Are you a white-knuckle flyer? I remember my first flight alone at the ripe age of 18, sitting next to a white-haired man reading a newspaper. Fast forward two hours, and our plane bounced and dipped through the sky. I glanced over to see his newspaper on the floor and his white knuckles gripping our shared armrest. I recall watching the magic of the light show just beyond my window at night as our plane zoomed through the sky at 500 miles an hour. Tucked into my little cocoon, warm and dry, while the weather raged in a magnificent show beside us.
Now, being a commercial airline pilot, I still revel in looking at the changing weather — except now, it’s out the front window. Have you ever wondered why and how pilots make the decision to fly through or around certain types of weather?
Can Weather Affect Your Flight?
As pilots, we are educated in many types of weather and how it can affect our flight. Our goal is to make sure you have a safe and comfortable ride. While aviators are educated in the broad arena of weather, understanding local weather in particular regions of the world can influence our flight. Pilots have many tools available to discern weather from a global to a regional perspective.
You, as a passenger, can also educate yourself about weather and how it might affect you and your travels. There are many free apps and websites available to view weather from almost any geographic spot on the planet. Having this intel can help you plan for a successful trip, whether it is across the world, the country, or just a short hop and skip. Understanding dense tule fog, the wicked winds of the Plains states, or the fierce Polar Vortex snowstorms in Chicago can give insight on whether your flight is going to get delayed — or worse, get canceled.
Are All Clouds Created Equal?
Unfortunately, no, all clouds are not created equal. Understanding the where, what, and how a cloud is created determines how pilots plan and react.
Depending on where you study meteorology, there are numerous cloud classifications and types. Let’s keep it simple. There are three main types of clouds: stratus, cumulus, and cirrus. Stratus clouds are flat, layered, and smooth clouds, usually associated with fog, drizzle, and overcast skies. Cumulus clouds are puffy like cauliflower, typically associated with rain showers, thunderstorms, lightning, and hail. Cirrus clouds are found at high altitudes, are wispy, and are mostly ice crystals.
Knowing the type of cloud dictates how pilots react and whether we choose to fly through it or around it.
Want To Know Some Local Knowledge?
I’ve always had an affinity for the bush pilots of Alaska. Talk about pilots who know their backyard! They constantly deal with fluctuating conditions. Bush pilots, in my opinion, are the most hearty and have the most challenging, and rapidly changing, conditions of any U.S.-based pilots.
However, commercial airline pilots also have broad knowledge of many different locations, and knowing the local area and weather conditions can really make for a safe and smooth trip. For example, long-haul pilots who fly across the equator deal with local phenomena and weather located in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, as well as different weather conditions when crossing the oceans of the world. Narrow-body pilots typically fly shorter flights and deal with localized weather, from fog to lake effect snow and mountain-created weather. Pilots are constantly learning and training to make sure each flight proceeds with safety, comfort, and is done in a timely manner. Local knowledge of weather is just another level of safety to make your flight the best.
Left Or Right, Up Or Down?
The technological revolution has really made aviation navigation a snap. As pilots, we have a great team of dispatchers working behind the scenes to make sure the flight is flown on a route that will be comfortable for our passengers. They consider the weather, forecast winds, turbulence, and manage fuel and load planning, balancing it all to arrive on time. In addition to the behind-the-scenes prep, you have an experienced flight crew who can interpret, analyze, and proceed on the safest and hopefully smoothest route of flight.
You as a passenger can peek your head into the real world of aviation and weather with the advent of Wi-Fi on jets. You can look at the weather live via your weather app and watch how your flight is navigating and picking its way through a front or a storm.
The advent of Wi-Fi ushered in cost savings for airlines. U.S. pilots now use their iPads in lieu of cumbersome, heavy navigation charts. I see fewer and fewer passengers reading books, but reading from their tablets, too. The iPad provides live weather from ground-based radar, and pilots utilize this in addition to the onboard radar in their aircraft. Looking at a radar scope on a jet is like looking at a video game. There are basically three players on the radar screen: green, yellow, and red!
These colors represent clouds that are created by a complex process of radio waves bouncing off water in the atmosphere and then displaying the image on the radar screen in the cockpit.
If the players on the radar screen were good and bad, the good guy would be green. Green images on your radar indicate water, most likely rain.
Yellow, this player is straddling the fence between good and evil. Yellow is not a color that we want to go near because it usually indicates a lot of water, convective activity, and a rough ride for our passengers.
Red, this is the evil villain of the game. We see red and we go the other way. We don’t want to go near it, touch it, or go over it. Red typically indicates nasty weather, like heavy, intense rain, and severe turbulence.
So Do You Know Who The Players Are?
When we look at our radar screen, which is taking live sweeps of the weather in front of the jet, we can discern many important aspects about what is occurring ahead of us. We can also tilt the radar beam to sweep above or below our flight path, change the distance so that we can ascertain just what is really happening in front of us. We are also able to see the direction and speed of the wind. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but when we put all the pieces together, we can make an educated guess about the wind’s direction, intensity, and how far from the weather we must fly. Meanwhile, we are constantly communicating with Air Traffic Control (ATC), our dispatchers, and other pilots to discuss where the smoothest and safest route is through the weather.
In the image above, these are cumulonimbus clouds growing with convective activity, quickly rising, and very bumpy! We don’t fly through these, but around them, following our operational rules about distance and height to clear the weather. When looking at these beauties on radar, you can see the intensity of water, the color, the convection, and the size. The magenta line is our course from our flight plan.
ATC works with the pilots and helps us deviate around the storm and ultimately get back onto our original flight path. Flying into an area of a green return really depends on a few factors. Typically, if the winds are calm, it is safe to fly through that area. Jets fly through rain showers all the time. But once that rain turns into what most people call a storm, with bumpy, rising clouds, our old friends “yellow” or “red” pop up on the radar, and we proceed away.
What Can You Do When The Bumps Hit?
Watch and listen! It can be hard to hear the seat belt sign ding when you’re engrossed in a movie. A warning may come. Most important is to watch and listen to the flight attendants! They are in constant communication with the pilots, especially when weather is involved. Nobody wants anyone to get hurt, and an 800-pound, fully loaded service cart can do a number on passengers or the flight crew.
Be sure to make sure your seat belt is on and give it a little extra tug, even if you are in a lay-flat sleeper.
Consider holding your drink vs. leaving it on the tray table. Sloshing liquid can really “dampen” your flight. Sometimes food and drink services have to be delayed or suspended due to the bumps, but the flight attendants want to provide a good service and make the flight more enjoyable for their passengers. Hopefully, before you know it, your aircraft will be in smooth air and find blue skies.
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