From Man to Machine: Federal Aviation Administration Slashing Human Airport Weather Observers; Trusts Weather Observing Machines
Weather is one of those jobs that much of society doesn’t seem to care about, until they care about it. The science is continuously watered down, mocked, and hyped for personal and financial interest by large broadcasting companies, phone application creators, and folks who simply don’t think you need to be a scientist anymore because we have the MyRadar smartphone app and the all-knowing YouTube.
That’s all fine & dandy…until someone gets hurt. And at airports, it’s usually more than just one person if the weather acts up and there’s no weatherman there to alert pilots & air traffic controllers of weather dangers…which can sometimes be invisible.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken aim at weather observers at the majority of towered airfields (generally commercial-airlines airports) and ruled their jobs either not important enough, or too expensive. They’ve suggested two fixes. First, train some already task-saturated, stressed-out air traffic controllers to observe the weather (while controlling airplanes, too!), or simply just let the weather observing machine do the work.
Let me battle both of this unacceptable & terrifying options, one at time. I’ve worked side-by-side with Air Traffic Controllers. I’ve observed weather professionally. I’ve even maintained & fixed weather observing machines (from here on, known as Automated Surface Observing System, or ASOS), and boy they need a lot of work.
First, let me explain the job of an Air Traffic Controller. One of the most stressful jobs on the planet, controllers are given strict medical standards and work/rest cycles. At many commercial airports, especially in metropolitan areas, controllers speak to hundreds of airlines and private pilots during a normal shift, and route them around each other, out of restricted flight zones, and somehow manage to get them all on the ground…or in the air safely…sometimes simultaneously with other aircraft in the case of an airport with multiple runways. During peak airline rush hours, this is bumper-to-bumper traffic (with strict interval spacing required between aircraft) in three dimensions, with no traffic signals or braking capabilities. And that’s on a perfect weather day. I’ll let you try to imagine a stormy…or foggy...or icy day, and put yourself in the shoes of an air traffic controller.
But, the FAA must think that it’s not that difficult…controllers are already juggling thousands of lives on airplanes crammed to the minute by tight schedules in congested airspace, why not walk outside, lick their finger, and stick it in the air and guess the wind direction while they’re at it?
Now, these weather observation machines…ASOS…are great for some weather things…like temperature, humidity, precipitation, and pressure. They can also be pretty decent with wind speed & direction, and I rarely ever find issues with these aspects, unless the computer program it transmits data with crashes, or there is an electrical issue (which can usually be resolved with a simple reset).
Some of the biggest issues I deal with on nearly a daily basis from ASOS systems are related to cloud coverage, height, surface horizontal visibility, and lightning detection. Typically speaking, other than turbulence, these weather features that the ASOS struggles with are the most impactful to aviation (plus wind speed/direction). So, it's important that we get them right, even if the machine doesn't.
The FAA has suggested that we just let the ASOS do its job. Great idea, on a good weather day. Bad idea on a day that we are expecting clouds, fog, or thunderstorms.
Here’s the limitations to each of these weather sensing components on the ASOS, and I’ll let you be the judge on whether you, as an airline passenger, would feel if your life was left in the hands of a machine, rather than a meteorologist as you are trying to fly through bad weather.
Cloud height is extremely important to aviation for a number of reasons. Higher clouds can cause icing concerns for your aircraft. If de-icing equipment isn’t working, it could freeze the aircraft controls in place. High clouds also can show turbulence, at times. Turbulence is invisible (it’s literally just wind differences), but the effects of it can be seen in clouds, if we're lucky.
Low clouds generally pose more of a threat to aviation, largely because they restrict a pilot’s view of the ground. When you can’t see the ground…you don’t always know how close you are to it. When you can’t see a mountain ahead…that could be dangerous. When you can’t see other airplanes…bad. And when you can’t see the runway because the clouds are low…how are you supposed to land?
Cloud coverage can easily be determined by a weather observer. They can see an unobstructed view of the celestial dome…and report any clouds they see...low, mid, high clouds…what types of clouds they are, and so forth. Clouds levels are important, because they dictate the status of the airfield. Ever see the rotating white and green beacon at an airport? It’s on at night so pilots can see it in the dark, but it stays on during the day if the clouds and visibility are poor.
On the ASOS, the ceilometer cannot “see” the entire celestial dome, but rather only what is right above it. One end of the runway be socked in the fog, but the ceilometer may not even know. It only send a laser beam straight up and waits for a response, taking a 10-minute average of responses to capture cloud coverage and cloud height. It can’t see very high, either…often capping out at about 12,000 feet. One of the biggest problems I see with these instruments, outside of horrible coverage (since it only looks straight up), is that the lenses are easily scratched and the entire instrument won’t report any clouds, even if it’s completely overcast. And, even if it can see the clouds, it has no way of telling what kind of cloud it is…a thunderstorm cloud (big deal), a cirrus cloud (not a big deal), or even a wave cloud (turbulence- big deal).
Visibility, like cloud heights, is very important. If a pilot can’t see, he or she can’t fly…at least without the help of on-board cockpit instruments. The visibility sensor on the ASOS somehow was calibrated to understand visibility out to 10 miles, but only with two opposing lenses sitting less than two feet apart from each other. Not only do these lenses collect dust (and falsely report low visibility on clear days), but they only tell pilots what the visibility really is in the two feet between the two lenses, not across the runway or the flight approach to the airport. And, I’ve picked more than one spider web off of these too, which causes erroneous data.
Lightning detection. Thunderstorms are bad, especially if you’re flying. Benjamin Franklin proved this by flying a key on a kite, but apparently the FAA is having trouble understanding the gravity of the importance of thunderstorm observing. Although airplanes can sustain a lightning strike in many cases, pilots tend to avoid thunderstorms in an effort to mitigate the risk for any electronic or structural failure, and because thunderstorms can produce extremely strong turbulence, icing, rain, hail…just everything you don’t want to fly through. Lightning detectors on the ASOS systems are calibrated to sense electrical charges when a lightning bolt hits the ground…but their sensitivity is marginal at best. And, they tend to not capture lightning in clouds or lightning in the distance. Don’t you think a pilot would want to know that? I would hope my pilot would!
Microbursts & Low Level Wind Shear. These are often invisible, and certainly cannot be observed or sensed by a machine until too late. But, a meteorologist weather observer is trained to identify when one of these very dangerous weather events is occurring or approaching, potentially saving hundreds of lives in the hands of a pilot that was unaware of the threat.
Since the 1960’s, an average of 6% (63) of aircraft crashes have occurred due to weather alone, without any pilot error. An average of 58% of crashes were attributed to pilot error, in which one would at least entertain that perhaps poor weather may have played a factor in pilot judgment.
Aside from the safety of aviation, surface weather observations, regardless of whether they are disseminated by a meteorologist or a machine, are used to initiate computer forecast models used for global forecasting, including those for severe weather such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards. Additionally, they are recorded in permanent record for use in climatology- the long-term study of climates and statistical weather analysis.
The FAA argues the price for human weather observers…which I’ve read is somewhere between $20M and $60M annually, in total. In my estimation, that’s actually a pretty dang good deal to keep planes flying safe. However, the pot of money that this comes from may not necessarily have to come from the federal government…but perhaps the airports themselves. Certainly, they get paid for every airplane that lands on their runway(s). That could afford several weather observers…keep the taxpayer cost down, and avoid aviation weather mishaps due to heavy reliance on extremely flawed automated weather sensor data.
- Meteorologist Dan Schreiber
Dan Schreiber is a freelance meteorologist with experience