Published in July 2016 issue

Being both British and a Pilot has given me the need to know about the weather on a profesional basis, and to be able to bore people on six continents with what “lovely (or bad) weather” we are currently enduring!

By Alan Carter

It has been said that, in England, we have the best climate but the worst weather. Well, that may not be true but, as an airline Pilot, I have witnessed what Mother Nature is capable of and, trust me, I have a deep respect for her. If you confront her, she will always win.

Sadly, many of my colleagues are a wee bit more confident in their abilities to take her on and win. And they invariably lose.

We have that most insipid of weathers: fog. Soft, wispy, and with almost no solid content. However, it has, does, and will suck aircraft in, much like the cries of the mermaids did to the sailors of ‘auld’. Without the correct training, qualifications, preparations, and procedures, aircraft landing in fog may become tomorrow’s newspaper headlines.

Landing in low-visibility conditions requires a deep knowledge of your aircraft and its systems. This is when crew monitoring and teamwork are not just essential but mandatory for a safe outcome. One Pilot monitors the outside world (I’m not talking about those who have HUDs) while his or her colleague monitors ‘inside’ what can go wrong and maybe kill you, your crew, and the passengers onboard.

I was always taught that you make an approach to an airfield not to land, but to go-around. A landing is achieved when a goaround is not required—every time.

With fog? Yes, you can fly downwind and see the runway; you can turn onto final approach and still see the runway. But remember ‘slant range’, or the kinetic ability of fog banks, from basic training? You don’t want to be bold, disconnect the automatics, fly a manual approach into a fog bank, then realize that you’re going to ‘look stupid’ by making a missed approach, and continue. And die.

Often, when confronted with frontal air masses, the cloud base can be at or below CAT 1 landing minima, even though the visibility is in excess of any approach minimums. I have seen so many Pilots disconnect the automatic systems, while still in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), because the visibility is above published minimums; but, at 200ft (60m) above ground level on an ILS approach, no lights, and no runway in sight, it’s embarrassing if you have to go around, but dangerous and illegal if you continue. Advise ATC you wish to conduct a Low Visibility Approach. Okay, it might not be protected but, at minimum, you will be stabilized and have ‘options’.

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We often land in conditions of heavy rain, normally associated with strong winds. In my opinion, any wind with a cross component of more than 10kt can cause an approach to become destabilized at low level when the automatics are disconnected: drift for crosswind is not applied and the aircraft ‘loses’ the centerline. This is when accidents can occur.

Please remember, our high-tech aircraft have automatic systems to assist us. Not using them does not make us better Pilots because we are ‘bolder’. It makes us less safe. I am all for practicing manual flying skills but, please, don’t ask to fly automation-free into high-density international airports or in marginal weather. It doesn’t make you a better Pilot, but a more reckless one. All qualified Pilots have passed training (I apologize, but I am writing this sentence with my fingers crossed, knowing that it’s ‘cow manure’ at its finest) and have the ability to manually fly their aircraft in a competent manner, so why make life difficult?

Under most conditions, I can fly the Boeing 747 with my fingertips, when in trim, and tickling the thrust levers—not because I am an ace, but because I am experienced. I see too many Pilots manipulating the control column not unlike canoeists descending rapids, and using the thrust levers in a manner similar to that of New York shoe shiners. That’s not necessary; it’s destabilizing and uncomfortable. Boeings are ladies and need to be treated as such.

Then we come to turbulence. You must know your turbulence speeds, all of them, and the power settings for stable flight. Amazingly, so many Pilots don’t even know these. If you’re flying at high altitude, it is easier and safer to slow down than to try and speed up, so don’t fly at mínimum speeds. You might not have the thrust to recover in time. So adjust your speed accordingly. Recognize the difference between turbulence associated with jet streams and that associated with mountain waves.

Monitor groundspeed, wind velocity, and temperature. Listen out to other aircraft, monitor the TCAS display of other aircraft ahead of you. If their height, relative to yours, starts to change by 200 or 300ft (60 or 90m), it’s probably not because they are bad Pilots, but because they are experiencing turbulence. Look at the clouds, and watch out for the ‘white horses’ or contrails that have more kinks and bends than a corkscrew at a crew party. These attributes can warn of turbulence.

Personally, I hate thunderstorms. Don’t fly into them, ever! Fly around them and give them a wide berth. Consider, if you fly over a thunderstorm, what will happen if you experience an engine failure or a rapid depressurization? You will be going down into it. The ‘Swiss cheeses’ holes will line up. You can be sure that we will read about you in the newspapers.

If there is a thunderstorm over your destination, please don’t try to land. Windshear and microbursts will drive your aircraft straight to the scrapyard and your crew and passengers directly to the morgue. In a best-case scenario, the runway will be wet and the tailwind increase to above-certified limits, but you won’t realize this until you start wondering why the nice hard tarmac below you is now a spongy green mass (or worse).

Hot weather is uncomfortable, but if the ATIS says that it’s 30°C outside, it could be 10°C hotter on the runway. As you climb out, monitor the temperature. If you punch through a temperature inversión phenomenon, you will notice that your airspeed can drop up to 20 kt. What if you lose an engine? Think about it and about what you can and will do. Your performance charts say that your aircraft is capable, even at its limits, but always think ahead to the ‘what if’ scenario.

I am staggered by the number of Pilots who operate sophisticated aircraft and consider ice only to be a problem when they have too many lumps of it in their whisky. I ask about core icing or high-altitude ice crystals, and I get looked at as if I were the most pedantic guy to have ever become airborne. When cruising at night in SATs below -40°C, switch on a landing light to see whether you’re flying through precipitation, and leave it on. Icing doesn’t stop when you land. When icing conditions exist, your engines can still become damaged during extended taxiing.

Basically, what I am saying is that, whatever religion we follow, as Aviators, we have only one revered mother: Mother Nature. Love her, understand her, and respect her.

These are just my opinions, understand, but they have kept me safe for oh so many years now!

Finally, never forget to keep the blue sky up. If you can’t, fly towards the sky pointer? If you don’t know what the sky pointer is, then…