NBAA joined with others across the aviation community in participating in a recent forum conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on the importance of pilot reports (PIREPs) in advising other pilots, as well as air traffic controllers, about real-time weather conditions.
“For pilots, the difference between life and death can come down to one question: weather… or not? We cannot control the weather, but we certainly can plan for it when we receive reports about conditions experienced by others along our intended route,” said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, who chaired the forum, “PIREPs: Pay it Forward… Because Weather for One is Weather for None,” held June 21-22.
“PIREPs done right have enormous untapped potential to make aviation safer for pilots, passengers and people on the ground,” he continued.
Panelist John Kosak, an NBAA air traffic management specialist and the Association’s project manager for weather, noted that PIREPs assist controllers at the FAA’s national Air Traffic Control System Command Center to, “confirm or refute [forecasted] conditions such as turbulence or icing.” He specifically cited PIREPs of cloud base and ceiling tops as particularly vital when “a few hundred feet can make the difference” in ATC approach routing.
For those benefits to be fully realized, however, those on both sides of the radio must step up their game. Sumwalt recalled the harrowing experience of breaking out of clouds during a particularly tricky IFR approach, and seeing an unexpected, large block of ice on the windscreen.
“I reported it to ATC … [and] he said yeah, we’ve been getting those [icing] reports all morning,” he continued. “Why was it not reported to me?”
Sumwalt added that the NTSB has investigated numerous accidents that indicate that the PIREP system is failing, which led the board to place the topic on its 2014 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Since 2012, NTSB has investigated 20 accidents or incidents in which issues were found with the dissemination of weather information.
“I don’t think any of us think our PIREP system is functioning optimally,” he added. “There are a lot of people who have been trying for years to get the system to work better … That is precisely why we wanted to have this forum.”
Kosak added that one concern is that pilot weather reports are not being utilized as they once were; another is that PIREPs are often submitted with incorrect information, usually regarding the time, location and weather intensity. The PIREP system is still largely paper-based, and many reports don’t get passed along by controllers in a timely manner to pilots who could use the information. Consequently, many pilots don’t file reports.
Properly done, PIREPs can improve the efficiency of operations in the national airspace system, since they are used by various stakeholders. ATC uses the reports for traffic control management and real-time advisories; National Weather Service meteorologists use them to create pilot weather briefings, enhanced models, and more accurate forecasts; dispatchers use PIREPs to create inflight advisories, route changes and amendments.
“The reporting of unforecasted conditions remains an important and relevant tool for every pilot,” noted panelist Jim Lara, principal of Gray Stone Advisors. “We need to support the culture of reporting what you see, especially if it’s a surprise.”
Symposium participants also brainstormed possible ways to automate the PIREPs process, or make it easier both to file reports and to publish them in a timely manner.