FAA weather cameras have been a popular source of weather information since they were first deployed in Alaska nearly a quarter-century ago.
Each camera site consists of a constellation of up to four cameras looking in different directions, capturing a snapshot of the weather that pilots may view on a website. Updated every 10 minutes, these views have been helping pilots make critical go/no go decisions for over 20 years. Images not only show weather in near-real time, but the website also allows users to play a video loop showing images over the previous six hours, giving pilots a better idea of weather trends.
The roots of the weather camera program date back to advocacy by the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and other industry groups, who saw a need to compensate for the lack of conventional weather reporting in Alaska. A graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks deployed camera constellations in three rural Alaska communities as part of a doctoral engineering management program in April of 1999. To carry out his project, he obtained in-kind support from Fairbanks-based air taxi operators, a local internet service provider, and other stakeholders. A grant from the state-funded Alaska Science and Technology Foundation allowed him to purchase the camera equipment. After an operational test, initially scheduled to last for six months, the capability proved to be so popular that the cameras were eventually picked up by the FAA as the start of what today has become a system with almost 250 camera sites.
Initial funding for the FAA to purchase and install cameras came from a congressional earmark, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the FAA approved funding for routine maintenance of the system. Today, in addition to the 249 camera stations owned and operated by the FAA, an additional 161 camera sites owned by third parties within the United States are also hosted on the website. The camera stations are located at airports, in mountain passes, and in coastal areas, based on flight routes and the availability of infrastructure. The FAA also hosts 219 third-party camera sites in Canada from Nav Canada.
Before the weather camera system was installed, pilots in Alaska literally had to take off and “go look” to see if they could fly their desired route. While they knew what the weather was like at their departure point, conditions along the way—or even at their destination—were often unknown. Providing weather cameras at a destination airport, and key choke points through terrain along VFR flight routes, offers a visual observation to compare with predicted weather. This improves situational awareness by confirming that morning fog hasn’t yet burned off, or that aircraft-eating cumulus clouds are moving in. It also increases efficiency by not wasting aviation fuel when conditions are too poor to allow a flight to reach its destination safely.
While a weather camera alone provides valuable information regarding current conditions, the pairing of a weather camera with an automated weather station is even better. Today, if there is an automated weather station in the vicinity of a camera site, the weather report is displayed along with the camera image. Combining the quantitative information from an automated weather observing system (AWOS)—such as the height of a cloud layer—along with the image showing the kind of clouds present is very powerful.
It is even more valuable if the automated station isn’t telling the entire story. The limitations of automated weather systems have been known since their inception. In order to establish how much cloud cover exists at a station, an AWOS relies on time-averaging, which lags behind actual conditions. Similarly, a fog bank approaching a station goes undetected until after it arrives at the station. Camera views in multiple directions reveal these details a lot sooner, helping keep pilots from being caught off guard by changing conditions.
Adding a scan of the weather cameras along an intended flight route to a preflight routine is very helpful when making an initial go/no-go decision, even before leaving for the airport. Being able to view weather conditions within minutes prior to departure affords pilots an increased awareness of the weather they may encounter en route. When conditions are questionable, the ability to see what has happened over the previous six hours also adds value—and in some cases signals the need to delay and wait for better weather.
The website also provides weather forecasts and pilot reports and can be customized by toggling features on or off. Tutorials are available to bring pilots or other users up to speed quickly.
For pilots who have cameras available where they fly, the weather camera program is a great addition to their toolkit. Those without cameras in their area should stay tuned, as there may be a camera coming in the years ahead.