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NTSB Forum: PIREPs: Pay it Forward…Because Weather for One is Weather for None, Opening Statement, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Conference Center

​Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Robert Sumwalt and as a member of the NTSB, it is my pleasure to welcome you to this forum on pilot weather reports, or PIREPs.

Joining me on the dais is Transportation Safety Specialist Brian Soper, from our Office of Aviation Safety. Brian is an expert in air traffic control matters, and led NTSB staff efforts to plan and organize this forum. I am also joined by Dana Schulze, Deputy Director of our Office of Aviation Safety; Mike Richards, meteorologist; and Paul Suffern, also a meteorologist and the technical panel lead for our first panel this morning, “Use and Significance of PIREPs.”

To be honest with you, when I first learned of staff’s idea to hold a forum on PIREPS, I was skeptical. I thought … a forum about PIREPS? Really? Honestly, at the time, PIREPs wasn’t on my list of safety concerns.

But after talking to our investigators, hearing their experiences, hearing the passion in their voices, and thinking back to my own experiences, the idea began to make a lot of sense. After reading the supporting data and reviewing our accident reports, I became convinced this was a conversation the NTSB should be having. After all, as every pilot knows, our PIREP system isn’t working as well as it should.

A number of years ago, I was a 737 line check airman for my airline. I was giving initial operating experience to a new first officer. Because we were descending though clouds with a low temperature, we had engine anti-ice on, as we should. About seven miles from landing in Columbus, Ohio, I noticed that the first officer hadn’t set his airspeed bugs properly, and was trying to get that sorted out. We broke out of the clouds around five miles out and when I looked out to see the runway, I noticed we had clear ice on the windshield wiper bolt. I was surprised.

I turned on the wing anti-ice system and reported the icing to the tower. More than the ice itself, their response surprised me.

“Yeah we’ve been getting those reports all morning.”

Well, why was it not reported to me?

I’m not sure what effect the ice may have had as we slowed for landing – we all know ice on wings can be deadly - but I am sure of one thing – how embarrassed I was when the check airman sitting on the jumpseat pulled me aside after landing and commented that I should have noticed the ice sooner.  He’s right – I should have. But structural icing is so unusual on that type of airplane, and I had a higher than usual workload, so I can’t help believing that had ATC relayed the PIREP to me, it would have increased the chance for me to get ahead and turn on the wing anti-ice before ice built up.

Just two weeks ago in this Boardroom we considered the case of a crash short of Montgomery Air Park in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The plane picked up ice and crashed in a residential area, killing the pilot, two passengers, and a mom with her two children on the ground.

We know that there were PIREPs for the Washington, DC region that morning that indicated structural icing conditions. We could not determine whether the pilot checked PIREPS in his preflight activities, but we do know they weren’t relayed to him by ATC in flight. I can say that there was a specific PIREP for icing conditions near Montgomery Air Park that may have helped raise the pilot’s awareness of structural icing, just as the PIREP from Columbus ATC may have helped me.

We at the NTSB have investigated numerous accidents that illustrate a complex set of relationships in the PIREP system as it presently functions – or doesn’t function. And I don’t think any of us think our PIREP system is functioning optimally.

There’s an old saying, “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The one thing we can do about it is report it, and make sure that every report about the weather is available to those who need it most. But too often we don’t.

A few years ago, NTSB’s Most Wanted List included “General Aviation: Identify and Communicate Hazardous Weather.” At present, we’re focused on loss-of-control accidents in general aviation – and how many of those go back to awareness of weather?

How often is loss of control linked to flying VFR into IMC, or encountering icing conditions without the pilot knowing others had encountered those same conditions just moments before?

Let’s look at all that must happen to make a PIREP work.

First, pilots have to voluntarily submit the PIREP. But, as a pilot, I’ll admit that when we perceive the report isn’t going to get relayed to others, we tend to stop reporting. 

Then there’s the issue of accuracy: The PIREPs that are submitted often provide incorrect information, most commonly about time, location, and weather intensity.

Once the PIREP is radioed in, it can be jotted down on a form – even though it’s 2016, a paper form – to be entered later into multiple systems that do not communicate with each other. If all goes well and every party does his or her job, the update goes out to the national airspace system.

The key phrase is, “if all goes well.” The reality is, only a fraction of the observed knowledge about weather hazards gets reported through the present system to the next pilot who needs the information. Think about that in the context of all the lives we lose each year in weather-related accidents.

The system’s present limitations also degrade the accuracy of weather forecasting and modeling, because a significant amount of meteorological data can only be gathered through PIREPs.

To their credit, there are a lot of people who have been trying for years to get the PIREP system to work better – many of whom are gathered today in this room.

And, that’s why we wanted to have this forum – to bring together key players with knowledge of the PIREP problem to begin a conversation about PIREP solutions. And we hope that this conversation continues, planting the seed for collaborative action.

For most people, the weather is a subject for small-talk.

For pilots, the difference between life and death can come down to one question: Weather… or not?

PIREPs done right have enormous untapped potential to make aviation safer for pilots, passengers, and people on the ground.

So thank you for joining us here at this forum this morning. I’ll now turn to Brian Soper. Brian will provide a safety briefing and some information about how this forum will proceed, and then start us off with an introductory presentation.

Mr. Soper.