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As a VFR student pilot, I'm still developing a pre cross-country flight routine. Weather has without a doubt been the most difficult portion of my preflight information to digest, as there are so many different sources and formats for it.

What are the generally acknowledged best practices (and sources) for assembling a complete understanding of all weather pertaining to a cross-country flight in a timely manner?

EDIT: This question is primarily focused within the continental United States, although answers pertaining to any region are more than welcome.

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  • $\begingroup$ Where though? I wouldn't know where to look for US weather, but I have a few good sources for EU weather when planning flights... $\endgroup$ – SentryRaven Aug 18 '14 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ For the UK, there is one definitive source for METAR and TAF. metoffice.gov.uk/aviation/ga-briefing-services/taf-metar $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 18 '14 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ This is a document that Embry Riddle put together. I still use it as a private pilot when planning flights. Some of it's out-dated (it's from 2005), but it's a pretty great place to start. mega.co.nz/… As for sources, everything can be found on aviationweather.gov $\endgroup$ – Keegan Aug 19 '14 at 6:28
  • $\begingroup$ Weather briefings (electronic or over the phone) are in a standardized format. So practice by getting the weather every time you go for a lesson. Your instructor should be more than willing to go over the brief with you and point out areas of concern based on his or her specific knowledge of the area and specific hazards or tricky places. $\endgroup$ – JerryKur Aug 19 '14 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ @CGCampbell If you have received an official (recorded/documented) briefing and subsequently blow through a TFR or something along those lines the evidence that you received a briefing (and that the briefing did not contain the information you would have needed to avoid making that error) is good protection if the FAA comes after you for the violation. Basically it's to cover yourself by demonstrating an effort to comply with FAR 91.103's "all available information" requirement. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Aug 19 '14 at 19:09
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At least in the US there are plenty of ways to get a flight briefing.
My usual sources of pre-flight information are, roughly in order:

  1. The Weather Channel
    No kidding, if I'm planning a long/multi-day trip I'll start looking at the long-range forecasts 10 days before my flight using The Weather Channel's iPhone app or their website.
    As far as weather information goes it's pretty decent (which means "frequently wrong up until 24 hours before go-time, but still worth paying attention to").

  2. Charts (VFR or IFR), Airport Diagrams, and the A/FD
    If you're planning more than a hop around the local pattern you should familiarize yourself with the airspace you'll be passing through, landmarks (and obstacles) on the ground, and navaid / airport frequencies. Charts and other FAA publications provide a great way to do that, and you can also usually pick up a phone and call the airport you're flying to for additional information.
    All of this documentation is available in a variety of forms - Paper, electronic downloads direct from the FAA (as linked above), or as part of flight-planning software like Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, WingX Pro, etc.

  3. The National Weather Service
    A few days before a planned flight it's worth reading the forecaster's discussion to see how confident the people predicting the weather are about their guesses. This is also something you should check the day of departure if there's any uncertainty about the weather.

  4. Electronic briefing tools (DUAT/DUATS/Foreflight/etc.)
    About 24 hours out you can get official briefings from DUAT/DUATS/Foreflight and a bunch of other flight planning tools. Get them and learn to read them.

    Electronic briefings from many of these tools are recorded and count as an "official briefing" - a record is made that you requested and received the information. You are responsible for understanding all the information that just got dumped in your lap however, and that's a huge responsibility, especially for a student pilot!

  5. Flight Service Briefings (1-800-WX-BRIEF)
    The day of departure your final briefing should be a phone call to flight service to speak with an actual briefer to review your flight. If you can sit down and have your electronic briefing from #3 in front of you it's very helpful because you can follow along with the briefer to be sure you didn't miss anything.

    Calls to Flight Service are recorded and count as an official briefing. If you're unclear on anything you're being told you can ask for clarification.


Of all the tools available I personally think the best one is calling flight service and speaking to a briefer. If your instructor has never made you do this I'd say they're skipping out on a critical bit of your training, and you owe it to yourself to pick up the phone and .

This is your big chance to talk to a live human being and ask any questions - big ones that I always ask are "Are there any TFRs along my route of flight?", and if I'm anywhere near a restricted area I'll check its status ("Is R-12345 active?").

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  • $\begingroup$ One additional place to look that's not on my list above is tfr.faa.gov - This lists TFRs that have been announced in advance, as well as "pop-up" TFRs for things like forest fires. The electronic briefing tools usually incorporate graphic TFR overlays on whatever chart you're using (and your telephone briefer will tell you about them), so this is a resource I don't use as frequently. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Aug 19 '14 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ Similar to the TFR site, sua.faa.gov gives present and future status of Special Use Airspace. $\endgroup$ – Greg Bacon Nov 16 '15 at 19:11
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The first thing you should consider (and rely on) is METAR. If you want to understand METAR, read this and this.

FAA has a document for this. If you still like to read more, FAA Safety published this PDF too.

Aviation Weather Center is a government website, which focuses on weather briefings related to aviation.

A flying school (near my place) has a link on their website to this service. I like the visual aspect of AWOS on this. They do not provide this service for all airports, but only for a handful.

As a student, if you think weather is not good for flying, trust your gut and do not fly. No one would argue with you that any briefing says otherwise.

UPDATE:

AOPA has a service too.

There are several apps which might be useful (e.g. ForeFlight, or this or this). I have not tried any. In an AOPA weather seminar, they mentioned that those apps do not present real time data but lag several minutes behind.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. Of the sites like duat.com and duats.com, is there one that is known to be simpler to understand or more inclusive? $\endgroup$ – pheidlauf Aug 18 '14 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @pheidlauf I have not used DUAT/DUATS, so cannot comment. I guess the best service would be which is easy to understand for you, won't leave any information out, and is real time (or very close to it). $\endgroup$ – Farhan Aug 18 '14 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @pheidlauf For simplicity (at least in the US) you can't beat picking up a phone, dialing 1-800-WX-BRIEF, and talking to a real live human being. You will get the same information from DUAT/DUATS and other official briefing services, but having a real person to review the information with is helpful. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Aug 18 '14 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 I've never actually called for a live weather briefing, as my instructor has primarily pointed me towards DUAT. I have no experience with it. What should I expect when calling, and how long is the "normal" duration of a call (if there is such a thing)? $\endgroup$ – pheidlauf Aug 18 '14 at 19:15

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