September 26, 2016

A Weather Data Revolution in the Cockpit

A weather data revolution is about to take place in the cockpit of commercial aircraft, a revolution that will make air travel safer and more comfortable.

As I noted in a blog last month, most pilots do not have access to the full range of critical, real-time weather information when  they are airborne.  The amazing truth is that a passenger sitting in coach with a laptop, using aircraft wifi, has much better real-time weather information than most pilots.  

With a lack of weather information some pilots have made serious and dangerous mistakes, taking their aircraft into thunderstorms and other weather threats.

A passenger with neck brace being taken off of JetBlue429

One example is the JetBlue Flight 429 incident in which an Airbus 320 flew directly into severe convection, sending nearly two dozen passengers and crew to the hospital.

And there are many more examples.  Take Delta Flight 1889, which went into a strong thunderstorm with big hail last August, smashing the windshield and destroying the nose cone.  As described here, this incident was easily avoidable.

Even today there was several aircraft flying into thunderstorms, needlessly endangering and discomforting passengers.    Don't believe me?  Here is an example from this afternoon.  The colors give radar intensity, with red being intense echoes (heavy rain, hail).  Look closely about two thirds up, just left of center and you will see a jet flying into red.  Bad move.

And nearly the same time, a crazy prop plane went into even stronger convection.

Or this one about the same time in which a jet pilot took his/her passengers on a needlessly exciting ride.

Aircraft Radars Are Not Sufficient

Airline captains don't get to view good radar imagery like shown above, but rather use their aircraft radar, which have relatively low resolution, limited range, and present all levels at once.  Here is an example:

Aircraft weather radars may be ok for tactical, short-term decision making (e.g., maneuvering around an isolated cell), but are completely inadequate for strategic decision making (deciding on route changes 10 minutes or more ahead of time).  Aircraft radars can't see behind strong echoes so pilots can get into trouble farther on.

A failure mode evident in the JetBlue and Delta cases was the filling of a gap in a convective line, problems that would have been evident if the pilots had radar and weather satellite animations.

The Technology Exists to Fix This Problem

Today our nation has a marvelous network of powerful high-resolution radars maintained by the National Weather Service.  New generations of weather satellites not only show the structure of clouds below, but probe the 3D structure of the atmosphere.  Real-time lightning detection networks define cloud to cloud and cloud to ground flashes.  And new rapid-refresh, real-time analysis and forecast systems are constantly updating the forecasts.  Plus, many planes are taking weather observations and radioing them in constantly.

But how get this rich data to pilots?   The solution is pretty much in place: most commercial jet aircraft now have wifi, including many flights over the oceans.  I should know:  I use wifi on every flight I take to follow the weather en route.   So a pilot with a laptop or a pad should be able to get virtually any type of weather information, but few have done so until very recently.


Part of the problem is with the airlines, who have been too slow in understanding the benefits of this technology.

Some of the problem has been with the FAA,  which even today PROHIBITS the use of weather software that shows the position of the aircraft.  Amazing.

Part of the problem is from concerns about wifi interfering with cockpit electronics, but that can be solved.

Weather Software in the Cockpit

A number of vendors are now developing or providing weather display systems for commercial pilots.  For example, JetBlue is now making such software available to their air crews.  I understand Alaska Airlines is working on the same thing.  Delta, working with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has developed a Fight Weather Viewer App, with particular attention to defining areas of turbulence:

Honeywell has weather software that loads on to iPads and are designed for relatively low-bandwidth aircraft environments:

And WSI/ has a solution for general aviation that uses XM satellite technology:

But technology is not the end of the problem.   Pilots will need the meteorological education to better understand weather threats and how they can be identified in radar or satellite imagery.

Bottom Line

 There is now an explosion of aviation weather apps that can be installed on laptops or pads.  If airlines and the FAA work together to encourage the use of real-time weather data in the cockpit, all of us can look forward to smoother and safer flights.


  1. You do know that NEXRAD can have many minutes of delay right?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. What I don't see here are samples of reasonable 3D-imagery that permits advanced decision making in response to a dynamic system. As phone apps are designed to target the ground-based audience, the interfaces and features are heavily skewed towards drivers, bus/train commuters, and pedestrians, assume a nearly-stationary observer, and are still often incorrect (nearest hour). While the problem spaces of practical flight interface, tactical view control, and automated aggregate data analysis/prediction/recommendation can be solved, it doesn't seem like the airlines are much interested, probably because "research takes money ho hum".

    On the user side, I think the problems are greater still. If a pilot felt they could "make it through that gap" only to find that the gap closed, what's going to happen when they get a 3D view? The navigator is going to decide to offer some labyrinthine route through the weather?... only to find that "it moved roops". Most people are also not very good at processing three-dimensional data, and while I must admit to not having trained pilots specifically, most can still function two-dimensionally (maintain this altitude, maybe turn once in a while; maintain heading, descend; maintain descent rate while turning). Like drivers that can't speed up and change lanes at the same time, or can't even maintain their speed while changing lanes, commercial pilots aren't stunt pilots, so they truly need to start with the most basic of data: "Yes, there's a big blob ahead stretching from 2k to 30k ft; go around".

  4. Michael.
    The radar is available every 6 minutes and coverage is excellent over the eastern 2/3 of the US where most thunderstorms are. At elevation, there are few gaps. Satellite imagery have no gaps. Dispatch folks are clearly failing in some cases, like the ones I noted above. Perhaps they are not staffed to follow the weather carefully for each flight....the pilot is in a much better position to make decisions for his aircraft...cliff

  5. Brian...we are not talking about phone apps, but apps designed for aviation decision making. Current lack of information is tempting pilots to shoot for closing "holes". In the future, they will hopefully go around the areas of danger. For convection, this is not really a 3d problem in general, since the only option is to go above it....cliff

  6. I remember talking about real-time GPS navigation software, vectorized electronic marine charts and weather overlays for boats with a friend who, prior to his recent retirement was the chief pilot for Boeing 777's at a major airline. I was very enthusiastic about having all the newest gear on my boat, and he had some of it, but he was always dismissive of trusting it too much.

    His view was that all that stuff was theory, and useful sometimes, but "radar is truth". He meant on-board radar. He was a master at tuning and interpreting marine radar. He was also very good at using basic weather instruments to understand what the near-term wave and wind effects were going to be. He used the old weather faxes, his instruments, his eyeballs and a lot of knowledge of marine weather in the PNW and its interactions with terrain at sea level.

    When I later traveled off the coast of BC and up into portions of Alaska in my boat, his words kept me safe. Many times I anchored on dry land (according to my electronic charts), navigating in fog with my radar and ignoring charts when they disagreed and saw weather forecasts on my fancy display screens that was completely different than what my barometer and wind instruments said I should expect. I became a believer in getting the big picture from the weather maps and making tactical decisions based on on-board instruments.

    Friends on other boats who based their decisions on weather overlays on their chart plotters often got savaged in big waves while I sat comfortably in my snug anchorage, tapping on my barometer and watching the wind direction and keeping very good notes of the trends. Thanks to a 777 pilot who'd convinced me to learn to do my own local forecasting.

    Of course, we're talking the north coast of BC and the west coast of Vancouver Island, not to mention the Gulf of Alaska and the outer islands in SE Alaska, places where NOAA and Canadian charts are flat wrong and ground-based radar is mostly non-existent. The Midwest US has very good ground-based tools for dealing with thunderstorms, so a mix of technologies is clearly best.

    But I'll never forget the advice that saved my bacon more than a few times: "Radar is truth." On-board radar. To which I added, "Barometer trends and wind-direction on your boat is reality."

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Great article, Cliff. As an experienced airline pilot (almost 28 years), I am flabbergasted about the situation we're in now, where a lot of great weather data is readily available to pilots, yet we are not allowed to access it.

    Yes, Michael, we understand that NEXRAD can be several minutes old. And the 777 pilot is right, RADAR is truth... and it is invaluable for real time, tactical maneuvering during the flight. But, having access to strategic data is very helpful to avoid severe convective areas altogether. We need both.

    Dispatchers can be helpful with this kind of information, but are sometimes SWAMPED with following several flights simultaneously (15 or more at a time). It's great when you get the ACARS message from the dispatcher, but in my experience, this is a very uncommon occurrence.

    Finally, I can say that having access to the "Inflight Weather Viewer" (which should be termed Inflight Turbulence Viewer) is somewhat helpful, but every pilot I've flown with agrees that we would HAPPILY trade it for NEXRAD and satellite info.

  9. Michael,
    You need to look more closely at the radar availability. There is substantial coverage over the western U.S at higher elevations. Including the Cascades and Rockies. There is some blockage at low levels, but that problem goes away at the altitudes where most jets are flying. Aircraft radars are helpful, but you are simply not correct about the value of ground-based radars. And please consider satellite data, which clearly show the locations of convection...cliff

  10. We use the app Foreflight on our IPad when flying recreationally. We just flew down to the Reno Air Races a week ago at 17,000 feet and had flawless weather coverage.
    A lot of kitplanes have built in avionics that include sophisticated weather displays with radar overlay...just depends on what the builder/owner can afford.
    I'm not surprised that many airlines are not up to speed on the avionics in the cockpit. No reason a pilot should not have an IPad for such a big safety issue.
    As a comparison, I've seen the instrumentation on bridges of commercial ocean-going cargo ships with less sophisticated information than we have available on our 37 foot sailboat except for instrumentation required by International and Federal law.

  11. You nailed it by stating...the amazing truth is that a passenger sitting in coach with a laptop, using aircraft wifi, has much better real-time weather information than most pilots.

  12. "Even today there was several aircraft flying into thunderstorms, needlessly endangering and discomforting passengers. Don't believe me? Here is an example from this afternoon."

    The weather information and aircraft position data is probably not data from the same time. FLightaware has show me in the red when I was safely outside of it. This happens more often with fast moving storms and slow to update weather data. Your first example could easily be old weather and new position data, placing him into the red returns from your view, but in reality the weather had moved east in he was now actually in that gap.


    They were above it. Many aircraft can fly as high as 45,000 ft and the returns you see may not be at that level , more so when a storm is building or dissipating. As you know cliff, they are 3D in nature and a 2d picture of returns cant show the true nature of a system

    Onboard aircraft weather radar allows the use of tilt and gain and is not "all levels at once" your right about it being tactical but changing the range displayed on the map and gain/tilt you can bring out fascinating detail from most systems.

    Your right, long range strategic data coupled with satellite based weather products linked to the cockpit is long overdue, but you should know better than to make statements about what an aircraft is doing from a source as weak as flightaware, that was just needless fear mongering.

  13. Will there be another opportunity to hear what you have to say about climate change in the PNW? I wish I could make it tonight!

  14. Unknown,
    Flying above severe convection is a bad idea because many force strong gravity wave activity that propagate above them, producing strong turbulence Furthermore, new towers can propagate upward rapidly (e.g., mile a minute in the vertical). Aircraft must keep away from strong convection (the reds and whites)...cliff

  15. Cliff, you're correct in that gravity waves come into consideration but how high they propagate and if they have an effect on the ride can be judged by an experienced pilot. High winds aloft, downwind of a MCS can cause rough turbulence far outside of the "Reds and whites" but without producing a visible gravity wave train. Conversely the distance necessary to deviate might be far reduced just slightly upwind and above of a stable storm that is mature but several thousand feet below your flight level. Its not as black and white(and red yellow green) as a picture of the reflectivity paints. A change of speed, current service in the cabin, aircraft weight and fuel status, reports from aircraft ahead all weigh on the scales of weather deviation decisions. Decades of daily interaction with storms, a comfortable knowledge of the attenuation characteristics of your onboard radar and familiarity with the reflectivity of local storms (both above and below the freezing level) moves 1.5 million people a day with a very low injury rate. I enjoy your blog and do agree with the need to improve cockpit data, but be careful in your original blog of the same alarmist talk I read you lambast others for in the meteorology world.

    As far as the speed of vertical propagation, Pilots have one distinct advantage over a meteorologist when determining the risk of that factor of that during daylight.

    His Front WIndow.

    Next time there is nice isolated cell near seattle maybe one of the many pilots reading your blog can show you that unique view from a light airplane, a safe distance of course.

  16. Have forwarded this to my brother who is a senior check ride Captain with Delta. Does lots of projects for AirBus line and was on the team sent to help configure the 787 cockpit for Delta. I will be interested in his comments.
    The folks who really needs these tools are the Air Traffic Controllers.

  17. My conclusion: If the commenters on Cliff's blog actually had a say in these matters, half of us would conclude our flight as a smoking crater in a cornfield somewhere, and the other half would end up walking to our destination.

  18. What about flying through a hurricane?


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

Rain without Clouds, the Upcoming Cooling, and Strong Leeside Winds: All in My New Podcast

The radar image this morning at 5:30 AM showed rain...some heavy... offshore. As shown in the satellite image at the same time, much of that...