Let me start with a story.
Two winters ago, while I still worked as an Air Force meteorologist, I got a call from a high-ranking fighter pilot. I didn’t know him, and he wasn’t part of any flying squadron that I worked for. He told me that he had flown into Lubbock, Texas, and needed to fly to a nearby Air Force base to resupply on oxygen before returning home to Mississippi. He explained to me that he had called two other nearby Air Force meteorology units (“shopping for weather”), but they did not provide him with a favorable enough weather forecast to depart Lubbock.
Familiar with his type of aircraft, I confirmed with him that of largest concern was low-level aircraft icing, which was forecasted over the entire Texas Panhandle at the time.
I replied, Well, sir, it does look pretty socked in over Lubbock, but let’s see what we can figure out to get you out of there.
I explained that a business jet had just landed at LBB a few minutes prior, reporting (PIREP) icing on final decent to validate the forecast. I knew that would keep him grounded for at least two hours. In the end, I still couldn’t get him the weather he needed to leave in the time frame he wanted, and he was forced to delay until the next day.
The next day, he sends an email to my superior officer thanking me for my efforts, blasting the other meteorology units for their inability to assist, and expressing a wish that there were more competent meteorologists in the world, like me.
The irony is that I didn’t get him off the ground any faster than anyone else, and my forecast was basically the same. So why was he angered with other forecasters, and praising me?
I took his side of the playing field and changed his “No” into a [let’s see if we can find a] “Go”.
Sure, the “Go” wasn’t as ideal as he would have liked, but I gave him the confidence that I would get him a wheels-up green-light as soon as possible, and gave him the impression that I was fighting for him, eager for favorable weather, just like he was. I confirmed the poor weather conditions not from my point of view, but by using a PIREP from a fellow experienced pilot, because most pilots often have this sort of confirmation bias. At the end of the day, in his mind, he knew I was invested in him, chomping at the bit to give him a “Go”, not a “No”.
You see – airplane pilots and meteorologists see weather a bit differently. Most meteorologists get excited about inclement weather. It’s fascinating, and it’s likely what perked our interest in meteorology to begin with. In college, we often did case studies on severe weather events. Not much time was spent on atmospheric diagrams of High Pressure. No weather forecaster really looks at endless, pristine, sunny days without getting a sense of boredom. The operational aviation weather forecaster largely exists to keep airplanes out of hazardous weather – so it’s our nature to look for and highlight the hazardous weather (i.e….the “No”), not the good weather (i.e….the “Go”). But really, the good weather is just as important as the bad weather.
Airplane pilots tend to enjoy smooth rides. They don’t want to be limited by weather. Most of the time, they don’t want delays, they want to get from one place to another as simply as possible, and often the only thing stopping that from getting that accomplished is…the weather.
At the end of the day, I’ve seen plenty of pilots completely disregard weather forecasts – even observed weather reports – and try their luck getting through it. Some would even have the audacity to try and PIREP good weather in obviously worse conditions, hoping that a favorable report from a fellow aviator would give other aviators the confidence to “risk it” (and they will!), or perhaps to justify the risk that they just took.
That’s when I learned that in all but the most severe weather cases, I needed to work with the pilot to find a “Go”, or they will simply take my “No”, toss it in the waste bucket, and find a “Go” themselves. One commercial airline pilot blatantly told me that weather forecasts are good for situational awareness, but that the company will send the airplane regardless of the weather, and if, at the last minute, the weather turns ugly, they’ll just divert. At the end of the day, as the weather expert, I’m going to be more confident about my weather “Go” forecast than a pilot’s or air traffic controller’s weather “Go” forecast.
An old boss of mine (also a fighter pilot) used to remind me that meteorologists work in the field of marketing, not production. While that’s true, the production takes a hit when the marketing isn’t working out. When the marketing says “No”, it puts the job of finding “Go” on the production team. If the production team has to find the “Go”, then what is the relevance of the marketing team? There is none. If I’m going to be part of marketing, I have to stay relevant by knowing exactly what the production side of the house needs.
So, how do aviation meteorologists take a “No” and make it a “Go”?
Understanding your customers – your pilots – is vital. I spent about 80% of my time as an aviation meteorologist in the Air Force talking with pilots, not other meteorologists. I learned exactly what my customers were looking for. I knew their impression of meteorologists, who they trusted and who they didn’t. I knew where they went for alternate weather advice and where to find it for myself. I knew their flying regulation, their limitations, and their available alternate airfields. I knew all of the aerodromes, the air traffic patterns, approaches, departures, and NAVAIDs, and what the next question was going to be out of their mouths when I gave them a forecast that might impact them.
But more important than knowing the aviators themselves is knowing how to find the exploitable weather window for them to operate in. That’s where aviation meteorologists make our money. We’ve all worked with the “doom and gloom” forecaster. This is the meteorologist that lacks confidence, and forecasts as if they were under the belief that if pilots never fly, they won’t run into bad weather, and therefore the forecaster won’t be held liable. Truly, now as a forensic meteorologist, I know first-hand that weather can be to blame for a lot of aviation mishaps, and no one wants to be that forecaster whose initials were on the weather briefing of the plane that went down. Finding exploitable windows, however, allows forecasters to communicate any weather threats (“No’s”), but also give an alternative (“Go’s”).
Here’s some examples of similar advice I’ve given in the past. Notice how each weather event presented is more than likely a “No”. Then, see how easy it is to take the side of your aviation customer and give a “Go”.
Look, you’ve got moderate to severe turbulence and a 130-knot headwind between MSP and DEN at FL340, but if you drop to FL280 and move your route slightly more northwesterly – say closer to RAP, you’ll only see about a 70-knot headwind and only occasional light to moderate chop as you get closer to the mountains.
I understand that your arrival time is 2345 local time. I must include Low Level Wind Shear (LLWS) in your briefing as it starts within an hour of your arrival – but I will make a note that the start time is midnight, and so long as you are wheels-down at your scheduled arrival time, you should not be impacted.
There’s a brief period of time between the IFR conditions you are trying to avoid and the convective weather moving in – about an hour or less. If you would like to depart, I suggest that time frame to avoid limiting weather and request the east departure to avoid the SIGMET just to our north and west.
Of course, sometimes the “Go” is just going to have to be delayed, as it was with my fighter pilot in Lubbock. The fact that I took interest in his flight, used data that he trusts (confirmation from another pilot), and still held my ground as a professional aviation meteorologist allowed him to feel like he had someone on his side, up at bat for him, that would drive him home as soon as the right pitch came.
Dan Schreiber is a seasoned operational meteorologist with expertise in aviation meteorology from years of experience in the US Air Force. He is the owner of Smalltown Weather, a forensic meteorology and severe weather emergency consulting agency in Del Rio, Texas.