Weather Technology in the Cockpit



In 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Weather Research Program, the NCAR Research Applications Program (RAL) and United Airlines completed a feasibility study to uplink a convective weather product called the Cloud Top Height (CTH) into selected transoceanic cockpits using an ASCII textual display written to the ACARS printer. The CTH is derived from geostationary satellite infrared brightness temperatures and a model sounding. The aircraft were flying from the United States to Australia and traversed the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone where convection occurs frequently. This study successfully demonstrated that the existing technology was capable of receiving and displaying the CTH product with a minimum of latency. Pilots used the product to make informed, strategic decisions to avoid hazardous convection ahead of the flight route, well beyond the range of the onboard weather radar.


In 2012, the FAA Weather Technology in the Cockpit and NCAR-RAL completed a Human-Over-The-Loop (HOTL) simulation demonstration at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ, within the Next Generation Integration and Evaluation (NIEC) Reconfigurable Cockpit Simulator (RCS). The HOTL simulations were designed as a human factors evaluation of the CTH product using an updated color graphic display as well as the ASCII textual display. The simulation tested the effect that the CTH had on pilot decision making and flight procedures in the cockpit of transoceanic aircraft.

In the study, two flight crews with a pilot and co-pilot were utilized during the demonstration to fly from Miami, FL, south to Lima, Peru. Archived weather cases were used to depict the convection along the flight route using both the onboard radar and the CTH product. During the simulated flight, the pilots’ responses were tested both with and without the CTH display as each crew flew two cases. During the simulated flight, the CTH product was uplinked to the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) for display after a position report was submitted and was shown as both a color graphic and as the ASCII textual graphic.

Findings of the study showed the following results.

  • The uplinked CTH product proved to be valuable in all aspects:
    • Crew situational awareness of convective hazards
    • Workload reduction
    • More precise weather hazard avoidance
    • Crew decision making
  • The EFB character graphic for CTH was understandable and desired in place of no weather updates
  • The EFB color graphic for CTH was preferred and very understandable
  • No safety issues were identified as a result of the uplinked CTH product
  • Flight crews need to be briefed on CTH and interpretation of the presentation, including its limitations

A realtime demonstration in oceanic airspace is planned to validate the minimum weather services required for safe and efficient flight in oceanic and remote airspace. This WTIC demonstration will be performed with online crews of participating airlines whose aircraft are equipped with portable or installed display capabilities. The feasibility and cost of uplinking convective weather information into the flight deck will be balanced against the operational need for updates. The demonstration is expected to begin in 2017.

Figure 1. Character Graphic Depiction of Convective Weather
Along Route of Flight


RAL formally joined the FAA's WTIC program in 2010. We have been involved with weather information to the flight deck for over 15 years dating back to the initial Flight Information Services–Broadcast (FIS–B) program and NASA's Aviation Weather Information (AWIN) programs in the 1990s. Dissemination to the airborne pilot provides a feedback loop from the ultimate end–user to weather R&D on the timeliness and usability of advanced weather information products. RAL continues to act as an expert consultant to organizations like the RTCA and SAE as international data link and display standards are developed for NextGen and the European ATC modernization program, SESAR.

Currently, RAL participates in the RTCA Special Committee (SC) 206/EUROCAE Working Group 76 Plenary (Aeronautical Information Data Link); RTCA SC 214 (ATC Data Communications); RTCA 186 (Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast); and the SAE G–10 Weather Information Display Working Group. All are involved with data link and display of weather information to/on the flight deck for all classes of aircraft. RAL also plans and implements uplink and display capabilities as part of certain weather hazard R&D programs, where pilot feedback on weather information helps guide our R&D. An example display concept developed by RAL is shown in Figure 1–this concept requires no aircraft modification, but provides valuable information to both the pilots and RAL scientists as products are used in the operational setting. Figure 2 illustrates an integrated flight display with weather shown along with primary flight information. RAL also participates with airlines as they consider Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) equipage, helping to demonstrate the business case advantage for including updated weather information.

Figure 2. National Integrated Flight Display

Nearly all of our WTIC activities include EUROCONTROL, EUROCAE, and Asian counterparts so that the cockpit weather solution will be seamless as aircraft move globally.


Donovan, M.F., E.R. Williams, C.J. Kessinger, G.E. Blackburn, P.H. Herzegh, R.L. Bankert, S.D. Miller, and F.R. Mosher, 2008: The identification and verification of hazardous convective cells over oceans using visible and infrared satellite observations. Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, 47, 164-184, DOI: 10.1175/2007JAMC1471.1.

Kessinger, C.J., M. Donovan, R. Bankert, E. Williams, J. Hawkins, H. Cai, N.A. Rehak, D.L. Megenhardt, and M. Steiner, 2008: Convection diagnosis and nowcasting for oceanic aviation applications. Remote Sensing Applications for Aviation Weather Hazard Detection and Decision Support, Proceedings of SPIE, W.F. Feltz, and J.J. Murray, Eds., San Diego, CA, 7088, 12 pp, DOI: 10.1117/12.795495.

Kessinger, C., G. Blackburn, N. Rehak, A. Ritter, K. Milczewski, K. Sievers, D. Wolf, and J. Olivo, 2015: Demonstration of a Convective Weather Product into the Flight Deck, 17th  Conference on Aviation, Range, and Aerospace Meteorology, AMS Annual Meeting, 4-8 Jan. 2015, Phoenix, AZ.

Kessinger, C., E. Frazier, G. E. Blackburn, and T. Lindholm, 2015: A Demonstration to Validate the Minimum Weather Services for Oceanic and Remote Airspace, 17th  Conference on Aviation, Range, and Aerospace Meteorology, AMS Annual Meeting, 4-8 January 2015, Phoenix, AZ.

Lindholm, T., C. Kessinger, G.  Blackburn, and A. Gaydos, 2013: Weather Technology in the Cockpit: Transoceanic human-over-the-loop demonstration, The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Q1 2013, Volume 55, No. 1., 18-21.

Miller, S., T. Tsui, G. Blackburn, C. Kessinger and P. Herzegh, 2005: Technical description of the Cloud Top Height Product (CTH), the first component of the Convective Diagnosis Oceanic (CDO) Product. Submitted to the FAA AWTT Board for D3 approval, 11 March 2005, 30 pp.


Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 

Global Weather Hazards

Flight crews for the first time can now anticipate hazardous storms while navigating long-range, oceanic routes. Knowing a 40,000-foot convective storm is ahead allows flight crews to reroute its flight path, saving on fuel costs, manpower and agita to the passengers on board.  

Tablet on Lufthansa Airbus with NCAR-uplinked weather.

Tablet on Lufthansa Airbus with NCAR-uplinked weather.

Lufthansa Airlines, NCAR, and Basic Commerce & Industries, Inc. (BCI) have recently completed a feasibility study using the satellite-based Cloud Top Height (CTH) product to assist pilots in identifying and strategically avoiding storms that are beyond the range of the airplane's onboard radar. Finding the product overwhelmingly useful in the cockpit, Lufthansa isn't hesitating to adopt it. Leading the competition, Lufthansa is implementing its entire fleet with this transoceanic system, revolutionizing how flight crews can avoid dangerous convective storms. Global coverage of the CTH product is now being provided through addition of a fourth partner, Weather Solutions Division of the Sutron Corporation.

There's a good reason why the airline is proactively adopting this new technology; oceanic flights have limited access to detailed weather information that is available to over-land flights due to the lack of ground-based radar networks.  Ground-based radar coverage available when flying over continents provides a clear, real-time snapshot of storms that the aviation community uses extensively.  Not so over the oceans. Here, geostationary satellites provide real-time coverage of storm location and intensity.

Leveraging Years of Basic Research and Applied Science

NCAR has decades of experience and successes helping domestic and international airlines improve flight safety and efficiency. Since the early 1980s, NCAR was a leader in the study of microbursts, those violent and deadly storms that took down a number of flights before scientists understood the phenomena and developed radar-based technologies to detect them. NCAR's unique structure of partnering atmospheric scientists conducting basic research with engineers who design custom systems to address the problem, has resulted in life-saving applications to other aviation hazards, such as icing and turbulence.

NCAR's programs focusing on "weather in the cockpit" technologies dates back to the early 1990s.  From 1999-2011, it partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Weather Research Program (AWRP) to study satellite-based techniques to detect oceanic convection and then predict their future location. From 2011-2012, NCAR partnered with the FAA Weather Technology in the Cockpit (WTIC) program to assess the usefulness of displaying a convective product on an electronic flight bag and how pilot decision-making was affected. Forward to today, and now transoceanic pilots have new weather display technologies that have been long-awaited.

Distilling and translating a mountain of data to help pilots make route decisions

TOP: Cloud Top Height shown on BCI viewer 1 June 2015 at 00 UTC. BOTTOM: Convective Diagnosis Oceanic shown on BCI viewer 1 June 2015 at 00 UTC TOP: Cloud Top Height shown on BCI viewer 1 June 2015 at 00 UTC. BOTTOM: Convective Diagnosis Oceanic shown on BCI viewer 1 June 2015 at 00 UTC

TOP: Cloud Top Height shown on BCI viewer 1 June 2015 at 00 UTC.
BOTTOM: Convective Diagnosis Oceanic shown on BCI viewer 1 June 2015 at 00 UTC

Over the oceans, geostationary satellites provide critical information by measuring the brightness temperatures of the tops of clouds. Matching the brightness temperature to an atmospheric temperature and then to the pressure level from a numerical model sounding (i.e., the Global Forecast System, or GFS) provides an estimate of the height of the cloud top. The resulting gridded output is called the Cloud Top Height (CTH) product. Next, particular CTH contours are selected for their relevance to aircraft flying transoceanic routes (i.e., between 30,000-50,000 feet) and used to create polygons.  Simplifying the storm's area into a small number of latititude/longitude pairs that define the polygon allows their transmission to the aircraft over limited bandwidth. An Open Geospatial Consortium interface, called the Web Feature Service (WFS), serves the polygons to the airline. The WFS is compatible with FAA Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) architecture. The airline then displays the CTH polygons on a tablet or electronic flight bag in the cockpit. The polygons are displayed over the navigational charts giving the pilot situational awareness of storm hazards over the planned flight route. 

With expansion to global coverage, the project is now introducing the Convective Diagnosis Oceanic (CDO) product as an overlay to CTH. This product better defines the convective hazardous regions by utilizing additional satellite-based algorithms to better define storm structure in conjunction with global lightning data. These results are combined using a data fusion that computes the gridded CDO product. While the CTH product defines the entire storm structure, including the anvil, the CDO product illuminates the location of the updrafts where the convective hazards reside. 

Back at Home: Products will support NextGen

On the home front, NCAR has been a leader in supporting the FAA NextGen, the national priority of meeting the growing air transportation needs of the future. Demand for air traffic services is expected to rocket, possibly on the order of three times today's demand levels. Because weather conditions can seriously restrict aircraft operations, how this information is observed, forecast, disseminated, and used in decision-making is of critical importance. The Cloud Top Height and Convective Diagnosis Oceanic products have been designed to fulfill this need for the transoceanic aviation community.


Please direct questions/comments about this page to:

Matthias Steiner

Director, Aviation Applications Program