It’s early in the morning and you’re preparing to depart on an IFR flight out of Asheville (KAVL) in western North Carolina. While finishing your breakfast you open up the ForeFlight Mobile app, insert your favorite route to your destination and tap the little suitcase to pack all of the current charts, NOTAMs, fuel prices and latest weather for your flight. While ForeFlight is packing everything that you need (love that feature!), you decide to take a peek at the latest terminal forecast for Asheville (below) and see something that doesn’t look too appealing – WS020/07040KT; ForeFlight translates this initial part of the TAF to a forecast for wind shear. Ugh!
So you tap on the Imagery tab and select the Graphical AIRMETs collection and see under Tango a forecast for low-level wind shear (LLWS) covering a large area from the panhandle of Maryland southwest to northern Georgia as shown below. This area impacts a good portion of your proposed route including your departure out of Asheville. Now what? Cancel the flight since you don’t want to be fooling around with wind shear in the mountains? Perhaps, but let’s take a closer look at this particular forecast and what it really means.
Both of these forecasts identify the potential for non-convective low-level wind shear (LLWS). This is perhaps the most misunderstood weather forecasts in aviation. Pilots hear the term wind shear and immediately equate this to severe turbulence. It is not a forecast for turbulence per se and is definitely not the same wind shear you might experience in and around areas of convection since it has nothing to do with thunderstorms. So now that we know what it is not, let’s dig a bit deeper.
Wind shear is defined as a marked change of wind speed and/or wind direction over a horizontal plane or within a vertical depth of the atmosphere. When the wind shear occurs near the surface, it is referred to as low-level wind shear and abbreviated LLWS. Non-convective LLWS as it appears in a TAF or within AIRMET Tango (also G-AIRMETs) is primarily a form of vertical speed shear. That is, the wind is forecast to rapidly increase with height within the wind shear layer. In addition, winds may also change direction with increasing altitude within the wind shear layer – although it is primarily a forecast for a change in wind speed.
Here’s the pertinent part of the coded Asheville TAF shown above:
01008KT 6SM -SHRA BR OVC015 WS020/07040KT
Decoded, this TAF suggests that between 1200 and 1600 UTC the surface winds will be 010 degrees (true) at 8 knots with a visibility of 6 statute miles with light rain showers and mist and an overcast ceiling of 1,500 feet. Easy so far? Now the confusing part. The WS code following all of this translates to non-convective low-level wind shear. The 020 following the WS code defines the depth of the wind shear layer which is 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL) in this case. Two thousand feet is the maximum depth forecast, but you may also see 005 (500 feet), 010 (1,000 ft) or 015 (1,500 ft). But it’s also acceptable to see 018 representing an 1,800 ft depth to the wind shear layer.
The remainder of the code following the forward slash defines the wind speed and direction at the top of the wind shear layer. Therefore, 07040KT translates to a wind direction of 070 degrees (true) at 40 knots at 2,000 feet AGL. Putting it all together, the winds are expected to increase rapidly from 8 knots at the surface to 40 knots at 2,000 feet AGL. This forecast also implies that winds will also shift direction from 010 degrees at the surface to 070 degrees at 2,000 feet although there’s no way to know how or where the shift occurs within the wind shear layer. Now that you are an expert decoder of the wind shear forecast in a TAF, what does it mean to you as a pilot?
As mentioned earlier, this is not a forecast for severe turbulence as many pilots might have been taught. Forecast or not, it is a common phenomenon and you may have flown through it and did not even know it was there. In fact, in the evening and overnight hours a nocturnal temperature inversion is often the catalyst for non-convective LLWS to evolve. In the nocturnal flavor of non-convective LLWS, the sky is often clear and the winds at the surface are usually light or calm. But the air in the wind shear layer remains glassy smooth. The only thing you may notice is a change of groundspeed as you penetrate the layer.
Essentially, non-convective LLWS is a river of faster flowing air just above the surface whether it occurs during the day or night. More often than not, a surface-based temperature inversion is present and as mentioned above is the primary catalyst for this form of wind shear. Normally the temperature decreases with increasing altitude. However, with an inversion the temperature actually increases with height through some depth. Meteorologists call this a negative lapse rate. The more negative the lapse rate, the more stable the atmosphere. A stable atmosphere resists or inhibits upward or downward motion keeping the potential wind shear layer near the surface from mixing. No mixing yields no turbulence.
Beware on approach
Even though the air may be glassy smooth, imagine the case where you are flying an instrument approach with this kind of wind shear in place. Even if the wind doesn’t change direction in the wind shear layer, you will still have to contend with the change of wind speed that is increasing rapidly with height from the surface. If the wind is right off your nose and you are flying an ILS, for example, you will notice as you intercept the localizer around 2,000 ft AGL your groundspeed will be abnormally low (you have a 40 knot headwind in the case for Asheville). As you begin to track the glideslope, your groundspeed will increase since the headwind is decreasing in the descent. This means you’ll have to increase your rate of descent to keep the glideslope needle centered.
You can also imagine this being a tailwind or a direct crosswind while on the approach. So you have be constantly changing the descent rate or heading (crab angle) into the wind. Keep in mind that non-convective LLWS comes in all shapes and sizes. There’s not a one size fits all method to handle this. In most cases, this form of wind shear is not something you should fear, but it’s something you definitely need to manage. It is probably present more than it’s forecast.
Besides the shear in the overnight hours discussed above, non-convective LLWS may be associated with the following: frontal passage, lee side mountain effect, sea breeze front and Santa Ana winds just to name a few. In a future blog I will discuss the meteorology behind non-convective LLWS and provide some background when this phenomenon can become dangerous.