Have you ever tried using your airborne weather radar at 300 NM range? Were you able to make sense of the convective picture around your destination airport? That’s what resolution is all about. When it comes to flying around thunderstorms, detail is everything. The more you know, the better and safer your decisions can be, but you need detail. Resolution is that detail. You need to know if that blob on the 300 NM range is on the airport or 20 miles away from it, for example. That information will help you determine how you will proceed.
The subject of resolution is very important in the general matter of thunderstorms – including use of the radar. Here, I will discuss better resolution in terms of thunderstorm forecast and leave the all-encompassing subject of resolution and use of radar for future articles. But, let’s keep thinking about radar and resolution.
Last issue, I encouraged you to utilize the Storm Prediction Center’s Day 1, 2 and 3 Convective Outlookproduct. As a reminder, it can be found on the www.aviationweather.govwebsite under the convection tab. Recall that this product is a pictorial and textual description of broad areas of expected convection. It is most certainly a “bulls-eye” of where you might find the bad stuff (and thus want to avoid). This said, and despite its high accuracy and reliability in doing what it advertises, it lacks the specificity or resolution to pinpoint where exactly thunderstorms will form. Rest assured, nothing can predict perfectly where storms will be, but we’re getting close!
Traffic Flow Management Convective Forecast
Under the convection tab of www.aviationweather.gov, you will find a panel for the Traffic Flow Management (TFM) Convective Forecast. I will leave the description of the TFM/TCF to the experts who were nice enough to provide such under the “info” link. It’s a pictorial forecast that highlights expected areas of convection. In a hexagonal (box) and hatching technique, lines or clusters of TSRA (terminal radar service areas) are shown. This product begins to refine the picture of convection (the one predicted by the Convective Outlook) for a given period. Another way to look at things is that the TFM/TCF is a forecast of ‘future convective’ SIGMETS (WST).
Enhanced Convective Forecast Product
An additional product that you can use in tandem with the TFM/TCF for pre-flight planning and decisions is the Extended Convective Forecast Product (ECFP). The thumbnail for this panel is adjacent to the TFM/TCF panel.
The ECFP is a further refinement of the upcoming convective picture that the TFM/TCF provides. Again, there is a thorough description of this forecast under the “info” link. It accomplishes a far better and more descriptive explanation about this product than I can ever hope to provide. Overall, where the TFM/TCF picture was a pretty good picture of expected storms, the ECFP is an even better picture.
I highly encourage you to ‘click and play’ on both of these products and respective links. Pay particular attention to the forecast periods (valid time, etc.) and don’t just visit this page once, particularly if your day is starting early and have five legs.
Not for pilot use?
Embedded in the explanation of these described weather products is an important point. Technically, they are primarily used by air traffic managers for traffic flow planning. Clearly pilots are not air traffic managers responsible for setting flow rates into major terminals, but we are affected by these decisions (reroutes/delays). Yet, they are there for all the world to see – and that’s you and me! It behooves us to know what’s going on! If air traffic managers think this stuff important, we should too!
The aforementioned thunderstorm outlooks are, by no means, inflight decision tools. You shouldn’t be cancelling a flight based on these forecasts. That’s the job of managers and dispatch. What you should be doing is equipping yourself with the knowledge necessary to make safe and possibly proactive inflight decisions. These forecasts are your tools. Forewarned is forearmed.
If I were to make a suggestion
If you pull up these forecasts and don’t like what you see, give dispatch a call and suggest a reroute. If the current radar is showing what your various weather forecasts predict, dispatch will work with you. Don’t necessarily ask for a reroute around an expected area of convection, ask for a reroute around an area that is beginning to look threatening. In other words, when the radar is beginning to flare up, just as the various forecasts predicted, that is the most opportune time to do something – beforeyou’re flying with your tail between your legs, getting kicked around and watching your fuel disappear. Avoid these problems beforehand! Also, when you’re running for cover (actually in flight) it certainly helps to know where the convection-free areas might be. Safe havens are always cool with me.
In my opinion, the three forecast products I’ve described are excellent tools for pilots to use toward the goal of safety. They are simple to understand and very accurate. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the thousand words that come along with the pictorial representation of storms is very worthy of our consideration – not just for “barroom knowledge” but for well-intentioned, pre-flight decisions. After working with these tools, you may find your awareness, interest and respect for weather increase!