An amazing bit of radio chatter played out on national news recently when an airline pilot headed to Fargo, North Dakota, implied he had only five minutes of fuel left. As bad luck would have it, the Blue Angels were practicing at the airport at that very moment.
The controller advised that there would be a 20 minute delay! Huh? Doing the math, the 15 minute deficit implied the MD80 would plunk down in the prairie but with no fire and the Angels would complete their practice on schedule. The pilot finally made it clear that he was coming in to land and they’d sort it out on the ground. Good call. The captain properly exercised PIC authority to get the aircraft on the ground safely. In too many cases GA pilots abdicate responsibility when they get into difficulty, being more afraid of legalities than gravity. As shown in comments, what the Captain meant to say, was that in five minutes he would start burning into his reserve fuel – The proper terminology would have been a “minimum fuel advisory” as opposed to the military term of “Bingo” fuel which is not in the lexicon of civilian aviation.
A pertinent regulation, if I have it correctly, is FAR 121.639—Fuel supply: All domestic operations. No person may dispatch or take off an airplane unless it has enough fuel—(a) To fly to the airport to which it is dispatched; (b) Thereafter, to fly to and land at the most distant alternate airport (where required) for the airport to which dispatched; and (c) Thereafter, to fly for 45 minutes at normal cruising fuel consumption.
FAR 121.647 Factors for computing fuel required. Each person computing fuel required for the purposes of this subpart shall consider the following: (a) Wind and other weather conditions forecast. (b) Anticipated traffic delays. (c) One instrument approach and possible missed approach at destination. (d) Any other conditions that may delay landing of the aircraft.
So what did the crew and the dispatcher know, and when did they know it? Let’s acknowledge that mistakes were made in checking notams—which would have noted the closure times—and that perhaps just enough fuel was on board to be legal, or not. And let’s also acknowledge that the current notam system is a mess, and has been for years. It is a convenient place to dump everything—much of it not operationally pertinent…and some of it critical! Apparently, a lot of pilots and even a few controllers are getting caught in the notam swamp, as the NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System just noted.
Over a decade ago, the FAA promised that the system would be made more relevant and one could filter the data to what was important to your flight operation. No results! After passage of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights (PBOR) in 2012 in Congress, another committee was formed to address the unworkable. From the bill, “...The goals of the NOTAM Improvement Program are—
(1) to decrease the overwhelming volume of NOTAMs an airman receives when retrieving airman information prior to a flight in the national airspace system;
(2) make the NOTAMs more specific and relevant to the airman’s route and in a format that is more useable to the airman;
(3) to provide a full set of NOTAM results in addition to specific information requested by airmen;
(4) to provide a document that is easily searchable; and (
5) to provide a filtering mechanism similar to that provided by the Department of Defense Notices to Airmen.”
This was supposed to be completed in a year but things slipped a bit. If Google can manage an infinite number of possibilities, it would seem the FAA could at least do better than the current system with a much more limited data set. Some of the aftermarket providers do a better job of filtering but why not the official source?
Flying a fixed wing aircraft in daylight hours, why would I care that a tower light was out on an obstacle five miles away from the airport and only 198′ agl? I wouldn’t, but an EMS helicopter crew on a night mission might. The system is also often geographically confused. A flight from Maryland to South Carolina will list items like turbine wind farms in New York, runway restrictions in Georgia, obstacle unlightings more than 75 miles off to one side, or laser light shows in faraway places. On a recent DUAT Briefing, I lost count with more than 400 notams listed for a 500 mile trip: Must be a rule of one notam per mile flown.
Airport/runway closures and TFRs along with non-availability of certain IFR approaches ought to be bold printed in red. And is it really necessary to use arcane abbreviations and acronyms in today’s deep bandwidth environment? Fargo’s closure somehow slipped through the cracks.
The FAA could use this as an opportunity to 1) rise above the punitive mentality that periodically pervades the agency, and 2) look at the root cause of this incident. My bet is that this crew and dispatcher will be very careful to check airport status going forward. Since the FAA is more than two years behind addressing the notam system as specified in the PBOR, how about suspending penalties—except in cases of willful disobedience—until the new system is operational? It should also recognize that a poorly executed notam system is more than an embarrassment—it is a critical safety issue.
The FAA’s new system is planned for roll out at year’s end—that should make things much easier and safer, we’ll see.
Has anyone else missed something in the notam system and how did it affect your flight?