The Lost Art of Pilot Reporting

Two weeks ago in North Carolina I was flying en route to teach a flight instructor workshop. It was very early on a Saturday morning and during my weather briefing I was interested in learning about the cloud tops. When I asked about pilot reports of the cloud tops, the FSS briefer just said, “general aviation pilots don’t give many pireps (pilot reports) and certainly not this early on a weekend day.

About 45 minutes later I issued a pilot report of my own when I broke out of the top of the clouds at 5,000 feet. I was talking to Memphis Center anyway so I told the controller: “The base of the clouds are at 1,000 feet, the tops are at 5,000 feet, and its clear above.” It was easy and quick but I began to wonder why the FSS briefer had said that general aviation pilots don’t give many reports. Has pilot reporting become a lost art? I conducted an unscientific survey among several general aviation pilots that I since encountered and found that many pilots have an incorrect assumption about pireps that tends to discourage them from participating. The assumption is that the pilot report must be in a very formal and exact format — since most pilots can’t remember the format, they make no report at all. This assumption is false, but it is easy to understand how pilots get this impression from the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).

The AIM, paragraph 7-1-21, includes a “Pirep Element Code Chart” which has thirteen items listed. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that the thirteen items are the order in which the information will come out on a printed or computerized report. Plus, the example of how the pilot is supposed to make the report follows the thirteen item list, so it may seem like the “proper” way to make a pilot report is to memorize that thirteen item list and rattle off the information in precisely that order. The pilots I spoke to (including myself) did not know all the items and did not know the order of the items. Not knowing the “proper” way to report made them feel uncomfortable and so they would rather not report at all than to appear ignorant and offer an improper report.

There is no incorrect way to make a pilot report. The pirep does not need to follow a formal and itemized format. The pilot report can be very “conversational.” When I told Memphis Center: “The base of the clouds are at 1,000 feet, the tops are at 5,000 feet, and its clear above,” I was just talking to the controller, I was not reading down an itemized list. I did not use a rigid format, because

  1. it was not necessary, and
  2. I can’t remember the format either!

I hope someone else that morning learned that the cloud tops were at 5,000 because of my conversation with the controller and wonder if I couldn’t get the same information because another pilot was intimidated by the published format.

HOW IT WORKS: Report What You Would Want To Know
Now that you know that pilot reporting is, in practice, very informal, you should make more reports. Just convey what you see to the person with whom you’re already speaking. You can give a pirep to any air traffic controller, or any FSS briefer. The items that should be reported are the same items you yourself wanted to know when you planned the flight: cloud bases and tops, freezing levels, turbulence, ice, thunderstorms, visibility, rain, and wind. There are a few guidelines that you should follow, but the order, or the fact that you don’t discuss all thirteen possible items is not a problem.

Remember that pilot reports are coming from pilots in flight, so the report is coming from the “in-flight” point of view. My report was: “The base of the clouds are at 1,000 feet, the tops are at 5,000 feet, and its clear above.” Was I referring to AGL or MSL altitudes? I had to be referring to MSL because I was using my altimeter to determine the heights. So pirep rule number one is that all reference to altitudes are MSL altitudes.

Important: I reported the cloud “base,” not the cloud “ceiling.” Ceilings are reported from the ground and from the vantage point of the ground observer, so ceilings are always reported AGL. The ceiling that morning was in fact about 400 AGL, but at my home airport, with a field elevation of 615, that meant the “base” was at 1000 MSL.

One thing we need to take out of the equation is personal interpretation. It is important that we all use the same terminology when giving a pirep — after all, one man’s mountain could be another man’s mole hill. You should not say that you are picking up a “smidge” of ice or experiencing a “little” turbulence. Nobody will know just how much you think a “smidge” is so we use common terms. When reporting ice the descriptors are Trace, Light, Moderate, or Severe. Check the AIM, paragraph 7-1-22 for these definitions. You should also include whether or not the ice is Clear, Rime, or Mixed. Report rain as Light, Moderate, or Heavy (AIM paragraph 7-1-19). Report turbulence as Light, Moderate, Severe, or Extreme (AIM paragraph 7-1-23) and you can report “Light Chop” or “Moderate Chop” if the jolts of turbulence are rhythmic. Report runway braking as Good, Fair, Poor, and Nil (AIM paragraph 4-3-9). And of course, if you see a thunderstorm, tell everyone where it is and which way is it moving.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Don’t think that the controller or FSS briefer will scold you if you don’t give them a pirep in some rigid format — they will be happy to get the information any way they can get it. When a pirep is received they will pass the information on to fellow pilots, which will make their flight safer. ATC also use pireps to re-route traffic or reassign altitudes to avoid potentially hazardous conditions. ATC and FSS often use a pirep as the trigger to issue an advisory to all pilots whether they specifically ask for pireps or not — so your report can go a long way to help others. I figure that as pilots in flight, we are all in this thing together, so we better help each other out. I hope to see more reports in the future from all of you. Don’t be shy to report.