WX BRIEF

Using global met resources

Access to weather information from almost anywhere in the world is just a few clicks away.

By Karsten Shein
Comm-Inst, Climate Scientist


Bombardier Global 5000 taxis to the runway at VKO (Vnukovo, Moscow, Russia) amid a blanket of light winter snow. Once largely guesswork, advances in observation and communication technology have brought international observations and forecasts to pilots' fingertips.

As pilots, schedulers or flight ops managers, we are often considered the weather sages of the organizations for which we work. It is expected that we have the world of weather at our fingertips.

And, given that having a firm grasp of the weather is a significant part of a successful flight, it is not an unreasonable expectation. And it is one we are normally able to meet—especially if we are flying common domestic routes.

But, while getting the current weather and forecast for an airport a few hundred miles away is not difficult, the same cannot always be said for an international destination thousands of miles distant.

Fortunately, getting weather information from far away is not as much of a challenge as it once was.

A brief history

In aviation's early days, there were few options for pilots to know the current, let alone forecast, weather at their destination. It was largely a matter of hoping for the best and trying to avoid the worst weather when the pilot encountered it.

Weather observations have been around for millennia, and detailed instrument-based observations have been made in Europe and Asia for at least 400 years, but until the last century these observations were widely scattered and did not serve much purpose outside science.

But, as aviation grew in importance, so did the need for better weather observation and forecasting, and especially communication. It was not enough for meteorologists to observe the weather and make forecasts for their local airports. In the 1920s and 30s, aircraft were gaining more range and pilots who were based hundreds of miles away now needed access to those observations and forecasts.

There were 2 ways for pilots to get this information. They could call their destination airport by telephone and get the information directly, or they could talk with their national weather bureau, which would collect observations via telephone, telegraph or other means each day.

But international communications were not yet sufficient to know or forecast the weather at a faraway international destination. Even in 1927, Charles Lindbergh took off for Paris with knowledge only of the weather at Roosevelt Field NY, since any weather observations from ships in the Atlantic would only be available months after the fact.

By the 1930s, things were improving. Weather balloons were being launched daily around the world, many weather observation stations had moved from city centers to airports, and wireless communications could transmit weather observations over significant distances.

Composite radar image of precipitation across the Nordic countries on Nov 25, 2010. Radar data such as this is generally controlled by national meteorological agencies and may or may not be freely accessible to pilots via the Internet.

But most pilots still didn't have ready access to any distant weather observations or forecasts. It was only after WWII and the transition to a focus on passenger aviation that long-distance weather information was placed successfully in the hands of pilots.

The last few decades of the 20th century saw some of the most important advances for getting weather information into the hands of pilots. In the air, avionics, such as strike finders and onboard radar, plus the ability to talk to meteorologists over Flight Watch, gave pilots instant access to a lot of information about the weather in their immediate vicinity.

Pilots were able to tune in ATIS and get the most recent weather report from the airport they were approaching or departing. Weather observation and reporting for preflight planning also advanced dramatically, including automated weather observations, available within hours of collection from hundreds of AWOS and ASOS stations, centralized weather briefings, Nexrad Doppler radar, and the dissemination of weather maps and graphics to anyone who had access to a fax machine.

With the available technology, a pilot could peruse all the latest weather information right from the briefing room of the local FBO, call a weather briefer to get an expert assessment of current and forecast conditions and keep themselves updated while in the air.

However, much of this information was available only in a few advanced countries, and any sort of international weather planning was limited to a few weather companies that had negotiated access to data from other countries. To this day, some nations' meteorological data is only available for purchase. However, the importance of weather to aviation has ensured that real-time Metar data is not restricted.

Weather at your fingertips

The Internet has altered the way we access weather information—not just locally but internationally. Large flight departments, or pilots who routinely fly internationally, will often turn to the expertise of weather and flight handling companies such as Universal Weather, Jeppesen or Air Routing.

Some may even employ in-house scheduler or dispatcher teams who take care of international flight handling, weather included. For smaller or independent operations, however, the Internet provides much of the international weather information a flightcrew or their dispatcher might require.

Despite some national meteorological organizations' proprietary claims on the weather data they collect, nearly all automated airport observations worldwide are available to pilots locally—and, through grants and lowered instrument costs, nearly every moderately sized or larger airport around the world has an automated weather system. If you know the airport code, you can access the most recent weather reports, and in some cases you can also review the past several days' worth of reports.

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