New FAA guidance defines role of iPad apps in preflight weather briefings

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All pilots can agree on a few absolutes in aviation: tailwinds on a cross-country flight, the beauty of watching a sunrise from the air, and the adrenaline rush of accelerating down the runway during takeoff. Then there are the controversial topics, which seem to be endlessly debated weekly during Saturday hangar meetups or in an online forum: best aviation EFB app, experimental vs. certified, or what constitutes an official weather briefing.

While many of these discussions will continue for decades to come, the FAA finally released a new Advisory Circular that addresses the role and legality of online and mobile software in the weather briefing process for pilots, to put the official weather briefing debate to rest.

The new document officially goes by AC 91-92: Pilot’s Guide to a Preflight Briefing and includes 21 pages of practical advice and tips. In addition to providing clarity on best practices for obtaining a self-weather briefing, it includes advice on which resources to include in your briefing and the role of ADS-B weather plays after takeoff.

The New Role of Flight Service

Prior to the days of online weather briefings and the iPad, Flight Service was just as important to pilots as ATC. Every flight started with a call (or visit) to an FSS specialist to get a preflight weather briefing. Pilots were trained to make this a mandatory step before every flight, placing the same level of importance on this task as the airplane preflight.

The waters started getting murky in the 2000s, as aviation weather products started showing up online, from both approved providers (DUAT) and several private weather companies. At first, pilots used these resources as a supplement, to augment information from the call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF.

It didn’t take long for these free online weather sources to get to a point where they offered a more complete weather picture than a Flight Service specialist could provide over the phone, and many pilots shifted to using this more convenient and graphical option. Pilots are creatures of habit though, and many continued to follow their instructor’s advice from decades ago that an official weather briefing had to be obtained from Flight Service to be legal, and a self-weather briefing was not legal.

AC 91-92 sets the record straight once and for all, with updated guidance for pilots on the role of Flight Service in the weather briefing process:

The FAA considers that a self-briefing may be compliant with current Federal aviation regulations. By self-briefing, pilots can often improve their knowledge of weather and aeronautical information. Flight Service personnel are available should a pilot need assistance.

Not only are you not required to contact Flight Service prior to a flight, but the AC recommends using Flight Service as a consultative resource on an as-needed basis:

Pilots are encouraged to utilize online automated weather resources to conduct self-briefings prior to contacting Flight Service. Pilots who have preflight weather/risk assessment and risk mitigation skills are better prepared to make in-flight decisions as real-time weather information is consumed. This allows Flight Service to become a consultative resource that can be utilized when needed.

Flight Service is not going away and this guidance is not intended to discourage pilots from utilizing Flight Service when needed—in many cases, a call to Flight Service is the only option in remote areas or when an internet connection isn’t available. Rather, it was written to provide clarity for pilots who have been solely relying on online weather resources and mobile apps for the past decade, stating that a self-weather briefing can be just as safe and comprehensive as one provided by FSS.

Preflight Weather Briefing Checklist

The AC goes a step further and provides several checklists for pilots to use to help ensure their self-weather briefing is thorough and complete. In keeping with the practical nature of the other guidance, it acknowledges that the level of complexity of the briefing will vary on each flight:

Developing self-briefing skills helps to identify areas that require closer investigation. The more doubtful the weather, the more information you need to obtain about the route, runway conditions, and destination and alternate airports.

The self-weather briefing checklist in the AC follows the flow of what many were accustomed to when speaking to an FSS specialist on the phone. It includes example sources where you can find each set of data, including Leidos (1800wxbrief.com), Aviation Weather Center (aviationweather.gov) and National Weather Service (weather.gov). Here are the key items to check:

    1. Adverse Conditions
    2. Synopsis
    3. Current Conditions
    4. En Route Forecast
    5. Destination Forecast
    6. Winds Aloft
    7. NOTAMs
    8. TFRs, Restricted and Special-Use Airspace
    9. ATC Delays
    10. Other: Density Altitude, Customs procedures, ADIZ rules, FDC NOTAM instrument approach changes, airport runway/taxiway closures and airport hot spots

While the majority of sources listed in the AC government-run websites, you are ok to use whichever resource fits best into your flow, as long as it provides current data from a trusted and reliable source. The AC includes a comprehensive set of links in the Appendix to help you find less-frequently used resources:

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to weather briefings, and it all comes down to the type of flying you’re doing, time/technology limitations and the degree of redundancy that makes you comfortable. For example, many pilots like to review each element from the AC’s preflight weather briefing checklist in the various sections of ForeFlight, and then head over to retrieve a graphical weather briefing from the Flights section of the app to make sure no element or adverse condition was overlooked. Others may find everything they need right from the Maps and Imagery screens.

You can also head over to 1800wxbrief.com and retrieve a full graphical weather briefing from the Leidos website. Your method will vary from day to day too depending on the flight mission, and that is ok. A trip around the pattern on a blue sky day will require a review of far fewer weather resources when compared to planning for a cross-country flight to a destination with forecast IFR conditions.

The Role of ADS-B and In-Cockpit Technology

Let’s add a fourth absolute to the list of aviation truths: flying responsibly with ADS-B datalink weather increases your ability to make better in-flight decisions when it comes to weather. Pilots who have been flying with ADS-B weather for the past several years likely have many stories to tell about how the technology has allowed them to launch on more flights than they previously would have felt comfortable with.

The AC acknowledges the benefits of flying with an ADS-B receiver, like Sentry or Stratus:

Having current weather and aeronautical information in the cockpit can help pilots plan more safe and efficient flightpaths, and make better strategic decisions during flight to avoid potentially hazardous developing weather.

The weather is constantly changing and is by no means locked in at the moment in time when you complete your weather briefing. Flying with ADS-B datalink weather allows you to continuously evaluate your route and altitude and make changes as needed.

You can view and download and AC 91-92 here.

11 COMMENTS

  1. FSS weather discussion doesn’t address the other reason to call FSS…I have tired of the various TFR info sources using weasel words about whether they are definitive or not…FAA TFR page says consult FSS, FIS-B and other cockpit feeds are “advisory only”, “blanket TFRs” are not specifically/officially defined by location, but as an out of towner, I’m supposed to know where the stadiums are, what the sked is and whether they’re running late…maybe the local ATC knows.

    I will continue to call FSS before EVERY flight if only to get my N# and TFR info request/FSS reply on tape…and even then briefers will say “that we’re aware of”…I remind them that if they don’t know, I won’t either…and my favorite caveat is the FAA “pilot to use all available resources”. How do you know what those are? I guess they’ll tell you during the investigation.

    • Salient points. Limiting your liability as a pilot is of great importance to all of us and we need to know how to do that best.

  2. With beautiful weather along your route the first thing the Dallas FSS says is VFR not recommended and they are satisfied at leaving it at that. That covers them from any liability should an issue occur. You have to drag a briefing out of them and it’s not nearly as complete as a ForeFlight brief which is documented. The Alaska Kenai FSS is quite the opposite. Those folks are not afraid to offer a different route or interpret the weather cams and PIREPS it’s different experience all together.

  3. The difference between Lidos and FAA briefings are FAA ties Lidos Hans because the want to get rid is FSS. The same rules don’t applie to Alaska FSS. They keep them to they still have management types. FAA has been killing flight service for years I was in Raleigh until it was shut down. Offered to go to DCA Hub I stayed in Raleigh, best decision, was sick and tired of what was happing to flight service.

  4. I read AC-92 and the first thing that caught my eye was, “The FAA considers that a self-briefing may be compliant with current Federal aviation regulations.” “May be compliant.” That hardly sounds like setting the record straight, in fact, anything but. May be implies may not be. If the FAA wanted to be definitive, they would have said “self-briefings are compliant with current FAR’s.” The FAA seems to champion the cause for vague and ambiguous and this is just another glaring example.

    • That’s the first thing that caught my eye too. May be is not the way it should have been written. You are right! It should have said ARE COMPLIANT. They need to change this but they probably won’t. Typical FAA BS.

    • The use of “may be” is intentional.
      Compliance depends on the pilot’s skill level, the type of flight, type of airplane, and any other variables. As the AC author, I understand the desire for a more definitive statement, but there is no absolute here. I assure you this is not “lawyer talk” as others suggest.

  5. When I was a kid… We looked out the window if the were blue, cloudless skies and a favorable local forecast we went for a local flight. That was before TFRs became an issue. My advice is to at least call and get an abbreviated briefing and check for TFRs and notams. Get your N number on file.

  6. The reason the FAA says a self-briefing MAY be compliant is because it CAN be compliant and nothing more. In other words, the FAA is saying to assume a pilot always makes a compliant self-briefing makes an ASS out of U and ME.

  7. Like others who have replied and noticed, having “may” in the the same sentence as “compliant” is nothing more than lawyer talk. So much for “advisory”. ……well actually I just realized “advisory” in itself is a bit gray as well. Can’t anyone be truly responsible anymore?

  8. I understand folks wanting to get their N number on tape for liability reasons.
    Remember that several factors are part of an “error chain”. If you self brief or FSS brief doesn’t really matter. An attorney will will exploit multiple means to win his case over you and your insurance company.

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