EAA AirVenture Notice: First Sign of Summer

By Scott Spangler on May 15th, 2023 | Comments Off on EAA AirVenture Notice: First Sign of Summer

In Wisconsin, winter doesn’t give up easily. Even when it snows again in May, a not uncommon happening, one sure sign that summer is on its way and will soon bathe us in its warm sunshine is the release of the upcoming EAA AirVenture Notice that details the FAA-approved arrival and departure procedures for aviation’s late summer pilgrimage to Oshkosh.

Contrary to folklore, the powers that be do tweak the procedures each year to make arrival, parking, and departure safer and more efficient. So, if you don’t want to be that pilot who makes flying to and from Oshkosh more exciting than it already is, download the notice using the link above—read it, review it before you take off, and keep it in the cockpit!

The procedures detailed in the notice are in effect from 1200 Central Daylight Time on Thursday, July 20, until 1200 on Monday, July 31. EAA will hold a webinar, Flying to AirVenture 2023, at 1900 on June 14 to discuss the changes in this year’s notice. Pilots are encouraged to participate to build their knowledge prior to their flights to Oshkosh.

Here are some of the bullet-point changes for 2023:

The Fond du Lac diversion procedure is no more. The FAA will operate a temporary air traffic control tower at FDL from Saturday, July 22, through Sunday, July 30. It will operate between 0700 and 2030, and it will close at 1700 on Sunday. Pilots must communicate with this tower when at or below 3300-feet MSL within 4 nautical miles of Fond du Lac County Airport.

Make sure you arrive with more than enough fuel. If Mother Nature provides CAVU weather, you won’t be the only one flying the FISK arrival. That’s why the notice gives details on holding patterns. And if they are full, proceed no further. “Make left turns over a point on the ground and continue to hold until ATC advises” you proceed.

There is a new AirVenture ultralight traffic pattern, and EAA will hold a webinar about it on Wednesday, June 28. Ultralight/small rotorcraft must call EAA Ultralight Flightline Operations before flying the procedure. The procedure is effective from Saturday, July 22, through Sunday, July 30, between 0800-1415 and 1830-2000. Rotorcraft should arrive between 1200 and 1400.

There are some aircraft parking area changes, including the North 40 and South 40. The status of parking areas is available at www.eaa.org/aircraft parking. Some parking and camping areas have changed to make the best use of space as conditions dictate. Pilots, follow the ground marshal signals and directions to the locations currently in use.

AirVenture’s daily air show will now start at 1415 Central, 15 minutes earlier than in years’ past. The air show demonstration area and Temporary Flight Restrictions, extending from the surface to 16,000-feet MSL, are within a 5-nautical-mile radius from Wittman Regional Airport (OSH). From Monday, July 24, through Saturday, July 29, the air show TFR is active between 1415 and 1830.

There are two night air shows planned for AirVenture 2023, and their air show TFRs will be active between 2000 and 2200 on Wednesday, July 26, and Saturday, July 29. AirVenture’s final air show will be held Sunday, July 30, and its TFR will close the airport to airplanes not performing in the show between 1300 and 1630.

It should go without saying that pilots should be current and proficient in their stick-and-rudder skills, traffic scanning (don’t forget to peek around your aircraft’s blind spots), and old-school navigation by pilotage. Have a safe flight, and perhaps we’ll cross paths somewhere on the AirVenture grounds. –Scott Spangler, Editor.

Single-Pilot Point of Failure

By Scott Spangler on May 1st, 2023 | Comments Off on Single-Pilot Point of Failure

Given the capable reliability of aviation technology today, in the realm of a perfect world, single-pilots flying people-carrying commercial and military aircraft seems a logical hypothetical possibility.

To prove the reality of this possibility, the US Air Force flew two single-pilot test flights in its new KC-46 Pegasus tanker, which is based on the Boeing 767. After extensively practicing single-pilot procedures in simulators, a single-pilot, accompanied by a safety pilot in case something unexpected went awry, flew a refueling mission that made no connection with thirsty airplanes. With the success of this test, the Air Force flew a second full refueling mission profile with a single-pilot and single boom operator, again with additional hands-off safety personnel on board.

The success of these test flights last October generated several conversations about taking single-pilot airline operations a step or two beyond hypothetical. Flying in a perfect world, halving the typical cockpit crew would help alleviate the pilot shortage and improve the airline’s bottom lines. Oddly enough, it was this manner of thinking that led to the Air Force single-pilot Pegasus flights.

Given the goal of armed combat, to kill the enemy before they kill you, the Air Force may find itself in a situation where it has more tankers than it has pilots to fly them. This seems unlikely. While the Air Force is dealing with its own pilot shortage, certainly they have enough aviators to fully crew the 59 KC-46s it has so far taken delivery of. Still, in the realm of hypothetical scenarios, it is possible, and in combat, fulfilling the mission takes precedent.

What the stories telling about the tests did not address is the not inconsequential variable of the single-pilot point of failure. Yes, the boom operator would be filling the copilot’s seat when not topping off thirsty airplanes, but flying the refueling boom and the airplane it is attached to is not the same thing. If the single-pilot fails, for whatever reason, no matter how many souls are on board, their destiny is pretty much guaranteed.

Just ask the crews of the four-engine Lancaster bombers the Royal Air Force launched during World War II. You can meet and learn from them in a fabulous 2022 documentary, Lancaster: Above and Beyond, now on Amazon Prime. Most aviation history geeks know that the Lancaster was—and is—a single-pilot aircraft. In talking about their wartime training, the surviving gunners, bomb aimers, signals (radio) operators, navigators, and flight engineers said that choosing their pilot was not an inconsequential decision. And they did indeed choose, because after training everyone gathered in a room and figured out who would fly with whom.

Being a single-pilot point of failure is an equally important consideration in airline operations. Imagine the outcome had the incapacitated captain of that Southwest flight in March been a single pilot. Assuming one is onboard, having a passenger pilot would have offered no assistance unless he or she unlocked the cockpit door before losing consciousness. Their destiny would be the same as the boomer on a single-pilot Pegasus or the crew of a Lancaster. When considering a single-pilot point of failure, the only situation where it is justified is when there is only room for one in the cockpit. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Learning From the Decisions of Others

By Scott Spangler on April 17th, 2023 | Comments Off on Learning From the Decisions of Others

Aviation safety, when you get right down to it, is an endless round of risk assessment what ifs. There is much to learn when what ifs become real life right now. If you survive, that is. Another way to learn is from the decisions made by others. Call it aviation erudition, extensive knowledge acquired from books or other written materials, such as Callback, the monthly publication from NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.

This fine and free publication is must reading for any safety conscious pilot, and the issues I most look forward to, because they keep my head in the risk assessment arena, are those like April 2023, whose headline poses this question: What Would You Have Done? Because no pilot can make (let alone survive) every manner of aeronautical mistake in every category and class of flying machine, Page 1 of this issue presents the essential facts from the spectrum of ASRS Safety reports, and then poses the headline question. Page 2 presents The Rest of the Story.

This issue presented three situations.

Dominoes in The Pattern set up a potential midair between a CFI doing pattern work with a student with an inbound flight aiming for the same runway and another plane departing on a crossing runway at a nontowered airfield.

Unmarked in Plain Sight recounts the situation where a UAS operator and commercial pilot who was training a new pilot for infrastructure inspections realized, after switching drones and taking off, that he’d forgotten to affix the FAA registration sticker to the airframe. The scenarios that introduce unfamiliar situations are risk assessment gold because they challenge you to logically distill the fundamental wort of your aviation knowledge.

The final scenario, The Wind in the Windows, presents a situation many general aviation pilots have faced, but when was the last time you heard a Boeing 767 captain writing about a cockpit window popping open at 110 knots on the takeoff roll. Not having a clue, I immediately scrolled the page for the rest of the story. Not wanting to spoil the lesson, you can read them all at the link above. Enjoy, and happy flying safely. –Scott Spangler, Editor


By Robert Mark on April 10th, 2023 | 3 Comments »

Since there’s no statute of limitations on dumb, I present to you a flight that was not one of my finer moments. My co-pilot’s name has been changed to be certain he doesn’t receive any head-shaking comments from his flying buddies. RM


A long, long time ago I flew a Cessna Citation 650 for a company that no longer exists. The people I flew with have all scattered to the four winds by now, too. So much for the disclaimer.

By today’s standards, a Citation 650 might seem like old technology. However, it was Cessna’s first swept-wing jet and could smoke along in the high 30s at 450 knots. It was my first swept-wing type rating, too: proof I’d made it to the big time. We flew the airplane on demand pretty much everywhere west of the Rocky Mountains. Day or night, good weather or bad—even a zero-zero takeoff or two—and the airplane never let us down. After six months or so in the left seat, I felt pretty comfortable—perhaps a bit too comfortable.

On-demand flying always seems to happen in the middle of the night—or in this case early one morning. It was just past midnight when dispatch rang. My co-pilot, Jerry, and I were to fly the Citation empty to Atlanta, pick up four people, and deliver them to Orlando Executive Airport. “OK,” was about all I could think to say at first since dispatch had just woken me out of two whole hours of deep sleep. “Can you tell me about the trip again?” I asked. I climbed out of bed and got a quick shave and shower before climbing first into my uniform and then my car headed to the hangar.

After takeoff, we climbed southeast from Chicago under a brilliant moon and stars and touched down at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport about an hour and 30 minutes later. Jerry assisted the passengers while I dealt with the fuel. It was only then, as I stood on the ramp watching the fueler hook up, that I began to yawn. My watch said it was about 3:30 a.m. Chicago time. The line guy had to ask me twice before I acknowledged the fuel load, but I shook my head to snap out of it and climbed aboard for the leg to Orlando. Before the engine start, I looked over at Jerry as he was fastening his shoulder harness and slapped my face a few times gently to let him know I was sleepy. He just nodded and began to run the before-starts.

Once airborne, the barest beginnings of dawn were appearing. Jerry asked for lower and we saw Orlando from about 20 miles out. The controller cleared us for a visual approach. “The tower’s closed, so you’re welcome to stay with me for advisories all the way down.” I nodded approval, but Jerry just sat there. I watched him for a minute before Orlando asked if we’d heard the clearance.

“Hey, Jerry, approach is calling.” He snapped up as if he’d been dozing, except his eyes had been open. He answered approach, we landed safely, and soon we were helping the passengers transfer their bags to a waiting car.

As they left, my dispatch pager went off. I yawned again as I headed inside for the phone. “You guys have another trip,” said the same dispatcher when she answered my call.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I replied. I was exhausted just thinking about the trip back to Chicago from Orlando. She confirmed the next leg was up to Savannah to pick up three folks and drop them at LaGuardia before returning to Chicago. I sighed. It was already light in Orlando, but just before 6 a.m. in Chicago. I’d had two hours of sleep in the last 24 hours and Jerry about the same.

The New York area weather was calling for thunderstorms and rain by late morning when we’d arrive, so I called dispatch and acted like a captain, explaining that my co-pilot and I were both exhausted and probably shouldn’t be flying back to Chicago. I explained that we sure weren’t going to make three more landings, one of which was going to be in marginal weather when I’d had very little sleep in the past 30 hours. She agreed and told us to gas up and come home.

Jerry and I were relieved to be on our way home 20 minutes later and, because we were almost empty, we climbed northwest directly to FL390. On autopilot, there wasn’t much to do except sit back and wait to be cleared for the arrival in a few hours.

We talked to keep each other occupied because even ATC seemed a little slow, as most everyone else’s morning was just beginning. Then we started talking about how good our beds would feel when we got home. That was a mistake because a few minutes later we were both yawning hopelessly. I wished we’d added some fresh coffee before we departed Orlando, but we had skipped it to save time. There we were in cruise, watching the miles click off knowing we still had an hour and 30 minutes before we’d start down. Jerry and I both ran out of things to talk as I found myself staring ahead through the windshield.

Suddenly, my head snapped forward as I heard some kind of animal grunt. I blinked two or three times before I realized I’d been asleep and the animal was me. I shook my head and said to Jerry, “Wow, I’m really sorry, man. I must have been way more tired than I thought.” I looked over at my co-pilot and realized his head was resting against the right cockpit window as he softly snored. I looked out ahead and around the cockpit, but all seemed normal, so I gently shook my co-pilot to bring him back to life. I told him what had just happened, and his eyes grew wide as I’m sure mine already were.

I keyed the microphone and asked Atlanta Center for a time check. The controller responded nonchalantly with a hack confirming it was about 8 a.m. back home. Apparently, they hadn’t needed us for anything. Jerry and I could only guess at how long we’d both been out, but we had no trouble at all staying awake for the rest of the trip.

Rob Mark is the publisher of JetWhine.com

This story has been reprinted by permission of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Commercial Pilots and the CFI Crossroads

By Scott Spangler on April 3rd, 2023 | Comments Off on Commercial Pilots and the CFI Crossroads

Talking last week to a 30-something professional pilot about his journey to a Gulfstream cockpit, he brought my interrogation to a dead silent stop with his answer to one question. After he summarized the chronology of his pilot certificates and ratings, I asked about the one he didn’t mention, the CFI—certificated flight instructor.

Like a lot of younger pilots striving for paying careers, he said, given the pilot job market, the CFI is a crossroads between spending a lot more money and time to earn the most demanding and challenging pilot certification in all of aviation, and getting a job that pays money. The answer is clear, he said, especially if a new commercial pilot also has a multiengine rating.

In three decades of interrogating professional pilots, the only ones who typically didn’t have a CFI earned their wings in the military (but many of them earned their CFI after they transitioned to their airline life). I’m sure there are some professional pilots who clawed their way up the civilian ladder who skipped the CFI rung, but I don’t remember ever talking to any of them.

Talking to one who might be an exception does not define a new rule in today’s training and professional pilot markets without some quantification. Absent the resources to survey today’s population of pro pilots, I turned to the FAA’s U.S. Civil Airman Statistics. Among the many tables in each year’s spreadsheet is one that gives a 10-year look at initial certificates issued.

Here is the table of the initial issuance of commercial and flight instructor certificates earned in 2013 to 2022. (I added the yellow to remind me of the pandemic disruption.) At first glance, the numbers don’t seem to support that the CFI crossroads is trending no CFI. And without a doubt, the pilot job market is much better now than it was a decade ago.

What’s interesting is that the number of commercial certificates peaked in 2020, the year the CDC shutdown the nation on March 15, a shutdown that continued through the end of April 2020. The initial CFI issuances peaked last year. Equally interesting is the shared trend of increasing totals of issued certificates, which only took a short step back during the shutdown.

The low numbers in the early teens are surely the nagging consequences of the Great Recession of 2007-2008. But an equally important trend is the difference between those issued a commercial and a CFI. It was roughly 50/50 in 2017, the year my subject graduated from college. Naturally, this isn’t the best measure of a pilot’s crossroads’ decision, but it’s the best one readily available.

The number of commercial pilots who didn’t earn a CFI trended higher until the pandemic, so maybe there’s something to my pro pilot’s crossroads observation. Certainly, this topic might make an excellent survey and statistics project for someone now enrolled in an aviation degree program. What decision did you make at the CFI crossroads. – Scott Spangler, Editor

The Happiest Hour Among Total Flight Time

By Scott Spangler on March 20th, 2023 | 1 Comment »

Aviators track their flying lives one hour at a time. No matter where they are in their aeronautical journey, just starting or finally resting on retired wings. Every hour is important. Some were more exciting. Others were more meaningful because they taught an important lesson. Some lessons made the DO-NOT-REPEAT list. And then there is the hour that deserves some thought and reflection—the happiest hour.

Finding this hour was not an effortless endeavor for me. Checkrides didn’t make the initial list because I find little happiness in the deep end of the pool of performance anxiety. Successful outcomes offered the reward of relief, not happiness. Flying the trench from Arlington, Washington, to Anchorage, Alaska, fell from the list because no single hour stood apart from the sum of my ultimate aviation experience. The same goes for the air combat and formation flying courses at Sky Warriors in their blue camo T-34s.

Paging through my logbook, that was not the case for my 15-hour tailwheel transition course at Stick and Rudder Aviation of Watsonville, California, the “Academy of Flight and Taildragmanship.” On the eve of Kitty Hawk Day, December 16, 1996, I flew my happiest hour in an 85-horse clip-wing Piper L-4 with instructor John Coplantz, who grabbed two rolls of toilet paper before we walked to the bright red airplane, its white lightning bolt segmented by the Piper’s yawning bifold doors.

Toilet paper was not part of the lesson’s preflight briefing. Our mission was three-point and wheel landing practice combined with 180-degree power-off approaches in a moderate crosswind blowing 10 to 15 knots across the Watsonville Muni Airport (WVI). But the course synopsis foretold of comprehensive training — and fun. For example, after “Pitch Attitude Flying,” it says, in parenthesis, “Look, Ma. No airspeed indicator!”

Using an airplane to subdivide a streamer of toilet paper was something I’d only read about, and the tacit promise of another new experience made me eager to tackle the lesson objectives. With them successfully flown, John told me to depart the pattern and climb over Monterey Bay. At some higher altitude I don’t now remember, John dropped the first roll from the L-4’s front seat.

Watching it unroll, John challenged me to cut a 5-foot length from the top end of the streamer with the left wingtip, then to cut another segment with the right wing midway between the tip and where the strut supported the wing. With the Cub’s clipped wings, that’s not a lot of wing to work with. John continued to issue his challenges over the battery-powered intercom (Stick & Rudder’s 85-horse training fleet of two Aeronca Champs and the L-4 don’t have electrical systems).

I was having so much fun swooping, turning, and shortening the slowly-falling streamer, I didn’t think about the mechanics of flying. As I focused on my target, the Cub told me what it needed by the sound of the engine, the wind passing by the open door, and the feel of the stick and rudder and seat of my pants. And that, I’m sure, was the point of the exercise, but as the setting sun glittered off the bay, all I wanted was altitude and the freefall of the second roll.

So, what about you? What has been your happiest hour? Don’t be shy! Share it with us in the comments. Scott Spangler–Editor

Airline Fees = Ticket Tax Avoidance

By Scott Spangler on March 6th, 2023 | Comments Off on Airline Fees = Ticket Tax Avoidance

During the State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden said he wanted to crack down on airline “junk fees” that airlines added to their ticket prices. Given the motivation for the ever expanding menu of these fees, I’m not holding my breath for their demise. Simply put, these fees are exempt and do not contribute to the price of a ticket that’s subject to the 7.5% tax that airlines pay to support the national aviation infrastructure. General aviation pays its way with taxes on avgas and Jet-A.

This reality is rarely mentioned in media coverage of the junk fee vendetta. It is easier—and attracts a larger audience for the advertising media (are clicks and page views the media’s junk fees?) than digging into the history of the subject. Or maybe it doesn’t matter because avoiding taxes that support an industry-supporting culture is so commonplace that it is considered the American way. Given the frequency of airline close calls and railway disasters, it sure seems to be the case lately. Or maybe it is just coincidence.

In a thumbnail history, airline junk fees were born with airline deregulation in the 1980s, which introduced low-fare lines to the marketplace. To compete, the legacy lines subtracted their costs for baggage (and everything else, over time) and provided for the service that used to be covered by the ticket price. And when the government let them use this scheme to reduce their ticket tax bill, the new era soon became firmly entrenched.

Last year the Department of Transportation published a notice of proposed rulemaking that would “require U.S. air carriers, foreign air carriers, and ticket agents to clearly disclose passenger-specific or itinerary-specific baggage fees, change fees, and cancellation fees to consumers whenever fare and schedule information is provided to consumers for flights to, within, and from the United States.”

Really, it doesn’t matter if this proposal becomes a final rule. Either way, passengers will still have to pay the fees, the fees are still exempt (as far as I can discern), and the airlines are still getting away with their ticket tax avoidance to support an aviation infrastructure designed with them as first in line. If we really want to be fair about it to all Americans, add a line to the NPRM that makes the total cost of the ticket and all of its fees subject to the infrastructure-supporting ticket tax. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Aerostats: A Stratospheric Gulf of Tonkin?

By Scott Spangler on February 20th, 2023 | 1 Comment »

The recent political and military focus on aerostats—balloons—and the resulting cyclone of incomplete communication of verifiable concrete details, the confusion resulting from people demonstrating that they possess no knowledge or understanding of what they are talking about, and premeditated disinformation that supports their individual agendas brings to mind the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

For the forgetful or those for whom history is a tedious exercise that impedes their current plans, in 1964 the administration of Lydon B. Johnson manufactured a single incident into a situation that “justified” further American participation in its next long-term conflict. It seems now that the USS Maddox, a destroyer conducting covert signals intelligence in the Gulf, did share the Gulf with three North Vietnamese patrol boats, but the government created the subsequent attacks to support its decision to get the military more involved.

The situation with the Chinese reconnaissance balloon seems eerily familiar. Other than taking the government’s word for it, there has been no verifiable display of concrete proof that the balloon was actually Chinese, and that it we dedicated to collecting intelligence of the areas it floated over. Call me a cynical skeptic, I won’t believe what the government says—and the media reports—until the balloon’s are open for public display and inspection, like the Russians did with the remains of Francis Gary Power’s U-2 in 1960.

Like the manufactured subsequent “attacks” in the Gulf of Tonkin, the government has ordered the downing of two other aerostats. They have suspended the search for the resulting wreckage, and the only telling “proof” so far released was some audio of some poor F-16 pilot who said he couldn’t go slow enough to get a good look at the target.

Duh. It is an aerostat. As anyone whose enjoyed a flight in a hot air balloon, even inf the breeze is blowing at triple-digit jet stream speeds, there is no slipstream because it floats with the wind. Wind speed matters most on takeoff and landing because it tells you how quickly the breeze will drag you across the terrain. Because an aerostat goes where the wind blows, that’s why the Department of Homeland Security tethers its radar surveillance balloons to Mother Earth.

Early reports by reputable media outlets like the New York Times repeated the claims of unidentified by knowledgeable sources that the Chinese could control the flightpath of their balloon. There’s been no proof of the systems that might make this possible. Now, it seems, copy editor and fact checkers are starting to calm the political hysteria of guiding public opinion through being afraid of something. Which, unfortunately, always seems to be the point of these manufactured situations.

The only thing the government—any government—truly achieves through such shenanigans is that the people they are trying to control through fear take their distrust of the government to a higher level (and yet, we continue to reelect them, which says equally as much about our society). Logic suggests that in such situations, people would demand, and the powers involved would calmly convey the situation and share the evidence openly in the light of day. And when they don’t, that says something in that evidence contradicts the ultimate goal of their premeditated agenda. Scott Spangler, Editor

Finding Space Weather Reports

By Scott Spangler on February 6th, 2023 | Comments Off on Finding Space Weather Reports

If you keep reading the Aviation Weather Handbook, FAA-H-8083-28, you’ll learn that space weather reports are officially known at the Space Weather Advisory in chapter 26.7. It is a newcomer to the universe of meteorology. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) brought it into being in late 2019.

It unites the services of four “global space weather providers.” In the United States, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) is the go-to source. Then there is the consortium of space weather agencies from Australia, Canada, France, and Japan (ACFJ). Next in the space weather acronym parade is PECASUS, for the Pan-European Consortium for Aviation Space Weather Services. Finland leads this group that includes Belgium, the United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Austria, and Cyprus. The China-Russian Federation Consortium (CRC) rounds out the quartet.

On a rotating basis, the members of this space weather quartet issue global Space Weather Advisories when processes are occurring on the Sun or in the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that could have a potential impact to the near-Earth environment. The specific targets are high-frequency communications, satellite communications, satellite-based navigation and surveillance systems (GNSS), and when heightened radiation occurs above Flight Level 250.

When space weather crosses one of ICAOs predefined thresholds for moderate (MOD) and severe (SEV) impacts, the member of the quarter whose turn it is issues a Space Weather Advisory. The table presenting the thresholds subdivides the effects, sub-effects, and MOD and SEV impacts within the advisory areas. Of operational interest to aviators are possible degraded or unreliable services.

In 6, 12, 18, and 24-hour forecasts, the Space Weather Advisory defines the affected area of the globe in one of three ways. The easiest to picture is the Daylight Side. Then there are six pre-defined 30°-wide latitude bands that work their ways north and south from the equator. Finally, there is a polygon patch defined by latitude and longitude coordinates.

The handbook next delves into the alphanumeric format of the Space Weather Advisory. If you’re interested in seeing it, or you need to comprehend it to increase your operational safety, set aside some study time.

For the merely curious, spending time on NOAA SWPC website is more rewarding. The color-coded Space Weather Scales break down the consequences, from extreme to minor, for Geomagnetic Storms, Solar Radiation Storms, and (most important to aviators) Radio Blackouts, subdivided by HF radio and the spectrum of navigation systems.

A single glance at the SWPC homepage briefs you on the 24-hour observed maximums and latest observed conditions for R (radio blackouts), S (solar radiation storms), and G (geomagnetic storms) based on the scales. When I looked at them, each reported “none.” It lists some of the condition below, such as “Solar Wind Speed: 468 km/sec.”

The site provides current (space) news and features on such topics as the “Green Comet” and more specific information for the various space weather communities, including aviation, GPS, radio communications, satellites, and space weather geeks. Because it’s listed first, I’m guessing the Aurora community is the most popular, which seems only right and true for space weather’s only esthetically pleasing consequence. –Scott Spangler, Editor

Space Weather: Expand Your Meteorological Sphere

By Scott Spangler on January 23rd, 2023 | Comments Off on Space Weather: Expand Your Meteorological Sphere

Right after pounding the final words of Reading the Weather into my computer, I opened the Aviation Weather Handbook, FAA-H-8083-28 and scrolled to Chapter 23. At first glance, space weather stands tall as a meteorological oxymoron. How can weather—the state of the atmosphere with respect to heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, clearness or cloudiness—exist in a vacuum?

It defines Space Weather as “processes occurring on the Sun or in the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that could have a potential impact to the near-Earth environment. Space weather phenomena such as solar flares, radiation storms, and geomagnetic storms are some potential concerns for aviation.”

Okay, so why is it important to atmospheric aviators? Oh, because space weather can affect radio communications, GPS navigation, and expose humans and their avionics to radiation. Tell me more.

With its uninterrupted luminescence and solar wind, the sun is the primary source of space weather, especially when it is in an eruptive mood. It cyclically spews coronal mass ejections and flares into the void, potentially causing radio blackouts, magnetic storms, and ionospheric and radiation storms on Earth. Contributing sources of space weather include galactic cosmic rays, charged particles born in distant supernovae. Consider it a steady space weather drizzle.

Unlike an LED bulb, the sun’s energy output changes over time. Sunspots are the handbook’s primary example. Although astronomers have been studying them for centuries, sunspot physics are not fully understood. Their activity waxes and wanes over an 11-year cycle and their activity is “often used for a proxy index for changing space weather conditions.”

When sunspots erupt, galactic gales blow. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs), flares, and galactic cosmic rays from distant supernovae contribute to solar wind, the breeze of charged particles and a magnetic field of plasma that carries the sun’s stormy energy to Earth. Even when the sun isn’t storming, wind’s constant current of plasma fuels Earth’s geomagnetic field, which in turn defines the globe’s geospace, the area influenced by solar wind.

Extending in all directions, Earth’s magnetosphere “forms a cocoon for the planet, protecting it from the flow of solar wind. It deflects most of the wind’s energy, but some of it gets through, especially when the sun is storming.” This is when we are most likely to marvel at the aurora undulating in night skies near the polar regions in the northern and southern hemispheres.

One layer down from the magnetosphere is the ionosphere. It is a shell of plasma where electrons and ions are embedded in the neutral atmosphere of Earth. It begins roughly 80 km above the Earth’s surface. That’s 49.709 miles or 262,467 feet for those without a conversion app close at hand.

The sun erupts mostly where it is most magnetic (the image of a solar zit comes to mind). Flares and CMEs are the most common because they can be seen from Earth (with the appropriate vision-protective filters). Earthlings have known about solar flares for more than a century. These electromagnetic volcanos erupt with a bright flash that lasts a few minutes, or a few hours. Traveling at the speed of light, their energy instantly affect the sunny side of Earth.

We really didn’t know about CMEs until the satellite era. Not as bright as a solar flare, CMEs can mature for hours before they erupt. When a large volume of the sun’s corona (its outer atmosphere) erupts, its energy can equal a large solar flare, but its travel time is slower, one to four days. But a CME plays greater havoc to Earth’s magnetic field and can cause the strongest magnetic storms.

When a geomagnetic storm blows up in the Earth’s magnetic field, the aurora is the only esthetically pleasing consequence. Otherwise, these storms cause nothing but problems for technological systems like aviation’s navigation and communication networks, and they can last for days, with more robust tempests lasting a week.

This deluge of solar particles and electromagnetic radiation can also stir up the ionosphere and magnetosphere, often at the same time. “The symptoms of an ionospheric storm include enhanced currents, turbulence and wave activity, and a nonhomogeneous distribution of free electrons. This clustering of electrons, which leads to scintillation of signals passing through the cluster, is particularly problematic for the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which includes the United States’ GPS.” These storms can last a few minutes to a few days, and they often mirror the duration of geomagnetic storms.

Space Weather Consequences

The electromagnetics of space weather is what makes it important to Earthly aviation. When line-of-sight VHF communication isn’t possible, as it is over the ocean, airplanes must communicate using High Frequency, which bounces over the horizon, and is usually the first to suffer a solar flare blackout. With some solar storms, this detrimental effect can spill over to 30-300 MHz. That includes the aviation VHF spectrum that spans from 118.000 to 135.975 mHz.

Satellite signals transit the ionosphere, but their frequencies are usually high enough “for the ionosphere to appear transparent.” But when sufficiently stirred, the ionosphere can scintillate a satellite’s signal, causing “a twinkling in both amplitude and phase that can result in loss-of-lock and the inability for the receiver to track a Doppler-shifted radio wave.”

This loss-of-lock is one way space weather affects GPS signals. The other two are an increased error of the computed position, and solar radio noise overwhelming the transmitted GPS signal.

Finally, space weather irradiates pilots, their passengers, and their avionics, especially at higher latitude and flight levels. For the electronic components, the damage comes from “the highly ionizing interactions of cosmic rays, solar particles, and the secondary particles generated in the atmosphere.” And the more modern the avionics, with their ever-shrinking electronic organs, the more susceptible they are to the electronic precipitation from space weather.

Now that space weather has my attention, my next question is, Where does one get a space weather briefing? Hmm, Chapter 26.7, Space Weather Advisory. Let’s see what it has to say. –Scott Spangler, Editor