John Peltier

Pilot reports (PIREPs) are an integral part of the aviation meteorological network. They’re used to assess the accuracy of weather reported by automated stations and instrumentation. Other pilots use them to make important decisions on the ground and in the air. FSS uses them to brief pilots. ATC uses PIREPs to sequence traffic around unfavorable weather. And they’re also the only way of knowing what’s going on in areas that have gaps in automated coverage.

ATC is actually required to solicit reports from pilots in the following conditions:

  • When requested by another pilot
  • When the ceiling is at or less than 5,000’
  • When visibility is at or less than 5 miles
  • Thunderstorms are present
  • Moderate or greater turbulence is present
  • Light or greater icing present
  • Wind shear present
  • Volcanic ash present

Unfortunately, not many pilots participate voluntarily. Hardly any pilots give routine reports to ATC when they’re flying. They either don’t think of reporting one, it’s too much work, or they don’t know what to say. And when ATC does solicit a PIREP, pilots don’t know what to do. Nonsense!

The Format for Giving PIREPs

Maybe it’s the written form of PIREPs that intimidates pilots. We all remember seeing the PIREP format on our test: KCMH UA /OV APE 230010/TM 1516/FL085/TP BE20/SK BKN065/WX FV03SM HZ FU/TA 20/TB LGT.

How am I going to do this while I’m flying?!?!

Plain English is your answer!

View of a High Wing airplane from the cockpit
Photo by Erik Brouwer

PIREPs only need to contain the following five elements: Location, altitude, time, type of aircraft, and an observation.

Remember the following acronym or write it down on your kneeboard:

LATTO

  • Location
  • Altitude
  • Time
  • Type of Aircraft
  • Observation

Where were you when you saw this weather, what time was it, and what’d you see. It’s that easy!

Location

You can report location any number of ways. Bearing & distance from a navigational aid is the easiest for you to give and the easiest for ATC to copy down, so if you’re dialed into a navaid you should use this. Otherwise something as simple as “five miles south of Folsom Lake” works just as well. GPS coordinates should only be given as a last resort because of the radio time required and greater possibility of transcription errors.

Altitude, Time, Type of Aircraft

Altitude is just what it sounds like – your altitude.

Time should be the time of your observation, not the time of your report. If you experienced some light icing but couldn’t get anyone on the radio for thirty minutes, you should give the time of your encounter. You can even just say “thirty minutes ago” and the person on the other end will do the math.

Type of aircraft is another item you can report without requiring much thought.

Observation

You don’t need to report all elements of the written PIREP (wind, sky condition, visibility, precipitation, turbulence, etc). You really only need to report what you think is significant.

Was there something that affected your routing or made you uncomfortable? Was there an element of the forecast that is completely off from reality? Then that’s all you really need to report. And you can use plain English for this.

You should also make a report when you go missed approach due to weather or if you encounter wind shear on takeoff or landing.

The different degrees of icing and turbulence are some things you should know how to report.

Icing should also be reported with your indicated airspeed and outside air temperature if you can remember to do so. If you don’t, that’s okay, ATC may ask for that information. Degrees of icing:

  • Trace. You just start to notice the formation of ice on the airframe. This is “trace”.
  • Light. Ice is accumulating at a rate that might become hazardous in an hour. Intermittent use of deice equipment removes it. This is “light”.
  • Moderate. Ice has formed and accumulating, and is now presenting a hazard to flight. Continual use of deice equipment necessary. This is “moderate”.
  • Severe. Immediate diversion is necessary because deice equipment can’t keep up. This is “severe”.

Turbulence is reported with both an intensity and duration. Intensity is reported as follows:

  • Light. You experience slight & erratic changes in altitude or attitude, or some bumpiness but without noticeable changes in altitude or attitude. This is “light”.
  • Moderate. You’re experiencing larger changes in altitude and/or attitude, but you remain in control of the aircraft. You see your indicated airspeed changing. Or maybe you’re getting quickly bounced around but altitude and attitude seems to be holding. This is “moderate”.
  • Severe. You experience large and abrupt changes in altitude and attitude with large changes in airspeed. You may momentarily lose control. This is “severe”.
  • Extreme. The aircraft is impossible to control and structural damage may occur. This is “extreme”.

The duration of turbulence is reported as follows:

  • Occasional: happening less than 1/3 of the time.
  • Intermittent: happens from 1/3 to 2/3 of the time.
  • Continuous: happening greater than 2/3 of the time.
PIREP Scenarios

Now for some scenarios so you can try out your skill with PIREPs.

Scenario 1

A small airplane in flight at sunset
Photo by William Krapp

You’re approaching Reno International at 6,500’ and your GPS says you’re 4 miles to the south, flying your Cessna 182, callsign Cessna 1234. You can barely make out the outline of the airfield through the haze. What would that sound like?

“Reno tower, Cessna 1234 with a PIREP”

“Cessna 1234, Reno tower, go ahead”

“Cessna 1234, four miles south of the airport, six thousand five hundred feet, Cessna 182, currently reporting only four miles visibility in haze”

When you’re reporting current conditions, it’s fine to say “currently reporting” instead of the actual time.

Scenario 2

You’re tuned in to the Fayetteville VOR/DME and showing you’re on the FAY 230 radial at 9 miles. You’re in a Piper PA-34 Seneca, callsign Seneca 78, at 8,500’. You’re getting bumped pretty good and your airspeed is changing plus or minus 8 knots from your cruise speed, but you remain in control at all times. This is happening half the time. Fifteen minutes later you get a hold of Raleigh FSS, now on the FAY 230 radial at 35 miles, still experiencing the turbulence. What’s your call?

“Raleigh Radio, Seneca 78 with a PIREP”

“Seneca 78, Raleigh Radio, go ahead with your PIREP”

“Seneca 78, from the Foxtrot Alpha Yankee two-three-zero at nine miles to the two-three-zero at thirty-five miles, eight thousand five hundred feet, fifteen minutes ago to present, Piper PA34, intermittent moderate turbulence.”

If your observation covers a geographic area, try to bound it like in the example.

Scenario 3

The forecasted weather in the vicinity of Auburn Municipal was for scattered clouds at 9,000 feet, over ten miles of visibility, and winds out of the southwest at 10 knots. You’re transiting the area overhead in a Robinson R22, callsign Helicopter 30Y, and are forced to stay at 4,500’ MSL due to a broken ceiling at 5,000’. Visibility is ten miles and winds are out of the southwest at 5-10 knots. You’re seven miles to the east and in contact with Rancho Murieta FSS. What would you report?

“Rancho Murieta radio, Helicopter 30Y with a PIREP”
“Helicopter 30Y, Rancho Murieta radio, go ahead”

“Helicopter 30Y, seven miles east of Auburn Muni, four thousand five hundred feet, Robinson R22, reporting a broken ceiling at five thousand feet”

Because visibility and winds are more or less observed to be as forecast, you only need to report the drastic difference in the cloud layer.

Who to Report PIREPs To

You can make your reports to whichever ATC facility you’re currently talking to. They’ll disseminate the information appropriately.

There are also a number of EFAS stations around the country (En Route Flight Advisory Service), callsign “Flight Watch”. They serve as a central collection point for PIREPs and you can report directly to them if radio coverage allows it.

If you can’t make a PIREP by radio, you can make an electronic submission on landing. The FAA has simplified this process in order to encourage more participation.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Next time you’re out flying, go ahead and make some voluntary reports when radio traffic allows it – it’ll be good practice for when it really counts!

In the meantime, you can find out more information in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) Chapter 7 Sections 1-16 to 1-28 (reporting weather).

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