By Paul Suffern
This past winter, the U.S. endured some difficult and crazy weather. In fact, most places on the East Coast and near the Great Lakes experienced well below normal temperatures and higher than normal snowfall totals. At the same time, most of the West Coast experienced above normal temperature. Weather conditions play a role in our lives in a number of ways, including what we wear, what we do, and when we do it. As an NTSB meteorologist, I know that weather also plays a role in how well our transportation system operates, and it can be the “deciding” factor in whether transportation is safe.
When investigating transportation accidents, the NTSB examines the man, the machine, and the environment. That includes the actual “environment.” Meteorological events – weather, if you will – can reduce visibility for aircraft pilots and motor vehicle drivers; create wind conditions that affect how aircraft, high-profile vehicles, and marine vessels operate; and produce ice that causes aircraft, vehicles, and trains to lose control. Accordingly, the NTSB employs three meteorologists, including me, who examine and identify meteorological events that could be labeled as causal or contributory factors in the accident, and develop safety NTSB safety products to help mitigate those events.
Our meteorological, or MET, staff provide technical expertise in all transportation modes, but the bulk of our caseload comes from general aviation (GA) accidents. In fact, an estimated 90 percent of meteorological support goes towards supporting GA investigations. This is not surprising; two-thirds of all GA accidents that occur in instrument meteorological conditions are fatal.
Today, the NTSB published its latest set of recommendations (to the FAA and NWS) designed to improve the identification and communication of hazardous weather. These recommendations address a lack of consistency among National Weather Service (NWS) products, lack of a forecast product that addresses mountain wave activity, the need for enhancing communication among NWS forecasters, and the need for guidance on the weighting of pilot reports by NWS aviation meteorologists.
When I got my Masters in atmospheric science from North Carolina State University in 2007, taking a position with the NTSB 4 years later wasn’t something I had planned. I actually started my career as a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Alaska. Similarly, my colleague, Mike Richards, came to the NTSB after working as a research meteorologist at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center. My other colleague, Don Eick, has been with NTSB since 1998; before then, he worked for Trans World Airlines as an instructor teaching meteorology, federal aviation regulations and flight procedures and then as head of meteorology supporting operational control and flight dispatch. Between us, we’ve participated in hundreds of accident investigations that have led to recommended changes that will hopefully prevent future crashes, injuries, and deaths. Motivated by the NTSB’s mission – independently advancing transportation safety – we will continue to identify how to improve steps for identifying and communicating hazardous weather so that more people return safely each night to their homes and families.