Colin Cutler – BoldMethod
When it comes to aviation weather products, very little changes. But two months from now, Area Forecasts (FA) are gone for good.
Now would be a good time to get used to their replacement: the Graphical Area forecast.
Look How Far We’ve Come: The Old Area Forecast
For most pilots, there’s not a lot of love lost for the Area Forecast.
The FA is a jumbled group of weather contractions, along with different effective times for the synopsis, VFR clouds and weather, and the outlook.
The hard-to-read format originated in the 1930s, when character-count limitations required short hand format. Along with that, extremely large geographical areas covered in the forecast meant broad forecasts with limited value.
What Exactly Is Going Away?
Like a bad comic book villain, Area Forecasts aren’t completely dead.
The seven Area Forecasts that are going away are: Boston, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Hawaii.
But the FAs for Alaska, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico won’t be affected (at least not yet).
Good Riddance, Except…
While Area Forecasts aren’t anyone’s favorite weather product, there is one thing that IFR pilots are going to miss: cloud top forecasts.
Until recently, the Area Forecast was the only weather product with cloud top forecasts. And for an IFR pilot flying in the mid-altitudes, those cloud-top forecasts are a big deal.
Sure, there are PIREPs reported during the busiest flying hours of the day, but even those can be hard to come by in the less-traveled parts of the US. And having a solid plan to get out of icing conditions is critical for turbo-piston and turboprop pilots.
What’s The Replacement?
The new Graphical Area Forecast tool has cloud top forecasts too, but there’s a catch.
The new cloud top forecasts are computer model generated, and they’re almost completely automated. When it comes to a gray stratus-cloud type of day, it works pretty well.
But when you’re dealing with a humid, convective day (the type of day you’d expect to see a lot of ice), things get a little iffy. The same is true around frontal systems.
In the old forecast, input from human forecasters helped fix the cloud-top problem areas. In the new system, that isn’t the case, because computers are doing nearly all the work. And because of that, you need to spend a little time double-checking to make sure the cloud tops are what they say they are.
Graphical Area Forecast: There’s A Lot More To It
Aside from the cloud top problem, the new Graphical Area Forecasts is a pretty big step forward.
You can overlay TAFs, ceilings and visibility forecasts, cloud and precip forecasts, thunderstorm probability, winds, turbulence, and ice forecasts over a map in the new product.
And with a handy slider bar, you can zoom through the current hour, up to 15 hours in the future for each one of the forecasts. That’s a lot better than the text-based Area Forecast could ever do.
But with so much information, the GFA presents another problem: how much is too much?
It takes time to move move through the different menu configurations, then pan and zoom to your route of flight. And once you get configured, depending on the screen, there’s a lot of information. If you’re new to it, it’s easy to get lost, or not know how far out in the forecast you are.
What About EFBs?
The GFA tool was built specifically for the Aviation Weather Center, and because of that, no one is quite sure how the new forecasts are going to be displayed in Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, or any other electronic flight bags out there. For that, only time will tell.
Love It Or Hate It, Graphical Area Forecasts Are Here To Stay
It’s easy to bad-mouth change, especially when it isn’t perfect. But the Graphical Area Forecast is a big step in the right direction, giving you more weather info in one product than anything offered before. And whether you’re planning a local flight, or a 1,000 mile cross-country, it’s one of the most powerful weather tools you can use.