- With a new NextGen weather forecasting tool, emergency helicopter pilots know when they can safely land at off-airport sites
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Before emergency medical services pilot Rex Orgill flies a helicopter rescue mission from his base in Salt Lake City, he checks a new NextGen weather forecasting tool to see what the visibility will be like at the pickup site. Orgill is a pilot with Intermountain Life Flight in Utah. Intermountain Life Flight helicopters are airborne intensive care units and fly to remote areas to provide care for victims of auto and snowmobile accidents, incidents involving injured hikers and drowning victims.
"We get a lot of low visibility out here, and we often fly long routes — 100 nautical miles from our base of operations," said Orgill. Rescue flights may traverse 9,000 foot-high mountains to land at a site 5,000 feet up on the other side.
Weather reporting stations are usually located at airports, but the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) automated forecasting tool has been tailored by NextGen weather researchers to meet the needs of first responders who fly helicopters at low altitudes and land at off-airport sites, such as a highway, a farmer's field or out in the wild. HEMS enhances safety and efficiency for helicopter pilots by using computer analysis to forecast weather conditions along a route between two or more airport observation stations, including ceiling, visibility and other factors, such as thunderstorms.
Pilots on these life-saving missions need to know if they are likely to have adequate visibility to land at remote locations. If HEMS shows that visibility conditions are likely to be poor because of low clouds at a landing site, for example, rescuers can immediately send ground vehicles instead, rather than waiting until an aircraft has already flown to the location and is unable to land.
While still in trial use, HEMS eventually may be available to anyone flying where visibility is essential, including crop dusters or general aviation pilots planning to land on remote airstrips.
HEMS is showcased on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's web-based weather forecasting and observation service, the experimental Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS). Beginning in 2016, weather tools will be provided as part of NextGen's shared weather data capability.
The FAA Aviation Weather Research team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., is working on ways for ADDS to provide better icing and turbulence information. Icing and turbulence can be deadly hazards for aircraft, depending on their severity.
One set of icing forecasting tools shows a pilot the current and forecast conditions along a selected route of flight at hourly intervals and at different altitudes. NextGen weather research is improving these tools to make it possible for pilots to see if icing conditions differ at altitudes just 500 feet apart instead of the current 1,000 feet, giving them more detailed information to allow an earlier opportunity to exit the icing zone.
The FAA research team is also working to provide a higher-resolution icing forecast picture. With the greater resolution, in 13-kilometer increments instead of the current 20, pilots will be able to spot a location where icing conditions exist that might have escaped their notice in the past.
The FAA's turbulence research team has upgraded the ADDS turbulence forecasting model in a tool that will include the outlook for mountain wave turbulence, a phenomena that can make a flight uncomfortable for passengers or, in some cases, pose a significant hazard to the aircraft. Many of the most severe turbulence encounters in aviation involve mountain waves, which are spawned by strong winds creating eddies as they flow over mountainous terrain.
Turbulence forecasts will particularly benefit general aviation pilots who typically fly at lower altitudes. ADDS currently looks at turbulence conditions above 10,000 feet. The new tool will forecast conditions all the way to the surface. Both turbulence forecasting upgrades are scheduled to be available in 2014.