The National Weather Service Marks Nine Decades of Aviation Weather Forecasting

From Kites to Supercomputers in 90 Years

Board a plane today, and you can rest assured that local aviation authorities have received the best and most accurate aviation weather forecasts available. The earliest pilots, however, flew without this advantage, all too often with disastrous results. Since 1918 — 90 years ago this month — NOAA's National Weather Service has provided aviation forecasts, and over that time, the quality and accuracy of these forecasts have improved dramatically.

Starting on Dec. 1, 1918, weather forecasts for aviation supported primarily government flights for mail delivery and the military. Today, millions of passengers and cargo shippers benefit daily from advances in aviation forecasting. The National Weather Service continues to improve aviation forecasting to meet future needs of the flying public.

Early forecasting process.

Early forecasting process.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

A Look Back: The First Aviation Weather Forecast

In the early years of aviation, meteorologists at the U.S. Weather Bureau — now NOAA’s National Weather Service — lacked radar and other advanced technologies used today to locate hazardous weather in the upper atmosphere. So, they used basic tools to issue the first aviation forecast on Dec. 1, 1918. They attached instruments to kites and tethered balloons to determine temperature and wind direction. They combined these data with weather measurements taken on the ground to produce the forecast, which supported a government flight carrying mail from New York to Chicago.

“In those early days, forecasters spent most of their time finding out what was happening at the moment with no real way of knowing what would happen in the immediate future,” said Bob Maxson, director of NOAA’s Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, Mo. “Meteorologists did not have the capability to collect complex atmospheric data, so they largely relied on what they observed on the ground coupled with post-flight reports from pilots.”

The pilot flying the aerial mail route on that blustery December day  took to the skies on a clear, windy day in New York and landed in Chicago amid clouds. Historical weather records from the weather stations in operation along the route indicate there was no precipitation along the way.

Safety First: A New Priority

Anyone who has ever flown knows the drama that unfolds in airports throughout the country anytime a bad weather system hits a major airline hub. In the early days of flight, pioneer aviators were more interested in staying on schedule than safety, largely due to a lack of understanding about weather hazards. By 1920, half the aerial mail service pilots had lost their lives. Before long, widespread interest grew within the new industry to put pilot and passenger safety first. Throughout the roaring ‘20s, the nation recognized the vast benefits of investing in aviation weather forecasting capabilities.

On May 20, 1926, Congress directed the Weather Bureau to promote safety and efficiency of air navigation in the United States when it passed the Air Commerce Act. This act  ushered in a new era that would forever unite aviation and weather forecasting in the common goal of safety first for industry employees and the flying public. This new priority paved the way for commercial passenger airline service, and with it a stronger sense of urgency to further invest in aviation forecast technology and skill. As a result of these investments, today the United States has one of the world’s most advanced aviation weather forecasting systems, collecting 76 billion weather observations yearly.

First weather balloon launch.

Preparing to launch America's first "ballon-sonde," September 15, 1904.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Early-day aviators and meteorologists could not have imagined the importance of commercial, private and military aviation to future generations. Today, pilots and air traffic managers make thousands of decisions each day about where and whether to fly. To maximize safety and efficiency, they must have access to current and accurate weather information. Highly skilled meteorologists combine scientific information and experience with high-tech tools to issue approximately four million aviation weather forecasts, including about 94,000 warnings each year in support of 630 airports.

In 1918, meteorologists used kites and balloons from 17 weather stations to produce forecasts. Today, National Weather Service meteorologists generate aviation forecasts using data collected from thousands of sources and locations, such as satellites, Doppler radars, and minute-by-minute data from Automated Surface Observing System units at America’s airports. Unlike 90 years ago our accurate weather information is available to forecasters and aviators around the clock. The advent of the computer age has allowed continual improvements in forecast accuracy, development of new forecast methods and the ability to communicate in real time.

Today and Beyond: An Eye Toward the Next 90 Years

The aviation industry continues to evolve and expand, and so does aviation weather forecasting at the National Weather Service. Exciting new initiatives on the horizon will transform aviation weather services as we know it and ensure that the nation is poised to meet the air travel demands of tomorrow.

Projections show that passenger and cargo air traffic will triple in the next 25 years. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, weather is the cause of nearly 70 percent of all flight delays at an annual cost of up to $5 billion. Although we can’t control the weather, it is estimated that two-thirds of these delays are preventable. 

Forecast map.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA’s National Weather Service and the FAA are working hand-in-hand to create a more consistent and responsive customer service oriented program throughout the country, to develop consistency between aviation forecasts, warnings and advisories and to maximize the aviation weather forecast program’s economic benefit to the nation.

Within the next 10 to 15 years, the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) — a joint initiative between NOAA, the FAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense — will integrate the way in which weather-related information is collected, managed, communicated and used in decision-making. Pilots, dispatchers, and air traffic managers will all have consistent weather information available from a central, four-dimensional database.

Technological innovations have allowed the National Weather Service to provide increasingly reliable aviation forecasts since 1918. The agency strives to remain on the cutting edge of weather forecasting to meet whatever new challenges the 21st century may bring.

Learn more about the evolution of the National Weather Service’s products and capabilities online. NOAA logo.