As summer brings its yearly onslaught of extreme heat, thunderstorms and turbulence, top business aviation flight departments take steps to ensure their equipment is in order, their weather-data tools are up to date and their pilots are aware of seasonal hazards.
“It’s a transition from worrying about mostly snowstorms to mostly thunderstorms,” said John Kosak, CAM, operations control center manager for Michigan-based Northern Jet Management.
Besides more severe thunderstorms, “Hazards going into summer include squall lines in more locations,” said Netflix Chief Pilot Brock Jordan, who runs the company’s seven-aircraft flight department including jets and turboprops.
Ground Risk Assessment Tools
Peter Stodolski, assistant maintenance director for a flight operation in the Northeastern U.S. said his team looks at critical aircraft summer systems and ensures that all systems are working properly.
“Within our SMS process we utilize a ground risk assessment tool [GRAT],” Stodolski said. “The GRAT [indicates] if lightning is present. If there’s a risk of lightning in the area, we take all necessary safety precautions to minimize risk.”
Air conditioning systems get special attention too: “Hate to have a hot summer day and realize the air conditioning system is not properly serviced,” said Stodolski, who oversees fixed-wing jets and helicopters. The latter employ a freon cooling system which is checked before the summer months.
“Maintenance activities still have to take place in the ‘dog days,’” Stodolski said. “We take every safety approach to ensure technicians are properly hydrated, cooled and fit to perform work. We utilize fans, air conditioning carts and other countermeasures to make the hangar a pleasant place to work during the summer.”
Traffic Flow Management Convective Forecast
Northern Jet’s Kosak, whose fleet includes about 20 aircraft, mostly Learjets, uses online flight planning tools that are designed to help maintenance technicians and pilots as well as schedulers and dispatchers.
One favorite is the Traffic Flow Management Convective Forecast tool (TCF), from the U.S. government’s Aviation Weather Center. Convective conditions, pilots know, are synonymous with thunderstorms. TCF is used by air traffic managers to make decisions regarding reroutes and airspace flow programs, or AFPs. And while the TCF “is not a true flight planning tool,” Kosak said, “it should be on the list of tools for schedulers, dispatchers and crew to check to understand where the FAA might issue routes around weather.”
“AFPs can have a significant impact on flight operations. By proactively planning your flight to avoid these constrained areas, if possible, you’re definitely helping yourself out.”
Dean Snell NBAA manager, air traffic services
Dean Snell, NBAA manager, air traffic services, noted that when controllers put an AFP in place, it is effectively a line across the map that is controlled by an ATC Traffic Flow Management program due to constraints in that airspace. Aircraft crossing that line will be given an expected departure clearance time.
As such, “AFPs can have a significant impact on flight operations,” Snell said. “By proactively planning your flight to avoid these constrained areas, if possible, you’re definitely helping yourself out.”
TCF issues six- and eight-hour forecasts updated every two hours. Operators can also access eTCF, an extended TCF feature which looks ahead 30 hours.
NBAA works with other aviation groups to improve TCF via CDM, the FAA’s Collaborative Decision-Making initiative. “They’re always looking for ways to improve it,” said Snell, describing CDM as “very collaborative.
“It’s a bunch of meteorologists coming together and coming up with a consensus.”
Graphical Aviation Weather Forecasting
In addition to TCF (and also from the federal AWC), there is the Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA). The GFA allows operators to move forward in time for forecasts and backward in time for observations, Kosak said, both for specific locations or overall flight paths, with turbulence and icing conditions shown at chosen elevations.
Kosak recommended the National Hurricane Center (NHC), as “the only place to get the best information regarding potential cyclones, with the ability to track actual tropical storms or hurricanes.” The NHC’s graphical tropical weather outlook, he noted, is being extended this year to seven days from the previous five. Also useful is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Center’s Storm Prediction Center webpage, with a convective outlook feature.
In addition to storm avoidance, summertime operations entail delay avoidance. “High and hot are bad for performance,” Kosak said. “We’ve seen some real issues in the desert over the last couple of years with aircraft performance being challenged trying to get out of places like Phoenix and Las Vegas.
“Usually, it’s real easy to go eastbound without a fuel stop, but in some cases you can’t carry enough fuel and still be able to launch out of the desert.
“You would want to avoid areas in the path of a hurricane, or areas where the thunderstorms might be expected to be heavy or long lasting, the types that might lead to the tornadoes and hail.”
Netflix Summer Weather Flight Operations
This summer, Netflix’s Jordan expects “more severe thunderstorms, windshear and extreme weather pattern squall lines in more locations that don’t usually experience them,” Jordan said, adding that this year has already “been challenging due to continual and extreme all wet weather” during the winter.
The Netflix fleet includes a turboprop shuttle program in the U.S. and long-range Gulfstream jets.
“We continue to develop program training modules that allow us to continue to refine our seasonal operational challenges and update our operational profile,” Jordan said.
Netflix issues internal safety bulletins every two months. Pilot meetings are held every two months as well. Springtime shifts the company’s weather focus toward summer.
The company provides “seasonal scenario-based training” on simulators. “Our seasonal LOFT [Line Oriented Flight Training] scenarios help us to continually move the safety needle to the next level forward with better alignment, compliance and culture.”
Summer safety training for Netflix pilots includes upset recovery work and “go/no go” decision making: “When we encounter runway performance issues due to the heat, we adjust the departure time, plan for a tech stop or we preposition the day before to a suitable runway,” Jordan said – international flights might depart from [Los Angeles International Airport] LAX rather than [Hollywood] Burbank [Airport BUR], for example, if more fuel and hence a longer takeoff runway is needed.
“For long flights, our execs are usually flexible – willing to depart in the early morning or later evening when it’s cooler. It is important to be able to forecast these possibilities to the executive staff to allow them to make informed decisions on when to depart. We look at how we can adapt and prepare ourselves ahead of a trip, but still operate safely.”
“All these things are immensely valuable in incident prevention as we approach a warmer than average forecast summer.”
“We have a very receptive senior management team,” Jordan said, “and a strong aviation leadership team that continually evaluates risk from trip inception through the execution of each trip.”