Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Weather Avoidance: Back To Basics

Ten simple steps to enhance your weather planning and avoid Mother Nature’s worst

It's one of the great paradoxes in aviation that one of the biggest killers of pilots —weather—is one of the least understood and least taught subjects in primary flight instruction. According to the latest NTSB statistics, weather remains one of the top five accident causes in general aviation, with an 85% fatality rate. Yet, the weather knowledge required to successfully pass the FAA's written and practical tests is marginal at best. With that in mind, how we do learn to avoid the worst Mother Nature can throw at us?

First, we have to accept the fact that most of us will never become expert meteorologists. Thanks to advances in technology, we only need to understand weather enough. There's a great tradition in aviation where the truly complex stuff was left to the real weather experts—the meteorologists who sat at the local flight service station office—and looked out the window. Today, the responsibility has shifted to the pilot more than ever. Technology presents the information, but we must know enough about it to make the right go/no-go decision.

To help us delve into this complex subject, we spoke with Scott Dennstaedt, a pilot and recognized weather expert. Dennstaedt spent several years as a National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist, earned an M.S. degree in meteorology and computer science, and today spends his time as a CFI in technically advanced aircraft (TAA) teaching pilots about weather. His website, , is a treasure trove of weather information, tips and technical videos.

"The fundamental problem," says Dennstaedt, "is that as pilots, we have to master a lot of disciplines, and we do it by practicing skills. But the FAA's current curriculum doesn't allow us to practice weather skills. What little knowledge is on the exams is not representative of really understanding weather."

I asked Dennstaedt what we can do as pilots to better understand weather, and how to avoid the really nasty stuff that could kill us. The answer is surprisingly simple, and involves better understanding of the resources we already have, along with using technology to put it all together.

Old Dog, New Tricks
One of the best techniques to avoid getting into weather trouble is learning how to use traditional aviation resources. The Flight Service briefing is still the most popular way pilots get weather information, and is usually the first step in getting a complete weather picture. But learning what this briefing can't do is an important part of learning what it can do.

"I don't believe that a flight service briefing can keep you safe on its own," says Dennstaedt. "It's useful when the weather's really good, or when it's really bad. But it's the middle where the briefing falls short."


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