GA pilots ‘struggling to interpret weather forecast and observation displays’

GA pilots ‘struggling to interpret weather forecast and observation displays’

When tested on their knowledge of 23 types of weather information, from icing forecasts and turbulence reports to radar, 204 general aviation (GA) pilots were stumped by about 42% of the questions. The findings are worrying, the researchers say.

GA pilots ‘struggling to interpret weather forecast and observation displays’

The findings, published in the April 2018 edition of the International Journal of Aerospace Psychology, are worrying because GA pilots flying smaller planes at lower altitudes, usually with minimal ground-based support, have higher weather-related accident and fatality rates, said Embry-Riddle's Elizabeth Blickensderfer, a professor in the Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology.

Four categories of GA pilots who completed the 95-question exam scored as follows:

  • instrument-rated commercial pilots achieved the highest scores, with a 65% accuracy level;
  • instrument-rated private pilots ranked second, with 62% correct responses;
  • private pilots flying without an instrument rating scored 57% and
  • students correctly answered only 48% of the questions.

Overall, the mean score across all 204 pilots was 57.89%, based on assessments conducted on the university's Daytona Beach, Fla., campus and at an air show in the mid-western United States.

Improved testing of GA pilots is needed, Blickensderfer said, noting that in 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board named "identifying and communicating hazardous weather" a top priority for improving safety. Currently, however, the US Federal Aviation Administration's Knowledge Exam allows pilots to pass even if they fail the weather portion of the test.

Fixing the problem

Blickensderfer emphasised that her research should not be interpreted solely as a symptom of faulty pilot training. "I don't want to blame the pilots for deficiencies in understanding weather information," she said. "We have got to improve how weather information is displayed so that pilots can easily and quickly interpret it. At the same time, of course, we can fine-tune pilot assessments to promote learning and inform training."

Thomas A. Guinn, an associate professor of meteorology at Embry-Riddle and a co-author on the study, noted that it's critical for pilots to assess big-picture weather issues before take-off. In addition, they need to understand, for instance, that radar displayed inside a cockpit shows what happened up to 15 minutes earlier.

"If you're flying 120 miles per hour and you don't understand that there's a lag time in ground-based radar data reaching your cockpit that can be deadly,” Guinn noted.

All the test questions were designed to push pilots beyond whatever facts they had memorised, so that "they had to think about it and answer the question using the same thought processes as if they were performing a pre-flight check," said Robert Thomas, another co-author of the study who is a Gold Seal Certified Flight Instructor and an assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle.

The research, supported by $491,000 in funding from the US Federal Aviation Administration, could help guide pilot training and assessments. 

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