As a private pilot, I developed my own special brand of assembling a clear-ish picture of weather. Over time, what began as a spaghetti of weather bits, began to take shape as some understanding of what was happening with mother nature. However, just when I thought, “I’ve got it now,” some atmospheric anomaly would brandish a counterintuitive thing and out the door would go my personal weather theories. We’ll start with something simple. The surface analysis chart.
Learning the Weather
These episodes goaded me to seek further learning, in so doing, I began to grasp just how magnificent, wonderful, and unwieldy mother nature could be. She’s no entity to square off with as she wins every time. So, respect is due. But how does a pilot get a firm handle on what is happening atmospherically, trends at the fore, and subsequently, what’s likely in store for the near future? Well, that’s what this series is all about. This article will walk you through my frustration with how one of the weather products is presented, what I discovered in the process of seeking clarity therein, and hopefully help you discover something that’s helpful for you. Hang on to your hat, there’s a cold front coming. The surface analysis chart.
How I got here
I have arrived at this place from my efforts at becoming a flight instructor. Few things reveal how little you know about a subject than endeavoring to teach said subject to someone else. Furthermore, few subjects are fraught with the magnificent confusion accompanying aviation weather. I thought I had a pretty good grasp on things until I began working on my CFI book and specifically FAA approved weather products. My goal was to really get into those weather products, where they originated and develop a clear start to finish, clear approach to developing a weather picture for flight planning with confidence. I got all the way to the first chart and my well thought out plan blew up. Yep, it was that fast. Here’s how things derailed.
In the Beginning
When contemplating weather planning for an upcoming flight, you want to begin looking at the big picture several days out. You’re looking at the weather channel app, watching tv weather, whatever you do. As the flight draws closer, you begin looking at FAA approved weather products to see the variables at play. So, in preparing to teach this, I arrived at the surface analysis chart. This is precisely where it all came unraveled. How, you ask? Oh, I’m going to tell you.
What is a Surface Analysis Chart
“The surface analysis chart depicts an analysis of the current surface weather. This chart is transmitted every 3 hours and covers the contiguous 48 states and adjacent areas. A surface analysis chart shows the areas of high and low pressure, fronts, temperatures, dew points, wind directions and speeds, local weather, and visual obstructions. Surface weather observations for reporting points across the United States are also depicted on this chart. Each of these reporting points is illustrated by a station model.”Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, FAA-H-8083-25B, Pg. 13-13
Let’s Unpack That
For starters, addressing a surface analysis chart in the singular is quite misleading. I have the PHAK (Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge), specifically the 25B version. On surface analysis charts, the PHAK lists seven or eight things depicted on this chart. Then on the following page is a graphic of the chart and a figure which depicts all the symbols and their meanings. The chart looks likes this:
That’s fantastic, except for one little problem. There aren’t seven or eight things depicted on the example surface analysis chart in the PHAK, there are 3 or 4. Now, you may be thinking, “so, what’s the big deal?” Well, I’m preparing to teach this. A 40% accuracy discrepancy is a little outside my personal minimums. And my process in CFI prep is to make notes on the academic high points of each subject and then prove them out. This has revealed myriad new information and helpful hints, and one instance of diving out of a one story window. An example of ‘helpful,’ would be the value of constant pressure charts. But that’s another chart for another day. So, about this discrepancy, what’s a super-pilot to do?
In Search of Weather Bits
I set off looking on ‘aviation Google,’ for an example of this surface analysis chart as described in the book. “Oh my.” Far and wide, across the windy steppe of the internet-fu, to the lofty peaks of keyword mountain, many have echoed the declarations of the PHAK regarding what’s depicted on these weather charts. Then, they point to this hyper-neutered version that is missing at least 40% of said information. Several times, I stood in the kitchen, peering at my wife across our too expensive but arguably dandy island, decrying my frustration with this discrepancy. Why does it even matter?
What’s missing might be really important — at the very least quite helpful. First off, sky coverage. Yep, PHAK says that’s on the SAC (hereafter refers to, ‘surface analysis chart’). Nope, not there. “Really!?” Next, there is a little notation about ‘pressure change/tendency.’ “What?” “That seems really helpful information to have, and even more so on one chart with all of this other information,” I thought. Where in hell is it?
Next, dewpoint. Yay, that’s moist. Well, if it were actually on the chart. What about what the PHAK calls, ‘present weather’? It says about that, ‘over 100 different standard weather symbols are used to describe the current weather.’ No Joke! Then, the PHAK has a graphic of a blank square! Just kidding. Next, ‘temperature.’ Really! “Great, I’ll use that and compare it with the dew point. . . well, never mind, neither are actually on the SAC!”
There is Hope
Now, not all is lost, the wind tells us things. What on earth, literally, is the wind doing. Oh, that is also not depicted. Yet, there is hope because atmospheric pressure is on the SAC — in millibars. Huh, ha, ha, coughs, really? Ok, whatever. . . I can deal with that.
In my personal weather planning, I would generally open Foreflight and go to imagery, click on, “Latest Surface Analysis.” This depicts fronts, areas of high and low pressure, isobars, troughs, and atmospheric pressure in millibars. But none of the many other things outlined in the PHAK.
Ok, I’ll Stop Complaining
Alright, I’ll let up. The scantily endowed, over-advertised surface analysis chart does have low pressure troughs. Huzzah, let’s have cake! Marie?
Now, you’ve arrived at my highest point of frustration concerning this bit. You may have been thinking, “why does it really matter?” “Just move on, life’s short, YOLO.” Here’s why. A clear understanding of the overall weather picture is paramount. I want to be able to do that with as much clarity as possible. Ideally, before digging into the minutia, and forecast-y parts. Right? While this elusive SAC promises this information helpfully in one place, it seems to have over promised and under delivered. Or has it? Que the creepy organ music an creaky door.
How I Check the Weather
My personal and habitual weather checking flow was, look at the Weather Channel app, and in Foreflight, the surface analysis chart, and prog charts. Well, that SAC in the Foreflight is the same one depicted in the PHAK. I never questioned it, you know, I can see the fronts, pressure systems, that’s helpful. But now, I’m aggravated! “Where is this SAC with all this juicy information?” Perhaps it’s on 1800WxBrief.com? Let’s take a peekaboo. Nope! No, not it. Okay, the one on WxBrief has radar returns depicted with colors referring to, ‘rain, mix, snow,’on a spectrum from light to heavy. That’s cool. Let’s move on. Perhaps what we are looking for is at aviationweather.gov?
The Fire Hose of Weather Products
Actually, let’s pause for a moment of clarity. When we go to aviationweather.gov, we’ll find a ton of forecast products and information. In my earlier piloting life, I found it difficult to assuage the temptation to get swept into the flood of weather information. The problem is making a mental soup out of current weather conditions and analysis versus forecasting information. Eh? It’s easy to get lost in the weather information before you’ve developed a firm grasp on current conditions and the variables at play. Now moving on.
Digging In — Nope!
At aviationweather.gov, the menu item prominently beckoning is, ‘observations.’ Let’s see, we have ‘aircraft reps.’ Er, I suppose that is PIREPS, just using some other term for clarity? They’ve personified the inanimate airplane and it is now reporting things on behalf of the pilot. Sorry, I’m being an ass. But why not use universally recognized nomenclature? On the other hand, with global connectivity, why not have the airplane deliver data automatically into the system. The airplane might well serve as an automated data collection and reporting tool to bulk up that collected by weather balloons. Where were we? Oh, surface analysis charts, the unicorn of aviation weather.
Weather Anger — Decades of Truncated Therapy
At this point, I was pretty angry about the maze of crazy I had gone through looking for something that should be easily accessible and prominently displayed. My anger was about how confused a lot of pilots are about weather. While we have more, better, and readily available weather information than ever, the way it is taught and the disastrous way it seems to have been painstakingly disorganized is unforgivable.
I texted an instructor I knew. She replied with a screenshot of her PHAK, which was the previous version of the book. There it was, although in black and white, nonetheless, unarguably the unicorn had been sighted.
Then, I remembered an advisory circular (AC) I had put in my CFI folder on weather, AC 00-45H. I opened the 348-page document. Yes, that’s correct, 348 pages to explain the approved weather products. I was re-pissed. “Really!?” Things are orchestrated in such a dysfunctional way, a 348-page explanation is required to decode this critically important information. There is a reason thing should be arranged in an intuitive and ergonomic way. Business does this for profit motive. Why is this not at the fore of aviation weather? Blood is spilled in this endeavor! Thankfully, there’s hope.
This advisory circular states:
Today’s analyses are automated, and depending on the weather information provider, the appearance and content of these analyses will vary.AC 00-45H, 4-1
Whew, alrighty. In reading the explanation on SA charts, it becomes clear that referring to it in the singular is misleading. The Weather Prediction Center (WPC) in College Park, Maryland produces a variety of SA charts. It looks like this:
OMG! That’s it! That’s the one described in the book. The weather product unicorn has revealed itself. The advisory circular even has a link to aviationweather.gov in reference to this chart. “Oh?” “Click — hmmm.” Well, that’s odd. The link takes you to the homepage for aviationweather.gov. Let’s move on.
When in Doubt — Google-fu
Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t we google-fu the Weather Prediction Center? Ah, ok! Ha — wow! Well, there it is right there. The surface analysis chart. In fact, you can select a bunch of different depictions of it and even look at past renderings, which is valuable. The aviation weather geek meter is pinned to the stops. But wait, there’s more.
Digging in the Wrong Place
Guess what? This surface analysis chart is on aviationweather.gov. Yep! After all this crazy-town square dance, I found it by accident. If you go to ‘tools,’ and click on, ‘standard briefing,’ there lies the fabled surface analysis chart about halfway down the page under ‘synopsis.’ What’s more? There’s an ‘options,’ tab on the upper left of the chart where you can select various display options. Plus, you can select previous renderings across the top.
Oh, and if you select ‘fronts only,’ you’ll see the surface analysis depiction that is shown in the other places mentioned above, sans a bunch of information. You can even select the old black and white version. Heck, that might inspire you to get a retro printing press and create your own manually printed newspaper. Gutenberg would approve. You do you!
Baby Bunnies, Myopia, and Karma
By the way, the ‘pressure trend’ symbols are very small, sort of whimsical, not unlike a baby bunny. However, I find this data nice to have on a chart with a graphic representation of most of the other necessary data.
Have your common aviation weather symbols nearby and enjoy. Perhaps this whole thing only reveals my particular brand of myopia. Nonetheless, I hope this is helpful and adds at least a morsel of wholesome goodness to your excellent aviation adventure.
Share this for good karma; fly safe and have fun.