We've previously discussed the multitude of weather briefing information that is currently available in our How Can You Find Cloud Tops Without PIREPs? and How Can I Get Free Aviation Weather Now that DUATS is Gone? blogs. There is more and better information available than ever but it can take a lot of time to really get the big picture.
Getting The Big Weather Picture
As covered in our Which EFB is Right for You? blog, most of the electronic charting apps include great access to weather data and imagery but they still require a lot of interpretation. You have to look at freezing level charts, surface analysis charts, forecasts, etc., and then try to visualize what they all mean together.
Some of the new tools available such as the Aviation Clouds Forecast from NOAA take a big leap forward in helping to pull all of this information together and present it in a graphical format for pilots.
When you're planning a cross country flight, particularly in a General Aviation aircraft, it is critical to know where you are likely to encounter Instrument Meteorological Conditions, and where you'll be relative to the freezing level, or multiple freezing levels as the case may be.
Two Apps Well Worth The Money & One Free One
While there is a lot of free weather information currently available, as a fellow pilot that flies a lot of long cross country flights in a light aircraft, I've found that two apps in particular are well worth the money. They are particularly useful because they can help you visualize the conditions from the perspective of a pilot flying through them rather than the conventional top down view that most of the traditional weather imagery presents them in.
Currently available for iOS devices only, SkewT LogPro is available for a one time fee of $14.99 USD and can be downloaded from the Apple app store.
You may already be familiar with the very useful Skew-T Log-P diagram which displays a vertical profile of temperature and dew point, winds aloft, and provides great insight into atmospheric stability. Among other things, the diagrams allow you to determine where you are likely to encounter Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) and icing conditions.
The SkewT LogPro app adds some neat functionality that allows you to map out your route of flight and view the relevant Skew-T Log-P diagrams based on your departure and arrival times. Using the View Route functionality, you can click through each diagram to see what the conditions are forecast to be during your flight. The View Route feature currently works for airports in the United States and Canada but individual Skew-T Log-P diagrams can also be viewed for airports worldwide by changing the app settings.
The map feature and the forward and back arrows at the bottom of the page enable you to quickly get an overview of your intended route and determine where visible moisture or cloud bases and tops are likely to be by looking for convergence of the temperature (plotted in red) and dew point (plotted in blue) lines and referencing the pressure altitude on the right-hand side. SkewT LogPro adds a nice feature which is the blue shaded section to quickly show you whether you are likely to be in visible moisture where the temperature will be conducive to icing.
WeatherSpork is an iOS or Android app available with an AvWxWorkshops membership. This will cost you $79 USD per year but in addition to the app, members gain unlimited access to the free workshop library from AvWx Workshops and a 15% discount off of premium workshops.
The app provides access to METAR and TAF information along with a variety of weather imagery, similar to that which can be found on other aviation weather platforms. The three most unique features of the tool are the Route Profile, Wheels Up Departure Advisor, and Grid View.
The Route Profile provides a meteorogram view of the weather. There are a number of tools that provide meteorograms for single locations. A meteorogram is a graphical presentation of one or more meteorological variables with respect to time for a particular location. WeatherSpork really shines with its Route Profile since it shows the observed or forecast conditions for the multiple locations that comprise your route or flight plan, all in a single view.
Wheels Up Departure Advisor
The WeatherSpork Wheels Up Departure Advisor processes dozens of forecasts so you can quickly pick out the most favorable time to fly given forecast conditions. It provides a traditional map view, as shown below, that indicates the forecast conditions on a map with a time slider that can be changed to various departure times. Using VFR/MVFR/IFR/LIFR coloring, you can quickly get a big picture view of what the conditions are forecast to be at different times along your route. The time slider is also available for the Route Profile and Grid View as well.
Don't Want to Pay for Anything?
Considering the overall cost of flying and how critical it is to have good weather information and actually understand it, two apps for under $100 combined seem like a wise investment to me. However, if you really don't want to spend the money or the above mentioned options don't work for you due to device type or coverage area, there is still an excellent and free alternative.
Windy.com, previously known as Windyty, is a great tool for weather forecast visualization. Windy allows you to access all of the world's leading weather forecasting models in one place. It allows users to choose global ECMWF and GFS, plus local NEMS, AROME and ICON (for Europe) and NAM (for the USA). It also allows you to view multiple layers including wind, rain, temperature, and CAPE index, which is a measurement of the stability of the atmosphere and a good indicator of the potential for convective activity.
Although you can't view a route on the Windy.com map, it is easy to view conditions across a large area as well as at specific locations such as your departure and arrival airports as well as others along your route of flight.
Windy also allows you to look at meteorograms, as previously described above for individually selected locations but not for an entire flight route as WeatherSpork does.