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Getting a Desktop Weather Overview

One of the side benefits of aviation is a greater interest in the weather. Coming from England, the weather is always a topic for discussion but as a pilot this becomes increasingly important. Watching the weather in the days leading up to a flight is key to seeing how things are developing but if you’re like many of us, you don’t fly as much as you would like and so you don’t get as much practice watching the weather as you might like. To keep my hand in at interpreting the typical aviation charts and to build up some more experience relating the weather systems to the weather they create, I’ve set up my computer’s desktop wallpaper to show some of the charts that I find give me a good feel for what is going on.

On my mac, I use some software called Desktop Magik to dynamically display a simple web page containing links to four charts as my desktop wallpaper so I can glance at them when the feeling takes me, windows users could achieve much the same thing using the built in Active Desktop. I picked these charts for the purpose of getting a quick overview of what’s going on now and what things might look like tomorrow. For detailed information for a flight I use Flight Brief and ADDS to get access to the full spectrum of graphical and text data. [How do you approach your weather briefing? Feel free to use the Comments section below]

Disclaimer – Please note that whilst these charts should be up to date, this page is not an official source for weather data so please do not base any actual flight planning decisions on the data you see here. Visit some of the excellent online weather sites that have all the other information needed to make an informed decision.

Current US Composite Radar Chart
I use this to get a feel for what’s going on around the country and to quickly see if there is any significant weather in my area which might make my go/no go decision right away. This chart from aviationweather.gov shows the radar returns and the direction and speed at which the cells are moving, also the tops are shown in hundreds of feed (ie. tops listed at 050 would be at 050 hundred feet, ie five thousand feet MSL). Comparing this chart to the surface analysis chart (below) also gives you a feel for what frontal or other systems are causing the current precipitation.

Weather Depiction Chart
The radar summary shows big things that are out there, I then like to use the weather depiction chart shown below to view the weather’s impact in aviation terms – where are regions of Low IFR (pink squares), IFR (red squares), MVFR (blue squares), turbulence (orange symbols) and icing (green symbols). In this example I also have the Visible moisture satellite view superimposed on top of the depiction. The depiction quickly shows me if stations in my area are suffering from some type of reduced visibility, I can get more info from the METAR but this shows it at a glance. Comparing this chart to the surface analysis chart below enables you to see what effects frontal systems are having on the national weather.


Surface Analysis Chart

From the radar and weather depiction charts I’ve seen the practical situation – precipitation and visibility as it exists currently (or at least recently, this radar plot updates every 30 minutes, the depicition plot is updated at intervals from sources such as METAR reports so the data can be up to an hour or more out of date). The SA chart shows me what weather systems are causing the current weather, at least at the surface. To get a better feel for what’s going on, using some of the upper level charts are also very useful (see Chapter 2 of Henry Robinson’s The Winds of Flight for more information on how the lower levels of the atmosphere affect each other). I like to compare the positions of highs, lows, fronts and troughs from the SA with the depiction and radar plots to try and correlate the two.


24 hour Low Level Weather Prognostic chart

How might today’s weather develop, where will that front go, what about the high pressure system? This is what the 24 hour prognostic can show, at least to the level of the predicted large scale movements of today’s weather systems and the potential weather they may cause in 24 hours time. I like to try and compare today’s prediction with tomorrow’s weather to see how the weather actually developed – useful practice and also you start to get a feel for the accuracy of the current forecasts. If the weather forecasts got it wrong, things aren’t as they seem so have a closer look and see if you can theorize about what might happen next. If you really fancy getting into this, check out sites like WeatherMatrix.net and get involved in the online weather discussions there!

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