Use aviation weather cameras to avoid weather surprises.

We know as pilots that making the right decision can be a challenge. Sometimes our struggles relate to not having the necessary resources and information to help us improve situational awareness. When it relates to how the weather may affect our flight, weather reporting might not be available for the en route portion or at the destination, making preflight go/no-go decisions particularly difficult.

Fortunately, an invaluable tool, the FAA Weather Camera Program, is easily accessible online—but it often goes unchecked. The program started in Alaska in 1998, after the FAA determined that aviation accidents in the state resulted from a lack of adequate weather information.

As the program matured, the empirical data coming in showed that the weather camera service across Alaska assisted in an 85% reduction in weather-related accidents and a 69% reduction in weather-related flight interruptions from 2007 to 2014. The program currently owns and maintains 244 camera systems in Alaska and Hawaii and is continuing expansion into other states.

As the demand for weather cameras grew, and with limited resources at hand, the FAA turned to third parties such as state transportation departments for help with funding the camera sites. Under this plan, the FAA would then host all the images on its WeatherCams website. The weather camera system currently hosts camera images from 280 non-FAA–owned weather camera sites in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Utah, and across Canada (more than 200 sites, courtesy of Nav Canada, Canada’s civil air navigation service provider).

The individual weather camera sites typically offer views in the four pilot-requested directions, refreshing each image every 10 minutes. For reference and validation of image accuracy, the sites also show a clear-day view of each image. A time-lapse loop covering the previous six hours is included for each image.

In addition to the camera images from the individual camera sites, WeatherCams offers valuable information for flight operations, a complete list of camera sites, and instructions and tutorials on website use.

“Weather cameras have been absolute game changers for us,” says Joel Kain, director of safety at TEMSCO Helicopters. “We no longer subscribe to the ‘fly out and take a look mentality.’ The Weather Camera Program allows us to make go-no-go decisions with confidence. It continually saves us both time and money. We can make an operational decision about a flight without burning fuel, without putting maintenance cycles on our aircraft, and, more importantly, without putting our pilots and aircraft out in potentially adverse weather conditions.”

No matter how hard and thoroughly we plan and prepare, there remains the risk that the weather won’t cooperate. Don’t let the weather ruin your next flight because you didn’t have all the relevant information. See the weather as it is, not as you would like it to be! Use aviation weather cameras to avoid weather surprises. Visit the WeatherCams website before your next flight.

For more on this topic, see “Spotlight on Safety, Part 2: A Case for Expanding Aviation Weather Cameras.”

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Christopher Young

Christopher Young

Chris Young is the executive director of the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS). He has 30 years of aviation and leadership experience in the US Navy as well as the helicopter air ambulance, aircraft manufacturing, aviation safety, technical publications, and insurance segments, with over 2,900 flight hours as a pilot. Chris is active in the helicopter safety community as the cochair of the US Helicopter Safety Team’s Outreach Team and as secretary of the HAI Safety Working Group.