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Weather tools

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 of the of 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 all of the work and give (6) of the most important forecast models.  It is, by far, the most comprehensive and useful for ultralight pilots.  Windy.com is a free substitute but takes more digging to get the info you need.  Their program is not mobile friendly nor does it work well with some Internet browsers.  In general, XCSkies is the best value for the money.  However, you STILL MUST check the NWS hourly graphical forecast for gusting!

 "*" = our most important tools

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.

*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?

*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 – The first station gives the current conditions at the National Weather Service station in Santa Teresa, NM.  It updated every minute.  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.  See "Balloon Soundings" below.)

*Balloon Soundings from the University of Wyoming – The data from these soundings 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.

UTC time 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 is 6AM and 6PM MDT, respectively.  "Z" refers to UTC time (Universal Time Coordinated).

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 El Paso region 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.

OP40 Santa Teresa, NM provides forecasts of the Skew T, wind direction, and speed for our region (south central New Mexico and west Texas) 12 hours into the future.  As the balloons go up every 12 hours, this tool helps fill in the gaps between the times when the actual soundings are done.

OP40 any location  Open this site and be sure "Op40" is selected.  In the "Number of hours" box enter "12" or less.  This tells the program how many hours into the future you want the forecast to be.  In the "Name(s)" box enter the coordinates of where you want the forecast to be located or, if available, enter the weather station ID.  The ID's of the reporting stations can be obtained by going to MesoWest and clicking on or near the desired forecast location.  This will bring up a map covered with black dots with a wind barb.  Hover your cursor over one of black dots and the name and ID of the station will appear e.g. "Ozona Municipal Ai KOZA OK".  Note that some station ID's are not in the RUC system.  The name is truncated to 18 characters so in this example "Airport" is shortened to "Ai".  The next field is the ID of the station (KOZA),  The last field indicates whether the station is operating correctly (OK).  Next, choose "Interactive plot".  This is the simplest way to get most browsers to work with the RUC program.

An alternative way to get the exact location you need is to enter the latitude and longitude in the "Name(s)" box e.g. "32.478792,-107.119341".  This will give the best forecast but requires a bit more information.  The coordinates can be easily obtained from Google Earth.

The forecast will load.  At the bottom is a table with the times (in UTC or Z).  You will have to know your local time offset from UTC in order to know when the forecast is valid for some local time.  When you click on a time, the skew-t and wind forecasts for that time will load.  The farther out time-wise you go, the less reliable is the forecast.  Always keep this mind.  To see the wind speed and direction and other details, move your cursor to the skew-t graph and then move it up/down to observe the details of that altitude of the sounding.

*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.

*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.

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.

NOAA National forecast of fronts, pressure & weather – This is a typical but uncluttered view of the major fronts, weather systems, and barometric pressure across the continental U.S.  Moving your mouse pointer across the top of the screen changes the forecast times.  This is helpful in noting trends in the weather for flying.

Soaring Forecasts – For thermalling pilots, check "complete report", RAOB is "El Paso", enter "forecast high temperature" for the day, and make "altitude limit" 18,000' then submit request. This will give you the Thermal Index at various altitudes. Note: This site and the others can sometimes be "down" – please be patient and try later. Only with a thermometer to measure "puddle temperature" at ground level, will the TI be most accurate.  It is also a good idea to check the skew-t of NWS Raw Atmospheric Soundings for EPZ (our local NOAA weather station) – see below.  XC Skies will do all of the above and more with just a click of the mouse (but it is not free).

Pivotal Weather – Providing numerical weather data in a clean, modern, and professional way.   It is particularly useful for finding out where the Jet Stream (winds at 300mb.) is and forecasts of same.

Wind Map – Animated map of winds 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.

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.

Weather Tools for Particular Geographical Areas

Corpus Christi, TX

Midland, TX

Additional weather tools

Aviation Digital Data Service (ADDS) – This is a service of NOAA for aviators.  It is unique in that it gives wind and temperature forecasts for not only the surface but for various altitudes above.

BlipMap Forecast Models – BLIPMAP™ (Boundary Layer Information Prediction MAP) Created by Dr. John W. (Jack) Glendening, Meteorologist.  A BLIPMAP gives thermal soaring parameters over a geographic region.  Registration is free but it is required to access the forecasts.  The link above will give the new user some basic information as to why this information can be helpful to soaring pilots.

NWS Forecast Discussions – From the website click on the interactive map of the U.S.  Each weather region has a different color.   Click on the particular region to see the relevant forecast discussion.  If you do not understand most of what is written here, you should probably take up golf or something rather than fly a paraglider or a hang glider.

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.

RAP Geographically broad forecast of winds aloft days into the future.  It is quite accurate and is especially useful for determining conditions at Dry Canyon.

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.

Unisys Weather El Paso – This website is a treasure trove of information on weather.  It is particularly useful for finding out where the Jet Stream (winds at 300mb.) is and forecasts of same. 

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.

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