Read the Flippin’ Notam!

April 9, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

LAL arrivalsI’m not a big fan of the largely bureaucratic exercise we call the notam system. Most notams are nearly irrelevant and a few are absolutely critical. For those few that are operationally essential, pilots should darn well better know what’s happening.

Last week, flying into the Sun ‘n Fun (SNF) area—and although not headed directly to Lakeland (LAL)—it seemed prudent to review the notam. An airshow of that magnitude can booger up (a technical ATC term) a lot of airspace and multiple airports. The controllers were masterful in separating the IFR types from each other and the VFR inbounds to LAL and various satellite airports.

But there are a few—well OK a few more than a few—who were what I’ll charitably call “clueless.” There is a 37-page notam that covers every aspect of operating in and around SNF. It’s well written and organized—would that ALL notams were as pertinent and well written. Besides just the logistics of operating in highly congested airspace, there is essential safety info to keep aircraft from swapping paint or worse!

Right there on page four it says: “The airport is CLOSED during aerobatic demonstrations and nightly from 2200-0600 EDT (0200-1000 UTC).” It is even highlighted in yellow, so you can’t miss it! On the very next page there is a table that states exactly when the airport is closed for the daily airshow given in both local and UTC (GMT or Zulu, whatever you’d like to call that time that everybody has trouble remembering the conversion factor for).

So, about 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, when the airport closed at 1200 (noon) local, the Tampa controller asked a LAL-bound pilot if he was going to make it in before 1200. The pilot answered he’d be “maybe a few minutes late.” The controller asked if he had any alternatives in mind. Well, it’s a new day and the pilot hadn’t considered that, so the controller patiently listed several other airports that might be used. Our friend asked which one had ground transportation to the show! Somebody else piped up with an answer, and “Mr. Better-Informed” headed off.

Shortly after that, two other inbounds also decided that they, too, would divert. Finally, a jet called in on the Lake Parker VFR Arrival—used only for piston aircraft—and ATC calmly explained that he’d get vectors for a straight-in to Runway 9.

So, while this is a good example of a notable notam ignored, way too many are irrelevant. Too many committees have all promised that they would fix the system, and all that started at least 15 years ago!

Two observations:

1. Stop giving notams in code—the teletype isn’t coming back, and we can handle the bandwidth.

2. Stop listing operationally irrelevant stuff, like unlit towers five miles from the airport and 275 feet agl. If you’re operating a helicopter at night that may be useful, but for the rest of us it just creates clutter.

Next time you’re planning a trip, please review all the items that somebody thought would be essential for you to fly safely. We’ll give a prize for whoever comes up with the most absurd. Remember to parse out the critical stuff that may have been buried—some of it is really important. And if you’re going to an airshow—please read the flippin’ notam.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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20 Responses to “Read the Flippin’ Notam!”

  1. Duane Says:

    Amen, Bruce!

    Even though you didn’t say so specifically, the seeds of unread NOTAMs begin with the fact that few if any pilots are going to read a 37-page NOTAM. Or will even fully read the more common multi-page NOTAMs used at most public use airports, filled, as you say, with irrelevant and repetitive info on short unlit towers and such.

    If the FAA (or the airshow sponsor) can’t reduce the pertinent safety information in a NOTAM down to one page or less, even at Sun’n Fun, then there’s simply too much information. So it won’t be read, renderng it useless nearly useless.

    The entire GA regulatory system needs a full top to bottom review and massive simplification – not just to reduce clutter, but to improve safety and lower the cost of personal aviation.

  2. Lawrence Stalla Says:

    Bruce, since you’re offering a prize for the most absurd, I will note FDC NOTAM 7/2992 that I received as part of a weather brief for a recent flight from Colorado Springs to Denver on a VMC day: “Special Notice … the Iranian Government has issued NOTAMs specific to restricted areas …”. With only 250 pounds of fuel aboard for my planned 25-minute trip, I doubt I would have been able to divert to Tehran …

  3. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Lawrence,

    I like it! Your odds of winning are excellent at the moment so c’mon people, you must have some good ones. If we reach critical mass we’ll forward on the the FAA for some consideration on how to stop the madness.

    It’s easy to fuss – it’s much more productive to do something about it!

  4. Terk Williams Says:

    Good start Bruce

    I’ve flown into Sun n Fun many years almost since its inception. This years NOTAM was as good as any but you are very right about the whole system. It is one more bit of confusion in an otherwise (usually) hectic pre flight…. and my wife wants to know if we still have weight for the porta potty..and did I load the stuff to sell at the Fly Market…

    We’ve had a standard format for flight plans, ATIS and AWAS are always in a specific format. Tower clearances are always in a consistent and expected format (well.. almost always..) Many, MANY years ago even the aircraft manufacturers settled on the ATA 100 set up. It shouldn’t be that hard to set up a standard NOTAM with the who, why, when, where, what on less than one page with references to additional standard pages/paragraphs if there are frequencies, pictures (we like pictures…) as needed.

    Maybe AOPA Safety or the CFI gang could generate this and propose it to the FAA as a done deal that all they have to do is try it out then mod to needs….? Some ONE… needs to do it once for a starting point…. PLEASE! B-))

  5. drew Says:

    new this year was the closing of the airport after the night airshow( which was moved from fri to sat) . used to be we could leave from the north side after crew cleared runway of debris. also the north side was open all night without the tower.
    tower stayed in past stayed open until the 5 or so planes on north had left.
    too bad our 250000 dollar atc fee doesnt cover this.
    as a result we did not attend sat at all and left for home.

  6. Bruce Farrar Says:

    Lockheed Martin at Ft. Worth TX told me that once a notam is published as permanent in the AFD (Airport Facilities Directory), the notam in the FAA system is DELETED! In the case of skydiving operations (PJO), this is rediculous as we pilots don’t look at every airport notam that we over-fly. Obviously, pilots would not be aware of this activity via an FAA Briefing nor review of the FAA Notams.

  7. spoo Says:

    Amen to the code comment – this is, after all, the 21st century. Same goes for WX!

  8. Chris Pfaff Says:

    To Duane — You don’t think the 37-pager is relevant?
    Of course it is…but only to money-greedy lawyers.
    It gives them an excuse -yes an excuse- to raise the cost of aviation for the rest of us.
    And via the NOTAM system, the FAA shows that it doesn’t care a bit about people flying, only that their own butt is covered. Again, it’s fear of lawyers.
    Solution #1: Severely penalize lawyers who file frivolous or ambulance- (or hearse-) chasing lawsuits.
    Solution #2: Replace the FAA leadership with “normal” G.A. pilots who speak Flying, not law.
    Solution #3: See Solution #1.

  9. Cary Alburn Says:

    I’ve never flown to SNF, but I’m a regular into OSH, and the same problem exists, every year. Sometimes the controllers accommodate them anyway, sometimes not. Here’s an interesting example. Last year I refueled at LSE (LaCrosse, WI), and as I prepared to taxi out, an Aerostar called the tower, and this was pretty much the conversation as I recall it (no foolin’!):
    AS: Tower, Aerostar XXX, what’s the identifier for Oshkosh?
    Twr: Standby. Cessna xxx (me), you’re going to Oshkosh, right?
    Me: xxx, affirmative. The identifier is O-S-H.
    Twr: Thank you. Aerostar xxx, did you copy?
    AS: Uh, no, what was that again?
    Twr: O-S-H.
    Me: Tower, xxx, he’ll need the NOTAM for Airventure.
    AS: What NOTAM is that?
    Twr: xxx, what NOTAM is that?
    Me: It’s a multi-page document that covers all arrivals into the world’s busiest airport.
    AS: We’ll just file IFR. Tower, can you get us a clearance?
    Twr: (showing that he actually knew more than he had let on) Do you have a reservation?
    AS: What’s a reservation?
    Twr: Please call the tower on 608 xxx xxxx.

  10. Peter Zajkowski Says:

    Too many useless NOTAMs obscure the important ones. One year, in preparing to depart for the Oshkosh convention, at the last minute I noticed this one line NOTAM for OSH “Field closed for turf operations”. After a little research online, I discovered the problem was that the field was flooded! No place to park! I ended up driving instead of flying. I almost missed that NOTAM.

  11. Michael Pryce Says:

    When I fly cross country, the notams have become impossible through the use of codes and impossible language. I must admit that I have flown many times with no concept of what is dangerous and what could actually kill me or others. I no longer fly VFR cross country unless I fly above 5000 ft. Most pilots I know do not have time to read a full DUAT report prior to departure that compares to reading War And Peace. I think these things could be reduced to level 1through 4 in importance. ATC usually puts me at MEA and orders climbs and descents at appropriate times so that I am reasonably comfortable that I will not get pickle-forked by a tower. If you are flying into NY airspace, be prepared to have your flight plan changed at every handoff. With every drop of medicine there is also a little poison. The entire system needs to be overhauled, just so Kathleen Sybelius is not in charge of it.

  12. Clemens Kuhlig Says:

    Good advice. However, if you were arriving on Thursday after the show, with that highlighted info known, you would have found that the airport was CLOSED until AFTER 7 pm local time. Notice the Notam says 6pm. I planned my arrival to the lake for 6:15 with plenty of gas. Many of us ducked into Winter Haven to wait for the airport to open. I re-arrived at the lake at 6:45 and was doing laps around the lake for a good 30 minutes. Three tiers, lots of airplanes bunched up because the info in the Notam was not committed to by the organizers.
    For the pilots flying in to S n F…..Keep your speed up. I was following somebody that was supposed to be doing 150 Kts at 1700. He was doing 120 MPH. not a huge deal, but read the Notam. I followed the same guy on the turn in down the highway but ended up three planes behind him from people cutting into the line from high and low. Fly the procedure. Keep your head on a swivel OUTSIDE the airplane. LISTEN to the controllers, they know what they’re doing. By far, the majority of what they’re saying is to keep the speed up, and keep it in tight. Follow instructions….Turn now, Pay attention, rock your wings, DONT LAND SHORT, Keep it moving to the END of the runway.
    All that said, it is a fantastic experience. Lots of great airplanes and as the name implies, a lot of Fun. Don’t miss it next year! Enjoy the challenge of flying in. Try to get that ” Great Job” from the tower for a well flown approach. See you next year!

  13. N. Lynn Thoma Says:

    37 pages! Even JFK doesn’t have that many pages of NOTAMs. I can not imagine how many pages it would be if it were not in “code”….maybe it wasn’t?
    When I fly somewhere, I want to know…
    Is it open?
    Are any runways closed?
    Are any nav aids inop?
    Any changes to comm freqs?
    Any changes to instrument procedures?
    Any taxiway/ramp closures?
    If the airport isn’t open, don’t bother giving me the other stuff!

  14. Alain Miville de Chêne Says:

    Look at how notaminfo (http://notaminfo.com/ukmap) does it. It doesn’t matter how long the NOTAM list is if you can filter it spatially and by type.

  15. AFSS BRIEFER Says:

    Please call me at Flight Service and ask for an abbreviated briefing for just adverse conditions and with some basic background info (I.e callsign) I can get you off the phone in 1-2 minutes!
    Now here is the silliest Notam that I have been FORCED to give to pilots over a two week period around September 25th 2011, I still have a copy that makes me laugh and cry in that order: !FDC 1/2720 FDC SPECIAL NOTICE.. Aircraft are advised that a potential hazard may occur due to reentry of satellite debris into the earths atmosphere. FAA is working with the DOD and NASA,bla bla bla.
    The Notam went on for another paragraph. The satellite entered in the southern Indian Ocean or some damned place that affected no human being and certainly not an American Pilot.
    Please send my 1st place prize certificate taped to the front windshield of a 2014 Diamond DA40 XLT with upgraded Gami injectors’, Gamin G1000 WAAS certified, GFC 700 Auto Pilot, airbag seat belts and please throw in a CFI rating with float, ski, and aerobatic add-ons. And thank you for doing what you do with the ASI!

  16. Mike Kobb Says:

    I will give as many thumbs up as possible to the comment about issuing NOTAMs in English rather than code. I would also add TFRs, TAFs and METARs as well. It’s ridiculous and dangerous.

  17. Chuck W Says:

    Kudos to the notam issue as I have to review daily when working and still manage to miss the ball game in some city stadium… Too busy with all the rest and as for S&F; I knew I had to really stay heads up when cut off by an Aerostar asking the tower “what is going on?” That after explaining to my wife, it is all organized like a ballet. Her response, “this is nuts!”

  18. Arnold L Goldman Says:

    Entry for the “We’ll give a prize for whoever comes up with the most absurd” NOTAM contest:

    Linden, NJ, (KLDJ) has a standing NOTAM for the closure of their “north taxiway”!!!!!

    Punchline: They built a Home Depot on top of the north taxiway > 15 years ago, yet the NOTAM persists!

    Where do I pick up my AOPA NOTAM contest prize?

  19. Per Anderas Says:

    NOTAMS are fine and useful.I would rather ignore irrelevant infomation, than have someone not report information that might have been important for the safety of my particular flight. Lets remember that the people that publish this information are NOT pilots, and therefor dont know what may be important.

  20. Todd Thelin Says:

    Uh…what’s a NOTAM?

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