Jumpseat: Gotta Go Anyhow

A good example of a ­­high-def WSI weather radar display.

With the iPad propped up on the restaurant table, I picked away at my veggie omelet. Not entirely confident that the almost cartoonish radar data of the flight planning program was presenting an accurate picture, I switched to my professional weather rock — the WSI program.

I thought it apropos that I had spent the last two days attending the annual WSI weather conference and now I was putting the company's services to the test for my return flight home in my own single-engine airplane. Our airline pilot axiom "We gotta go anyhow" just wasn't going to apply.

After I selected the five-minute radar chart, the iPad screen displayed a troubling picture of green and yellow blobs engulfing the western edge of Connecticut and my hometown airport. A glance at the surrounding metars confirmed that moderate precipitation was transforming the weather into IFR conditions. Yuck.

Arriving at the departure airport, I analyzed the weather further. Airline pilot trepidation aside, I decided on a contingency plan that would maintain the expected route clearance until the onboard XM Weather indicated my alternative escape path would be a wise choice. (Yes, I am very aware that because of the XM broadcast delay the data is not to be used as a deviation tool.) My other choice was simply to cancel or at least delay my departure.

As good fortune would have it, the contingency plan was unnecessary. Albeit not my best performance, I executed a GPS approach without much resistance from Mother Nature. Whew!

Reflecting on this death-defying flight, I pondered a contradiction from my professional life. Never in almost 25 years as an airline captain had I canceled a departure for weather.

On one occasion we returned to the gate because of heavy snow accumulation on our 757 while taxiing. My original intention was to wait for the storm to de-intensify and to apply more deicing fluid. Unfortunately, the storm intensified. The airline collectively decided to cancel all departures for the evening. On another occasion, I had reviewed an ugly radar return while taxiing into position on the departure runway and decided that caution was the better part of valor. I refused the takeoff clearance — as did other airplanes waiting behind us.

This is not to say that ATC or our operations center hadn't been responsible for a cancellation, but rather that none of my flights have required me to just say no because of weather conditions. Why? In most circumstances, offending weather conditions will eventually pass if the departure airport is affected. An airliner is able to escape the weather at a relatively quick pace. And for the destination airport, conditions usually change by arrival; if not, a diversion decision is made. En route weather dangers are most always convective. If contingency fuel is included, circumnavigating a convective environment at high altitudes is rarely an issue. So, if I am eventually departing regardless of conditions, why should I even consider a detailed preflight weather review?

The answer: Strategy and expectation. As a crew, having a reasonable understanding of weather movement and the forecast reinforces our decision process. If we know that at 50 degrees west longitude on our route to London an area of upper-level wind shear could cause turbulence, I can advise our flight attendants to adjust their cabin service accordingly. Or if we know to expect a low-visibility approach at Heathrow, we can mentally prepare for a Category III approach. And if one of the autopilot systems required for that approach malfunctions en route, we can formulate a new strategy.

For 30 years I have relied on WSI's weather products for just such reasons. Airlines and professional flight departments are certainly not the only subscribers. As an example, The Weather Channel is one of the more visible nonaviation clients.

Technology has enabled WSI to refine its data presentation but not without good old-fashioned human interfacing. Visiting the company's Andover, Massachusetts, facility made it readily apparent that some very qualified weather experts were involved with the process every minute. The computer didn't run the whole show. That being said, a visit to the cavernous mainframe area was an indication that no technology expense was spared.

At our airline's operation center, WSI forecasters are actually on staff as part of the service. When one of our hubs will be impacted by a significant weather event, the forecasters are an invaluable asset.

Aside from a vast array of global weather data, WSI has developed a new breakthrough product called TAPS (Turbulence Auto-Pirep System). As of this writing, the system has been installed on approximately 500 of my airline's airplanes. TAPS has already proven its worth by preventing many potential turbulence-related injuries to flight attendants and passengers simply by use of the auto-reporting capability. How does it work exactly?

I don't think my colleagues will disagree that the most accurate and valuable turbulence information is a current report from another pilot. Across the North Atlantic, the air-to-air frequency is used often to report chop.

Rather than rely on verbal communication, TAPS utilizes information already being recorded by the airplane's DFDR (digital flight data recorder). Without getting into technical detail far beyond my pilot math comprehension skills, the DFDR's acceleration parameter is used to determine turbulence intensity. This acceleration parameter is transmitted through ACARS and then disseminated via algorithm calculations. Once a turbulence report is generated, it can be transmitted via the ACARS printer directly to other flights potentially affected. This report is sent automatically or manually by the dispatcher.

In addition, the TAPS information is included as a layer on the map-settings selection of the WSI Optima program route display. Viewing TAPS displays prior to departure can be confirmation of turbulence areas already forecast on flight planning charts. It's a great tool. I just wish a cockpit display could integrate real-time TAPS reports while en route rather than having to interpret text information.

Speaking of real-time weather information, a lot of discussion at the conference involved the subject. It was not lost on the participants that my 1965 Cherokee Six had access to more real-time information than the 777 I fly professionally. Granted, my airplane isn't equipped with radar, but the disparity of the 777 sophistication that includes satcom, UHF, ACARS, ADS-B, CPDLC (controller-pilot data-link communications) and inflight Wi-Fi gave many of the professional aviation attendees the opportunity to reflect.

The technology certainly exists to download real-time weather data, but apparently bandwidth is an issue. The airlines don't want their customers to be deprived of the Internet while pilots are downloading satellite images, upper-level wind charts and so on.

A solution was offered that involved bundling specific WSI weather products to be downloaded for inflight cockpit use only. Most of the information reviewed during the preflight process is not going to change to any great extent that would require further consideration en route anyway. For example, a 24-hour prognosis chart indicating a forecast for movement of frontal boundaries is not likely to be of any significant consequence later in the flight.

Cockpit connectivity would demand major changes to regulations, an area that the FAA and industry experts would have to consider. For the moment, cockpit Internet access is not allowed even for those of us who are authorized to use electronic tablets like the iPad. Electronic ­tablets are used only as a substitute for paper manuals and charts, and not for surfing the Net.

The FAA's current criteria for cockpit connectivity would require that the equipment utilize interface as part of a type design for the airplane. In addition, connectivity could not interfere with any other aircraft system. None of the criteria is an insurmountable problem. It will most likely be just a matter of time before real-time weather information is available in the cockpit.

For now, the ability to save WSI products on my iPad prior to departure is a vast improvement over previous years of printing black and white images that got lost amid other flight-planning paperwork.

Regardless, if I gotta go anyhow, it's good to know what I'm going into. And for me, WSI makes a valuable contribution to that strategy.

_This column was published in Flying's October 2014 issue. _

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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