|Pilot Reports / Rose Marie Kern
“Flight Watch, N3RK just east of Marfa, with a pilot report, over”
“N3RK, Albuquerque Flight Watch, go ahead pilot report”
“N3RK is a Cherokee at one one thousand five hundred, we have had moderate turbulence from El Paso to Marfa, and just started getting some severe jolts as we got closer to Marfa, we descended to seven thousand five hundred and it are just getting some light turbulence at this altitude”
Ahh, the lowly pilot report. With every briefing you receive from flight service, we always ask for pilot reports. Pilot reports are the missing pieces of a puzzle in the realm of Weather Service measurements and instrumentation. The weatherman is chained to the ground with his computers and calculations. He has satellites far above the atmosphere to give him a look at airflow there, and he has surface observation stations feeding data into the computers below the atmosphere, but except for weather balloons sent aloft a couple times a day, he has no way of knowing what is happening IN the atmosphere. It is still one of the greatest guessing games known to man – what is going to happen next?
Enter the pilot report. Pilots cleave the air at altitudes from just above the surface nearly to the ozone layer every day. They do not just see weather, they become a part of it. The data that they accumulate and give to air traffic gets fed immediately into National Weather Service databases. This data confirms or disputes the forecasts made to that point and it serves as the basis for the next educated guess as to how the weather will affect the people, animals, crops, roadbuilders, campers, golfers and pilots.
Pilot reports are a pilot’s best source of weather on his route. Airmets and Sigmets are issued, but are they real? Is there really icing in those clouds over Indianapolis? A Cessna Skyhawk pilot is aching to get home to Cincinnati. The Airmet exists, but what is really happening? During his briefing he finds that the pilot of a Beechcraft Baron flying from Terre Haute to Dayton reported a trace of rime icing at FL115, but after dropping to FL075 and the Baron reported clear with an outside temperature of plus 4 degrees C.
The Skyhawk pilot leaves immediately and comfortably makes it home.
On the other hand, if the Baron had reported that he had encountered light icing from FL045 on up to FL115, the Skyhawk pilot, who had no de-icing equipment on board, would probably take a hotel room for the night and try again tomorrow.
Airmets are indications that certain types of flying hazards are probable in an area, but a Pilot Report is real-time information that is of incredible value to other pilots. When a pilot report is received, it is considered pertinent for briefing purposes for only one hour. After that time it is removed from the weather service products, insuring that the only data the pilots and briefers receive is current. It is not thrown out completely though. This data is accumulated with other pilot reports and used to reconsider advisory products. The pilots themselves therefore frequently initiate action on the part of the Weather Service to stimulate the issuance of Airmets or Sigmets.
All pilot reports, even the negative ones have value. If it is forecast to be turbulent, but all the pilots are reporting smooth flying conditions – this is Good! If it is forecast to be smooth and clear and the pilot reports it is smooth and clear – this is Good! Never think that you are “wasting our time” with any pilot report, they are all valuable.
Every time you give a pilot report we need your location, type aircraft and altitude to start with. After that you should give whatever clues to the big puzzle that you can. Are you in the clouds at your altitude? What altitude did you enter them at? How thick is the layer? How many miles can you see in front of you?
At your altitude are you getting turbulence or icing? What intensity? Do you see any rain in the area? The weather service likes having pilots give wind speed/direction and temperature aloft data in pilot reports.
The two categories that tend to confuse a lot of pilots are the intensities and types of turbulence and icing. Icing is a little more obvious. If it is barely visible it is trace. If it is lightly coating all surfaces it is “light”. If it looks like thick icing on a birthday cake and is starting to make flying difficult, it is moderate. If it is severe, you are probably already losing altitude so fast that you don’t have time for a pilot report.
Air carriers define turbulence according to passenger discomfort. Light turbulence causes coffee in those little Styrofoam cups to slosh around a bit. Moderate turbulence means the coffee slops out of the cup and may tip the cup over. Severe turbulence lands the coffee in the lap of the guy in the next seat back, and extreme turbulence tosses the stewardess into the lap of the guy in the next seat back.
Sometimes the turbulence is classified as “chop”. Ever drive down a dirt road that has a lot of parallel ridges like an old time washboard? That is chop.
We get a lot of interesting comments that are added to pilot reports which will bring home a condition in a more personal way. One pilot was reporting nasty headwinds and turbulence. The report read: TCS UA/OV ONM-TCS/TM 2219/FL085/TP C152/WV 180045/ TB MOD/RM “Only thing moving in this aircraft is my stomach”.
Or this one in southeastern New Mexico:
CNM UA/ OV CNM/ TM 0245/FL065/TP C210/Turbulence – Moderate to Severe/Remarks: It’s rougher than a corn cob up here.
My favorite was made by an unheated Experimental flying from El Paso to Albuquerque up the Rio Grande in February. He reported the temperature, then said, “I should have worn my fur-lined jock strap.” Unfortunately, the supervisor would not let me code that one into the database unedited.
Flight Watch is uniquely designed to take and disseminate pilot reports. Radio can do it too, time permitting. If you give one to the ATC Towers, they will pass it on to Flight Service because their computers are not linked directly to the Weather service the way ours are. Center controllers have no requirement to take pilot reports, and if you try to give them one they may simply have you contact Flight Watch.
Other, more unusual, pilot reports can include such things as seeing the ground obscured by blowing sand or dust, and then giving the dust tops, or observing a forest fire where there are no TFR’s already in the area. This is one of the ways that the Forest Service gets on top of fires quickly in the more remote regions.
To all those who religiously give pilot reports – thank you. To the rest of you, Flight Watch is listening on 122.0, so call up and let us know how your flight’s going.
Rose Marie Kern has worked in Air Traffic for over 25 years. If you have a question she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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