“The Front Office” answers questions about jump pilots and piloting. You’ll learn what pilots do behind the scenes to make your favorite time of week happen, and you’ll get a one-of-a-kind view from the one seat in the airplane you never get to be in.
Meteorologists do their best to collect weather data from a seemingly infinite number of sensors, stations, satellite imagery, radar antennas, etc. to provide forecasts. The beauty of having the wealth of knowledge from sources such as the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is that pilots and skydivers get surprisingly accurate data to sift through to make their flying and jumping decisions. Pilots typically obtain weather information during a preflight weather briefing, an official process conducted by computer or telephone. While there are almost endless sources of unofficial weather forecasts and reports (some of them incredibly prolific and accurate), just a few offer aviation-specific (and legally supporting) information. The airlines call these primary sources.
Although your pilot will get a standard weather briefing from an official primary source that jumpers may not have access to, jumpers can get most of that same information from services such as the Aviation Weather Center. This site, found at aviationweather.gov, includes NWS information and plentiful imagery and is relatively painless to use if you know what you are looking for.
To get a cursory picture of what the weather is going to look like in the near future, access the seven-day forecast by going to the Local Forecast tab and typing in your city and state. You’ll see the typical current temperature of the nearest reporting location, the forecast for high and low temperatures and expected phenomena (like cloud cover or rain). If you scroll down, you’ll also see the nearest available NEXRAD radar reflection, infrared satellite image, a graphical plotting of the hourly weather forecast and even temperature and precipitation graphical forecasts. This is probably sufficient for most skydivers, who want a solid idea of what’s going to happen with information straight from the source.
Jump pilots (and more ambitious skydivers) will also look at METARs (Meteorological Aerodrome Reports), which are mostly automated and entirely airport specific; and TAFs (Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts), which are 24- and sometimes 30-hour revolving forecasts for the airport area. If your DZ reports weather conditions (usually through a station called an ASOS or AWOS), there will be a recorded log of those conditions, which is an important consideration for pilots who are interested in legally following the visual flying conditions that the regulations require of all aircraft.
You can access METARs by clicking on the tab on the AWC main page and entering your airport ID (ask your pilot for this) in the “request METAR data” box and checking “include TAF.” The next page will show you a coded, nerd-pilot version of the weather report and forecast. Assuming you aren’t interested in learning how to decode this stuff, just check the little box marked “decoded” and you’ll get a couple of pages of the same information but written in plain English. Hooray!
You can also get your own winds-aloft information. From the METARs page or the AWC homepage, click on the Forecasts tab and select “winds/temps” from the dropdown menu. Scroll down that page and you will see a map of the U.S. with each forecast location plotted by a red dot. Click where your DZ is on this map, and the next page will be a list of the winds aloft and forecast temperatures in a coded format. While your DZ may not be in the exact location as the listed forecast areas, the closest one should be good enough. Keep in mind that the altitudes listed are above sea level, meaning you must subtract your DZ’s elevation to know the forecast when referencing your skydiving altimeter, which shows your altitude above ground level.
The tools described here should give you a pretty good idea of how pilots start to look at weather. Pilots are responsible for having all available information for any given flight. There are many more resources out there to learn, interpret and apply, and meteorology is certainly a subject worth learning about. Pilots’ and skydivers’ lives surely depend on it!
Chas Hines | C-41147
FAA Certified Flight Instructor and Airline Transport Pilot