New weather system focuses on Survival Flight safety

November 16, 2021  //  FOUND IN: News, ,

This fall, Michigan Medicine’s Survival Flight, in partnership with their operator, Metro Aviation, Inc., and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), became the first critical care transport program in the country to implement a new weather system that will help evaluate conditions for flight and enhance safety for patients, care teams and pilots.

The new FAA Weather Camera installed on the main medical campus is part of a year-long project by Metro Aviation to test the capabilities of the system and determine if use of the camera will result in a reduction of canceled flights due to weather.

How the system works

Through the combined efforts of many individuals from the U-M Health Facilities Department, Safety Management Services, Michigan Medicine Security, the FAA and Metro Aviation, the weather camera was installed in late September on top of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the tallest building on campus, providing unobstructed views in all directions.

“The new system enhances aviation safety by providing images pilots can access online to inform their weather-related flight planning and decision making,” said Tom Sherony, Metro Aviation’s aviation site manager assigned to U-M Health. “This system is intended to supplement weather observations provided by FAA weather stations at local airports.”

Prior to installing the weather camera, Metro Aviation pilots relied solely on the automated surface observing system (ASOS) at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport to make determinations about the safety of Survival Flight trips.

According to Metro, ASOS serves as the nation’s primary surface weather observing network and reports basic weather elements. However, the information is sometimes skewed based on the location of the system, as is the case in Ann Arbor where the ASOS sits in a valley five miles away from the medical campus.

“The airport-based weather stations use sensors to provide a measure of in-flight visibility,” Sherony explained. “The FAA cameras provide an actual image, which gives us significantly more data than a single sensor’s measure of visibility.”

Silver camera on a rooftop.
The camera on the roof of Mott.

Impact on flight decisions

Metro Aviation currently operates 30 to 45 flights each month out of Ann Arbor and cancels up to 15% of them due to inadequate or misleading weather reports.

“The challenge we are attempting to address is that aviation weather is extremely localized,” said Sherony. “In some instances, the weather observation equipment at the Ann Arbor airport reports fog or low clouds that exist in a small area over the weather sensor at the airport and nowhere else across the local area.”

Sherony explained that, in these kinds of circumstances, it would be safe to fly. But pilots are currently bound by the ASOS weather report and cannot land or depart from Michigan Medicine if the system at Ann Arbor Municipal Airport is reporting conditions below FAA weather requirements.

Information from the FAA Weather Camera will be beneficial in two important ways. Images from the camera will help Metro Aviation decide when it is necessary to delay or cancel flights if local weather could put the safety of patients and the Survival Flight team at risk. The images will also help determine if it is actually safe to fly when information from the ASOS in Ann Arbor might suggest otherwise.

“As an operator, our priority is safety and we are relying on the data we have to make sound decisions,” said Brian Bihler, director of operations for Metro Aviation. “But if the data we have is not accurate, we are likely cancelling flights that we could have otherwise accepted.”

“The work of Survival Flight is critical and time-sensitive,” said Donna Robinson, M.S.A., B.S., B.S.N., clinical nursing director for Survival Flight and SWAT. “If use of the FAA Weather Camera allows the team to safely fly when the limited information from the airport system would have prevented a trip, that could make a significant difference in the outcome for a patient.”

Pushing for improvement

Currently, FAA regulations require Metro Aviation’s Survival Flight pilots to use the ASOS reports from the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport when deciding to land or depart from the Michigan Medicine helipads.

“We are hopeful that, during this year-long test, we can prove to the FAA that there are situations in which it would be appropriate to land at Michigan Medicine, even when the system at the airport reports low visibility or clouds,” said Sherony.

“The weather camera imagery would be used to help inform such decisions,” he said. “Once we are able to demonstrate the benefits of the weather camera, we hope to obtain a waiver from the FAA allowing us to accept flight requests based on the camera images when the local weather is clear and we are confident it is safe to take off and land at the hospital.”

“We are excited about the potential of this new technology to provide a more accurate picture of local weather conditions and prevent unnecessary delays and cancellations,” said Robinson.

“Our team is always here and ready to go,” she said. “The extra level of safety and accuracy in weather reporting at our point of departure will be a welcome tool for decision-making. When the weather cooperates and it is safe to fly, we want to fly. For the patients we serve, every moment counts.”