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October 12, 2008

Weather to Fly and Weather On the Web

No, that first word in the title is not misspelled. Paul Hamilton has put together a dandy DVD, "Weather to Fly for Sport Pilots", which covers the decision to fly based on atmospheric conditions and pilot skill. While that’s hardly a new topic for pilots, this DVD’s approach enlivens the fairly dry topic of meteorology with some nice aerial photography and some solid rules designed for pilots of ultralights and Light Sport aircraft.

There is, however, a lot to be gained by the general aviation pilot. Consider that the lighter the airplane, the more affected it is by weather, and the more astute the pilot must be.

Some popular misconceptions are corrected, too. For instance, television portrays the jet stream as a tube of air looping through the upper atmosphere like some sort of oversized air snake. The reality is that the jet stream is a group of islands of high-speed air that the folks down at the local weather channel connect for the sake of illustration.

Similarly, "lapse rate" is not a constant; it can range from 1° to 5° C/1000 feet, and Hamilton has done a good job of using graphics and computer models to illustrate just what that means to the pilot.

What made all of this accessible were the wonderful flying scenes over the Sierra mountains of California. That, by itself, might be enough for even non-pilots.

Weather on the Web

"You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." At least that’s what Bob Dylan says. But if you’re flying, you sure do. Here are a dozen web resources ranging from free to advertising-loaded to fairly expensive. Surprisingly, the best ones are free or have a flight-planning feature that can reduce your fuel use enough to more than cover their cost.  Advertising almost, but not quite, completely obscures some rather novel features such as Today’s Worst Weather and Weather Whys, a cell in which some aspect of meteorology is explained. For aviation, though, it scores a bit low due to its generic approach, that is, temperature/dew point spread and winds at altitudes are not included.  Primarily satellite based, this is a typical depiction of weather patterns. Where it shines, though is its ease of access to METARs by mousing and clicking on the yellow dot on the map. This is the official gummit site, and is, I suspect, intentionally boring, obtuse and generally difficult to read so as to allow opportunities for other pay sites or bury-you-in-pop-ups sites. Go to the experimental pages to get the good stuff.  This was one of the leaders for many years and for quite awhile was on my list of bookmarks. It has, however, been surpassed by snappy graphics and the elimination of weather briefings written in FAAese. Note that this is not the same site as and will require you to sign in. At $10/month this might be useful. However, there are adequate services for less money for non-IFR pilots, so this site was not evaluated.  This is a re-hash of the same information you are able to access directly on the NOAA sites only with advertising added.  Primarily billed as a flight planning service, this site is loaded with advertising and sends you to The Weather Channel for that information. Once there, it links you off to, where else, NOAA but asks for a fee of $24.99 to show you a re-formatted version of what you can get free.  Again, this is a repackage of the NOAA site and far too generic for decent flight planning.  This is the Voyager flight software, and it is very good for flight planning. However, if all you need is weather it’s overkill.   This is a pay site in that your taxes paid for it. It’s part of the official NOAA site and is rather difficult to find within the data-dump context of the site in general. Although the other pages on the NOAA site include Aviation Weather, this page is great for giving a graphic depiction of what’s going on outside (although I suppose you could just look out the window) and more importantly what’s just beyond the horizon and, maybe, headed your way.

You can click on your geographic area of interest and continue to zoom in until you’ve got a specific longitude/latitude such as "4 miles north-east of Placerville, CA". However, going in that close yields only the barest information, i.e., "sunny, southwest wind 10 mph, high 92" and similar predictions for the rest of the week. The best way to use this is to zoom in to a geographic area, say San Francisco, and then mouse over the matrix of parameters such as sky cover for the time of the day you’re in which you are interested.

Example:  In spite of the WX in the address, this is an index of sources, not a source in itself. That is, it presents a series of pages directing you to other sites some of which have nothing to do with weather. Examples of this include technical staffing services and Las Vegas hotels. My bookmarks?  and  are my favorites for weather information. They each offer unique presentation and non-overwhelming advertising, and in combination, they give you more than Dylan could have imagined. Paul Hamilton’s "Weather to Fly for Sport Pilots" DVD and additional titles from the author are available from the video library area of the KITPLANES bookstore at


Nationwide Sectionals—Free!  

Dave Parsons, one of our readers, wrote to compliment the aviation weather web site review in the May 2008 issue or KITPLANES. We left out his “personal favorite” so I thought I’d go check it out. Runway Finder is worth a look.

Instead of being just another map, this is the entire USA displayed as sectionals. It also shows satellite photos, terrain charts and road maps as well. But it’s the sectional that’s most interesting in that TFRs are displayed. Be aware that it’s not a “legal” source of information on the subject, though so whether or not you see one, you should still check other sources.

To use Runway Finder, go to the vertical slider in the upper left corner, move the slider to the mid-point; now go to the lower right corner and put your cursor in the little blue inset square. Hold a left-click and move the blue square. Note that if you are not within the blue square when you do the click/drag you‘ll be moving the map, not the square. It makes no difference to the end-result, though.

In the lower left corner you’ll see a search-the-map box. Type in the airport identifier, hit return, and the map jumps there, displaying a balloon with a hyperlink if you go to a major or well known airport.

If, on the other hand you type in the identifier for PuddleJumper International the map will still jump there but the Search Box will also provide a listing of results from a simultaneous Google Search.

What’s unique here, is that you get a virtual data-dump of information about those tiny airports. It's no longer hard to find them or information about them.

But wait! There’s more!

Go to the Settings pull-down and salivate over the choices. Here you can cause it to display Navaids, fixes and several other default values including being able to center on your home field at start up.

Now, look to the extreme right and there are two tabs: Ads and Legend. Click Legend and you’ll get a series of balloons with symbols including "High Wind", "Rain" and a most intriguing “Future TFR.”

For the final topping on the cake, at the very top right of the chart you can put in your route identifiers. This puts a line on the map so you can read those balloons along your route.

For those of us who go out for the $100 hamburger, the only drawback is that it doesn't show which way the storm is going. But using Runway Finder along with is a great way to make sure that lunch doesn't include a hotel for the night.

This is a definite must-bookmark site for pilots.

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