"You Need to Know What You Don’t Know"
Marion C. Blakey, Washington, D.C.
November 28, 2006

Aero Club

Good afternoon, and thank you, Debbie [McElroy]. It’s a special pleasure to be here. It’s a very special pleasure to pay tribute to one of the greatest pilots of our time — of all time. The Engen Trophy is certainly well deserved.

Normally, when you don’t know what to talk about with folks you talk about the weather. Well, today’s a little bit different. I know exactly what I want to talk about and that is the weather. Now I look around the room, and I see a few of you saying, “Oh, man, I was hoping she was going to give us some insight on the Trust Fund and Reauthorization or maybe Age 60.” Nope. And those of you with an allergy to acronyms better head for the exits. What I’m going to focus on today is what I think is one of the top two or three operational and research challenges we face but often is sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of aviation and doesn’t get enough attention or respect.

For those of you who are unaware, today is the anniversary of the start of Admiral Byrd’s flight over the South Pole. The year was 1929.

November 28 is also the anniversary of another fairly significant transportation event: Back in 1520, Magellan reached the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic — the hard way. Using the Straits of Magellan was the best route considering the information he had. And, no doubt, the explorer must have thought he was at the bottom of the world. A few centuries later, then-Commander Byrd had a different view — figuratively and literally — about the oceans and the actual bottom of the world.

Generally speaking, the conditions were roughly the same for both men. The geography was the same. One explorer had better information. Both brave. Both determined. Byrd’s flight wasn’t what I’d call easy by any stretch, but it shows how a little information can go an awfully long way.

No doubt the pilots in this room feel precisely the same about weather. In fact, weather is a contributing or causal factor in 87 percent of all GA accidents. Moreover, just about three out of four airline delays over the last five years are attributed to Mother Nature.

Now, I’d be remiss not to mention the success we had with Thanksgiving weekend traffic. We had good weather, but as always, there was quite a spike in the amount of traffic. Sunday was up 16 percent. And when it was all done, I can say with certainty that everyone ran a ship-shape operation. Hats off. When we needed a clutch performance, we got it.

You may be surprised to know that playing a part in this was our airspace flow program which we put in place to handle difficult enroute weather patterns. Yeah, I know it was good weather, but over the weekend, we used it for the first time to handle high volume at high altitudes on the East Coast. The corridors from D.C. to New York and Cleveland to New York. Let me tell you, it worked.

The airspace flow program itself has been in place since June, and the early results are good. Preliminary data indicate delays during severe weather events have been reduced approximately 21 percent for flights destined to airports in the eastern U.S. Data also indicate a decrease in the number of cancelled flights, about eight percent on severe weather days. We expect that that will translate to a savings of $900 million over the next 10 years.

This program is designed to address delays associated with airspace constraints. There was a time that ground delay programs were implemented for multiple airports in response to severe weather. Working with industry, now for the first time we’re able to provide options to ground delays with predictable results. When the customer gets an option whether to file through or file around, it’s a good sign for both of us.

As the saying goes, you can’t control the weather but you can control how you deal with it. Just like Admiral Byrd, just like Magellan, step one is to be aware of it, to have the best information out there.

So where are we? There’s some very exciting work being done with measurements in the troposphere, the lower part of the atmosphere. Much of our forecasting since the early 1920’s has involved the deployment of weather balloons. Now, there are 69 spread across the country with information coming every 12 hours, capturing atmosphere data.

Today, we’re also able to capture atmospheric measurements from several hundred commercial aircraft through a program called Meteorological Data Collection and Reporting System. You may know it by its abbreviation: MDCRS. In fact we get over a hundred thousand observations per day of winds aloft, temperature, pressure, and turbulence from this program. Participating airlines collect the data for us at no cost and share the cost with the government to get the data to the ground. ARINC then sends it on to FAA and NWS to improve the forecasts and our automated air traffic support tools.

On the downside, this program doesn’t give us humidity, but there’s a company called AirDat that’s in the early stages of what one day might plug that hole and bring aviation a little more quickly into the 21st century. With a program called TAMDAR, for Troposphere Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting; they’re placing a multi-function atmospheric sensor aboard aircraft and they’re using a dedicated two-way satellite link through Iridium to get the objective information relayed to meteorologists. The sensor is smaller than a lunch box and weighs less than two pounds. The transmission takes about 8 to 12 seconds.

As you know, data collection below 20,000 feet had been lean. By outfitting smaller commuter aircraft, we’re getting input from an entire fleet, quite a jump from balloons. The cost-benefit piece of this equation has yet to be fleshed out, but a good idea is a good idea.

And sometimes, the simple ideas are the best ideas. The sensors record humidity, pressure, temperature, winds aloft, icing, turbulence, true airspeed and location, time, and altitude from a built-in GPS. It’s been operational in the central United States for about 18 months. Like I said, the days of relying solely on weather balloons and subjective pilot reports are coming to a close. They aren’t unimportant. But moving toward data collection turbocharged with satellite relays is a step up, don’t you think?

Let me turn to an FAA project: the Collaborative Convective Forecast Product. The CCFP has been around for a few years at http://aviationweather.gov . No www; just aviationweather.gov. During the convective weather season, which stretches from March through October, a team of government meteorologists, our center weather service unit staff and the airlines put out a forecast every two hours, round the clock, 24/7. This is information that goes to everyone, available to anyone who needs it. If you’re looking for news, here it is. We’re expanding. Right now, the forecast looks out six hours. We’re looking at going to eight. We’re increasing the strength, the reliability, of the forecast with better software.

Working collaboratively is definitely the way to go. At the heart of collaboration is traffic flow management. On one hand, you have air traffic control which is all about controllers and separation. Air traffic control begins when an aircraft pushes back from the gate, and it ends when it pulls back in. Traffic flow management, on the other hand, is more the science of aviation. It’s about understanding how traffic flows across the system, how the system moves and adapts nationwide.

The Command Center in Herndon is the FAA’s brain trust for traffic flow management. If you remember back to the day where the system got bogged down because the airlines were holding everything close to the vest and blaming ATC for all the delays, you know that things are different. Now, every morning at 7:15 and every two hours throughout the day there’s a telecon about the status of the national airspace system. Weather is one of the main topics discussed. The system is orchestrated much more smoothly as a result. And we collaborate with all our customers, the airlines, and GA.

This is all part of collaborative decision making in which the government and users make good decisions together, instead of decisions made against each other in vacuum. Collaborative decision making is a lot like the World Wide Web. The more information you get in response to your search, the better it gets. Richer and richer information, allowing everybody to make better decisions for the day.

Now we’re not stopping there. Our laboratories are producing new products as well. For example, after several years of development and testing, we are scheduled to roll out an operational in-flight icing product that GA has been especially eager to see. For several years now, you told us you wanted the ability to use the Current Icing Product Severity as an operational tool. Well, in two months or less, in time for much of this icing season, CIP Severity will be fully operational. This product combines observations from satellite, radar, surface, lightning networks, and pilot weather reports with model output to provide a detailed, hourly, three dimensional diagnosis of in-flight icing conditions and potential for super-cooled liquid droplets.  

In one sentence, our goal is to enable flight deck weather information technologies that allow pilots to engage in shared situational awareness.

I’ve just run though a laundry list that shows we’re taking weather seriously today. But it’s a fair question for one of you to ask, “That’s good, but what about tomorrow?”

We’re hard at that, too. The next generation air transportation system — NextGen — is going to answer the mail.

The challenge of weather is arguably the biggest and most complex we face. It’s the wild card that’s always going to be out there. The fact of the matter is we just don’t forecast very well. That’s not an indictment of the meteorologist. It’s an observation about the state of the science that enables us to peek into the future. It’s one thing when you’re planning the family picnic for next Saturday. But when you’re trying to vector thousands of aircraft from point A to point B — and I’m not just talking about into O’Hare or Kennedy, but at the smaller airports as well — that type of choreography requires an accurate picture several days out.

We can’t do it. And even with all of these steps, we’ll never completely do away with constraints on the system. Let’s face it: weather’s always going to be there to deal with.

I’m not bursting your balloon — weather or otherwise — but what I am pointing to is that we need to make a cultural shift in our approach to the weather. First, there’s got to be a shift in how forecasting itself is perceived. As the forecasts get better, people have to take more stock in them. That comes from being able to rely on the information you’re getting. Everybody jokes about the weatherman, but you and I know that comes from the reflex that he’s going to get it wrong. That’s got to change, and I think it will as products and forecasts become more reliable. In addition, I opened my comments with the mention of how good information needs to be available. And that’s true. We need to change how the national airspace system responds to and utilizes the weather information that’s produced.

The NextGen vision is to assure that everybody in the system has the same set of information. When there’s a weather-related event, everybody would have knowledge of it, and they’d be aware at about the same time. The challenge for us — and you — is to change the NAS from being a system that’s reactive into one that’s proactive. Instead of waiting until after something’s happened and using an operational tool such as a ground delay program, we want to make smarter risk-based decisions before the event has occurred. We want to take that weather information and use it to formulate actions that are less painful, less dramatic, and further out. The further out in time we can make strategic operational weather decisions, the less impact NextGen will endure.

We need a network-enabled common weather picture of now as well as one, two, and six hours from now. Everybody in the system right now is making decisions based on different pictures and different interpretations of those pictures. A network gives everyone the same look.

To get there, you can’t have only one weather provider for observations and forecasts. We want to have many sources, as many as we can get. As I said, one of the real science challenges is how do you then fuse all that data in to a single picture and continuously distribute it to everybody. Our concept for that is called NNEW — NextGen Network Enabled Weather.

There’s good news here. We’re already working with DoD, Commerce, and NASA to leverage their investments in this capability. This will help us launch sooner: The delivery for an initial capability is scheduled for 2012.

When all this information becomes available, and it gets to you in time for you to use it, well, that’s the kind of leap into the next century of aviation that we need to make. Secretary Mary Peters calls it 21st century solutions to 21st century problems, and I think she’s right. In 1929, the very same year of Admiral Byrd’s famous flight, the government’s Interdepartmental Committee on Civil Airways was urging the Aeronautics Branch to strengthen its weather-reporting services, particularly in terms of collecting weather data. This issue isn’t new, but our approach sure is.

Because we are working together to organize our weather efforts from research and development to the systems we use every day to make sure we’re addressing the right weather problems and coming up with the right solution. It’s true that there’s probably not going to be a next generation air traffic control system that’s immune to the headaches of convective weather. But a little information can go a long way. And when you get the right information to the right people at the right time, advancements are sure to follow, without having to use the Straits of Magellan to do it.