Airline crews could benefit from GA weather data

 - March 31, 2010, 7:00 AM

At a February 24 hearing on aircraft icing legislators criticized the FAA for delaying implementation of rulemaking that would address outstanding issues on the NTSB’s “Most Wanted” list. “After the Colgan Air Flight 3407 accident near Buffalo last year,” said committee chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), “it was widely speculated that the aircraft crashed due to icing. While icing was ultimately determined not to have caused the accident, it highlighted the issue of icing.”

Congressman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, pointed out, “It has been 13 years since a commercial air carrier was involved in a fatal icing-related accident. However, between 1998 and 2007 there were 523 icing-related aviation accidents involving small [commercial] operators and general aviation aircraft resulting in 221 fatalities.” Costello has proposed legislation in H.R.3371, the “Airline Safety and Improvement Act of 2009,” that would require the FAA to change Part 61 pilot certification regulations to ensure that applicants for airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates “have received flight training, academic training or operational experience that will prepare a pilot, at a minimum...to function effectively in adverse weather conditions, including icing conditions.”

“I am concerned that pilot training for icing might not be specifically related
to the conditions the pilot is likely to encounter and the aircraft that he or she
is flying,” Oberstar said. “Aviation would benefit from providing pilots with additional tools, such as better defined operating procedures for icing and winter weather conditions.”

Currently, Part 61 does not mention icing for commercial pilot aeronautical knowledge requirements, but for ATPs, the rules require pilots to have knowledge of “meteorology, including…fronts, frontal characteristics, cloud formations, icing and upper-air data.”

The NTSB wants the FAA to accelerate rulemaking on airplane design and approval for flight in icing conditions based on research of supercooled-large-droplet icing; apply the new requirements to existing airplanes; and require that pilots deploy
de-icing equipment immediately upon entering icing conditions. (Some manufacturers, notably Cessna, still advise pilots to wait for ice to build to a specific height before deploying de-icing boots in certain airplanes, even though the NTSB and FAA agree that this isn’t necessary to prevent so-called ice-bridging.)

During the hearing, committee members and panelists expressed the opinion that the NextGen ATC system might facilitate transmission of real- time weather information to airliner cockpits. “We must consider the need for technology to allow pilots to avoid entering hazardous conditions,” said Rory Kay, executive air safety committee chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association International. “Pilots need onboard equipment, training and forecasting technology,” he added.

Oddly, none of the panel members, including Kay, FAA deputy associate administrator for aviation safety John Hickey and NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman, pointed out that in-cockpit weather data is already available from providers such as XM and WSI. But lacking a mandate for installation, airlines tend not to use this technology even though it is found in the cockpits of thousands of general aviation aircraft.

Some airlines have installed electronic flight bags in cockpits, which would be one simple way to access cockpit weather products. Boeing’s new 787 includes an integrated Class 3 EFB, which provides weather data, and Airbus’s A380 also includes a Class 3 EFB.

Manufacturers of receiver hardware for weather data from XM WX and WSI’s InFlight service include WSI, Heads Up Technologies, Garmin and WxWorx. EFB manufacturers incorporate receivers–usually the Heads Up unit–in their products to receive the weather. WxWorx is the exclusive provider of aviation weather data for the XM WX satellite weather service.

General aviation users have adopted satellite weather products much more rapidly than airlines, but WxWorx is unable to provide any details about the number of airline versus general aviation users. WxWorx sells its receiver hardware through dealers and does not ask about the type of operation of the end user, according to a spokeswoman. Paul Devlin, product manager for WSI InFlight, said that while some airlines do use WSI’s cockpit weather data, the number is low compared with general aviation users.

Both XM and WSI include icing products in their top-line weather data subscriptions. Clearly the XM and WSI icing products offer one way to get critical information to pilots much more swiftly than waiting for the implementation of NextGen technologies.