It’s time for industry, the FAA, and the US National Weather Service to work together, deploying and seeking full use of weather camera capabilities.

The author stands in front of a prototype weather camera station supporting HAI HELI-EXPO 2022 at the Dallas (Texas) Vertiport, March 2022. (Hughes Aerospace)

Weather cameras are an integral part of aviation safety, particularly in general aviation, and they’re critical for vertical flight decision-making. “Weather cameras provide a cost-effective solution, enhancing safety for pilots,” says Mike LaMee, VP of aviation at Med-Trans Corp. and EagleMed. “AWOSs [automated weather observing systems] are often cost prohibitive for operators and don’t provide a complete picture of the weather.”

“It is critical that the [helicopter air ambulance] industry develop a solution for, and better access to, approved weather sources to increase information available to pilots to make more informed decisions,” adds Warren Carroll, director of safety innovation at Metro Aviation. “We need more approved weather sources in more places to fill in the gaps in the network of existing, approved weather sources. This will enhance the safety of all vertical aviation operations and is precisely the reason Metro Aviation was the first nongovernment entity to voluntarily join the FAA program to test the capabilities of the weather camera systems.”

Feedback from pilots shows weather cameras are favored over AWOSs during go/no-go decision-making. If a picture is worth a thousand words, time-lapse weather images are worth an encyclopedia’s worth of text.

The implementation of FAA weather cameras in Alaska is purported to have achieved an 85% reduction in weather-related accidents. This significant statistic can’t be overlooked and provides compelling evidence for making the use of weather cameras a priority. Yet, today, the FAA’s weather camera network has incomplete coverage. Sadly, rather than expanding and completing the network, the FAA has indicated that this program’s funding is to be cut.

It is therefore time to examine and unlock the “go” potential of these weather cameras. When clear-day images are present with distances to known objects, pilots can determine the prevailing visibilities and trends. It is also reasonable to expect pilots to be able to determine when ceilings are above 1,000 ft.

It’s time for industry, the FAA, and the US National Weather Service to work together, deploying and seeking full use of weather camera capabilities. In addition to their use in preflight planning, weather camera images could also be included with ADS-B In to allow non-Wi-Fi–equipped aircraft to use the weather cameras during flight.

Use of FAA weather cameras has been shown to reduce the accident rate in Alaska, but the sluggish pace of the program’s expansion has frustrated those who seek similar reductions in the Lower 48 of the United States.

Given the weather cameras’ successful linkage to accident reduction in Alaska, the sluggish pace of the program’s expansion has frustrated those who seek similar reductions in the Lower 48.

“While some budget-savvy stakeholders in select regions should be applauded for securing state funding and private capital for aviation weather camera systems, a federal commitment to expand and sustain a nationwide network is paramount,” says James Viola, president and CEO of HAI. “Many fatal accidents linked to inadequate preflight weather awareness and uninformed decision-making can be easily prevented with a simple weather camera. I challenge our lawmakers and government budget managers to reward success—and continue funding this proven resource that has saved so many lives and will get us much closer to our vision of zero fatal vertical aviation accidents.”

For more on this topic, see “Spotlight on Safety, Part 1: See the Weather as It Is, Not as You Would Like It to Be!”

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Chris Baur

Chris Baur

Chris Baur, FRAes, MBA, is president of Hughes Aerospace Corp. in Houston, Texas; industry co-chair of the US Helicopter Safety Team; and a helicopter pilot.