“It’s a vast subject.” My friend and fellow pilot Ted was shaking his head as I enthused about the various airmasses and the weather patterns they were likely to produce. I was fresh off one of Simon Keeling’s Weather School courses for pilots to get a better grasp of that most changeable of subjects, meteorology.
Simon can communicate his love of all things weather with anyone. “The weather story is my passion and I love doing it.” It all started as a little boy obsessed about the whys of weather, and he has never stopped asking the questions. Instead of the rather tedious subject so many pilots encounter with their PPL or NPPL, once touched by Simon’s infectious enthusiasm, you will either understand why it’s happening, or, at the very least, simply watch and say wow!
I spoke to Simon, himself a trainee pilot at Halfpenny Green, wondering whether his vast knowledge of the weather meant he struggled with it like the rest of us. When I ask what came first, weather or flying, I get a fast rewind through his career.
“I’ve been fascinated with weather since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” he says with his delightfully vivid turn of phrase. “We had some very severe winters in the Seventies, and I kept asking why.” So off to the library the family went, and he ended up copying out the books to keep the content. Then followed short wave radio. “I was always fascinated by aviation and flying. I’d tune into Volmets and when I discovered I could get data from the other side of the world, from Moscow and Washington, I just fell in love with it.”
Even Simon smiles at the thought of himself as a kid meticulously recording the shipping forecasts for about five years. “I still have them!” When you are writing out mock TAFs and plotting up charts it’s no surprise that you can start a little business selling your forecasts to local radio stations. But despite working for a local weatherman as a young teenager, he says, “I wanted a proper job, so I went to work in a bank.”
Inevitably, that didn’t last long, and he returned to his passion. Some people will recognise his friendly face from a stint on national television. He was 23 and working night shift at a weather forecaster when he got his lucky break. A GMTV presenter didn’t pitch for his shift after a Christmas party and they were desperate for a stand-in. No-one else was available. Simon’s dubious employer suggested he dress up as Father Christmas, in case he made a hash of it, but Simon was having none of that. “I do it as myself or not at all.” He did so well that for the following five years he’d leave home at 2am, be driven down to London for a 6am appearance and be home by 11am. “Oh don’t be too sorry for me, it was a chauffeur-driven Jaguar,” he hastens to add.
Simon Keeling was one of the youngest members of the Royal Meteorological Society at the age of 12, and even though he left school with only 3GCSEs, he is now a Doctor of Meteorology and has been a guest lecturer at the University of Birmingham for many years. The school results simply reflect his absorbing passion – he was too busy teaching his peers about physics and weather to worry about anything else, but eventually he was mixing in international circles with weathermen and decided he needed the piece of paper that comes with degrees. The doctorate was a natural progression, and now he is inspiring a new generation of weather forecasters.
At the same time, his business acumen has never waned, and he was building up a company that offered weather consulting services for pilots, sailors, farmers and all manner of other businesses.
“Aviation was always there, I just never had the opportunity to learn to fly, working shifts and building up my own business.” Simon describes himself as “a perennial PPL student” having started years ago, but he is now determined to get flying properly. He started on a Grob, “much more unforgiving than the Cessna 152 I’m learning in now.”
“I suppose I was fearful of looking at it from a forecaster’s point of view, not a pilot’s. Now with around 20 hours under the belt, I have a greater appreciation of things like crosswinds, or the human factor of flying.”
“In fact,” he adds, “when we talk to pilots planning a trip, you are more often psychiatrist than forecaster and you know from the things they say, they want you to hold their hand, to let them chat through things.”
One thing I took from Simon’s course was how important it is to take a look out of the window. “The weather hasn’t read the textbook,” he says. “It’s okay not to understand what it’s doing. I will sometimes end a shift and still not know what it’s doing. Everybody gets caught out. It’s a chaotic system and there are very seldom right and wrong answers.”
Weather School sees all types of pilots from commercial to GA and microlight pilots sign up. Simon started this business in 2000 and has been running ten to 20 courses a year for pilots and sailors alike. “Covid forced my hand. I was thinking of doing courses online, but now I do the same number but for five times as many pilots. The growth has been exponential.“
Back in the day, the Met Office Forms 214 and 215 that we pilots take for granted, were only available through subscription. Now that they are free online, Simon is determined to ensure that they are the first place the pilot looks for their forecast and that they know how to use them. I confess starting his course with little regard for them, and a preference for the ease of a weather app, but I am a convert. My biggest takeout was to look at the bigger picture, and I can now watch with fascination as a front passes overhead and know roughly how long we have before the ‘warm sector’ passes.
One of his secret weapons is the Skew-T diagram, which gives a vertical view of what clouds are doing, where they top and bottom and therefore a much more accurate idea of where you will get rain. “Why don’t more people know about this?” I asked him. “Weather forecasting hasn’t really kept up to date and I would love that to happen,” he replied.
Another element he believes pilots should use is the Beaufort scale, working out what their personal limits are respect of wind speed and how that translates into what they see around them. He is outspoken in his dislike of “sexy” apps which are all based on the same modelling and don’t have a human interface to interpret them. “It’s similar to Covid and the modelling comparisons. It all depends on the human interpretation that decides what is right and wrong and adjusts accordingly. Modelling is only a tool, not an absolute. The idea that you can predict weather for a postcode is ridiculous.”
Simon’s dream is to improve safety in aviation and help pilots get better at interpreting the weather. “There is greater demand for more weather knowledge. As more and more info is available online, I want to help pilots see the wood for the trees. Often the information doesn’t match up with what the pilot is experiencing. You need to be using your own eyes. Metars can be wrong. Microlight pilots are often more sensitive to weather, while in a GA plane you can power up and through it.” With Simon Keeling at the helm, there is every chance that meteorology will go from being in the realm of pompous pontification to a field of exciting chaos we can all enjoy.
- This article was published in the January 2021 edition of Microlight Flying.