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Weather Forecasting

Smooth Flying

Mike Eckert at his desk at the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control System Command Center

On a typical day, there are more than 6,000 planes flying over North America. Who's making sure they all get to their destinations safely, avoiding thunderstorms, turbulence and other hazards?

People like Mike Eckert do.

He's a National Aviation Meteorologist. He works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service in the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control System Command Center near Warrenton, Virginia. In weather lingo, he's a NAM working for NOAA's NWS in the FAA's ATCSCC.

The inside of the Air Traffic Control System Command Center. Image courtesy of Mike Eckert, National Weather Service.

What exactly do National Aviation Meteorologists do?

Along with three other National Aviation Meteorologists, Eckert provides weather information to the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines and pilots. They focus on weather that will impact planes that are already in the sky, flying toward their destinations, as well as planes that are about to take off or land. They monitor and forecast the weather and pass the information to the aviation industry so that they can make informed decisions. Sometimes that means delaying or canceling flights.

A map of normal mid-day air traffic across the country. There are 6,871 planes in this picture. Image courtesy of Mike Eckert, National Weather Service.

The major paths planes take across the United States. Image courtesy of Mike Eckert, National Weather Service.

"The day shift starts at 4:30 a.m., and we are responsible for setting the ‘weather table' for the National Air Space," said Eckert. "Getting the forecast correct in the morning supports a much more organized and efficient flow of air traffic throughout the day. But weather does change and we are not perfect, so we are constantly fine tuning our forecasts throughout the day."

Mike Eckert points at a map during a weather briefing. In front of him to the left is Jessica Strahley, Enroute Specialist; to the right is Joe Varrati, National Operations Manager.

Interest in Weather Born in a Thunderstorm

As a child, Eckert's father, a jet mechanic and electronics specialist for the U.S. Air Force, was transferred to Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City. There, Eckert experienced his first thunderstorm, complete with hailstones the size of baseballs.

"I was hooked on weather!" Eckert recalls. "The next day I was in the base library looking for books on thunderstorms."

An example of the Collaborated Aviation Weather Statement (CAWS), a forecasting tool that focuses on high impact thunderstorms. Image courtesy of Mike Eckert, National Weather Service.

An Education and Career in Weather

Eckert went to the University of Oklahoma, earning his degree in meteorology. He also studied computer science at Cleveland State University and did graduate meteorology studies at the University of Maryland.

A few years out of college, Eckert decided to pursue a career with the National Weather Service, and he got an internship in Toledo, Ohio. He was promoted a few years later, becoming a Forecaster. From there he became the Warning and Preparedness Meteorologist in Cleveland, Ohio.

When the National Weather Service and Federal Aviation Administration decided to include meteorologists in the Air Traffic Control System Command Center, he was one of the first forecasters brought into that office.

Outside the Command Center

When Eckert isn't helping planes takeoff, fly and land safely, he's outside fishing and hiking near his home. "Both hobbies are highly influenced by the weather," noted Eckert.

Eckert is a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and works with others on trail maintenance and improvement projects, including a 1.2-mile stretch of the Lower Jones Mountain Trail that is his own personal trail he maintains. In the above picture, he's working on the Meadow Spring Trail in Shenandoah National Park.