The National Weather Service (NWS) is one of the primary sources for weather information used by pilots and dispatchers to plan and monitor flights. Weather information is a fundamental element in the lives of aviators, and has been since the first aviators took to the skies. The NWS we know today was originally called the Weather Bureau, created by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870, 33 years before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. To celebrate the NWS’s sesquicentennial, let’s look at how weather information has changed lives and shaped entire generations.
The first large-scale attempt to gather weather information began in 1849, when the Smithsonian Institution supplied weather instruments to telegraph companies to establish a weather observation network. The network relied on 150 volunteers throughout the United States to submit observations via telegraph to the Smithsonian, where the weather maps were eventually created—a far cry from the instantaneous readings available to us today.
Over the following twenty years, that network grew and absorbed many other weather-reporting systems, including many state weather services. Then, in 1870, an official weather service was born. According to NWS history:
A joint Congressional Resolution required the Secretary of War to “provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent, and at other points in the States and Territories . . . and for giving notice on the northern lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.” On February 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signs the resolution into law. The U.S. Army Signal Service is assigned to oversee the new organization, with Gen. Albert J. Myer as its first Chief.
Notice the similarity of the symbols used on on the surface weather maps current weather charts.
William Abner Eddy was the pioneer of the winds aloft readings we use today. In August 1894, at the Blue Hill Observatory near Boston, MA, Eddy chained five diamond kites together with a total sail area of nine square meters. The chain of kites was attached to a thermograph that was lifted to a height of 1,500 feet, recording measurements as it traveled to altitude. Once recordings were completed, the thermograph was safely returned to Eddy and his technicians on the ground by carefully reeling in the kites. It wasn’t until 1909 that the Weather Bureau began it’s program of free-rising weather balloons we are familiar with.
In 1903, the eminent Wright Brothers made history by achieving the first powered airplane flight at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., after consulting with the Weather Bureau to determine the most suitable location with steady winds.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh prepared for the first transatlantic flight from Long Island, NY to Paris, France by asking for information from the Weather Bureau. But before the Weather Bureau was able to provide Charles Lindbergh with their analysis, he departed and was greeted with fog and rain along his journey. Had he waited for the Weather Bureau’s analysis, he would have known to delay the flight for at least 12 hours, potentially making his expedition a more comfortable one.
After decades of development in weather technology, the most prominent moment in the history of the Weather Bureau came in 1942, when the Navy gave the Weather Bureau 25 surplus aircraft radars to be modified for ground meteorological use. This allowed U.S. carrier-based Navy planes to defeat the Japanese fleet in the mid-Pacific Battle of Midway Island in early June 1942, a turning point in World War II. Two years later, the Invasion of Normandy used weather forecasts to predict the ideal combination of tides and winds for the attack.
In the mid 20th century, two exciting developments in technology helped advance weather systems into a new era of observing and forecasting.
- In 1954, the first radar specifically designed for meteorological use, designated AN/CPS-9, was unveiled by the Air Weather Service of the U.S. Air Force.
- In 1960, the Weather Bureau was armed with the world’s first weather satellite, the polar-orbiting TIROS I, after it successfully launched from the Air Force Missile Test Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The TIROS I carried cameras thatsent the first television pictures back from space during its 78-days in operation.
In 1961, special training began for Federal Aviation Authority employees to equip them to brief pilots as part of a joint FAA-Weather Bureau program, similar to what pilots know today as weather briefings. Additionally, this was the year when the first official forecast of clear air turbulence were issued.
The U.S. Weather Bureau was renamed the National Weather Service in 1970. Significant developments have been made since then to provide advanced early warning of potential natural disasters. It played a key role in launching the first “hurricane hunter” Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) into orbit, vastly reducing the loss of life from devastating storms. GOES also allowed aviators to use multi-wave imagery to identify the different levels of clouds, moisture, water vapor, and smoke/ash long flight paths.
In 1980, the NWS was able to identify the imminent eruption of the previously dormant Mt. St. Helens volcano in Washington state, prompting an alert to the FAA that notified pilots of the threat.
The Rutan Voyager completed the first nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world in 1986 with assistance from NWS employees (including retired and volunteer individuals).
By this time, the NWS deserved an upgrade—an eight year, $4.5 billion national plan for the modernization and restructuring. The overhaul allowed the organization to develop and implement the following major technologies:
- Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) replaced manual weather observations at airports.
- Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD), a network of advanced Doppler radars, contributed to increased lead times in predicting severe weather events, such as tornadoes, hail, and flash floods.
- A new series of satellites provided improved, all-weather data for longer-term forecasting.
- Advanced computer systems increased the computing power to support National Centers.
- Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) allowed communication among forecast offices and distribution of centrally collected data.
Recently, services such as HIWAS and area forecasts have been discontinued; however, new services have been developed, such as Graphical Forecasts for Aviation (GFAs). As new technology provides easier access to information, these new services put highly accurate and more useful data at our fingertips. With NextGen and ADS-B, we now have access to a host of weather products directly in the cockpit without paying for subscriptions.
The NWS helps save lives through its observations and forecasting, work that must not be taken for granted. On the 150th year of its existence, we celebrate the people of the NWS who help us safely plan our flights and navigate the skies. Take a few minutes to visit the NWS Aviation Weather Center website and check out the daily weather maps from the day when you were born at the NOAA Central Library online. You can learn more about weather resources in our book, Aviation Weather and Weather Services.
Written by Ryan Jeff, AGI, Aviation Research Assistant, and Paul Duty, CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, Chief Instructor