Plane & Pilot
Thursday, September 1, 2005

Weather-Avoidance Assistance

You can’t always rely on air traffic control for climate briefings

While the primary duty of controllers is to separate and direct traffic, they also have a duty to help pilots avoid weather hazards. The FAA’s handbook for controllers requires them to issue pertinent information on observed and reported weather, provide radar navigation guidance and/or approve deviations around weather when requested, define where significant weather is located in relation to an aircraft, issue the level of echo intensity and help pilots figure out the best alternative routes and altitudes to avoid weather. On rare occasions, however, National Transportation Safety Board investigators discover that things don’t always go by the book, as was the case in this investigation, which was completed earlier this year.

On May 31, 2004, at 2 p.m., EDT, an amateur-built Lancair, with a private pilot at the controls, crashed following a loss of control during cruise flight near Vermontville, Mich. Instrument meteorological conditions with thunderstorms were present at the time of the accident. The business flight was operating under Part 91 on an IFR flight plan. The pilot and both passengers were fatally injured. The flight departed Willow Run Airport (YIP), Ypsilanti, Mich., at 1:30.

At 12:13, the pilot telephoned the FAA’s Lansing Automated Flight Service Station, requesting a weather briefing for a flight from YIP to Portland International Airport (PDX) in Portland, Ore., with an en route stop. The briefer advised the pilot to expect thunderstorm and rain shower activity in Michigan, moderate turbulence below 9,000 feet MSL and icing conditions between 7,000 and 14,000 feet. The briefer also described an area of thunderstorms extending from south of Milwaukee (MKE) through the Chicago metropolitan area and extending almost to the Iowa border. A SIGMET, which was current at the time, reported a developing area of thunderstorms moving from the west at 30 knots, with tops reaching 28,000 feet. The briefer advised the pilot to contact Flight Watch or flight service after the departure for assistance in avoiding this adverse weather.

When asked where he planned to stop en route to PDX, the pilot replied, “Why don’t we plan on Billings [Montana]?” The briefer advised that there were numerous notices to airmen in effect for Billings Airport (BIL) and its associated approach procedures. The pilot then filed an IFR flight plan from YIP to BIL via MKE, requesting a 10,000-foot cruise altitude.

The pilot contacted Lansing Approach at 1:41 while climbing to 10,000 feet. At 1:44, the Lansing Approach controller asked if the aircraft was equipped with weather radar. The pilot responded that it was not, and the controller advised the pilot of weather ahead that might affect the aircraft’s flight. The pilot requested vectors around the weather.


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