Pilots, Briefers, and Weather, Oh My!

There is something to be said for knowing the weather in a particular geographic location. Additionally, I really miss flying in air masses over which I was capable of seeing vast expanses of air and moisture. I liked being able to go to FL 450 and look a cumulonimbus eye to eye. That is something hard to do from the ground. Even from little airplanes, you still have to look up to the storm and they are intimidating. At least you can almost feel as powerful as the storm when you can look it in the face from the cockpit of a jet.

The weather is a monstrous machine that some pilots understand and others do not. For an instrument pilot, one of the most important things about instrument flying competency is the ability to “read” the weather. The most skillful instrument pilot isn’t worth a hoot if he or she is killed by dangerous weather. For the same reason, a moderately skilled pilot who knows the weather system they are flying through can usually land at their destination safely. Given the choice between the two, it is always better flying with the latter.

Hazardous weather presents many different dangers of which pilots must be careful. These serious weather situations include turbulence, wind shear, fog, and terrain obscuration to name only a few. When it comes to the weather, pilots need to be confident of their abilities to observe and forecast for themselves. Like ATC controllers, FSS specialists are human and can make mistakes like all of us. One memorable mistake I witnessed happened back in the 1970s, before we had the Internet and computers.

I was planning a cross-country flight and needed to check the weather. At the time, my apartment was less than a mile from the PIE Flight Service Station. Rather than call, I jumped into my Bug and drove over to take a personal look at the charts at about a quarter before midnight.

When I walked in, the specialist was on the phone briefing another pilot. He looked up at me, held up a “wait-1” finger and continued his briefing. I was content with studying the charts. When he finished the call, he was again prevented from briefing me by a radio call.

The pilot on the other end of the frequency seemed a little freaked out. His voice carried that higher than normal pitch that usually accompanies the onset of panic. The pilot asked about the weather in Tampa. He was over Orlando and the weather completely closed in underneath him. He explained that he had left the Carolinas with a promise of good VFR for his trip. Unfortunately, the temp-dewpoint spread closed and socked in the airports at Orlando, then Lakeland. Fuel was critical and he needed a clear airport.

When the specialist started reading the Tampa weather, he suddenly stopped and said, “Standby, Tampa just issued a special.” When the specialist read the new weather, the panic in the pilot’s voice was palpable.

“What is the weather at St. Pete?” the pilot asked. The weatherman began reading the teletype in front of him. The weather according to the strip was great. Ceiling unlimited, visibility better than six miles. Only problem was, during the 15 minutes I had been waiting for my brief, the PIE weather had also gone “zero-zero.”

This flight was still east of Lakeland and the pilot had already reported critical fuel. He could not afford to fly to St. Pete turn left, and then try to make Sarasota or Venice. There was just not enough fuel for that. He needed to proceed direct SRQ – now! And yet, the specialist was happily reading the old PIE weather to the pilot, a report that would have the pilot make the wrong decision to fly to St. Pete rather than direct SRQ.

I could not stand it any longer.

“Dude!” I called out, just like that. “Have you looked out the window lately?”

I will never forget the look on his face when he turned around to discover he no longer could see the taxiway lights from his window. He quickly amended his report to the trapped pilot, giving him the chance to make a timely decision to head to Sarasota, which was still clear.

I believe the pilot landed safely in Sarasota. The news never carried stories about aircraft crashes the next day. I am sure the pilot learned a hard lesson that evening. I will also say I learned the lesson, too, only not at the risk of peril as with the pilot and his passengers. It was great reinforcement that pilots are the final authority as to the safety of their flight.

Thinking about the FSS briefer from that evening, I think he also learned a new lesson that night.


©2015 J. Clark

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