You Can Buy Better Weather

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Taxpayers pick up the tab for the FSS briefer to read you forecasts and weather reports prepared by the government's weather bureau. It's a great service that pilots have enjoyed for decades, but if you are willing to invest a few bucks a month, you can buy better weather, or at least better weather information, from Jeppesen. The company has been in the flight planning business for a number of years since it purchased Lockheed's JetPlan, one of the pioneering companies in custom flight planning for private airplanes. A crucial element of any flight plan is, of course, the weather, and over the past few years Jepp has elevated its weather briefing service to the highest level.

The easiest way to access Jeppesen weather is through its FlightStar flight planning software on your computer, or at www.JetPlan.com after subscribing. There you will find every conceivable bit of weather information constructed to run fast on the web but retain excellent resolution. The service is worldwide, though you can subscribe to domestic U.S. weather coverage only starting at just $20 per month. Jeppesen's biggest customer base at this time is business jet pilots, but the weather reporting and analysis is suitable for any type of airplane.

The graphics are, as you would expect, the best feature of Jepp's service and are much better than anything that I have been able to find for free on the web. More than 500 different aviation-specific maps are available worldwide, and Jepp updates them over 5,000 times a day. The maps graphically depict any aspect of weather that you can imagine, including radar, of course, plus surface analysis, ceiling and visibility, turbulence and other hazards, winds aloft and on and on.

About 80 percent of the aviation maps are created automatically by Sonalysts, and the remaining 20 percent are made by Jeppesen meteorologists. Computers at Sonalysts take the raw data, such as hourly observations, or winds forecasts, and assemble them into maps for easy interpretation by pilots. Some complex maps that require interpretation of available data are made by hand.

The radar maps are comprehensive, and you can look at radar returns in at least a half dozen ways. For example, you can call up individual radars and loop the returns. Or you can look at a composite of all radars for the lower 48, and loop them. Or you can look at a composite of radar for a region of the United States. Or you can look at a radar composite picture that shows tops and movement of returns overlaid on a surface map showing fronts, highs, lows and other weather system information. Want to see radar returns combined with a satellite cloud picture? It's there. A winter radar composite shows areas of freezing precipitation defining areas of snow, mixed precip and rain by color. The resolution of the images is great, and a printable version is a mouse click away.

The most exciting radar image is a Nexrad forecast map that Jepp expected to have available by the time you read this. The forecast map looks exactly like the familiar composite map of Nexrad radars, except it is predicting where the radar returns will be over the next four hours in 15-minute increments. The forecast, based on algorithms developed at McGill University in Canada, examines the movement and increase or decrease in intensity of storms to create a future view of what the radar will look like.

Jeppesen has a demonstration of a long line of precipitation and thunderstorms moving across the eastern United States. When the forecast radar images are compared to the actual radar images of the storms over the four hours, the accuracy of the predicted radar view is uncanny. Not only does the forecast get the precip in the right place at the right time, it also gets the intensity shown by the varying color of Nexrad returns right. It even got an area of rain and snow mix forecast correctly.

You can imagine how useful it can be to have an accurate look at the radar four hours into the future when it comes to flight planning.

Another very useful map from Jeppesen is a regional icing forecast showing the severity of the ice and the altitude where maximum icing is most likely. It's much easier to gauge the icing threat when looking at a map, than when reading a description.

All of the text forecasts and reports are, of course, available and can be automatically assembled for your route. A useful feature is a NOTAM filter that you can set up to avoid having to wade through those interminable notices that you already read weeks or months ago, or do not apply to your operation.

Jeppesen also offers custom weather briefings for you and your passengers. A Jepp meteorologist will assemble all pertinent information about your trip and can go over the weather on the phone, if you like, in addition to sending you the data. You can also get custom forecasts for your passengers so they know what clothes to pack, or if the golf game is going to be rained out.

A condensed custom briefing costs $15 for subscribers to Jepp weather, or $50 for an extremely detailed briefing for any trip. If you want to talk directly to a Jepp meteorologist for expert advice and interpretation, the fee is $25.

The most convenient way to access Jeppesen weather for most pilots is via the FlightStar flight planning program for use on your computer. JetPlan.com, which is intended more for business jets, starts at $50 per month and is accessible through any web connection.

Considering the amount of money we spend on flying, and the importance of the weather to safety and comfort, a Jeppesen weather subscription makes a lot of sense. After all, you do get what you pay for. Jepp can't lift the low ceilings, or remove the thunderstorms, but it sure does a good job of telling you where you will find weather problems. For information on subscribing, call 800/621-5377. You can check out www.Jeppesen.com for information on FliteStar and can see samples of some of the weather maps and products.

Rethinking Insurance Liability LimitsI had an enlightening and enjoyable visit to Avemco Insurance not long ago and came away impressed with how the company operates. Avemco is the only aviation insurer that sells coverage directly to airplane owners instead of using independent agents. It also insures more pilots than any other company, with more than 30,000 individual policyholders.

Avemco keeps its business focused on piston airplanes with a maximum hull value of $1 million. Because it insures so many airplanes, the company has a very good feel for the likelihood of an accident in that type of airplane flown by a pilot of specific experience. Avemco has a risk ranking for each airplane and a similar ranking for each category of pilot experience and qualification. The company matches the risk of a loss in the type of airplane, with the category of risk it believes the pilot represents, to create the annual premium.

Most of us pilots don't really think about the entire scope of risk an insurance company faces because we focus only on accidents, and serious accidents at that. In reality, storm damage to a parked airplane, and non-flying damage that occurs during towing accidents or taxi mishaps, accounts for a huge chunk of the losses an insurance company like Avemco's suffers. For example, the day before my visit, severe weather had moved through the Dallas area and at least eight airplanes insured by Avemco suffered serious damage on the ground, including a nearly new Bonanza that could be a total loss. Without a single airplane accident that will ever be recorded by the NTSB, or any government agency, the aviation insurance companies lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to the weather on one day in the Dallas area alone.

Another risk that we pilots seldom think about is the commonplace fender-bender that doesn't qualify as an accident under NTSB guidelines. An "accident," according to the NTSB, must involve an injury or substantial damage. The NTSB says damage restricted to landing gear, flaps, prop blades, wingtips and so on is not "substantial," so a gear-up landing or bounce off the runway is seldom an "accident" that gets reported and considered when we look at safety. But the insurance companies pay because they cover "all risks."

So a company like Avemco has to think as much about the repair cost of an airplane as it does about the airplane's safety potential. For example, a Cessna Skyhawk is a low risk to an insurance company because there are plenty of spare parts and many, many shops qualified to repair the airplane. A Bellanca Viking, on the other hand, is a much higher risk, not because it necessarily wrecks more than a Skyhawk, but when it gets bent there are not a lot of spare parts and even fewer shops qualified to repair the wood wing and fabric-covered fuselage.

Because repair costs are climbing steadily and salvage values are going up, because replacement parts are expensive, many airplane owners are underinsuring their airplanes and risk losing them to a total loss after an accident. The standard airplane insurance policy covers a stated value for the hull. If, after an accident, the cost of repair plus the value of the salvaged aircraft exceed the stated value, the insurance company can give you a check for that amount and take the airplane. Avemco will spend up to 75 percent of the insured value to repair your damaged airplane, but after that it, like any insurance company, has the option to "total" your airplane. You would have no choice but to try to outbid others for the salvage if you want to keep and repair your airplane. That's why, when you consider how much to insure your airplane for, imagine that a microburst moves over the airport and your airplane is wiped out. How much money do you want to fill that empty hangar or tiedown spot? Don't insure for less than that.

Avemco clearly knows the risks involved in all aspects of insuring piston airplanes, but I have long wondered about the company's limits on liability insurance. The company will only insure up to $300,000 per occupant with a $1 million combined limit. That doesn't sound like much, but the company and pilots it insures have had excellent success with that coverage.

One reason that the Avemco limits work is that a typical piston airplane pilot's liability exposure is quite low. The risks of injuring people or damaging property outside of the airplane are, thankfully, very low. That means your actual liability exposure comes from the people who fly with you. Family members, and often business associates or employees, usually can't sue the pilot after an accident. Since most of us fly a lot by ourselves, and most often with family members, there is almost no liability exposure on those flights.

Another reason that the Avemco limits make sense is that it makes the pilot a small target after an accident. In many states, it is very difficult to recover personal assets from a pilot after an accident, even if the court finds him liable. Residences, retirement accounts, and some other assets are off limits in some states. Most important, the hard work and small chance of success of recovering money from a pilot's estate cause plaintiff's attorneys to look for easier pickings. If you have large liquid assets, however, your situation could be different.

It is very difficult to buy more than $2 million of liability insurance for a piston airplane from any company, so if you start to think about doomsday scenarios, can that amount really solve the problem? Only a handful of the liability claims against Avemco policyholders fail to settle for the policy limits, even though the company insures many wealthy people. And all insurance companies are required to pay for your defense against suit no matter that the defense may cost more than the policy limits.

Since my visit to Avemco I have reconsidered the value of high liability coverage for personal flying. No matter how much we buy, it is not enough if the worst happens, but considering the exposure, and all the targets of lawsuits available after an accident, the Avemco policy limits make a lot of sense for many pilots.