Alternate Source of Weather in Cockpit

Alternate Source of Weather in Cockpit by Peter Cassidy
AirPlay Second Quarter 2011

XM satellite weather is the way to get weather in flight. It’s a complete picture like you get on the Internet, and for some, it has become a no-go item.

There are alternatives to XM for in-flight weather.  One is Flight Watch. Content-wise, it doesn’t provide the graphics XM does and, the times I have called Flight Watch, it has been difficult getting through. A more recent option is to use your smart phone. With some limitations your iPhone, Android, or equivalent can often provide useful glimpses of aviation weather in the air.

Cruising along, you will notice cell service comes and goes. In fact, most of the time there is none available. What we do get are bursts of connectivity lasting a minute or so. While this is seldom long enough to place a call or surf the Internet, often you can retrieve useful data, even check your email. Here is an example of how it worked for me recently using my iPhone.

On a trip from Nashville to Naples, the weather at Naples was a concern. Naples was reporting only 300 and 1, but forecast to improve by the time we would arrive. This is a 4 hour flight and we usually can make it with IFR reserves but little to spare. Non-stop would work this day only if the weather improved as forecast. If not, we’d need to stop short. The key to avoiding an unnecessary stop was to closely monitor the weather while enroute which we planned to do using our XM weather.

At mid point in the flight the forecast was not holding up too well. Naples had improved a bit to 400 and 2, but there was an amended forecast that was not as good as the earlier one. Of greater concern was our alternate. Ft Myers was not improving like it was forecast. It was stuck at 400 and 2. We needed a new alternate. The METARs and TAFs showed Sarasota, which we would pass on the way, as the best option. Fuel was going to be really tight if we go to Naples, shoot an approach and have to divert to Sarasota; legal but not by much.

So we come up with Plan B; if Naples did not improve, we would stop short at Sarasota, fuel up and wait for Naples to improve. Last chance to make the call for Plan B is as we’re passing Sarasota. Weather is dynamic. Airports in south Florida are updating their METARs about every 15 minutes. It’s important to keep monitoring station reports.

With an hour and a half to go, our XM weather stops working. No more satellite updates. Is Naples improving or getting worse? We need to know. We now turn to our alternate in-flight weather source, my iPhone, and one of the most useful, free apps, AeroWeather. It provides METARs and TAFs for stations you select. It’s simple, efficient, and I use it a lot on the ground.

We program AreoWeather for Naples, Ft Myers, and Sarasota and, 45 min out of Naples, I get a cell signal and a weather update. Naples is now 600 and 4, Ft Myers is still 400 and 2, and Sarasota is 900 and 10. The GPS approach minimums are 300 and 1 so it’s go for Naples. The risk is low that we won’t make it into Naples and, if for some reason we don’t, we will divert to straight to Sarasota. We won’t waste time making a second try at Naples. We completed the trip on the original plan.

Our alternative in-flight weather source worked well. We could have called Flight Watch or asked ATC for the latest METARs, but Tampa is a busy airspace and using the iPhone was considerably easier and did not require taking notes. Should I need a NexRad graphic in the air and XM is not available, I would use ForeFlight on my iPhone. ForeFlight provides electronic backup for my charts and displays NexRad nicely. Another application that would also work and is free is The Weather Channel.

 You can’t be in a hurry getting weather this way, but the odds are good that it will work and make your flight easier. XM weather is pretty reliable, but my experience is it can fail for various reasons. It’s good to know there are inexpensive alternatives worth trying in pinch.