‘Thunderstorms and Flying’ Goes Online

Knowledge is power in many of life’s callings, but especially so in aviation — our welfare often depends on decisions we make and the wisdom of what we decide to do (or not to do) often hinges on what we know. Knowing more about weather (which can often become adversarial) can save the wise from having to take the test before the lesson.

What has got to be the world’s most comprehensive long-distance education on convective weather was formally announced on several popular aviation web sites last month (iPilot, of course, included a mention in the News & Events section of the homepage). Availability of this interactive course, titled ‘Thunderstorms and Flying,’ has been extended through June 2001 due to huge demand. The ‘program’ allows a user to read, learn, and ask questions of experts specializing in many different aspects of convective weather. The course is a public service effort by the National Weather Association and after June, the course, and its many links, will remain in place as a tutorial.

Pilots, dispatchers, controllers, and even atmospheric academics can review the basic vocabulary of thunderstorms, learn more about the hazards of convective weather, and gain a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the airspace user community receives warnings about those hazards.

Huh? NWA?
Yeah, I’d never heard of them either — but they’ve been around since 1975. The National Weather Association is an organization made up of meteorology professionals from the NWS, FAA, NASA, the USAF, NCAR, NTSB, and the airline industry — which, I suppose, provides a small bag of crackers to go with all that alphabet soup… This effort is being co-chaired by someone at the Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City and Terry Lankford, a well-known author on aviation weather.

I know a little about the weather, but I was amazed at how quickly I leaned more. The reading material for Lesson 1 included the chapter on thunderstorms from Aviation Weather, the FAA’s Advisory Circular AC-006 (all of which is linked from the site, and is online). In that reading, I found something I either forgot or never knew about — a clever way to use airborne radar. There were also several fantastic online articles from the May 1999 issue of Flying Safety magazine. The text was insightful and wellwritten. Originally intended for the armed services audience, they included a gripping account of one of the 10 WC-130 ‘hurricane hunters’ of the 53rd Reconnaissance Squadron and their September 1998 flight into Hurricane Georges. The stories provide some facts about thunderstorms North of the middle latitudes, a chilling narrative of an actual encounter with a microburst — and lessons learned — plus, fascinating information on the ‘mechanics’ of lightning strikes. Better still, it provides useful insights on when lightning is most likely to strike, and a real-life ‘there I was’ discourse on an encounter with hail.

Lesson One
The course began with a video clip from General David Johnson, Director of Weather for the US Air Force. It included a discussion of the necessary ingredients for a thunderstorm, which are unstable air, moisture, and a trigger (such as fronts, heat, or terrain). This was followed by a thorough description of the stages of thunderstorm development. There was also a discussion of how tornadoes can form inside a supercell, which I found quite surprising. Most interesting of all was the millisecond-by-millisecond dissection of the origin and growth of lightning. In this and all following lessons, there are embedded links to other web sites with weather and thunderstorm information (appropriately color-coded on a difficulty scale corresponding to severity levels depicted on radar). Again, these lessons won’t ‘go away.’ All lesson and reading material will remain available online, but the interactive functionality cuts out after June.

Where to find it:
Look under the News & Events section on iPilot’s homepage. It reads:
The National Weather Association is offering an internet course, FREE, from March 26, 2001 through June, 2001 titled: ‘Thunderstorms and Flying.’

…or just click through on: