About Tom George

Tom George serves as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Regional Manager for Alaska. He resides in Fairbanks, and flies a Cessna 185. Follow Alaska aviation activities and events on Twitter at http://www.twitter/AOPAAlaska or at: http://www.aopa.org/region/ak

Mat Su CTAF Areas on Terminal Area Chart

As of May 29, 2014 the FAA made a significant change to how Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies (CTAFs) were allocated in the Mat Su Valley, north of Anchorage. In addition to changing the CTAF assignments of almost 80 individual airports and assigning them to 36 airport that previously didn’t have one designated, they defined specific geographic areas along the bulk of the Matanuska and Susitna River valleys. Initially this information was officially released as a diagram in the Notices section of the Alaska Supplement. Recently, it got easier to see the areas assigned to specific radio frequencies.  In the November 13th edition of the Anchorage/Fairbanks Terminal Area Chart (TAC), an inset was added just below the IFR Traffic Flow map.

This inset if found under the IFR traffic flow diagram on the ANC/FAI Terminal Area Chart.

This inset if found under the IFR traffic flow diagram on the ANC/FAI Terminal Area Chart.

When not in contact with ATC, pilots are encouraged to use these frequencies to increase situational awareness in the areas depicted on this chart.  Pilots should use CTAF frequencies specifically to communicate aircraft location and intentions to other aircraft or to a Flight Service Station. Other air-to-air communications should be conducted on 122.75 or a company frequency to avoid congestion.
For more on the Mat Su CTAF Areas, see AOPA’s blog, with links to a Google Earth map and other information.

Alaska is a “weather-poor” state

Alaska pilots are poor (impoverished) when it comes to the amount of weather data available to make critical go/no-go flight decisions. According to the FAA’s surface weather observation stations website, Alaska has 133 AWOS or ASOS weather station locations. In comparison, the “contiguous 48 states” have over 1,800 similar sites. Based on average density of stations nationwide, Alaska would need 183 additional stations to be on par with the rest of the country. That is 2.4 times as many observations as we have today. I am not expecting to see that number of conventional stations in Alaska, but it does point to the need for Alaska pilots to be creative, weather-vigilant, and look to non-conventional sources of information. But first, let’s dig a little deeper into our weather observing system of today.

An overview of the over 1,800 aviation weather stations providing data for pilots and forecasters across the "contiguous 48 states"

An overview of over 1,800 aviation weather stations that provide data for pilots and forecasters across the “contiguous 48 states.”

At approximately the same scale as the previous map, note the density of aviation weather stations providing coverage for Alaska.  Some 180 more stations would be needed to provide a comparably dense network to that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

At approximately the same scale as the map above, note the density of aviation weather stations providing coverage for Alaska. Some 180 additional stations would be needed to provide a comparably dense network to that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

Not all weather reports are equal
Not all weather observations are the same quality. The standard weather observation today is an unattended FAA Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) and its National Weather Service counterpart the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). These devices operate 24 hours a day, and report weather based on sensors that measure wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point, altimeter, ceiling and visibility. Some models may detect precipitation type and accumulation and/or thunderstorms. Advanced as they may be, the unattended stations have some significant limitations. The ceiling is measured using a small laser beam directly overhead while a computer calculates the cloud cover based on a 30 minute average of readings. If, for example, a low fog bank is creeping up on the airport, the unit won’t know about it until the field has gone IFR. Another well-known limitation of these devices is the visibility sensor, which measures the particles within a 1 meter beam of light, and calculates the “up to 10 miles” visibility value we see in the reports. A frustration with this sensor at rural Alaska airports results when a four-wheeler parks next to the sensor (perhaps waiting for an arriving aircraft) and its exhaust drifts into the visibility sensor’s “view,” reducing the reported visibility to 1/8 mile. It’s a mere annoyance to most pilots flying under Part 91, but a commercial pilot flying under Part 135 regulations can’t even shoot the approach with reported conditions lower than the allowable minimums. Automated stations operating unattended contain the word AUTO in the report to alert pilots to that fact. The omission of that term lets the pilot know that either a human is making the observation in the first place, or the observation is being augmented by an observer.

Augmented Weather Stations
Given these limitations in automated stations, the FAA has contract weather observers who augment the equipment at select locations. Airports with significant volumes of traffic, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks, are augmented. One of our Alaska adaptations has been that when the network of Flight Service Stations was reduced in the mid-1990’s, locations that were identified as important strategic locations were provided with a contract weather observer to ensure that the known limitations of automated units didn’t catch a pilot off guard. In the summer of 2013, the weather augmentation contract at Gulkana was cancelled. I am concerned that in the interest of budget reductions, other stations may be on the chopping block.

Five more weather stations closed
One of the means of collecting weather information at remote locations that don’t have an automated station is to contract with a local resident using the A-PAID Program. Under this program, an interested person is trained and certified by the NWS to make a set number of weather reports per day the old fashioned way—by looking at the sky and making manual observations, such as using the distance to local landmarks to estimate visibility. A-PAID observers don’t report 24 hours a day, and if the observer has to travel, is sick or otherwise not available, no report gets filed. A-PAID observers also don’t file Special reports to alert pilots when conditions change, but often they are the only source of weather information in remote areas, or along VFR routes, that help pilots make informed decisions on whether to initiate a flight. A few days ago I learned that the FAA had cancelled the contracts for the last five stations that they had funded for years, leaving us with no weather reports from Farewell Lake, Merrill Pass West, Manley Hot Springs, Nabesna and Chandalar Lake. Five more points, of our already sparse weather network, went dark.

Replacements for A-PAID stations
In 2011 the National Weather Service announced its intention to phase out the A-PAID program, and for those areas that they felt they needed continued observations, replace them with an automated observations similar but not identical to AWOS units. The package they selected is called a Modular Automated Weather Station (MAWS). It is built by a company that makes AWOS systems, and the sensors used are all certified by FAA for use in an AWOS system. MAWS stations record the main elements we need for aviation weather, including ceiling and visibility, but don’t have a VHF radio to transmit the data to an aircraft. They are not certified by FAA as an AWOS, and cost about half as much as a fully certified unit. Due to the lack of certification, at least so far, the FAA and NWS haven’t been able to agree on a basis to consider the reports as METARs, and distribute them through the normal FAA weather channels. This is a real problem for John & Suzy Q Pilot, because unless they know exactly where to look, these observations don’t exist. To date these stations have been deployed in the Central/Circle Hot Springs area, Healy and at Whittier. AOPA and other Alaskan aviation groups are pushing both NWS and FAA to find a way to distribute these observations through the normal channels, given that they are intended for use at VFR airports, or non-airport locations along key VFR routes. Given the lack of progress solving this issue between two federal agencies, we have asked Senator Begich, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, for help getting the two agencies to come up with a practical solution to this issue to make the observations available. We will continue to push to make this weather fully available to pilots.

Weather Cameras
The FAA Weather Camera Program is the one bright spot that adds weather information to a pilot’s flight kit when it comes to making go/no-go flight decisions. A set of cameras looking multiple directions, updated every 10 minutes, available on the internet from 221 locations across the state provides a tremendous amount of information for flight planning and decision making. As just one example, the camera at the McKinley Park airstrip is co-located with the AWOS unit there. The camera has helped me “interpret” the AWOS report, which one morning was reporting 1/8 mile visibility. A look at the weather camera revealed blue skys in multiple directions with a few wisps of ground fog in the foreground.  This image let me know I was good to launch for a flight thorough Windy Pass. On another occasion, while the AWOS was reporting “clear below 12,000,” a look at the big, ugly, towering cumulus clouds both to the north and south of the station let me know that this was not a good time to expect smooth sailing through the mountains. The station at the airstrip is located in the of the valley between two sets of ridges, which are often where the clouds form, outside the “view” of the AWOS cloud sensor.

As valuable as the network of cameras is, there is a very serious limitation. Currently, the cameras are good during daylight hours only. Great in the summer, but as days shorten, pilots are back “in the dark” having to make go/no-go decisions before camera observations are available. Even in mid-October a local pilot told me this past week he had to wait until 10 a.m. to get a usable image from an interior camera to tell if he could conduct a flight down the Tanana and middle Yukon Rivers. And we aren’t yet into really short winter days! There are now low-light level cameras on the market that might extend the utility of the camera network, however we need a serious research and development effort to evaluate available sensors, and consider the human factors of how to present other than standard color video data for pilots to use in their decision making process.

Alaska forecasts also have limitations
The sparse network of weather observations impacts pilots in more ways than one. In addition to our own weather interpretation, the NWS forecasters are a major consumer of surface observations. They count on them to make and verify the Area and Terminal Forecasts that we use to anticipate what conditions will be like in a few hours, along a cross-country route of flight. Or how fast a weather system is approaching that will impact even local operations. At a recent conference a map was presented (see below) showing how the Alaska weather forecast areas correspond to a similar size area “outside.” NWS forecasters in three weather offices (Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau) turn out forecasts for areas that would be covered by 68 forecast offices in the lower 48. Even if you discount the marine areas, the three forecast offices are covering an area equal to 30 offices down south. Another way to look at it is that about 50 forecasters in Alaska issue products for an area that is covered by about 400 forecasters “outside.”

The three NWS forecast offices in Alaska cover the an area that overlays 68 forecast areas in the middle of the country.

The three NWS forecast offices in Alaska cover the an area that overlays 68 forecast areas in the middle of the country.

The spatial granularity of Alaska products is also different. Just looking at the winds-aloft product,  Alaska forecasts are reported using a 90 kilometer grid in contrast to a 30 kilometer grid used elsewhere in the country. Pilots flying in Alaska have to bear in mind that while the forecast products look the same across the nation, the informational content of our forecasts are lower than if we were planning a route across other portions of the country.

From this flight planning program screen shot, one can see the difference in density between winds aloft forecast values generated for Alaska versus the rest of the country.

From this flight planning program screen shot, one can see the difference in density between winds aloft forecast values generated for Alaska versus the rest of the country.

We need all the observations we can get
Given the size of Alaska, our reliance on the airplane to provide basic transportation, the diversity of terrain and climate, and paucity of emergency landing areas, we need all the weather observations we can lay our hands on. The lack of conventional weather stations enjoyed by pilots in the rest of the country means that:

a)      We need to continue to have augmented weather in key regional locations.

b)      It is essential that observations from lower cost MAWS sites are fully distributed.

c)      We need fully certified AWOS units at airports with instrument approaches.

d)     It is important to expedite research into expanding the use of weather cameras beyond daylight hours, to obtain better utilization of this innovative program.

AOPA is working with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Air Carriers Association and the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation on these issues, and is engaging both the FAA and National Weather Service to express our concerns. We addressed the Senate GA Caucus meeting held by Senator Begich last spring and have also asked for the help of the entire Alaska congressional delegation. In the current budget climate it will not be an easy sell, but for aviation safety and access, we must make the effort.

Alaska loses five weather reporting stations

Alaska pilots are already “weather challenged” when it comes to flight planning. Obtaining current weather information can be a challenge depending on your destination and route of flight. That just got a little more difficult due to FAA cancelling the contracts for weather observers at five locations as of October 1st. Those stations are:

Farewell Lake          Manley Hot Springs
Merrill Pass West    Nabesna
Chandalar Lake

These are not the conventional automated weather stations (AWOS or ASOS), that have become the national standard for aviation weather. These stations are called A-PAID sites, because they were locations where a human observer, certified by the National Weather Service, actually looked at the sky and filed a report for a limited number of observations during the day. They don’t report “specials,”  and when the observer is on vacation or sick, no report is filed. But they are far better than nothing, which is what we are left with for the moment.

Over the years, I personally counted on the Manley weather, not only to figure if I could make it into Manley Hot Springs, but to determine what conditions were like for longer flights down the Yukon River headed to Galena and Nome. I also used the Chandalar Lake weather as an important observation when establishing if I could fly directly from Fairbanks to Galbraith Lake or Happy Valley– or if I needed to make the much longer trip via Bettles and through the lower mountain passes to get across the Brooks Range.

AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Alaska Air Carriers Association and the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation were already concerned about changes to the network of surface observations that started in 2011– when the National Weather Service announced it was replacing A-Paid observers with a new automated weather stations. The replacement equipment is not certified by the FAA to produce official METAR observations. While the development of the FAA Weather Camera Program has provided an excellent source of supplemental weather information, the value of this network is limited to daylight hours only, and is not a substitute for actual weather observations that include ceiling and visibility measurements. We will continue to aggressively pursue both the FAA and National Weather Service to improve, and not degrade, our already sparse network of weather stations.

Your input needed
Below are maps showing the stations that have just gone dark. If you have a need for aviation weather from these locations, please drop me an email with a brief note listing the station or stations and why weather observations from those locations is important to you. Being able to articulate the role these stations play may help us when it comes to justifying our aviation weather needs in some of these areas.

You can expect to hear more on this topic!

Farewell Lake, near the west entrance to Rainey Pass.

Farewell Lake, near the west entrance to Rainey Pass. The black circle on this series of screen captures from the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit website means NO DATA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manley Hot Springs, along the Tanana River between Nenana and Tanana.

Manley Hot Springs, along the Tanana River between Nenana and Tanana.

 

Merrill Pass West

Merrill Pass West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nebesna, between the Alaska Range and Wrangell Mountains.

Nebesna, between the Alaska Range and Wrangell Mountains. Paxson and Slana stations were closed previously, leaving no stations along the southern flanks of the eastern Alaska Range.

 

Chandalar Lake, on the south side of the Brooks Range almost directly on the flight path from Fairbanks to Deadhorse.

Chandalar Lake, on the south side of the Brooks Range almost directly on the flight path from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. Fort Yukon is about 100 miles away.

 

Seaplane pilots: Whitehorse Schwatka Lake Plan comments needed by Sept 1

Seaplane pilots spoke up last fall when a survey was conducted regarding the use of Whitehorse’s Schwatka Lake. In fact, 84% of the comments received were aviation oriented! Now, the City of Whitehorse is about to consider the Draft Schwatka Lake Area Plan, and your comments are again needed, and due by September 1st. Please take a minute to look the plan over, and comment TODAY!

The draft plan proposes significantly expanding float plane facilities, yet leaves addressing the needs of transient users to local businesses without any definition of transient parking slips or fueling facilities.  Another section of the plan calls for moving non-motorized boat operations, which have traditionally used the east side of the lake, to the west side. This could put them in conflict with float plane operations.  Also called for is the establishment of a working group to implement the Schwatka Lake Area Plan. It seems that this group should include a stakeholder to represent the interests of the transient seaplane users.

Map of the proposed land use from the draft Schwatka Lake Plan.

Map of the proposed land use from the draft Schwatka Lake Plan.

From my quick read of the document, I would recommend commenting on the following points:

  • Given the international and tourism impacts of aircraft flying between the US, Canada and Alaska, more specifically identify the plans for transient floatplane tie-down spots, refueling facilities, surface transportation, access to telephone and restroom facilities, even if they are provided by private business interests.
  • Express concerns about changing use patterns on the lake between floatplane and non-motorized boat users which could impact safety, and impact the viability of the lake for floatplane operations in the long run.
  • Urge the City to designate a transient float plane stakeholder on the working group to implement the plan.

The plan is available online. Comments may be made by email to city planner Erica Beasley erica.beasley@whitehorse.ca . The Yukon COPA Chapter suggests sending a copy to mayorandcouncil@whitehorse.ca The deadline is September 1, so ACT TODAY!

Flying Clubs: A low-cost way to ‘own’ an airplane, and much more…

Early in my flying career, I learned a painful lesson about flight schools in Fairbanks. Some of them are ephemeral, and don’t operate year round! After passing my check ride in September, I happily exercised my new private pilot privileges, renting one of the school aircraft to take friends and family members for a local flight. [As an aside about the time just after earning a pilots license: Too late I learned another valuable lesson about being a newly minted pilot—don’t demonstrate ALL the things you learned to people who may be uncomfortable in a small aircraft. Years later I realized that I had badly frightened several passengers in my desire to demonstrate the answer their questions about how the airplane worked. But I digress...] After making a business trip for a few weeks later that fall, I returned to find the flight school had closed for the winter! Where was I to find an airplane?

Discovering a Flying Club
Not too long following this devastating discovery, I came across the Arctic Flying Club. After paying a fee to join, and nominal monthly dues, I got checked out in the two C-172’s the club owned at the time. This was the late 1970′s– before the internet, smart phones or apps– yet the club operated on a very efficient basis: each member had keys for the aircraft they were checked out to fly, and scheduling was handled through a 24-hour/day answering service. If at midnight I wanted to fly at 6 a.m. the next morning, a call to the answering service to confirm the aircraft was available was all I needed to do. The club also had a Cessna 150, used primarily for training, which kept pretty busy. And when the club acquired a Super Cub on floats, I used it to finish a float rating and to explore the wonderful world of landing on water. The flying club provided easier access to airplanes than renting from a flight school, at a lower cost, plus there were other more experienced pilots in the club I could learn from—some as instructors, others just as members that I might fly with occasionally to really help reduce the cost per hour.

 

AOPA has a guide to starting a flying club, but also with information that may be valuable to clubs already in operation.

AOPA has a guide to starting a flying club, but also with information that may be valuable to clubs already in operation.

Flying Club Initiative
AOPA has recently launched an initiative promoting Flying Clubs as a low cost way to fly. From their research they also learned that many pilots value the social interaction clubs can provide, both from a mentoring perspective (which I certainly found to be the case), in some cases to fly places together, but also to belong to the wider aviation community. To help promote flying clubs, AOPA has developed an 81 page Guide to Starting A Flying Club to help figure out how to form and operate a club. (Don’t panic over the length—the last half is an appendix with reference materials.) The guide describes different ways to organize a club, which is by definition a not-for-profit of one form or another. It also covers selection of aircraft, budgeting, insurance, operations and perhaps where many clubs suffer—how to market your club. Included are sample forms, and examples of documents from existing organizations.

Finding an existing club
Another tool on AOPA’s website is a Flying Club Finder, to help find an established club in your area. So far a search of the “club finder” for Alaska only lists six entries, two of which are “clubs in formation”—one in Sitka and one in Ketchikan. If you know of other clubs that aren’t listed, please either let me know, or encourage them to go online and add themselves to the list. If you don’t find a club, check out the online guide and consider organizing one in your area. Also on AOPA’s website are a number of webinars on different Flying Club topics. Watch for AOPA seminars on this topic, which are offered from time to time.

The rest of the story…
I belonged to the Arctic Flying Club for several years. After developing enough cross country experience to use an airplane as a tool to fly myself to field camps, I needed an airplane that could stay with me for a week or more at a time. After shopping around I purchased a 1953 Cessna 170B (with the help of a loan from my Grandmother). When it became clear that ALL of my disposable income would be required to keep the 170 operating, I sadly bid farewell to the club. In my case, belonging to the club had been an economical way to fly, to meet other pilots and expand my knowledge base until I figured out that I needed to take the plunge into airplane ownership.

I am pleased to report that the Arctic Flying Club is still around, all these years later. They currently operate a single Cessna 172, and could use a few more members. If you live near Fairbanks International Airport, check them out on the AOPA Club Finder, and see if they might be a good deal for you!

Jumping Fire: An extreme use of aviation

I am often called upon to explain what the term general aviation means to a member of the non-flying public. In trying to move beyond the categorical explanation that it is “everything but the airlines and military flying” it is often helpful to describe some of the functions that aviation supports. Fighting wild fires is one of those things that most people can relate to. In Alaska we see about two million acres a year transformed by fire. Even if the fire isn’t burning in your back yard, you are liable to experience one of the most noticeable results—forest fire smoke. In the vicinity of a fire, you may get to watch the air tankers in operation. But what is the bigger picture regarding the use of aviation in the fire fighting business?

A good read which qualifies both as an adventure story, while explaining how wildfire are managed in Alaska and the western US.

A great read which qualifies as an adventure story, while explaining how wildfire are managed in Alaska and the western US.

I just finished reading Murray Taylor’s book, Jumping Fire. This story covers the fire season of 1991 in Alaska (and portions of the Western US), and is a true adventure. While it is an account of his journey through the season as a smokejumper, Taylor does an excellent job explaining how  wildland firefighting works. The roles aviation play are woven throughout. From the reconnaissance aircraft dispatched to look for smoke after lightening detectors indicate high levels of activity, to the jump ship that provides the platform to launch the smokejumpers to the fire. On scene at the fire, water or retardant bombers help slow the rate of progress allowing the jumpers a chance to circle the blaze. Cargo planes drop supplies for the jumpers on the ground, and finally a helicopter retrieves the firefighters to jump again another day. In a state with almost no roads and 360+million acres of landscape, aviation is an essential tool in this line of work.

This non-fiction work provides insight into the people engaged in this tough and gritty business. While the allure of parachuting from an aircraft might seem attractive, factor in that each jump is to a new location—often in hostile terrain with nearby obstructions— not to speak of a raging fire nearby. And the reward for your jump? You get to spend the next couple days cutting fire line, lugging equipment up and down hillsides, meanwhile trying to keep your wits about you, in case the fire conditions change and threaten your position. After turning the fire over to other crews to mop up, or continue combating the flames, you repack gear and jump another fire the next day to start the process all over again.

What does it take to be a smokejumper?
It is a physically demanding job, and starts each season with a qualifying (or re-qualifying) three mile run, that much be completed in 22 minutes and 30 seconds. Taylor completed his run that year in 22:05, but not without feeling the aches and pains from past injuries, accumulated since he started this career in 1965. Beyond the fitness test, a lot of effort goes into re-training each season, which reveals some of the mindset of this elite crew. Toward the end of one long day training, a jumper grumbled. “…they could train chimpanzees to do this job.” To which his team mate replied, “Yeah, but they wouldn’t get them to come back year after year.”

Growing forest fire from Cessna altitude. Time to check for TFR's in the area.

Growing forest fire from Cessna altitude. Time to check for TFR’s in the area.

Not only does the reader learn about the mechanics of jumping and fighting fire, but gains insight into the culture of the smokejumper crowd. We meet members of the crew with interesting handles such as Erik the Blak, Quacks and Secret Squirrel, and learn their back-stories, along with Taylor’s own history, soon to understand that smokejumping is difficult on relationships. Going from one fire to the next, or being shipped on a moments notice to a remote camp to stand by, makes it difficult to interact with girlfriends, wives or families. A close knit group, when they are not battling the elements, they are playing tricks on each other, and busy inducting new members to the fraternity. A first year jumper is a Rookie. By the second year they advance to the title of Snookie before becoming full-fledged smokejumpers. Big Ernie is the god of smoke jumpers, and the most important piece of smokejumper’s personal gear is… No, I can reveal that without giving away too much of the story. But it isn’t the parachute or Pulaski!

My own connection to fire fighting goes back to a summer in the early 1970’s when I earned part of my college tuition as a member of an EFF (Emergency Fire Fighter) crew out of Fairbanks. Flew in a DC-6 to Lake Minchumina, and transferred to a Grumman Goose for the flight to Wien Lake, where we waded to shore with our gear held over our heads. Spend many days being shuttled in a Huey (Bell 205) helicopter to different sections of the fire line, going to work at 6 p.m. each evening and maintaining fire line until 8 a.m. the next morning. Then tried to sleep in a visqueen improvised shelter under mosquito netting during the heat of the day before starting over again the next evening. Managed to work four fires that summer, and got to parts of the state I had never seen before. Inspite of this exposure to the fire community, Taylor’s book filled in many gaps in my understanding of how the overall firefighting mechanism operates, including an explanation of how fire managers decide what fires to attack and which ones to let burn.

I highly recommend this book, as an entertaining, action adventure story, with lots of insight into how aviation is used in the wildfire management business. While not fiction, it would probably be rated R if it were a movie. It was hard to put down and I was sorry to come to the last page. Thanks to Murray Taylor’s book, I am better able to explain the fascinating role aviation plays in wildfire management, and the example it provides to illustrate how general aviation serves the public.

FAA Proposes Warning Area off Oliktok Point

Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. A complex mix of ice types, seen in mid June.

Sea ice in the Beaufort Sea. A complex mix of ice types and conditions, seen in mid June.

The Arctic is undergoing changes, triggered by a significant retreat in sea ice cover. Satellite observations starting in 1978 have documented a continued reduction in arctic polar ice cover, with a higher rate of decline since the turn of the century. To better understand why this is happening, the U.S. Department of Energy has submitted a proposal to establish a Warning Area, north of Oliktok Point on the North Slope of Alaska to conduct a range of climate experiments.

A Google Earth depiction of the proposed Oliktok Warning Area, which bisects the Beaufort Sea to almost 700 n miles off shore from the north coast of Alaska.

A Google Earth depiction of the proposed Oliktok Warning Area, which bisects the Beaufort Sea to almost 700 n miles off shore from the north coast of Alaska.

A Warning Area, similar to a Military Operations Area, but for an offshore location, is advisory in nature and does not restrict VFR traffic. It does, however, put us on notice that hazardous activities may be taking place. Outlined in this proposal are activities such as:

  • Firing (or dropping from high altitude) of sensor-equipped ice-penetrating projectiles from an aircraft
  • Deployment of sounding rockets from the surface or an aircraft
  • Deployment of tethered balloons from ships into clouds
Diagram of the proposed Warning Area, segmented into sections, the smallest of which is 2,000 sq nautical miles.

Diagram of the proposed Warning Area, segmented into sections, the smallest of which is 2,000 sq nautical miles.

Admittedly, these are things we wouldn’t want to blindly bump into while flying over the Arctic Ocean, so a Warning Area sounds like a reasonable way to know about and avoid them. Except, this proposed Warning Area is 40 nautical miles wide, and extends from 12 n miles north of Oliktok Point for a distance of 673 nautical miles! That length is about the distance from Seattle to southern California! And it runs along the 150th meridian, pretty much bisecting the Beaufort Sea.

To make it more manageable, the proposal does two things: (a) It subsets the airspace into low (surface to 2,000 ft MSL) and high (2,000 ft to 10,000 ft MSL) sections, and (b) it divides the area into segments– 40 by 50 n. mile sub-areas closer to shore, and larger segments further offshore (see the diagram for details). Even with this segmentation, however, the smallest chunk of airspace that would be activated is 2,000 sq miles in size, while a given experiment will most likely have a much smaller footprint.

Earlier this year, I participated in a Safety Risk Management Panel held by FAA to consider operations within the proposed Warning Area. A number of details about flights in this area came out in the session. While one might be inclined to think no one flies in this area, there is a significant amount of civil aviation activity. Marine mammal surveys are conducted at low level, under VFR conditions, to determine the health of those populations. In the “old days” there was a fleet of aircraft stationed at Point Barrow that flew R4-D’s (Navy equivalent of a DC-3), and on some occasions Cessna 180’s out over the sea ice to get to ice islands and or other locations off shore. Today, major oil companies are setting up infrastructure to support offshore oil and gas exploration, including aviation assets. Finally, recreational flights to the North Pole take place from time to time, as Art Mortvedt recently demonstrated in his solo flight over both poles. While the volume of traffic in this airspace is low, we do use it— often under VFR conditions.

Making it Work
AOPA’s concern is that while an individual science experiment may take a few square miles of airspace, we don’t want the Warning Area itself to become an obstruction to pilots trying to operate in this area. Off shore in the Beaufort Sea you are already operating in challenging conditions. These are huge areas with no weather reporting and few alternative locations to land. Once off shore and at low level, you are out of radio range to contact Flight Service or ATC, largely on your own (which is nothing new to pilots flying in many parts of Alaska and Northern Canada). If the only information available is that a Warning Area is active, covering an area 40 by 50 n miles in size, the airspace itself becomes an obstacle. However, if you know: 1) specifically where within that airspace the hazardous activity is taking place, and 2) have the ability to communicate directly with the operators via VHF radio, you have a basis to deconflict, and move past the hazardous activity safely without making a very expensive detour that costs you time and precious fuel.

In AOPA’s comment letter, we are asking for exactly those pieces of information. At the time a NOTAM is issued, include the exact location of the activity (not just which segment of the Warning Area is activated) and provide a direct means of communication with the Department of Energy, or their experimenters, so we may deconflict directly. Based on experience with the huge Military Operations Areas in eastern Alaska, which present a similar situation, we believe this would create a workable arrangement for all parties.

FAA is accepting public comments on this proposal until August 13, 2014. Comments may be emailed to: 7-ANM–OSG-Public-Notice-Inbox@faa.gov or snail mailed to:

Department of Transportation
Federal Aviation Administration
Manager, Operations Support Group, Western Service Center
1601 Lind Ave. SW
Renton, WA 98057

Special VFR changes at Anchorage

Special VFR (SVFR) procedures allow us to get in or out of Class B, C, D or E surface areas when the weather is below basic VFR, but still good enough to fly. In some parts of Alaska they are used routinely, where weather conditions are frequently dicey. A national revision of FAA internal policy caused the Air Traffic staff in Anchorage to re-examine their procedures, which initially caused concern within the pilot community—as Anchorage controllers often respond to requests for “specials” to get pilots in and out of Lake Hood and Merrill Field. When first announced, the use of radar as a tool for separation was the focus. The prospect of changes that could severely impact traffic in and out of area airports loomed large. I am pleased to report, thanks to the efforts of FAA Air Traffic Organization staff in Alaska, that procedural changes are now expected to streamline the process, and many cases increase ATC’s ability to accommodate SVFR traffic.

Special VFR procedures are a tool sometimes needed to deal with conditions around an airport, but should be used with extreme caution.

Special VFR procedures are a tool sometimes needed to deal with weather conditions around an airport, but should be used with extreme caution.

At a recent meeting of the Alaska Aviation Coordination Council, Merrill Tower Manager Brian Ochs shared the good news with representatives from the aviation industry. A challenge for controllers was the national guidance based on a single surface area. This didn’t adequately address the Anchorage situation with multiple adjoining surface areas: Anchorage International (ANC), Lake Hood (LHD), Merrill Field (MRI), Elmendorf (EDF), and Bryant Army Airfield (FRN). A working group was established across the Anchorage facilities to work the issue—spurred on by concerns expressed from aviation groups and local operators. Last March, FAA held a Safety Risk Management panel meeting, and invited AOPA and other stakeholder representatives to evaluate their plan. In the subsequent months, FAA reviews were held and approval ultimately received to implement new internal procedures.

SVFR Process
The process from a pilot perspective remains unchanged. We must ASK for a Special VFR clearance—the controller can’t offer it to us. Ask Clearance Delivery if you want to depart ANC or LHD, or Ground Control at MRI. Arriving traffic may request a special from Anchorage Approach. To address the issue of adjacent, “wing tip to wing tip” operations, ATC defined two cases, high and low visibility SVFR. During High Visibility SVFR conditions, the ceiling is a little below 1,000 ft, but visibility is three miles or greater. When these conditions exist, each facility can issue specials independently. When the visibility comes down to less than 3 miles, a different set of procedures go into effect, and coordination is required across adjacent surfaces. Priority will be given to inbound traffic, and outbound flights will be staggered to reduce congestion over the Point McKenzie area.

Feedback requested
We owe a big THANK YOU to the Air Traffic Control staff for going the extra mile to take what could have been a serious impact on access to the Anchorage airports, and developing procedures that may increase the flow of SVFR traffic. When fall weather arrives, and these procedures get more use, ATC would like your feedback. If you have comments or concerns, please contact: David Chilson, Support Manager, FAA Alaska Terminal District, david.chilson@faa.gov, 907-271-2703. Thanks also to the pilots and operators who communicated their concerns to FAA when the prospect of these changes first was announced, and who participated in the Safety Risk Management Panel. This spirit of cooperation has helped reach a better outcome than I think anyone expected when the national changes were first announced!

Post Script on SVFR
While it is nice to have SVFR procedures in our tool kit, we should be extremely cautious in their application. Conditions that require SVFR by definition mean we are working under restricted circumstances, of either ceiling or visibility, which limit our options. We should be very familiar with the airport, local terrain and weather conditions before asking for a special. Under stable conditions a special can speed us on our way to better weather near by, but in other cases they may be leading us into something worse. Check out AOPA’s Air Safety Institute’s article “How safe is special VFR” to explore this topic in greater detail.

Clearing Customs into Alaska along the Alaska Highway

Pilots flying into Alaska along the Alaska Highway this summer should pay close attention to details regarding Customs. For north bound aircraft entering Alaska from Whitehorse or Dawson, Northway has been a popular location to clear Customs, before proceeding on to other destinations in the state. Inspection services by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for the Northway Airport are managed out of the Alcan highway station (http://www.cbp.gov/contact/ports/alcan), situated about 50 road miles away from the airport. Pilots planning to clear in Northway need to call the Alcan station well in advance to arrange their arrival. According to CPB’s website, Customs operational hours at Northway Airport are currently 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 7 days a week, however you can call the Alcan port any time as they are open 24 hours a day.

Recently CPB has in some cases offered pilots the option to make a technical stop for fuel in Tok (6K8), and proceed to either Fairbanks or Anchorage to clear Customs. This may be attractive, as currently there is no fuel available at the Northway Airport. If this option is offered, make sure that you contact the Fairbanks or Anchorage Port directly, PRIOR TO LEAVING CANADA, to arrange your arrival there. Pay attention to any other instructions the CBP official may provide. Canadian Flight Service has been authorized to accept flight plans with a fuel stop in Tok, if pre-approved by CBP.

Factors to consider in selecting a port of entry:

1)      My personal strategy when crossing international borders is to clear Customs as soon as possible after entering the new country, even if there isn’t fuel available at the airport of entry. From a risk management perspective, it removes the pressure to continue in the face of changing weather conditions to meet the ETA Customs is expecting me to keep. Having a careful look at the weather prior to accepting a plan to clear at a more distant location like Fairbanks or Anchorage would be prudent.

2)      If you are forced to land short of your planned port of entry due to weather, mechanical problems etc., make sure to call Customs immediately, and advise them of your situation. They do understand there are occasional “challenges” with general aviation operations, but need to be kept informed. Don’t forget to call them, or put it off till the following day…

3)      Remember that in addition to calling your intended port of entry, you must also file an eAPIS notification online. If you accept a different destination based on your telephone conversation with Customs, you may need to file a new eAPIS report for the new destination. This is another reason to call Customs while you still have internet access– well before you are ready to crawl in the airplane and take off.

Crossing international boundaries has certainly become more complicated than it used to be pre-911. While the eAPIS system is a bit of a pain to set up in the first place, it essentially provides in advance the information you used to supply upon arrival. In my experience, it has cut down on my time clearing Customs after arriving at the port of entry. If you have problems with Customs when flying into Alaska, please let AOPA know. Send me an email at tom.george@aopa.org if you encounter a problem that we should know about. But don’t let these procedures keep you from flying between Alaska and Canada. If that happens, the bad guys have won!

Help us advocate for you—Take the GA Survey!

Advocacy is the most important reason our members tell us they belong to organizations like AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association. We expend considerable effort to defend your ability to fly, and protect the necessary infrastructure (airports, weather stations, navaids, etc.) needed for aviation safety and access. But to advocate effectively, we need to be able to quantify who we are: How many flight hours a year does GA account for? What equipment do we have in our aircraft? What types of uses do we make with our planes?

While the airlines may easily characterize the size and nature of their operations, this is a much more challenging thing to do for the GA “fleet,” dispersed over thousands of aircraft owners. We need your help to quantify our impact on the National Airspace System, to help protect or in some cases expand infrastructure. Here is a very current example in Alaska.

 

This slide shows the location and number of ADS-B ground radios FAA plans to install in Alaska. Stars show locations operational today, and circles represent stations still to be installed.  At altitudes typical GA aircraft fly, about 40 % of the state will be without coverage even after these stations are finished.

This slide shows the location and number of ADS-B ground radios FAA plans to install in Alaska. Stars show locations operational today, and circles represent stations still to be installed. At altitudes typical GA aircraft fly, about 40 % of the state will be without coverage even after these stations are finished.

FAA rolling out ADS-B
The FAA is finalizing installation plans for new ground radios to support ADS-B, one of the key elements of the NextGen Program.  (Note: If you are not familiar with ADS-B, the AOPA Air Safety Institute offers an online course that will explain the basics: http://flash.aopa.org/asf/ads-b/index.cfm)  In Alaska, the stations FAA has planned leave approximately 40 percent of the state without ADS-B coverage at the altitudes typical GA aircraft fly. We are advocating for additional ground radios along the most frequently traveled routes across the state, to provide Alaskan pilots with a “minimum operational network” of stations that will support air traffic services, the uplink of weather and other information to the cockpit of “equipped” aircraft. FAA is reluctant to invest in additional ground radios, if the aircraft flying in Alaska aren’t equipped to benefit. At the same time, aircraft owners are understandably reluctant to equip their airplanes, unless they will be able to obtain service. While we know that some aircraft owners are buying the new portable ADS-B In receivers, we don’t know how many. This is where we need your help.

How the GA Survey helps
The General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey, conducted by independent research firm Terra Tech, gives us a way to quantify many aspects of GA operations, including how many aircraft are equipped to use ADS-B. The second mailing of the survey was recently sent to a sample of aircraft owners across the US, and 100% of aircraft owners in Alaska. You can greatly help our advocacy efforts by digging out your pilot log book and taking about 15 minutes to answer questions including how many hours your aircraft flew in 2013, what types of flights you made (business, recreational, instructional, etc.), and what equipment is in your airplane. Even if you DON’T have ADS-B equipment today we need to establish a baseline, to monitor how equipage changes over the next few years, as the cost of equipment drops and more owners decide they want to have free weather and traffic information in their cockpit. The survey may be taken online at www.aviationsurvey.org, using your N-number to log in. Even if you didn’t fly last year, please take the survey! Responses are confidential, with no individually identifiable information released to the FAA. If you have questions about the survey, contact Tetra Tech toll-free at 1-800-826-1797 or email infoaviationsurvey@tetratech.com.

Taking this survey helps us advocate for you, on a wide range of topics other than ADS-B. Thank you to those who have already responded! And to those who haven’t—please take the few minutes to do so today.

This article by Tom George, AOPA Alaska Regional Manager and Adam White, Government Affairs, Alaska Airmen’s Association