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Windy Conditions, Low Visibility? Helping Pilots since the Wright Brothers

August 19, 2015


As the nation’s aviation system continues to grow, and a greater number of people are expected to fly more miles each year, the need for satellite data to increase the accuracy and timeliness of aviation forecasts becomes ever more critical.

Wright brothers flying in 1903.
Shortly after the famed first flight by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903, the need for aviation weather forecasting also took off.

August 19th marks National Aviation Day, which was established in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in honor of Orville Wright’s birthday. Orville and his brother Wilbur are credited with inventing and building the world's first successful airplane and making the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on December 17, 1903.

The Wrights were looking for a place with the right wind conditions to get their airplane off the ground. They contacted the U.S. Weather Bureau, the precursor to NOAA's National Weather Service, for information on wind conditions in different parts of the country. Eventually they settled on Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

America quickly embraced the benefits of flight after the Wright Brothers’ success, as well as the need for aviation forecasting. By 1918, the Bureau was providing regular aviation weather forecasts to the newly established U.S. Aerial Mail Service.

Pilots still rely on NOAA forecasts, but we’ve come a long way since the days when meteorologists would attach instruments to kites and balloons to forecast temperature and wind conditions.

Image at NESDIS
June 18th, 2013 - Fog and Low Stratus over Chicago O'Hare Airport.

Fog conditions occur when clouds form within 50 feet of Earth’s surface, impacting visibility. If visibility is too low, the Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots to use instruments during flight. Pilots that aren’t certified for instrument flight aren’t allowed to fly during those times.

NOAA scientists have created a Fog and Low Stratus (cloud) report to give aviators advanced warning of fog conditions.

On the morning of June 18th, 2013, NOAA’s report showed that there was a greater than 80% chance that instrument flight conditions would occur over Lake Michigan and move southwest towards Chicago airspace.

Using this information, the FAA, airports and airlines were able to create a plan of action. Airlines staggered arrival windows and increased the amount of fuel onboard to allow for extra holding time. Without the extra fuel, the planes would have had to divert. Roughly 60 flights were able to land under these conditions without diversions, saving around $600,000.

As the nation’s aviation system continues to grow, and a greater number of people are expected to fly more miles each year, accurate and timely aviation forecasts are critical. Forecasters will be able to see fog conditions forming with much greater detail when NOAA’s latest geostationary satellite—the GOES-R—launches in 2016.

To view exciting satellite imagery, and experience the science behind NOAA’s weather satellites, please visit and