by Had Robinson
Your safety and flying enjoyment will greatly improve if you know how to use the weather tools listed on this page. Our thanks to Lance Tripoli, Tom Bird, and other meteorologists at the National Weather Service for their help. If you have questions about any of these tools, please contact us.
If most of this (below) is too confusing and you flunked physics in high school then spend the $30/year and get a subscription to XCSkies. They do most of the work and give (6) of the most important forecast models and such things as the times of sunset and sunrise. It is, by far, the most comprehensive and easy to use for ultralight pilots.
Windy.com is a free substitute but takes more digging to get the info you need.
Pivotal Weather is somewhat technical but is free and used by professional meteorologists. It has all of the models for every altitude, including balloon sounding forecasts and the vorticity of the atmosphere, an important indicator of how turbulent the atmosphere may be from mixing of surface winds with winds aloft. On the downside, Pivotal is not mobile friendly and it requires users to understand Zulu or UTC time and the skew-t, among other things.
In general, XCSkies is the best value for the money.
However, you still should check the NWS hourly graphical forecast for gusting! You will get out of the forecasts what you put it by learning how to read them!
Your comfort and safety while flying is directly dependent on how much time and effort you spend to learn how to use these tools. Do not be a fool and ignore the vital information supplied to us by the National Weather Service!
* = our most important tools
*El Paso National Weather Service The wind speeds and directions are for El Paso International Airport. They are often different than where we fly on the west side. You should always check the NWS forecast before flying. It is always helpful to read the "forecast discussion" section. What aspect of weather is not important for all soaring pilots?
*Pivotal Weather – Providing numerical weather data in a clean, modern, and professional way. This site requires much more knowledge of basic meteorology than other tools, such as XCSkies and Windy. It is particularly useful for wind speed and direction forecasts and finding out where the Jet Stream is and forecasts of same. It also has forecasts of the balloon soundings so that pilots can see if there is an inversion above that will deter the mixing of high winds aloft with winds at the surface. Here is an example of how to use Pivotal: 1.) Open the site 2.) Click on "Model" 3.) Look at the "Forecast Hour" – it will give the latest run of the model (at the top of the screen e.g. GFS). The time is Zulu (UTC) which is always 6 -7 hours ahead of us, depending whether we are MST or MDT. 4.) Below the time are 60+ boxes that are so many hours later than the time when the model was run. Each line is 24 hours later than the line above. Pick the box that will give you the approximate time when you wish to fly. (It will take some math to do this and the more you practice this, the easier it will be for ALL SERIOUS WEATHER FORECASTS AND SITES!) 5.) Move the cursor to our area and left click. A forecast will pop-up that is similar to the skew-t (see "Balloon soundings" below for info on how to read a skew-t). To the right of the skew-t you will see the winds forecast at the various altitudes for the time you picked. Of course, XCSkies does all of this much easier (in local time) but it is not free.
*NWS hourly graphical forecast is important because it forecasts gusting – a particular hazard to us. It gives the forecast for temp, wind speed, and direction for our region (or any region). It is not as helpful for areas west, such as Kilbourne Hole maar and the East Potrillo Mountains. Instead, check the actual conditions at Deming, NM via Meso West. The NWS watches troughs and other disturbances that approach our area. Areas of low pressure high in our atmosphere always generate pressure waves that cause turbulence in the atmosphere (gusting). It is important for paragliders that we heed any forecasts for gusting! The Jet Stream can also cause severe gusting if there is any mixing of the atmosphere by thermals.
*Meso West Region – This is one of our most helpful sites in seeing what may be ahead in the short term and reports the weather conditions of dozens of stations in our area. To see the trend over 24 hours, click on the desired weather station and then the "wind" tab to see how the speed and gusts are trending. Click on the "Vector Wind" tab to see the trend in wind direction. Station Santa Teresa NWS R (our local NWS station) feeds data to the Internet every minute. For example, if you wanted to know if things are calming down and you have a current strong east wind at your location, go to the Guadalupe Pass (KGD) station and see if things are getting stronger or weaker. This station is very sensitive to any wind changes and you will see the trend easily here. However, it has no history so you have to have been watching it a while. Note: the data at some sites may be an hour old nor do some have a history of reported conditions.
*Santa Teresa NWS – This gives the current conditions at the National Weather Service station in Santa Teresa, NM. It updated every minute, a rarity in the U.S. This is, by far, our most accurate report of the current conditions along with the history over the last (24) hours. It is easy to see what the trends are.
SPC Balloon Soundings – This is not the preferred site because, for whatever reason, the U of W (below) posts the national balloon soundings before the NWS. See "Balloon Soundings" below.
*Balloon Soundings from the University of Wyoming – All pilots need to learn the basic information given by the balloon soundings. The data gives the temperature in Celsius, wind direction, dewpoint, and wind speed in knots of the atmosphere at a particular altitude. This data forms the basis of a special graph called the skew-t. This graph easily shows how stable or unstable the atmosphere is, among other things. That is, whether the atmosphere will be (or is) stormy or calm. It is that simple.Here is a YouTube tutorial on how to read a skew-t. Read this introductory explanation of the skew-t – courtesy of Cross Country magazine and Honza Rejmánek (used by permission). Honza is a paragliding pilot and has written the best article on the skew-t and it is specifically for ultralight pilots. Get a cup of coffee or tea, sit down, and spend an hour carefully reading this article by Honza. Then re-read it. Here is another good explanation of the skew-t from the Weather Prediction guys. Here is a definition of the basics. Tom Bird, one of our local meteorologists at the NWS, suggests this course on the skew-t. The skew-t has a lot of information but it is critical that all pilots understand the basics. The sounding data is available roughly a 1/2 hour to an hour after the balloon is released at 00:00UTC and 12:00UTC (twice a day) around the world. The University of Wyoming site is easier to read and use than the SPC (Storm Prediction Center) which, often enough, has the current data later than the U. of Wyoming site. "Z" refers to UTC time (Universal Time Coordinated). It is in the format "day-of-the-month/00Z" or "day-of-the-month/12Z". We live in the Mountain time zone so 00Z and 12Z are 6AM and 6PM MDT, respectively, and 5AM and 5PM MST. To see sounding data, follow this link to the U. of Wyoming site and, at the top of the screen, make sure "Type of plot" is "Text: List". (This will give just the data of the sounding, not the skew-t.) The "From" date should be current and the time will usually be when the last balloon was released which is every 12 hours at 00:00 and 12:00 UTC. Make the "To" date the same as the "From" date (unless you want to compare the soundings over a period of time). Once you set up the type of plot and the correct time, click on the appropriate station. For us here in the SW New Mexico and El Paso, TX regions it is "EPZ". This will load the correct station number and the data. The first column is the altitude measured in hPa or millibars. The second column is the altitude in meters. Here is the table to convert these to feet. For your convenience you can print it and post it by your computer screen. Columns 7 & 8 give you the wind direction and speed in knots. A knot equals about 1.2 mph (here is the conversion chart to mph). To see a skew-t, change the "Type of plot" to "GIF: Skew-T", and continue. The skew-t looks like a couple of wiggly, mostly vertical lines that tell us important information about the state of the atmosphere. On the right side of the plot is the wind direction and speed using wind barbs. Generally speaking, the skew-t tells us how buoyant the air is for us soaring pilots. You must know how to read a skew-t chart in order to know, for example, the depth and strength of any inversions present in the atmosphere. Here is a skew-t of a good but uncommon day here in the southwest. Please note the consistent wind direction to a great altitude and the absence of inversions from the ground to cloud base at 12,000' MSL. The KINX value is >35 which means that the atmosphere is unstable enough to have numerous thunderstorms. This means the air is going up and there will be cloud cover. The LIFT value is >-2 means that the thunderstorms will be not severe. The actual conditions experienced by pilots that day confirmed the accuracy of the forecast. We have so few of these kinds of days here. In places like the Midwest and Florida, they are much more common. Important note for balloon soundings originating from our local El Paso station: Air masses below 8,000' MSL moving in an easterly direction towards the Franklin Mountains will tend to go through the pass that is SE of the NWS station in Santa Teresa. In other words, balloon soundings below 8,000' MSL (the top of the Franklin Mountains) that have any easterly component will not be accurate per the direction of the air mass about 10 miles east and west of the Franklin Mountain range. For example, as the air mass gets near the Potrillo ranges, its direction will not be influenced by the Franklin Mountains.
*Jet Stream location If it is overhead, expect turbulence and gusting. Severity depends on how strong it is. Unless you are flying early AM in the inversion, it is better to stay out of the atmosphere when the Jet is overhead. There is also a link for the Jet Stream forecast up to (4) days in the future. When the Jet is not overhead and there are no troughs or ridges moving through, winds aloft in this region are usually smooth and organized. Pivotal Weather (above) is better but a little harder to get to.
Vorticity@500mb Rod Burton got us on to this one. Vorticity causes turbulence and sometimes it can be extreme. Here is a good primer on vorticity and what it is. Here is another intro to long and short waves in the atmosphere. Pivotal Weather (above) is better but a little harder to get to.
NOAA Satellite image of clouds (water vapor) over west Texas and New Mexico. This can tell us where the clouds are and possible areas of convergence (eastern air meets western air -> air that is going up). Cross country flying of long range can be extraordinary at the right times. For example, the Central Mountains of New Mexico will often be the boundary for a convergence of eastern and western air. This is a great time to fly in them! On a smaller scale, our local prevailing westerly winds will often skip over the inversion bubble that is in the Rio Grande valley. Where these two air masses meet there will be an area of lift (air going up) that can be utilized by a soaring pilot.
Windy – Easy to you animated map of weather over the surface of the world. Has many features, including pressure and temperature.
Wind History Map – Want to know the historical wind direction and speed month by month at a particular place throughout the year? It can be useful for planning events. If you want SW winds most of the time, what month of the year is best where you live? This is the site to check it out.
Weather Spark – The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth Get monthly, daily, and hourly graphical reports. Great for event and trip planning.
SkyVector Aeronautical Chart – Thought not weather related, all pilots must know how to read these charts in order to determine if it is safe and legal to fly in a particular place.
Additional weather tools
Daily Weather Map - Want to know what the temperature, winds, pressure, precipitation, etc. were last week? Last year? Go here. These maps are of past weather only.
SuperAWOS Doña County Airport AWOS stands for "automated weather observation system". The airport in Santa Teresa, NM installed this device so pilots can know not only wind direction and speed but the temperature, dew point, and barometric pressure and trend. Data from other sources is often an hour or more old = obsolete. The equipment at this site, however, is not particularly accurate. The conditions reported by the NWS Santa Teresa Station are far more accurate and current.
Ultimate Weather Education and COMET MetEd are good places to start your education about how the weather works. The former has a helpful glossary of terms and their meanings but the site has a lot of ads, which can be annoying. COMET MetEd is a true online school.
Weather Forecasting for Cross Country Soaring – This is an outstanding PowerPoint presentation by Brian Resor of the Albuquerque Soaring Club in Moriarty, New Mexico.
Weather Station Transmitters – The National Weather Service (NWS) provides a national network of radio transmitters that continually broadcast weather conditions and forecasts for their respective area. It is not particularly useful for ultralight pilots because of its general nature. Here is a complete list of stations in the United States and their broadcast frequencies. If you travel a lot, you may want to program into your radio transceiver these frequencies used by the NWS: 162.400 MHz 162.425 MHz 162.450 MHz 162.475 MHz 162.500 MHz 162.525 MHz 162.550 MHz. This service is not particularly helpful to soaring pilots because of its general nature.
WXBrief Pilots may also use WXBrief to get detailed information of winds aloft, current conditions, and a host of other useful information. Call 800-WXBRIEF (800-992-7433) and identify yourself as an ultralight pilot. Give the briefer your location, when you plan to fly, and what information you would like to have. These weathermen are experts and are very helpful. Use the service as much as you can as their existence is dependent on how many pilots use it.
*XC Skies is one of our most valuable and comprehensive tools. However, it is available by subscription only. Like all forecasting tools, it is not always accurate per timing of weather events or of surface winds. Its most valuable information has to do with thermal strength during the day. It has been amazingly accurate in forecasting wind speed and direction at most of our flying sites in the region and has proven more accurate than ADDS.