after a selected time. Data for each category is determined by the time period: observations (current time and the prior 14 hours) and forecasts (valid up to 15 hours in the future).
Aviators still chasing that FA decoding challenge can take heart in the fact that the new GFAs will only be available in the Continental U.S. For those headed to the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska or Hawaii, the old text-based FAs will remain in place to test their skills.