Winter poses unique weather challenges for pilots, and the FAA is working with NATCA and the aviation community to increase everyone’s awareness of those challenges. One way they are doing that is emphasizing the importance of pilot weather reports, or PIREPs.
“Our biggest tool we can use is PIREPs,” NATCA Procedures Representative and Boise Tower air traffic controller Andy Marosvari said, noting that snowfall and icing conditions are not as visible on radar as summer thunderstorms. “Without [PIREPs], we’re kind of limited as to what we can distribute other than what we see or what’s produced by the National Weather Service.”
The current focus on winter weather is part of a joint FAA-NATCA campaign on weather awareness in general. The promotion of PIREPs as a way to increase winter weather awareness also follows a forum on PIREPs at the National Transportation Safety Board last year.
Pilots and controllers agree that firsthand weather reports from the people in the air are essential to aviation safety. Pilots need to provide PIREPs regularly as the flight conditions around them change, and controllers need to solicit the pilots for fresh information as needed.
“It’s really important for the FAA and NATCA to work together to highlight risks associated with weather,” Safety and Technical Training Safety Services Manager Eric Saldana said. “Soliciting and gathering PIREPS allows us to provide timely weather information that can help a pilot get through the system safely.”
Controllers should solicit pilot weather reports when the conditions are ripe for at least light icing on aircraft surfaces, according to the FAA handbook. They also should ask pilots what type of ice is forming and how much.
Marosvari said gathering that information is particularly important for general aviation pilots who may not be certified to fly in icing conditions. They can use the PIREPs to decide whether to fly on a given day.
“If you see weather or know about weather, you need to tell somebody about it,” Marosvari said. NATCA conducted a series of webinars to convey that message to pilots a couple of summers ago. Now the goal is to drive home the same point for winter weather.
Bruce Landsberg, past president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute and author of the “Safety Pilot” column in AOPA’s Pilot magazine, said pilots are in the best position to ‘nowcast’ the weather to their fellow aviators. “They can build a mental picture of what’s going on up there,” he said, “and that’s critically important.”
Pilots who fly into icing conditions also should notify air traffic control immediately and not assume that the controllers know the conditions, Landsberg added. “If you’ve got a problem, speak up right now and don’t be hesitant to use the ‘emergency’ word.”
Marosvari said controllers stand ready to help pilots who get caught unexpectedly in winter weather. He said a controller can intervene before an emergency is declared if the situation demands it, such as an airplane in constant descent amid icing conditions. But ideally a pilot will alert air traffic control before a situation becomes critical.
“I think sometimes pilots are reluctant to declare an emergency because they think they’re going to get into trouble,” Marosvari said. “But that’s what we’re they’re for.”
Landsberg added that if a weather forecast calls for icing conditions, controllers should solicit PIREPs at least once an hour and more often early in the day. This includes keeping tabs on the presence of fog or low clouds, in which Landsberg said VFR pilots should never fly. It's also important to gather “null reports” that say forecast fog or ice does not exist.
“Controllers need to understand this is lifesaving stuff,” he said.
Landsberg said pilots could benefit by visiting air traffic facilities to get a better sense of what controllers do on a daily basis. To that end, he has worked with the FAA and NATCA to conduct seminars at Charleston Tower in South Carolina, where he lives. The tower has hosted several groups of pilots since September 2015.
Patrick Shields, the NATCA facility representative and Local Safety Council lead, said pilots leave the events with a greater appreciation of the limits of weather technology in air traffic facilities. While pilots can see lightning and convective activity from the air during the summer, for instance, controllers only see the track and speed of a weather front on their screens.
“One of the biggest disconnects between air traffic is that they don’t know what we can see, and most controllers don’t know what pilots can see,” Shields said.
The joint FAA-NATCA campaign is designed to remedy that situation, too. The weather information that controllers and pilots have on any given day is mostly the same, Marosvari said, “but we each add a little bit to complete the picture.”