Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Weather Picture

The NTSB wants you to be able to see what’s happening in places you’re going to

Trick question: What do you call a government agency that takes years to complete a program that already has contributed to a 53% reduction in accidents, while spending millions of dollars and countless personnel hours on a program that safety data indicates is unnecessary? Answer: You call it the FAA.

The program that data shows isn't needed, according to the AOPA/EAA exemption petition, is the third-class medical requirement for pilots who fly day/VFR for recreation. The successful program, which the FAA hasn't yet fully implemented, involves a network of weather cameras in Alaska. Back in 1995, after conducting a safety study of Alaska's aviation environment, the NTSB recommended that the FAA consider the benefits of having remote color video weather- observing systems. Four years after receiving the NTSB's recommendation, in 1999, the FAA began the Alaskan Aviation Camera Program. Thirteen years later, as of 2012, cameras had been installed at 185 locations. The total is supposed to grow to 221 locations by 2014.

Automated surface observation systems can only go so far in converting signals from sensors into accurate descriptions of what a pilot is going to encounter. Images fill in what may be missing and are the next best thing to an on-scene human observer. If you want to see what Alaska weather camera images look like, visit the FAA at

In a formal report issued last year on the effectiveness of its Alaska camera program, the FAA noted that in 2011, there were 0.13 weather-related accidents per 100,000 operations, compared with 0.28 accidents per 100,000 operations before 2008. That's a 53% decrease. In addition, the FAA said that unnecessary flight hours due to having unreliable weather information decreased by 64%, saving fuel costs and other expenses. It also reported that a survey of Part 135 operators showed strong support for the camera program. One operator commented, "The aviation weather cameras form the core of our weather-related decisions…The information provided by the cameras is critical to our decision to dispatch, delay, postpone or cancel a flight."

In a safety recommendation issued in August, the NTSB calls on the FAA to start a weather camera program in Hawaii and in mountain passes in the continental United States identified as being high risk for aviation. It said the images should be available to the public, so pilots can access them at any time. It also wants the images to be available for display at flight service stations, so that briefers can refer to them and describe what they're seeing when giving a pilot a preflight briefing or in-flight update.

Included in the safety recommendation were several examples of weather accidents in Hawaii and on the mainland. Mainland accidents included: the crash of a Cessna 182T near a mountain pass in Park County, Colo., in which four people were killed; the crash of a Cessna 208B into mountainous terrain near Oak Glen, Calif., in which two people died; and, the crash of a Beechcraft F33A into the western side of Mt. San Jacinto in California, which resulted in two deaths.

The inference to be drawn is that these accidents might have been avoided had the pilots been able to access images showing the severity of the weather that awaited them. The pilots flew into various adverse weather phenomena including fog, rain squalls and areas of heavy clouds. This is especially true of accidents on Hawaii which, the NTSB noted, is prone to varied and rapidly changing conditions.


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