New graphic tools to view PIREPs

Pilot Reports represent an important source of weather information for pilots.  Recently some new tools have been provided making it easier to access these observations.

PIREPs on AAWU
Just released today, the National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) has upgraded the Pilot Report map on their website.  They have provided a PIREP map for a number of years, but only at a fixed state-wide scale.  The improved version features an interactive map display, which may be zoomed and panned to provide more detail on the exact area you are interested in.  This is particularly helpful when there are a cluster of reports that one wants to study in detail.  The default value on the PIREP page displays reports from the last three hours, however the AAWU also provides the ability to change the time window in several increments ranging from one to twenty four hours, to be able to look at trends.  They also still provide a text list at the bottom of the page listing the reports received in the last hour, if you want to go read them old school.  Here is the link to their PIREP page: http://aawu.arh.noaa.gov/index.php?tab=4

New PIREP display on the AAWU website. Hovering over the icon provides the details of the report.

New PIREP display on the AAWU website. Hovering over the icon provides the details of the report.

Adjustable map scale allows users to zoom in on a specific area of interest.

Adjustable map scale allows users to zoom in on a specific area of interest. And to more easily see that there is a second report nearby.

SkyVector adds PIREPs
Another recent development is that PIREPs have been added as an optional layer to display on SkyVector.com.  A free-online flight planning and online mapping service, Seattle based SkyVector.com has since 2006 provided products combining flight charts and airport data along with weather and other information.  If you select the “layers” option at the top right corner of their main page, PIREPs are now an option that appears under the weather tab.  They not only display PIREPs graphically on their zoomable map, but the icon itself indicates something about the content of the report. Hovering over the PIREP provides more significant information about the report and how long ago it was submitted. Clicking on the icon brings up the entire report.  While I haven’t read formal documentation, it is clear that their icons are designed to provide information about the intensity of the report. In the example below, two PIPEPs indicating turbulence are shown, one reporting light and the other indicating moderate turbulence.  The full report provides the additional information including aircraft type, and altitude.

SkyVector.com uses icons regarding the type of conditions in the report.

SkyVector.com uses icons regarding the type of conditions in the report. Hovering over the icon (in the example above) provides additional details, and clicking it displays the entire report.

PIREPs on the FAA Weather Camera Website
Although not a new feature, PIREPs are also available on the FAA’s Weather Camera website: http://avcams.faa.gov/   After toggling them on under the Options choices listed on the left side of the page, PIREPs are displayed as a yellow filled circle on the zoomable map.   Unlike the AAWU site, there is no ability to select a time range to display, so reports age off the system after three hours.  Clicking on the icon brings up the entire report.

The FAA's Aviation Weather Camera website also offers PIREPs as a feature along with camera data and other weather information.

The FAA’s Aviation Weather Camera website also offers PIREPs as a feature along with camera data and other weather information. Yellow filled circles indicate pilot reports. Clicking the icon brings up the full report.

Thanks to all of these organizations for providing these tools to access PIPEPs.  I hope to see more developments in the display of this data in the future. It would be useful to see a graphic depiction of a “route report” that covers conditions between two or more points, such as a mountain pass.

Given these new resources, I hope there is an added incentive for each of us to take the extra minute to file a PIREP as we fly, and share with those behind the conditions we encountered along our route of flight!

Alaska Weather Camera Program needs a few pilots to test…

The FAA is looking for a few serious users of mobile devices to help test a new weather camera application.  If you are willing to devote some of your time over the next couple months to help test this new capability, consider volunteering to be part of the beta testing team and help put the new application through the ringer.

Background:
The FAA Aviation Weather Camera Program has by all accounts been a great addition to evaluating weather in Alaska. It grew from a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student program with three camera sites in 1999, to an operational system run by the FAA with over 220 sites across the state. Today it provides pilots, Flight Service and NWS Forecasters an important tool to help determine when it is safe to fly.  In addition to being able to see the weather within the last ten minutes (during daylight hours), the weather camera website includes additional information helpful to pilots, such as METARs and TAFs (where available), and more recently Pilot Reports.

A screenshot from the web-based version of the Weather Camera site. Green circles are camera sites, yellow are pilot reports and blue are third-party camera locations.  Features may be toggled on and off by the users.

A screenshot from the web-based version of the Weather Camera site. Green circles are camera sites, yellow are pilot reports and blue are third-party camera locations. Features may be toggled on and off by the users.

A further enhancement has been the addition of third party camera sites (provided by other than the FAA).  These now include cameras in Western Canada, that should help pilots flying the Alaska Highway.

Testers Needed:
Currently the FAA is preparing to add an improved mobile app to expand our ability to access these data.  The Weather Camera Program is looking for a handful of users willing to test the system prior to release to the public. Volunteers will be asked not only to use the system, but to participate in a few meetings to provide feedback for developers.  FAA would specifically like to have some members of the team based in rural parts of the state, to provide feedback on connectivity outside the urban areas.

If you are interested in volunteering for this assignment, please send an email to: [email protected] expressing interest, and letting them know (1) what platform (tablet or phone) you are using, (2) where you based, and (3) which mobile operating system you use.

Increase situational awareness – Consider filing a NOTAM before your next glider event

Gliders aren’t as popular in Alaska as in some other places, but there are locations where they do fly. The gliders and the tow planes that launch them can keep the airspace very busy. Paragliding also has quite a following, and is a popular form of aviation in some parts of the state. These lightweight, foot-launched gliders have a pilot suspended below a fabric wing. Despite having no engine, they can fly for hours, cover many miles and climb thousands of feet and thus end up far away from the launch site. As powered aircraft pilots, we need to do our best to avoid conflicts with these aircraft; one way to do that is to look for Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) describing glider operations during our pre-flight planning.  And if you are the person scheduling a glider—or paraglider—“gathering” or event, consider giving Flight Service a call to file a NOTAM, as a heads-up for your fellow aviators.  Flight Service will help you describe the operation you are planning, get a NOTAM in the system, and help alert all pilots to your activities when you are operating in and around busy airspace.

Cessna 170B with glider in tow off the Denali airstrip (AK06).  Photo by Rob Stapleton

Cessna 170B with glider in tow off the Denali airstrip (AK06). Photo by Rob Stapleton

Background
Over the past year, the Mat Su Mid-Air Collision Avoidance Working Group has been looking at the flight corridor along the Glenn Highway, on the eastern edge of the Anchorage bowl.  The group, comprised of government and industry stakeholders, spent considerable time exploring the range of flying activities that take place along the Glenn, from Palmer south to Turnagain Arm.  In addition to the flow of GA traffic that comes and goes from the Anchorage airports, and aircraft skirting the Restricted Areas, Class C and D airspace, we learned about a range of glider and paraglider operations that occur along this busy corridor.

Activities
Civil Air Patrol (CAP) often launches glider operations out of Bryant Army Airfield or Birchwood—and on occasion Palmer. When flying out of Bryant, they will normally operate in the Bryant Class D and Restricted Area 2203, operating typically between 3,000 and 5,000 feet.  When launching from Birchwood, glider tow operations typically range from the surface to 3,000 feet, but under good “lift” conditions, the gliders themselves may attain altitudes as high as 14,000 feet between Cook Inlet and the mountains. Glider operations are not limited just to Anchorage. The Interior Alaska, CAP holds a summer glider camp out of the Clear Airport, south of Nenana, and sometimes operates from Ladd Field at Ft. Wainwright.

Paragliders and hang gliders are another source of traffic along the Glenn Highway. With a locally active club containing about 60 pilots, they may fly on weekends and during week-days in the Eagle River area, typically up to 6,000 feet, between April and June. During July through October, operations shift to Hatcher Pass and/or Girdwood, although some hardcore types fly year-around. Paragliders will occasionally make cross country flights from Turnagain Arm to Palmer, achieving altitudes of up to 10,000 feet! Thompson Pass, near Valdez, is the location of an April Snowkiting event.

Paragliding in Eagle River Valley. Photo by

Scott Amy paragliding in Eagle River Valley. Photo by Matt Bonney

NOTAMs
Given the speed disparity between gliders, paragliders and faster powered aircraft, it helps to be aware of the location of their operations.  In the course of the group discussions, NOTAMs were identified as an additional tool—beyond see-and-avoid, lighting and CTAF usage, to help improve situational awareness between gliders and other powered aircraft sharing the airspace.

Filing a NOTAM
Recently, the Alaska Flight Service Program developed a two-page document that tells glider operators how to file a NOTAM.  The key details include the location where the operations are planned to occur, range of altitudes expected to be used and the block of time scheduled for flight operations.  The document also provides contact information for the three full-time Flight Service Stations in Kenai, Fairbanks and Juneau. They can help get you started or answer any questions about filing a NOTAM.

Finding the NOTAM
As summer and warmer temperatures near, pilots should be on the lookout for NOTAMs describing glider activities associated with an airport where gliders are launching. In the case of paragliders, launch locations are typically not tied to an airport, but rather a ridge top, with Eagle River Valley being one of the most popular areas to fly. If a NOTAM is in the system, it should show up if your route of flight comes close to the area defined in the notice. When you call Flight Service for a pre-flight briefing—or go online to use some of our favorite flight planning software—take an extra minute to look for NOTAMs that describe glider operations, as we all share the airspace.

Everyone wants to come home with a smile on their face at the end of their flight – so please use this additional tool to help make that happen!

Volunteers needed to test Alaska PIREP website

The National Weather Service is looking for pilots willing to test a new enhanced Pilot Report page on the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s (AAWU) website.   The AAWU has displayed PIREPs graphically for many years, however recent technical problems lead them to upgrade the page. Fortunately for us, instead of just fixing the current PIREP map, NWS decided to significantly enhance the page. Presently, a “beta” version is available at the link below, with live data. Please take some time over the next two weeks to give it a try and let both NWS and AOPA know how you like it. Most importantly, let us know if the new page does not work on the devices you use.

http://aawu.arh.noaa.gov/index2.php?tab=4

aawu pirep page graphic

A sample showing the new PIREP page, with a zoomable map, and the ability to choose a time-range from one to as much as 24 hours. PIREPs above FL180 are displayed in blue, while lower altitude reports are green.

What’s Different?
The existing PIREP webpage contained a fixed scale map, which covers the entire state. Where there were multiple PIREPs at a single location, it was often challenging to select a specific report. The new site has a map that zooms to larger scales, giving a far more detailed depiction of the report location. NWS kept the ability to filter reports by time. If there are lots of PIREPs in the system, a user can display just the most recent reports. Conversely, you may choose to look at reports over the past 24 hours to evaluate trends. There are still a few refinements that could be made, and we appreciate the NWS inviting us to provide feedback before they declare the site operational.

More on PIREPs
This is one part of a larger aviation community effort to increase the number and quality of PIREPs in Alaska. These reports are a vital component of the information pilots rely on for aviation decision making, and NWS uses to validate aviation forecasts. AOPA and other Alaska aviation organizations are working with the FAA and NWS to examine the PIREP system and to encourage pilots to file more PIREPs. If you haven’t already done so, consider taking the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s online SkySpotter: PIREPs made easy (go to: http://www.aopa.org/Education/Online-Courses/Pireps-Made-Easy), for a refresher on this topic. It is free, available to all pilots.

Expect to see more on this topic in the months ahead, but for now, try out the AAWU’s new PIREP page. Please send your feedback to the AAWU at: [email protected]  and copy AOPA at [email protected].

Cold Temperature Correction Procedures Meeting in Alaska

The FAA’s update to the list of cold temperature restricted airports has generated questions from Alaska pilots about the process. Initially raised at a meeting of the Interior Alaska Flight Instructors Association in Fairbanks, the FAA is sending an official to Alaska from Washington DC to explain and discuss the procedures. Kel Christianson, from Flight Standards Performance Based Flight Systems Branch (AFS-470), will meet with pilots on Wednesday, January 20 at 7 p.m. Mr. Christianson will cover the background on why and how cold temperature correction procedures have been instituted in the National Airspace System, and provide detailed examples on making altitude corrections to instrument approach procedures.

Cold Temperature Correction Procedures apply to nearly 100 airports in Alaska.

Cold Temperature Correction Procedures apply to nearly 100 airports in Alaska.

The Fairbanks based CFI association compiled specific questions from Alaska operators in advance and supplied them to the FAA. A question and answer session will follow the briefing. FAA Air Traffic Control staff will also be on hand to answer questions. The meeting is being sponsored by the FAA Safety Team, and will take place at the Fairbanks International Airport Operations Center, 5195 Brumbaugh Blvd, on the west side of the airport.

Since almost a hundred Alaska airports are on the list, and winter tends to be our dominant season, these procedures may have a major impact on those pilots who fly IFR. Consider taking advantage of this meeting to learn more about this topic.

Possible increase in Alaska aviation motor fuel tax

Alaska is facing a budget crisis due to the low price of crude oil, which will impact all Alaskans, most likely in multiple ways. Focusing on the impact to the 247 state operated airports, the Alaska Aviation Advisory Board (AAB) worked with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT) to look at ways to provide additional revenue to support the airports, while having minimal impact on aviation system users. This discussion started back in February this year, when DOT initially announced a proposal to establish landing fees at Deadhorse, a move that many feared would spread to other airports across the state system. In a meeting with Governor Walker, the AAB expressed concerns about landing fees, and asked to work with DOT to look at other options before any changes were made. The Governor indicated he would welcome the board’s input, which kicked off a series of meetings with DOT.

At the spring and summer AAB meetings, DOT presented both the costs to operate the Rural Alaska Airport System, and three alternative methods to increase revenues. DOT also discussed several possible measures to reduce operating costs. These ranged from handing some airports over to local communities to operate, to streamlining the aviation functions of the department into a single division.   Establishing a true division of aviation within DOT is something that a number of aviation organizations, including AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association, have advocated for a number of years. While we believe that streamlining the management of DOT airports will help manage costs in the long run, this doesn’t address the immediate need to keep the airports operating.

What does it cost to operate state airports? Funding for airports comes in two distinct flavors: capital funding, which is used to build and improve airports, primarily comes from the federal government; and operating funding, which covers staffing, supplies and other costs associated with operations and maintenance, which is typically supplied by the airport owner.

Capital Funding:  The State of Alaska, like other states, receives grant money directly from the FAA through the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), to build and expand airports. Alaska has received over $200 million/year for the past several years from this program. The FAA’s contribution is typically about 90% of the grant, with a requirement for the state to match the federal funding. The state’s contribution comes from the airport owner, called the sponsor, in FAA terms. This AIP funding mechanism allows for the construction and improvements of airports nationwide, but comes with strings attached. One of the strings is that the sponsor (airport owner) agrees to pay for operation of the facilities, and to keep them in good working order.

Operational Funding: Funding the operation and maintenance of airports is the challenge. The FAA expects airport sponsors (owners) to pay for operations, and airports typically charge fees to help cover some of those costs. Airport lease fees, tie down fees, and other revenue streams help offset operational costs. In Alaska, even though we rely on aviation for basic transportation, our low population base often doesn’t provide the volume of fees that would be needed for our airports to truly be self-sustaining. Here are the figures for the state-operated airports (not including Anchorage and Fairbanks International, which are operated as a separate enterprise fund). The cost to operate the Rural Alaska Aviation System in FY 2014 was $33.8 million dollars. Revenues received by the state included $5.3 million from airport leasing, tie down permits, etc. and $4.6 million in aviation motor fuels taxes, for a total revenue of $9.9 million. These revenues go into the General Fund. Each year the Legislature appropriates money from the General Fund to DOT, which includes the resources to operate the rural airports.

Revenue Options  DOT presented three options to increase revenues: Implement landing fees, initially at the regional hub (Part 139) airports; implement a state-wide airport user fee, and; increase motor fuel taxes. The AAB looked at these from the standpoint of how much they would cost to implement, the projected amount of revenue generated, what they would cost the users, and how equitable they seemed both to different segments of the aviation community and to the public, which in many cases relies on aviation for the delivery of goods and services, in addition to their own transportation. After considerable deliberation, the AAB recommended that the state increase the aviation motor fuel tax from the current levels (4.7 cents/gal for avgas and 3.2 cents/gal for jet fuel), to 10 cents/gal for both fuel types. Based on projections provided by the state, this would raise about $9 million additional revenue per year. Combined with the current revenue streams, it would provide approximately $19 million of the $34 million needed to operate the rural airports.

A significant motivation for this recommendation is that a change in motor fuel tax doesn’t create any additional cost to state government to collect. Both landing fees and airport user fees require additional administrative efforts to collect, as well as burden the user with tracking and payment. It was also felt that the motor fuel tax was more equitable because cost is proportional to use. Adam White, Government Affairs Manager for the Alaska Airmen’s Association, provided the following information to show the impact to some typical GA users:

Adam White fuel tax table

At a recent meeting in Fairbanks, Governor Walker acknowledged the AAB recommendation. It will take legislative action, however, to make a change to the motor fuel tax. While no one wants to see an increase in operating cost, the motor fuel tax increase option appears to be the best choice to address this issue. We will certainly be discussing it more in the months ahead, and we are interested in hearing your thoughts on funding to keep our airports open, maintained and safe for all aviation operations.

 

This article is reprinted from the January-March, 2016 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association Transponder.

Lake Hood Master Plan Alternatives Survey

The Lake Hood Seaplane Base is in the process of updating it’s Master Plan, the document which will guide development of the airport for the next ten to twenty years.  The process involves planning staff and stakeholders reviewing issues, current use and future projections for the airport, and developing alternatives for projects to maintain and/or expand the facility. At this stage, alternatives have been developed, and a user survey is underway to rate the alternatives developed by the planning team.  Options range from maintenance of existing facilities, to candidate projects that could significantly expand the capacity of the airport. For more information about the plan, which is about halfway through a two-year schedule, see the LHD Master Plan website.

Whether you are a local or transient user of Lake Hood, consider taking the online survey, designed to help set priorities for the proposed alternatives identified. The survey has links to color maps, showing the locations of different elements of the plan.  It contains about 50 questions, so you might grab a cup of coffee and prepare to devote a little time to working through the the options.  Click here to take the survey, which runs through December 7, 2015.

lake hood mp graphic

Lake Hood is is purported to be the world’s largest seaplane base, and is the home for some 800 aircraft.  With the water lanes and gravel runway, it serves both seaplane and wheel traffic, often topping 400 operations a day in the summer.  This general aviation airport (exclusive of neighboring Anchorage International Airport) is estimated to have an economic impact of $24 million to the Anchorage community. In addition to being home for private pilots, air taxi operators, maintenance and parts businesses, it has an aviation museum, several government aircraft bases and a Civil Air Patrol maintenance facility. It is also home to the Alaska Airmen’s Association.

If you care about this facility, take a few minutes and provide some feedback to help guide the future of this Alaskan crown jewel.

Heads Up: VIP NOTAM issued for Anchorage

Heads up for pilots flying in the Anchorage area this Sunday afternoon, November 22, 2015. A VIP NOTAM has been posted for the time interval from 2 to 5 pm, limiting flights within 30 nautical miles of JBER. Like the Presidential TFR from last August, there is an inner and outer ring, each with different restrictions.

Remember, the details and times may change, so be sure to check NOTAMs before you take off (and while enroute) for the latest information.  http://tfr.faa.gov/tfr2/list.html

Graphic depiction of the VIP TFR NOTAM. Make sure and check for updates, in case it changes.

Graphic depiction of the VIP TFR NOTAM. Make sure and check for updates, in case it changes.

Book Review: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

If you have any interest in aviation history, pick up a copy of David McCullough’s latest book: The Wright Brothers, published earlier this year. Having read other books about this famous duo, it was with some apprehension that I opened this latest work.   It didn’t take more than a few pages to become captivated by the story, masterfully woven by McCullough. More so than the other books I am familiar with, this account made it feel like I knew Wilbur and Orville, as well as their sister, Katharine, another key member of the team. How these individuals from a seemingly “normal” middle class family in Dayton, Ohio managed to succeed over others better equipped and financed, is a fascinating tale that goes beyond the mechanics of aviation. This is why McCullough found it a worth story to research and share with the world.

coverThe first part of the book introduces the Wright family in some detail. Much of the foundation that set the course for the Wright Brothers is found there in the form of a rich home environment that provided a well-rounded education. Even though neither brother finished high school, there was “much encouragement to intellectual curiosity” that extended beyond the classroom. Their father, a bishop in his church who spent months at a time away from home, provided a role model that demonstrated both a strong work ethic, and that it was OK to be focused on a mission—even one that might not be popular. Conquering the problem of manned flight was not something that the brothers grew up with, as their interests and talents were quite broad including athletics, music, reading, even cooking.

An event that most likely did lead them to the “aviation question” was of a different nature. During his senior year in high school, Wilbur was struck in the face with a hockey stick, resulting in the loss of most of his upper teeth. This incident and the three-year convalescence that followed changed the direction of his life, causing him to drop plans of attending college. As largely a home-bound recluse, he began to read widely which brought Otto Lilienthal, the German glider enthusiast, to his attention. There are many twists and turns along the way, which McCullough does a masterful job of weaving into the story, making it hard to put down.

Wilbur Wright at the controls over Le Mans, France. This was the location of the first public demonstration of the Wright Flyer aircraft, which made the Wright Brothers famous overnight.

Wilbur Wright at the controls over Le Mans, France. This was the location of the first public demonstration of the Wright Flyer aircraft, which made the Wright brothers famous overnight.

The book fully describes the events leading to the famous 12 second flight in 1903 we celebrate as the “take off” of powered flight at Kitty Hawk. While a significant milestone, it was almost another five years of pain-staking trial and error development that followed before the real public roll-out of aviation. That occurred in Le Mans, France on August 8, 1908. On the track that was used for horse races, Wilbur made the first public demonstration of the Flyer. The French, at the time, were more active in aviation development than the United States, and considered themselves the leaders in this arena. Many believed that the Wright brothers were bluffing with regard to their accomplishments of “controlled flight.” Toward the end of that day, after long and careful preparations, Wilbur took off, flew a simple race-track pattern and landed almost exactly on the spot he had departed. It lasted only about two minutes, but the crowd went wild. Pilots in the audience, including Louis Bleriot, were stunned by the control that had been demonstrated. Overnight, Wilbur’s flight made worldwide headlines. Why this took place in France and not in the US is a fascinating part of the story, which I won’t risk spoiling.

Last week, I heard David McCullough speak about the Wright brothers, and some of the elements that most intrigued him about this story. He credited the home environment, created by their parents as providing the brothers an exposure to the world beyond their hometown. He pointed out that Dayton was the source of many patents at the time, including the invention of the cash register, which became a huge business there. McCullough noted that pre-1903 most of the population believed that manned flight was impossible. Consequently, people that pursued that goal were by definition suspect, if not outright wackos. He also observed that the brothers were able to learn from their failures, yet were not deterred from their quest.

The magnitude of their accomplishments went well beyond figuring out the design of an airplane. Wilbur and Orville taught themselves how to fly—a task that even today is no small undertaking. They realized that aviation was a potentially dangerous activity, which had killed earlier experimenters including German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal. Consequently, they implemented risk management practices. The brothers didn’t fly together, so that if a fatal crash occurred one would remain to continue the mission. It wasn’t until a celebration in 1910 that the two brothers flew together, for the first and only time, which McCullough cites as a recognition that they had accomplished their goal.

The Wright Brothers runs to over 250 pages, richly illustrated with photographs, diagrams and documents. It topped the New York Times Best Seller list for multiple months, which suggests that more than pilots are finding this piece of American history worth reading.  If you pick up a copy, be prepared to strap in and enjoy the ride!

 For a brief glimpse of Wilbur Wright flying in Le Mans, France in 1908, check out this short video.

Mat Su Floatplane Facility Survey Underway

Update: Survey deadline extended through November 15.

A user survey is being conducted to evaluate the magnitude of the demand for a new airport/floatplane facility in the Mat Su Borough. As part of a larger Regional Aviation System Plan, the survey is designed to obtain feedback from pilots and aviation business owners regarding the need for a new facility that would support both float and wheel aircraft operations. As follow on to an earlier study, the survey seeks input on three candidate locations under consideration in the southern part of the Mat Su Valley. Questions also ask aircraft owners to rank the importance of different factors to their selection of a place to base their aircraft or business.

The larger aviation system plan looks at other issues such as the economic impact of aviation at state operated airports, the relationship between public and private airports, compatible land use and airports needing master plans. An information sheet lists an overview of the project.

Pilots, aircraft owners and aviation business owners are asked to take the online survey by November 8th.

Fact Sheet 61440 Mat Su RASP – 10_22_2015 matsu rasp phase 2 graphic