JJ’s Excellent Adventure

March 9, 2011 by epubs

Does anyone, besides me, think the Notam system is a mess?  One of our senior staff members planned short VFR hop from Frederick to Ocean City, NJ. It’s about 130 nm as the buzzard flies but there were, get this, 73 pages of Notams.  I didn’t think our aviation system was that decrepit but so it was. There was all the usual foolishness about towers 7 miles from the airport, 150 feet agl, that had been unlit for months.

The ever-popular 26N RWY 6/24 PAEW ADJ [translated – Ocean City, NJ, runways 6 -24 personnel and equipment working adjacent]. Almost every airport has that Notam. It is very popular with airport managers who can put virtually anything into the system and leave it there for as long as their lawyers tell them. Something insignificant might change and the airport could get sued for something. News flash – Any society that needs disclaimers has too many lawyers.” ~Erik Pepke.

But there was one sleeper buried in all the meaningless drivel that WAS important. 26N AD CLSD- translated means the aerodrome (AD) is closed (i.e you can’t land here – Jack !)  Seems like we could have put that into plain English at the top of the heap but the Notam trolls prefer to pounce when you least expect it!

It would seem that the system really isn’t there for safety and to notify pilots of operational issues. Perhaps I’m a bit cynical but it sure appears that it’s there more to protect the authorities from any conceivable threat for failure to warn. This keeps officialdom off the hook because of FAR 91.103 that states “Each Pilot-in-Command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” Everything – no matter how obscure.

On a recent VFR flight I called FSS to check TFRs and Notams and was advised, after considerable non-pertinent ones, that operations on Runway 26 were dangerous. “Dangerous? ”

I asked, “How so?” The briefer responded ” Doesn’t Say.”

Hmmmmm.  “Is the runway closed?” ” No”

“I’m confused,” I opined. ” Well, I think there’s work being done on the airport and the tower doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

FAA has been promising to fix this over-warning, under-informing system for years but never quite gets the jobs done. There is always some constituency that just has to have a particular Notam. Apparently there is no common sense left on how to manage it.

Alas, that shortcoming may not be unique to aviation!

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jeff Tyler

    Once upon a time most FSS folk waded though these silly NOTAM’s during a briefing and filtered out those that were not pertinent. Alas, those days are long gone, thanks in large part to AOPA’s acceding to the privatization of the FSS system. Now, LM briefers are liable to be fired if they don’t pass everything along, pertinent or not. Judgement is not allowed.

  • Jack

    Wow. So true. Maybe Sen. Inhofe should hold a hearing to get to the bottom of the problem!

    Joking aside — I know that in about 500 hours of flying, I’ve hardly ever heard a NOTAM that really mattered.

    If I’m on an ILS to minimums, I’m thinking about keeping the needles straight, not the 50FT unlit tower 1.8 Miles SE of the field.

  • http://www.somebits.com/weblog/aviation/ Nelson Minar

    The problem is some NOTAMs are important. You may not care about the 50FT unlit tower but you might care very much that the VOR you need for the missed is out of service. And unless you’re a senator you’d like to know about closed runways. It’s easy to miss an important NOTAM for all the junk.

    One help is filtering the NOTAMs and presenting them better. ForeFlight, for instance, sorts the NOTAMs by type (the fourth column) so you can pay very close attention to Aerodrome NOTAMs but skim the Obstruction NOTAMs a bit more quickly. duat.com also made a simple change to improve readability: highlight the third column, the airport affected by the NOTAM. Makes it easier to pick out NOTAMs relevant to the airport you’re actually going to.

    It’d be relatively simple to build a website that does a much better job presenting NOTAMs; a few days’ design work could do wonders. For instance, we have a miraculous new typesetting technology called lower case! But there’s little incentive for someone to develop improvements to the NOTAM system.

  • Jon Moore

    I had one experience that made me question whether NOTAMs are really working for me. IFR to non-towered field which used AWOS from another field over 20 miles away. Approach chart gave frequency but not airport identifier of field providing AWOS. AWOS on other field was NOTAM’d OTS, but preflight brief and online NOTAM search did not reveal that info. Had to divert.

    Another complaint I have is that OTS NAVAIDs are not FDC NOTAMs. FDC’s should cover all phases of flight, not just approaches.

  • Mark McCormick

    This might help:
    Use ORD for practice.

  • Eric

    Great points, Bruce, and on a topic that makes me crazy. As an airline Captain I get dispatch releases from my company’s dispatchers every day with page after page of NOTAMs. Despite great advances in computer and network speeds, and unbelievable cheapness of data storage (I just bought a 1TB hard drive for $58!), NOTAMs are still written in almost impenetrable code instead of plain language.

    Both the FARs and company policy require me to become familiar with all available info before operating a flight. How am I supposed to do that — and operate on time — when I may have to review NOTAMs and weather for as many as six airports on a given flight (departure, departure alternate, performance/mid-point alternate, destination, first alternate and second alternate)?

    A NOTAM system that presented the information I need in an easily accessible way would be a VAST improvement. FAA, are you listening? Hello…?

  • Brian Turrisi

    The real issue boils down to the laws of physics! By that I mean the law of inertia.
    “A stationary object wants to remain at rest until another force comes to put it in motion”.
    The FAA NOTAM system was created decades ago when teletypes were the standard form of delivering the information. The data needed to be compact, abbreviated and filed in a way that was not reader friendly. We are way beyond that now as “bandwidth” capability has increased exponentially since that time. Yet the inertia resisting change has kept the old system largely intact.
    This has nothing to do with Lockheed Martin but does have a lot to do with FAA policies and procedures that are slow to change.
    The good news is that they have listened and promised that change is coming but it clearly is long overdue.

  • Sam Singer

    Oh Bruce — still flying over 26N and i am almost out of gas looking to land on runway 26 — maybe i am at the wrong airport — 26N runways are 6/24 — well, well see you next week — Sam

  • Anthony Guardalabene

    If it were me I would have the airport manager and crew use common sense, most of these issues are resolvable right at that level. I don’t understand why we have to get the government involved in simple things like this, no one seems to have any common sense anymore…very simple…if there are hazards around post them…if the runway is closed say why and when it will be open…towers should be marked of course…a tower 7 miles from the airport at 150 feet should not be an issue as I see it, MARK THEM…and so on…use common sense

    Tony G

  • Keith Dickson

    Completely agreed, Bruce. The NOTAM system has become a ridiculous mess that may actually be approaching the point of detracting from safety instead of enhancing it due to information overload and poor presentation. And this is from the perspective of a weekend VFR flyer. I sympathize with the professional pilots who are required to wade through volumes of mostly irrelevant data for every flight.

  • J. LeTourneau

    Even the Lockheed Martin guys/gals don’t know how to read the Notams. This last summer I wanted to go to Cortez, CO to overnight, the LM person said no notams, when I got overhead the field had equipment resurfacing the runway, it was X’s closed. I ended up In Moab, Utah. The next day I in Logan, Utah getting weather and Notams for Idaho and the lady tells me all about the fires and the areas that are burning and I ask for Burley and Gooding info. She comes back that Gooding is open but one runway is closed. Gooding only has one runway, I’m not a helicopter and I can’t land on the ramp so if the runway is closed then the field is closed for aircraft, she didn’t get it. It’s like duh if the runway is closed then the field should be closed to, she said something about airports lossing Federal money if the field is close which sounded to me like BS. I’m an old guy and remember the days when the FSS briefer was your friend and helpful, he would give you hints like “I don’t like the look of this” and he/she knew the local weather patterns and where things would be worse first. In those days they knew there area and they knew how many runways a airport had and if the field was going to be resurfaced and would be closed. I miss the good old days when AV gas was 80/87 and cost 50 cents a gallon and the FAA was really there to help me.

  • Bruce Liddel

    I remember when VIP TFRs were written so carelessly (broadly) that they could be interpreted as allowing deadly force to be used against small children playing with control-line model airplanes 29 NM from TFR center. After about a year, they finally revised the wording…

    Change is so slow, and so unpredictable.

  • Chip Davis

    Mr. Minar is absolutely correct regarding how little effort it would take to implement a website to bring some usability/sanity to the NOTAM system. It sound like such a good idea that you might even be able to sell a couple of ads on the site to make it pay for itself, even if you don’t get rich doing it.

    But you’d better make sure FlightPrep hasn’t filed a patent on it…

  • Bud Russer

    Keith Dickson is right, but he is too kind. The NOTAM system IS a ridiculous mess that DOES detract from safety. I had a college professor who asked rhetorically,
    “Who is responsible for good communication?” His answer was “the person who wants to successfully complete the communication” That would involve the FAA just as much as it involves us. Drowning us in useless verbage that is actually hiding really important information is unacceptable. At the very least, categorizing issues by Importance would go a long way toward helping everyone.

    Please stay on this issue Bruce –

  • Rebecca

    There ought to be a category of NOTAMS for IFR only. They could be easily filtered out during VFR briefings, especially for already overwhelmed student pilots.

    A nod to Nashville FSS: those guys still do a great job telling you what you need. Thanks BNA!

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Seems like I’ve struck a bit of a nerve. We’ll forward this to some of our friends at FAA. Perhaps there will be some interest. Perhaps not.

  • John Hey

    Well, to solve this problem we will have to deactivate the lawyers and the terrorist who want to plunder for money the “legal” system. Second, bring in the private, free market sector to solve the problem like a useful website. On a trip from Bangor to Cleveland OH several years ago in real IFR, clearance delibery gave me a full route makeover down by NY. On the way I could not tune a VOR on the airway but got one a few miles further on the airway. When I asked the controller if that VOR was out, he fired back “Yes, didn’t you bother to get a brierfing before leaving?” I said, “Yes, but it was not for this route that you all gave me.” Then it was quitet except for a few mike clicks!

  • Sam Ferguson

    For a relatively low time IFR pilot, trying to decode all the NOTAMS is, quite frankly, asinine.I’ve even spent hours on websites trying to at least become familiar with some of the codes. The system is obviously ridiculously outdated and archaic, yet I am sure somebodies head will fall when they fail to understand it. It is typical government bureaucratic process that is too inefficient to fix it.

  • Sam Ferguson

    It was interesting to read the poll (regarding getting rid of lawyers). Some time ago I contacted the AOPA (about the time of the Cirrus judgment) about a law in Florida that disallows lawsuits related to injury of death associated with equine (horse) activities due to inherent risks. Why cant that law be used toward air flight? And other dangerous activities? My guess is the lawyers will not pass a law that cuts off their ability to use the system for their own personal gain.

  • Mac Tichenor

    Far better to light a candle than curse the darkness. If we only had an organization of aircraft owners and pilots with the political clout to do something about this, and a champion in that organization who would take this on. Oh, wait…

  • http://www.somebits.com/weblog/aviation/ Nelson Minar

    Mr. Davis: I’d be delighted to build a website with better NOTAM presentation. But as you say, at best you could have the site pay for itself with ads. Sounds OK, but that doesn’t begin to cover the legal liability the first time someone misses the AD CLSD NOTAM on your new website and sues you. Not interested.

    I’m told duat.com and duats.com are making something like $2 / briefing delivered on their 1998 technology websites. But that contract is guaranteed, they have no incentive to improve presentation.

  • Martin

    Add me to the list that agrees! When getting my IFR ticket I was flying everyday and checking the notams every day for practically the same training route. I always wished there was a way to say “tell me what is different from the last time I looked”. This would cut down on the workload. I had handwritten corrections already in my charts for minimums that were adjusted etc.. so I just needed to know what was new. I imagine airline pilots who fly everday have this problem in spades.

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