Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Lion Tamer Pilot

Occasionally I run across a pilot who doesn't care to understand  the upper-air meteorology that affects high altitude aviation (airline ops).  Not pilots who just don't understand it, but don't care to understand it, the "eh, I don't need to know that stuff" attitude.
So, I ask: Should a lion tamer know something about lions? Who would say no?

But here you are, surrounded by this potentially hostile environment, traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, thousands of miles from anywhere, your life (and hundreds of others) depending on your knowledge of what to do. Don't you feel that a pilot should know as much about that environment as a lion tamer knows about lions?

I'll be the first to admit, that a pilot can do little to "tame" the weather. But alas, does the lion tamer really tame the lions? Or is he using his knowledge of them to make wise decisions, look for signs of danger, and deftly proceed to a safe conclusion?

I'm not talking about the pressure/temperature gradient phase shift calculus that are the dreams of meteorologists, but much more basic levels of understanding.

When it's turbulent do you know why? If you do, then you might know if there's something you can do about it (climb, descent, alter course).
If is seems to have smoothed out, can you look at your wind readout and temperature display and tell if you've passed that trough line or upper front, or is there still potential trouble ahead?

How will the height of the tropopause affect your quest for smooth air? When the trop height changes 10,000 feet, how will that affect the temperature at altitude and therefore your performance?

Can you recognize wave action when you see it? If you were caught in a wave's descending airflow, do you know where the rising air would be? Wouldn't it be nice to know that when you're running out of airspeed and the ability to maintain level flight? Of course it would!

So pilots, open your eyes! When it's bumpy, figure out why. Watch the wind and temperature change as you cross features on the weather charts in your daily operation. Notice which features tend to produce the turbulence, remember what works and what doesn't.  Learn which features are highly altitude dependent (e.g., the tropopause) and which are not (e.g., a trough line). Learn to tell a purring lion from a growling one.


Jeremy Carlisle said...


Thank you for bringing up this topic and putting it into perspective.

When I was younger I always dreamed of being a meteorologist if not the weather man on the television warning people of dangerous approaching storms. I loved listening to the National Storm Center on the handheld radios and loved to chase storms - tornados especially (was raised in Indiana.)

Being a pilot is being the jack of all trades and meteorology is one of them - figuring out (rough) airspace and to think about what needs to be done to "tame" it. What could be the hardest problem to solve, could be quite easy if you have the patience to do it. Unfortunately too many people do not have it. Unfortunately, it has cost so many lives in the past.

Bill Palmer: flybywire said...

Thanks Jeremy,

A working practical knowledge of in-flight relevant meteorology is an essential pilot skill.

We must be the evangelists of this knowledge.

Karlene Petitt said...

Bill, I think with the shift in the industry... this is a talent that has lost emphasis. Why? Someone hands pilots the weather and tells them where to fly to avoid it.

I suspect more general aviation pilots of today, know more about the weather than the industry leaders.

A great book: Turbulence, a New Perspective for Pilots!

Thanks for a great post!

Bill Palmer: flybywire said...

Oh, that is such a great book!

It explains so many things so well. It really gets you going with the "why does that cloud look like that."

A copy should be issued to every pilot!

by Peter Lester, published by Jeppesen.
I put a glowing review for this book on Amazon 9 years ago.