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

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

FAA looking for feedback on new Alaska automated weather stations

Knowing current weather conditions and how they are expected to change is important information for pilots. Today, the primary source of information on current weather conditions is the network of automated surface weather observations. Those operated by the FAA are commonly called Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS). Pilots rely on the data from these stations to make operational decisions on whether to fly or not, augmented by the FAA Alaska Weather Camera Program, which during daylight hours provides a visual look at the weather.

The FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program is primarily tasked to implement ADS-B and other technologies, in support of NextGen. As follow-on to the FAA Capstone Program, however, they undertook the challenge of adding additional AWOS stations, as well as a couple Remote Communication Outlets in some parts of Alaska. Working with FAA, Alaskan user groups argued that ADS-B alone wouldn’t improve safety and access—we needed a system solution that also included instrument approaches, weather and communications. Over the past few years, the SBS Program has installed twenty additional AWOS stations in Alaska. Improved IFR access is certainly a result at airports that have WAAS GPS approaches, which most have. In some cases, nearby airports with existing approaches were able to obtain lower minimums, based on these stations. In all cases, pilots have better weather information about these airports to aid their decision making, whether flying under VFR or IFR rules.

Currently the FAA is looking for feedback from users who fly in these areas, and would like to hear from individual pilots, air taxi operators, private business users, communities, or anyone else that has seen a change based on any of these twenty stations.

FAA and industry officials examine an AWOS station in Alaska. Sensors are located above an equipment shelter.

FAA and industry officials examine an AWOS station in Alaska. Sensors are located above an equipment hut that provides shelter for technicians servicing the station at remote locations.

SBS Funded AWOS Stations

Barter Island/PABA

Brevig Mission/PFKT

Chevak/PAVA

Clarks Point/PFCL

Elim/PFEL

False Pass/PAKF

Galena/PAGA

Kiana/PAIK

Kwethluk/PFKW

Napakiak/PANA

Noorvik/PFNO

Weather sensors are above the equipment shelter. The gray antenna in the background is part of a satellite communication system that sends that transmits weather data for distribution in areas that lack direct phone access.

Weather sensors are above the equipment shelter. The gray antenna in the background is part of a satellite communication system that sends that transmits weather data for distribution in areas that lack direct phone access.

Nunapitchuk/PPIT

Quinhagak/PAQH

Shageluk/PAHX

Shaktoolik/PFSH

Shugnak/PAGH

South Naknek/PFWS

Teller/PATE

Wales/PAIW

White Mountain/PAWM

 

 

 

While these twenty stations are an improvement, Alaska is still very sparsely covered with aviation weather stations in comparison to the rest of the country. Additional weather stations are needed to improve aviation safety and access. Letting FAA know the benefits from these stations is a step in the right direction.

Please provide feedback to:
Jim Wright, Sr. Systems Engineer
Surveillance and Broadcast Services (AJM-232)
Lockheed Martin Corporation
1873 Shell Simmons Drive, Suite 110
Juneau, AK 99801

phone: 907-790-7316  email: jim.ctr.wright@faa.gov  Please send AOPA a copy of your comments: airtrafficservices@aopa.org

GA Survey: Your input needed to quantify general aviation activity

A group of government VIP's at Unalkleet during a 1928 Alaska tour.  Alaska State Library Historical Collections Id: ASL-P240-027.

A group led by Gov. George Parks (light hat) at Unalakleet during a 1928 Alaska inspection tour. Alaska State Library Historical Collections Id: ASL-P240-027.

1928 was an active year for aviation in Alaska. In only five years since the first commercial flight in the state, airplanes had grabbed the attention of the public, making trips that previously took several weeks possible to complete in a few hours. At the time, quantifying the number of pilots, airplanes and mechanics was easier than it is today. According to author Robert Steven’s Alaskan Aviation History, Vol. 1, that year there were only eight licensed pilots in the territory (Alaska wouldn’t be granted statehood until 1959). This spanned the spectrum from student to transport certificates. There were a total of seventeen airplanes, and twelve licensed mechanics. Those aircraft were getting a lot more hours than the average GA aircraft today, I can assure you. Reading Steven’s detailed accounts of this year alone, these aircraft were on the go whenever the weather allowed, and not just for short hops, either. They were covering routes three to four hundred miles in length, otherwise navigated by dog sleds or river boats. Before instrument airways had become a reality, this was a totally VFR operation, with a lot of time spent turning around, and waiting for better weather.

Quantifying GA today?
While the FAA has records describing how many aircraft are registered, determining how many are active and how much they fly is another matter, especially with activities as diverse as those that make up the universe of general aviation. To figure how many active aircraft we have, the FAA contracts with an independent research firm, Tetra Tech, to conduct the General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey. The survey asks questions like: Was your aircraft flown last year? How is your aircraft equipped? What percentage of your flight hours were for recreation/instruction/business/etc.? While the survey is sent to a sample of aircraft owner’s nationwide, all Alaskan aircraft owners are asked to participate. I hope you will take the few minutes required to respond. AOPA and other aviation advocates rely on this data to help make our case when it comes to protecting your ability to fly. For example, one of the questions (What kind of fuel do you burn?) combined with information about the types of flying you do, helps us understand the potential impact of policy decisions involving 100LL fuel. The question about installed equipment lets us know how many (or few) aircraft owners have ADS-B capabilities installed.

Your response is needed
The survey only covers flight time during calendar year 2013. Even if you DIDN’T fly, sold your aircraft, or were waiting for your mechanic to finish a repair— checking the appropriate box and returning the survey helps. If you have three or more aircraft, contact Tetra Tech to obtain a short forum of the survey (1-800-826-1797 or email infoaviationsurvey@tetratech.com). If you would rather take the survey online, go to www.aviationsurvey.org, and use your N –number to log in. The information in the survey is kept confidential, with only aggregate data provided to the FAA.

We know Alaska has a lot more airplanes than the seventeen that were present in 1928. Please take the few minutes with your pilot and aircraft log books to help quantify the magnitude of general aviation in 2013!

Practice Runways: A low-cost pilot proficiency tool

It is finally summer in Alaska. Salmon are running in the rivers, wild roses are blooming on the roadsides and paint marks are starting to appear on select gravel runways around the state. Paint marks? On gravel runways? Are you crazy? Only a little, but read on…

Threshold of the freshly painted "practice runway" on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Threshold of the freshly painted “practice runway” on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Last week a twelve-person crew armed with 5 gallons of white paint, a sprayer, couple of plywood templates and a bunch of enthusiasm, assembled to create two “practice runways” on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport. Each end of the gravel runway (named the Ski Strip, because that’s it’s winter occupation) now sports a 25 foot wide by 800 foot long “practice runway.” Delineated by white 2 x 4 foot white rectangles painted directly on the packed gravel surface every hundred feet, it simulates a narrow, short runway pilots are liable to be landing on at back-country airstrips or gravel bars. These landing areas, often surrounded by trees, with rough surfaces, provide access at their favorite hunting, fishing or camping spot. The practice runways don’t provide the full range of conditions encountered in the field, but are also without the consequences– if you don’t get down and stopped in the right place on the first try!

Airports and stakeholder working together
Often these projects are a collaborative effort between the airport owner and a volunteer group that teams up to paint the markings in the spring, after the runway has been graded and packed. At Fairbanks, AOPA Airport Support Volunteer Ron Dearborn put out a call for volunteers using General Aviation Association’s email list, which brought help not only from that group but also from members of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Midnight Sun Chapter of the Ninety Nines. and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Program.

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Ron Dearborn lining out tasks for painting the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Ron Dearborn lining out tasks for painting the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Previously established reference markers off the side of the runway make it easy to lay out markings for the paint crew.

Previously established reference markers off the side of the runway make it easy to lay out markings for the paint crew.

Plywood templates allow the paint crew to quickly leap frog from one mark to the next.

Plywood templates allow the paint crew to quickly leap frog from one mark to the next.

As soon as the NOTAM closing the Ski Strip went into effect, and after a safety briefing by airport operations staff, the crew took possession of the runway. They marked and painted the two practice runways in just under an hour. Assembling the crew and equipment, and cleaning up afterward took more time than actual painting itself. After the work was done, the group celebrated with baked goodies and beverages, before calling it a night. The Ski Strip stayed closed overnight to let the paint dry, but by the following day, airplanes were hard at it, doing stop-and-goes.

This is the fourth year that volunteers have worked with the airport operations staff to create this piece of infrastructure at Fairbanks, and other airports around the state. The practice runways have proven to be popular not only for super cub drivers, but with students just learning to fly and pilots of a wide range of aircraft wishing to calibrate their landing distances. Other airports that have received a “modification to standards” from the FAA to create practice runways on their gravel runways include: Goose Bay (Z40), Nenana (PANN), Palmer (PAAQ), Soldotna (PASX) and Wasilla (PAWS). I encourage you to use one of these practice strips and see how well you can hit the marks– and how much runway it takes to get stopped.

If your airport has a runway you think might be suitable for a practice runway, contact your airport manager to see if they are interested. The airport typically will need to coordinate with FAA Airports Division to approve a “modification to standards” which specifies how the runway may be marked. This is still a new program, only happening in Alaska. A guide has been developed based on experience from several seasons to help airports owners and volunteer groups figure out how to undertake a similar project. I encourage you to consider whether this program makes sense at your airport, as a small but positive way to influence aviation safety and proficiency.

It certainly makes it much more fun to get out and practice take off’s and landings!