The single most important go- no-go factor for any pilot is weather. Weather determines if a pilot should leave the ground at all, and when in the air, if he or she should get back on the ground in a hurry. Every pilot is taught that they should call Flight Services and talk to a briefer before launching in questionable weather conditions; and in the case of long, cross-country flying, file a flight plan with Flight Services.
Today, there are a plethora of weather service sources a pilot can refer to when planning a flight. The internet is a treasure trove of weather information from the FAA (Federal Aviation Adminsitration), NOAA/NWS (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/ National Weather Service), AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) and more. All are fine while on the ground in the comfort and safety of one’s den. But almost all have disclaimers stating that using online weather information is not a replacement for that call to a briefer at Flight Services.
Weather, of course, can be unpredictable. Many a pilot has done his or her due diligence and launched into a perfectly blue sky with calm winds at the surface, manageable winds aloft and 20 nautical miles of visibility only to find a surprise thunderstorm.
Apps, Apps everywhere.
In the past several years a revolution has taken place in aviation cockpits around the globe. They have gone digital, both inside the panel with glass instruments or outside the panel with hand held devices that provide everything from approach plates to night vision. Of course, part of that revolution includes weather apps of different varieties that give pilots en route weather information – not from Flight Watch, not through VOR stations – but from satellites and almost in real time. Here are just some the many weather apps available for mobile devices, their similarities and their differences:
- WSI Pilotbrief Optima (Free in iTunes) — This iPad app allows users access to weather and NOTAMs (notices to airmen) information when planning a flight. Features include high-definition weather layers, radar, satellite infrared, Vertically Integrated Liquid (VIL), and EchoTop mosaics; graphic METARs and 10-day planning forecasts.
- Aviation weather by GADsoftware ($4.99 in Google Play) – This smartphone app shows maps with all reporting stations listed, and coded by VFR/IFR conditions. The default map in the 30-day free trial is of the Northeast centered on Boston, but you can add other locations.
- AccuWeather (Basic version free on iTunes and Google Play) — Members rave about this smartphone and tablet app for its push notifications for severe weather alerts, precise weather maps, forecasts for 2.7 million locations around the world, and the ability to save forecasts for an unlimited number of locations.
- MyRadar Weather Radar (Basic version free in iTunes and Google Play) — This smartphone and tablet app displays animated weather radar at a current location. For $1.99, the pro version removes all ads. For $2.99, the app will include hurricane coverage. It also offers weather warnings and alerts.
- AeroWeather (Lite version, free; Pro version, $3.99 in iTunes) — The lite version of this iPhone/iPad app provides raw and decoded METAR/TAF data, and allows users to search stations from a built-in database or find them based on location. The weather comes from the National Weather Service database. The Pro version does all of the above plus provides NOTAMs, runway data, moon data and information from AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System), plus it filters airport identifiers and information.
- RadarScope ($9.99) — This app can display 155 radar sites in the U.S.and allows you to choose between base and composite reflectivity. This app is more for weather geeks than the average aviation user and depends less on graphics and more data.
- SkewTLogPro ($6.99) — The app offers temperature/dew point, wind direction and wind speed at different altitudes and can reveal information about cloud bases, tops, icing, turbulence and more. It also allows you to quick scan Skew T diagrams (meteorological graphics that take some training to read) at any location in the U.S.
The Big Three
The three dominant GPS Navigation apps for pilots have been ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot and WingX. All three provide more than weather, but their weather apps are quite robust and allow you to overlay your flight plan so you can see what weather issues are in your path. This gives all three a level of situation awareness that can really be useful at altitude and while en route to your destination. These apps include graphic versions of METAR s and icing forecasts. What sets them apart is that all three allow you to get formal DUAT/DUATS weather briefings right in the app – no need to call Flight Services and talk to a briefer. These apps are official. They also include weather data link, either through XM or ADS-B. All three provide a free trial.
The Improvements keep on coming.
One of the issues with most aviation weather apps is that they present report data (METARS, TAFs, Pilot Reports (or PIREPS) in raw form or decoded and not all in one place. A new app created by 1 Echo Charlie, LLC is changing all that. It is called wx24 Pilot. Unlike other aviation apps, which display text versions of weather data, wx24 Pilot interprets the same data and presents it graphically.
The illustrated weather data is presented on screen so you don’t have to go scrolling and scrambling around to put together a composite idea of what the weather around you looks like . You can quickly see the current and the forecast weather situation that lies ahead of you along your route and at your destination. The graphic weather depictions allow you to “see” the weather rather than decipher it. Sizing up the weather situation takes seconds instead of minutes and in aviation that could mean the difference between flying into danger and having enough time to recognize it and avoid it.
Another unique safety feature of wx24 Pilot is you can input your personal minimums and the app will quickly allow you to see if you are approaching them or about to exceed them. The app presents your en route weather situation from point of departure to destination point with weather information at key points along the way.
You can purchase wx24 Pilot by the month for $1.99, for six months for $7.99 or for 1 year for $11.99.
The digital revolution in aviation is making flying safer by putting more and more critical information at our fingertips in our cockpits and it is doing it at lower and lower cost to the pilot. While all this is valuable for sure, eyeballs out the window are just as critical to safe flying. A happy medium between our heads in the clouds and are eyes on our handheld screens could be the best prescription for keeping us all safe.