Aviation Safety Letter 3/2004

To the Letter — Pilots and Weather

Dear Editor,

I am a dedicated ASL reader and the reason I am writing is to express my concerns regarding inexperienced pilots who choose to depart on a flight in very poor weather. I have experience as a search and rescue (SAR) pilot, a flight safety officer, and a ground school instructor. Accidents published in the ASL seem to be primarily human-error related (typically 80% at fault); however, weather also seems to play a large role. While teaching ground school, I realized that a significant percentage of pilots have a very poor grasp of weather theory, and also a poor ability to decode the multitudes of weather charts, forecasts, etc. The biggest concern that I am seeing, however, is the inability of many pilots to take all the weather data and make a meaningful mental picture of the weather along a proposed route. For example, how fronts and air masses affect stability, icing, turbulence, winds, etc. How are these variables accounted for in the graphic area forecasts (GFA), aerodrome forecasts (TAF), etc? Are the METARs supporting the TAFs and GFAs? What would the weather be along the route of flight and at the proposed altitude? Where are the outs?

As a SAR pilot, I have been tasked to search for a number of overdue aircraft. I was authorized to carry out a search over land with weather limits of 700 ft AGL and 1 SM visibility and over water in 500 ft and 1 SM. These limits are quite low but we had the benefit of multi-engine and automated aircraft, with a highly experienced crew. Why were my weather limits higher than the weather limits of certain pilots who have few hours of flight experience, in a single-engine aircraft, and a poor grasp of weather? Millions of dollars are spent searching for overdue aircraft, in many cases because a pilot made a bad decision to fly in weather that was forecast to be below legal limits or beyond his/her limits. Why are pilots taking this risk?

Most flying schools are teaching pilots to decode GFAs, TAFs, and METARs, but in my opinion this is not enough. Pilots need to understand the forecast weather as it would look multi-dimensionally, and that's what I tried to impress upon them when teaching weather. I then encouraged them to use sound pilot decision-making skills in making their weather decisions. To improve weather knowledge, I believe Transport Canada should raise the bar significantly in terms of weather knowledge, both for "ab initio" training and for re-currency.

If in-depth and permanent weather knowledge for pilots is not universally addressed, we are likely to keep spending millions searching for overdue aircraft that departed in poor weather. Perhaps NAV CANADA personnel should be given enforcement abilities to stop pilots from filing flight plans if the weather is below limits. Why can a flight service station (FSS) specialist brief a visual flight rules (VFR) rated pilot on the weather along a proposed route, which is known to be below visual meteorological conditions (VMC), and also enter a VFR flight plan into the computer? The system has no "teeth." Is this occurring? Yes! It is depressing to think that loss of life could be prevented time and time again, if pilots only made better decisions. Of course, millions of dollars of taxpayers' money would also be saved.

Name withheld on request

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