I have a quick forty minute flight to do, but I haven't checked the weather for a few hours, because I checked out of the hotel this morning and my computer is packed away. I go into the FBO to use their pilot briefing room. They have a dedicated terminal for a proprietary weather briefing system. The US has many different proprietary pilot briefing systems that different FBOs subscribe to. Some of them are great, better than the Nav Canada system, but I haven't learned ever wrinkle of every system. I click something that looks useful on this one, but it tells me this FBO doesn't subscribe to that option. Too useful, I guess. If I have the option I'll just go to the US government system, because I've invested the time to learn my way around it, and it's good.
I don't know the chronology on this, but here's what I suspect happened. The US has long had an online system called DUATS. I wouldn't be surprised if DUATS were originally a teletype service for the airlines, back when the Telex and the DC-3 were first invented. DUATS classic is a highly condensed ALL CAPS code that the cool American pilots with computers were using back when Canadians just called up flight services on the telephone. It's no wonder that commercial services stepped in to offer the Americans easier-to-use services. They must have been expensive, but they were a benefit the competitive American FBOs could offer their customers. In Canada the FBOs didn't have to attract customers (what are you going to do, stay up there forever or land at the only airport in 400 miles?) so no such system arose until Nav Canada put everything on a website. I don't know which website provided flight briefing services first, Nav Canada or NOAA.
I click around the unfamiliar program to find the same products I would get anywhere. Most of these systems are pretty intuitive: you click on things and get METARs and TAFs and pretty pictures. If you're lucky the one you are using has done something clever with the data to give you a graphical route briefing but as far as I can tell, this one just retrieves text forecasts and reports, and a graphic of TFRs, including the oxymoronic "permanent TFRs." The closest TFRs to me are Disneyworld and an airshow up in North Texas, so I'm safe.
Meanwhile the METAR for destination shows me clouds lower than the highest towers in the vicinity of the runway, and low visibility. In fact there's an IFR AIRMET Sierra out for such conditions to persist over a wide area until noon. An AIRMET (it may have been a SIGMET, they're identical in format) warns of a hazardous condition affecting an area. Here's an example, not the one I was looking at, but the same format.
WAUS43 KKCI 182045
CHIZ WA 182045
AIRMET ZULU UPDT 3 FOR ICE AND FRZLVL VALID UNTIL 190300
AIRMET ICE...MN IA MO WI LS MI LH IL
FROM 20NW YQT TO 80NNE SAW TO 20NW DBQ TO BDF TO 50SW PXV TO 30SW FAM TO 40N SGF TO 60SE OVR TO DLH TO 20NW YQT
MOD ICE BLW 070. CONDS CONTG BYD 03Z THRU 09Z.
The first couple lines say which station issued it and when. The third line names this update as Z3, warning of icing conditions until 03Z, occurring in the states listed in the fourth line. Specifically the ice is expected inside an area bounded by lines drawn between the points given: from 20 nm northwest of YQT --hey, I know that one: Thunder Bay--to 80 nm north-northeast of SAW and so on through the airports I don't know, back around the polygon to Thunder Bay.
I'm not positive that the AIRMET covers my destination, as it gives corner points, all airport identifiers, and I can only find two of them on my chart. I'm used to the graphic and am not used to reading the text version of the US style. I may be missing a graphical mode on this system to show me the AIRMETs, like the first page on the NOAA site. In Canada, the boundaries of a SIGMET or AIRMET are given in lat-long coordinates, with directions and distances to airports in parentheses, so you don't need to know where YQT is to find it on your chart.
WSCN34 CWUL 181918
SIGMET A4 VALID 181920/182320 CWUL-
WTN 60 NM OF LN /4808N05156W/45 NE ST JOHNS - /4615N05610W/30 S ST PIERRE.
STG WNDS OBSD AT SVRL STNS DUE 65KT LLJ. SEV MECH TURB FCST BLO 40 AGL. XTNDG WWD 10 KT. LTL CHG EXPD.
I would have pulled up the same warning for the Canadian side, but Canada only issues SIGMETs for severe icing. SIGMETs are issued for ICAO-mandated hazardous conditions and AIRMETs for country specific hazards that don't meet SIGMET-nastiness criteria. You can see that the format of the SIGMET above is pretty much like the US one, but with lat-long coordinates and spelled out place names in place of airport identifiers. I like that because I usually have some idea where "Muskoka" or is without looking, but if you don't you can find it on the chart easily. There are so many airports in the US, no one could know them all, so I'm surprised that they don't do the same. Of course, they probably think our system is broken for not plotting the SIGMETs on a map of the country.
There must be a tool I'm not thinking of that I could use to find these airports. I could google them, or otherwise look them up but I'm just sitting at a dedicated planning terminal with my chart. I'll have to go back out to the airplane and get the AF/D. I refresh again and now see that AIRMET Sierra has been extended through to 03Z. That's nine in the evening. Great.
I put off figuring out the AIRMET and check the NOTAMs. The NDB is out of service at my destination and the only other approach there is GPS, which I don't have for IFR approaches. So I'm going VFR if I'm going.
I refresh the destination METAR a few times. It's an autostation so should give frequent updates and I can get a trend. So far that trend is downwards.
Another pilot comes in. I offer him the terminal, but he's just here for coffee. He used to fly Dash-8s, so we chat about Dash-8 anti-ice protection and stall behaviour. I mention my AIRMET issue and he offers to see if he knows the airports. When I pull up the AIRMET it's gone. There isn't even a S3 cancelling the original AIRMET. That must be an artifact of the system. Or don't US SIGMETs end with a cancelling SIGMET, like this.
WSCN34 CWUL 182149
SIGMET B3 CANCELLED AT 182150 CWUL-
TS HAVE BECM ISOLD.
I refresh the METAR and my destination is 3800' scattered. Hey, works for me. Good talking to you. I'm ready to go.