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Weathering the storm

by SFO Barbara McKay BALPA member

For most people, even the worst-case scenario of being caught out by the weather is damp clothes and an inside out umbrella. But for pilots, the consequences are a lot worse. And that’s why getting an accurate weather forecast is a vital part of a pilot’s job.
In-fact, when it comes to flying, consideration and constant monitoring of the day-to-day weather situation forms a key part of handling any flight. So much so that meteorology is a component of the training that you must pass in-order to get your pilots licence.
Pilots operating any flight will ensure they are briefed on the weather before they set foot on the aircraft and the forecast helps them to plan how much fuel they are likely to need and what potential diversions are available.
For big storm events such as Hurricane Michael, some of the planning will already be done by an airline operations team. If the weather is extreme the company will normally make a commercial decision, but ultimately it is the captain’s responsibility to ensure the flight can be operated safely with all variables taken into consideration, including weather.
But with weather being unpredictable and with ultra-long-haul flights departing hours before they finally arrive, constant monitoring is required. Having pilots on board who can assess the situation in real time, consider alternatives and change the flight plan if necessary, is essential to flight safety.
Weather conditions we look out for include thunderstorms, which we avoid by at least 10 miles as the winds around them can be unpredictable –there is no point in chancing it! Strong winds can also cause problems for take offs and landings, and there are limits for the temperatures aircraft can operate in, too.
Pilots are given weather information and forecasts well ahead of the scheduled landing time and if it is forecast to be outside the minimum requirements they take enough fuel  for a diversion and go to an airport where the weather is forecast to be within the minima for that type of aircraft. We also get the actual weathers for all airports of use as we go, rather than forecasts.
There are regular updates to the information and also ‘special bulletins’ more frequently than this if there are extremes of weather.
Weather radar shows what is ahead and is used in conjunction with forecast and updated actual weather as the flight progresses by all commercial aircraft.
If a flight arrives in the area and the weather is worse than forecast and outside the minima, then the pilot has decisions to make. If the weather looks set to improve they could hold or divert to another airport if this is not practicable.

In the case of Michael, everyone knew the forecast was for it to be pretty bad a long time before it made landfall, so pilots would have planned for this and taken fuel for an alternate if the company decided to operate that flight.
Pilots take their responsibilities very seriously and will do all they can to ensure every flight is a safe one. Sometimes the weather throws a few hurdles, but that’s why the pilots are there… using their skills to keep passengers safe, whatever the weather.