Alaska Flight Service adds InReach to satellite tracking program

A little over a year ago Flight Service offered a new service to Alaskan pilots, allowing them to incorporate satellite tracking devices into their VFR flight plans.  Named eSRS for Enhanced Special Reporting Service, pilots sign up for (or update) a Master Flight Plan to identify the satellite tracking device they use, and obtain contact information so that a distress signal will be received by FSS—along with your GPS location. (For a more complete description of the service see http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=396)

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

While this was initially restricted to SPOT and Spidertracks devices, starting on March 10, 2014, FAA has added Delorme InReach to the list of supported devices.  The InReach has some features worth noting.  Its purchase price, in the $300 range, is attractive.  Like the other devices in this class, the user has to subscribe to a messaging or tracking service—which ranges between $10 – $25 per month.  Flight Service has already been paid for— so no added cost there.  And they operate 24/7, with someone always on duty to receive a distress call.  FSS already knows your aircraft type, number of people on board and other detail from your flight plan, and is poised to expedite getting help on the way during an emergency. Add to that the GPS coordinates with your location. This service could take hours off the time required to summon help, when you need it the most!

The InReach has some attractive features in addition to price.  It uses the Iridium satellite constellation, which provides excellent coverage in Alaska.  The unit also supports two-way texting, so in addition sending a HELP message, you may be able to communicate with rescuers to let them know exactly what assistance is needed. It is portable and can go with you outside the airplane.  The only down side, from an aviation perspective, is that it lacks the automatic tracking feature used in the Spidertracks system, which automatically sends a distress in an emergency—even if the unit is destroyed in the crash. That is a powerful feature that trumps a 406 MHz ELT, from my perspective.

AOPA and the Alaska Airmen have worked closely with the FAA in support of this service.  In a little over a year’s time 55 pilots have signed up and, almost 1,000 flights have been conducted under the program.  Hopefully more people will consider participating with the addition of the InReach unit to the program.  For more details on eSRS and information on how to sign up, see: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/systemops/fs/alaskan/alaska/esrs-ak/

National Wind Turbine Map: A new Pilot Resource

As one of the fastest growing forms of renewable energy, wind turbines are sprouting up all over the country.  On a recent airline flight across the country, I was blown away to see areas in northern Texas with rows of wind-turbines that went on for miles—some of which included well over of a hundred turbines. Now I know why they call them wind farms!  This technology is increasingly popular in rural Alaska, where the cost of fuel to generate electricity is through the roof expensive.  As with all good things, they come with potential impacts.  As pilots, wind turbines provide several challenges: initially as obstructions we have to avoid during flight.  If located too close to airports, they interfere with instrument approaches resulting in higher minimums and reduced access.  Finally, when the wind  blows they represent a source of turbulence, which we still have much to learn about (more on that later).

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Locating individual wind turbines
Recently the US Geological Survey has given us a new tool to locate wind turbines, on a nation-wide basis.  A new interactive mapping application, provides access to a database that not only shows us where wind turbines are found, but records their height, blade length, and other information on a tower-by-tower basis. Prior to this, while some states captured the locations of individual wind turbines, there was no uniform database that provided this information across the country.  Starting with the FAA’s Digital Obstruction File (through July 22, 2013), a USGS team led by Dr. Jay Diffendorfer located over 47,000 turbine sites, verifying individual tower locations with high-resolution satellite imagery. This data base gives us a much better way to find individual tower locations, with a location accuracy estimated to be within 10 meters.

While fewer in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

While still few in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

Understanding impacts
This database is designed to support research into environmental effects on both critters that fly, and wildlife habitat.  But these data may also be useful in the future to project the impact of down-wind effects on general aviation airports, which is still an evolving research topic.  A recent study at the University of Kansas has shown that the turbulence from a wind turbine extends further as wind speed increases, up to 3 miles in some cases.  This and the potential increase in cross winds could be a significant impact for small aircraft at GA airports.  Hopefully, more work will be done to quantify these conditions, leading to improvements in the FAA’s obstruction review process, which today only takes into account the height of an obstruction above ground when air space reviews are conducted.

Provide feedback
All maps are only as current as the date used to make them.  This data set incorporated information from FAA’s obstruction file as of last July.  And if you come across wind turbines that aren’t in the database, please capture what information you can and send an email with the location to jediffendorfer@usgs.gov.

Thanks to this effort, we have a better way to learn where wind turbines are located in the areas where we fly!

Cessna owners: Check your Atlee Dodge Seats!

Recently an Airworthiness Concern from the FAA found its way to my email, regarding F. Atlee Dodge folding seats.  Designed by Atlee Dodge to replace the rear seats in Cessna 170 and 180 series aircraft, these seats are very popular in Alaska and other places that use their aircraft as a utility vehicle.  They not only fold, but are easily removable to accommodate the cargo many of us haul in our aircraft.  The concern stems from an accident where a passenger using one of these seats was ejected through the windshield of an aircraft when it nosed over.  The subsequent investigation determined that how the seats were installed may have played a role.  This prompted the FAA to look at other aircraft with these seats installed, which revealed that more than half of those examined were also not installed according to the STC.  To address this problem, F. Atlee Dodge Aircraft Services LLC has issued a Mandatory Service Bulletin which calls for a visual inspection of the folding seat installation.

I have a set of Atlee Dodge seats in my Cessna 185 that were installed in 1987, prior to the issuance of the STC. And sure enough—I needed to correct two problems: my installation had no seat belt guides, and the outboard belt straps were attached to the old Cessna anchors, not the slide rail.  A call to Dave Swartz at the FAA Aircraft Certification Office in Anchorage shed a little more light on the subject.  It turns out that not only is the strength of a seatbelt anchor important, the angle the belt crosses your body has a lot to do with how they function during a sudden stop.  The seat belt guides, and placement of the anchors are important details.  If you have a set of these seats in your airplane, take a copy of the diagram from the service bulletin and look at how they are installed.

Diagram from Service Bulletin showing point to check regarding installation of Atlee Dodge folding seats.

Diagram from Service Bulletin showing points to check regarding installation of Atlee Dodge folding seats.

Steve Kracke at Atlee Dodge had me email him photos of my installation.  That and a phone call got the parts I needed headed my way.  Steve tells me he has plenty of the parts that might be needed on hand.

Seat installation with newly installed seatbelt guide, attached to the end of the seat track.

Seat installation with newly installed seatbelt guide, attached to the end of the seat track.

 

Outboard seatbelt attached to the side rail-- not the original Cessna seatbelt attach point.

Outboard seatbelt attached to the side rail– not the original Cessna seatbelt attach point.

F. Atlee Dodge Aircraft Services is a phone call or email away: (907) 344-1755 or atleedodge@acsalaska.net.  If you have questions or feedback for the FAA Aircraft Certification Office concerning the  Airworthiness Concern, contact Aviation Safety Engineer Ted Kohlstedt  ted.kohlstedt@faa.gov or 907-271-2648.  You owe it to your passengers to check into this, and make sure your seats are properly installed!

Customs increases access for GA at Fairbanks

dhs logoCustoms and Border Protection (CBP) is making changes that will increase access into Alaska for general aviation aircraft headed to Fairbanks. In the past, limited staffing has impacted the ability of the port of entry at Fairbanks International Airport to accommodate arrivals at any hour of the night or day, which had been the practice for many years.  Thanks to changes primarily to accommodate the summer tourist industry, GA pilots can expect much more flexible arrival times.

The problem

Whitehorse and Dawson are two popular departure points for flights to Fairbanks. Both require clearing Customs on arrival.

Whitehorse and Dawson are two popular departure points for flights to Fairbanks. Both require clearing Customs on arrival.

A popular GA flight route between Canada or the “lower 48” states and mainland Alaska is to follow the Alaska Highway. The last segment, entering Alaska, can be a challenging experience.  In addition to normal cross-country flight planning, evaluating alternates and checking the weather, one has to arrange to clear Customs.  Typical departure points along the route are Whitehorse (CYXY) or Dawson City (CYDA).  While I personally try to clear customs at Northway (PAOR) to remove the pressure of meeting a pre-determined ETA in Fairbanks (PAFA) or Anchorage (PANC), that isn’t always an option.  Customs is only available during limited hours at Northway, and the airport presently lacks the availability of fuel or facilities (other than the Flight Service Station, open in the summer).  Flying directly to Fairbanks, if you have the range, is often the most viable option.  But don’t forget about Customs.  Until recently, Customs processing at Fairbanks for general aviation aircraft was limited to normal duty hours five days a week–or weekends if you called during the week to make advance arrangements.  These hours sometimes stranded pilots in Whitehorse for the weekend, or longer when weather was a factor.  Fortunately, that has changed, and should get even better.

Customs procedures today
To review, there are two requirements pilots need to meet before flying into the United States.

Step One: File an electronic notification, using the eAPIS system.  This requires internet access, must be filed a minimum of one hour before departure—but could be submitted several days in advance, estimating your arrival and border crossing times. After you file, the system will send you an email acknowledging your submission. SAVE A COPY OF THIS EMAIL.

Step Two: At least two hours prior to your arrival at a Customs Port of Entry, call the port on the phone and advise them of your ETA. This allows Customs to have staff available when you arrive, which helps pilots and passengers avoid lengthy wait times to obtain service.  This call should be made during the hours of operation of the port you plan to utilize.

To find out operational hours and other details for Alaskan ports of entry see: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/toolbox/contacts/ports/ak/.   Until recently, hours of operation at Fairbanks International Airport were Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and if you hadn’t contacted Customs during those hours, a weekend arrival wasn’t in the cards.  With the port getting an additional staff member, they have expanded operational hours to seven days a week. But you still need to call within normal operational hours to arrange for an after-hours arrival.

Presently, Customs asks that we try to arrive at Fairbanks during their normal duty hours, however if weather or other factors interfere, call and they will do their best to accommodate you.  Over the coming months, we should see a further improvement in service.

Why the change?
Holland America recently changed some of their Alaska tour packages.  Instead of busing summer visitors from Dawson City to Fairbanks (enroute to Denali National Park and parts south), they plan to fly their guests to Fairbanks, reducing travel time for that segment of the journey.  To make this change, Whitehorse based airline Air North applied for landing rights at Fairbanks International Airport.  This request was initially denied by CBP, due to its limited staffing at Fairbanks.  Many stakeholders, including aviation organizations, travel industry advocates, the Alaska Governor’s Office and the Alaska Congressional delegation became involved.  Letters, conference calls and other exchanges of information were made to help CBP better understand the request and it’s implications on the state’s economy.  After studying the issue and considering different options, Customs and Border Protection decided to re-assign three customs officers from Anchorage to the Fairbanks operation.  These positions, which have yet to be hired, will not only support the seasonal Holland America traffic, but will be able to better serve general aviation arrivals in Fairbanks.  During the course of these discussions, it was interesting to learn that the port in Fairbanks not only handles airport arrivals, but also clears civilian arrivals at nearby military bases, and handles arrivals by ship at Point Barrow and Kaktovik.

Alaska’s congressional delegation played a key role in working this issue.  AOPA appreciates the efforts of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senator Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young. Their staff in Washington DC facilitated the discussion with CBP, which allowed the Alaska stakeholders to more fully explain the situation.  We also appreciate CBP’s willingness to re-assess the needs for service, and for coming up with a solution that will improve access to Fairbanks, and Alaska, for multiple modes of travel—including general aviation—on a year-around basis.

“Doing the Right Things” for aviation safety

On November 23rd, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation (AASF) held a special aviation seminar, “Doing the Right Things to Stay Alive.” This day-long session was held at UAA’s Aviation Technology facility at Merrill Field. In spite of a storm the day before that closed schools and canceled many events, well over a hundred people turned out to participate.  While it has been a bad summer for aviation accidents in Alaska, Harry Kieling and the AASF team decided to emphasize the positive.  We typically study accidents looking at what went wrong, however the Safety Foundation decided to look at the other side of that coin: When faced with bad circumstances, what did people do that worked?

To set the stage for the session, a panel with representatives from industry and government agencies discussed “what went wrong” over the past year.  NTSB Investigator Chris Shaver gave us the numbers:  in 2012, we had 109 aircraft accidents in Alaska, nine of which involved fatalities.  A total of 11 people died as a result of those accidents.  We aren’t quite out of 2013 yet, but so far, we have had 86 accidents, of which 14 involved fatalities.  And the worst part, over 30 people died.  Many ideas were discussed in the session that followed.  The need for ongoing training was a recurring theme–whether on your own, with a CFI, on a simulator, etc.  As one presenter reminded us, “you don’t have to be a professional pilot to fly professionally.”

What if the Takeoff goes Bad?

Supercub Tyler Renner was flying shortly before take off.

Supercub Tyler Renner was flying shortly before take off.

Tyler Renner, whose day job is to fly corporate aircraft, was on a weekend mission in a Supercub on floats with a friend.  After landing on a Kenai Peninsula lake on a nice July day, and spending a couple hours doing some maintenance at a remote cabin, he taxied across the lake and started a leisurely takeoff run.  Shortly after lifting off the lake, the engine began to vibrate violently, causing Tyler to shut down the engine.  Nine seconds later they impacted the lake, with the wings collapsing alongside the fuselage, leaving the windshield as the only exit.  Both of them made it out of the aircraft uninjured, and were picked up shortly thereafter by boat.  How do we know it was nine seconds from the engine problem to impact?  Tyler’s passenger was recording the takeoff on an iPhone, which provided the precise timing of events as they unfolded.

Note semi-circular hole on blade of prop after the take-off accident.

Note semi-circular hole on blade of prop after the take-off accident.

But what had caused this mishap?  In the examination after the aircraft was recovered, it became clear that a section of the prop had departed, causing the extreme vibration.  A curious, round semi-circle was visible along the fracture line, where the blade broke.  Further investigation revealed that: (a) the hole was made by a 30 caliber bullet and (b) the bullet hole had been chamfered, filled with automotive body putty, and painted over!  It dates back to work done prior to the current owner of the aircraft.  The lessons here: things happen fast, and one has to be prepared to act—in this case shutting down the engine and continuing to fly the airplane.  Tyler considers himself lucky this happened when and where it did.  And that the engine didn’t completely depart from the aircraft.

Loss of Control at Low Altitude
Loss of control at low altitudes was another topic of discussion, presented by NTSB Investigator Chris Shaver.  So far this year, there have been 9 fatal accidents attributed to loss of control at low altitude, resulting in 21 fatalities.  He shared results of several studies that showed the connection between fatal accidents and loss of control.  This is not a problem confined to Alaska, but often labeled here as the “moose hunter’s stall” or the “moose turn” where the pilot is distracted trying to estimate the size of the moose antlers, and stalls close to the ground.  As Shaver noted, in cases where pilots stall at low altitude, there normally isn’t enough room to recover.  He also reviewed a recent accident where the pilot lost power on take-off and attempted to turn back to the runway, instead of aiming for open areas closer to the initial direction of flight. While NTSB couldn’t determine the cause of the loss of power, attempting to turn back to the runway was a fatal decision.

While the accidents from this year are still being investigated, Shaver cited loss of control accidents as an increased percentage of this year’s fatalities.  In 2012, twelve of loss-of-control accidents resulted in only two fatalities.  So far in 2013, fifteen accidents were attributed to loss-of-control, nine of those accidents involved fatalities.  The numbers and causes for the year may yet change as several are still under investigation.  This session lead to a lively discussion with the participants.  What can we do?  Train, practice emergency procedures (at a safe altitude or in a simulator), do accurate weight and balance calculations, consider an angle of attack indicator, were among the actions discussed.  When it comes to the moose hunter’s stall—the pros in the audience described using a race track or tear-drop pattern that has you passing the moose (or other object of interest) in stable, wings level flight.  Make your turns away from the “target” where your sole concentration is on flying the plane, in a coordinated fashion.

When NOT to take off
Sometimes NOT taking off is the right answer.  This fall helicopter pilot Sam Egli took two members of a geophysical research crew to the edge of volcano. The plan was to land long enough to retrieve seismic monitoring equipment that was installed previously.  While the weather was good when they landed, some clouds started to spill over the mountain from the south. As a precaution, Egli stayed in the aircraft to monitor the weather while the crew retrieved their equipment.  As the clouds became thicker, Egli advised his passengers they needed to evacuate, rather than finish their original task.  He cranked up the helicopter and waited for a gap in the clouds to depart—but it didn’t materialize. And sitting in this very exposed location at the 8,500 ft level, the helicopter began to ice up from the freezing fog, now pouring over the edge of the caldera.  Seeing that too much ice had accumulated to fly, Egli shut the engine down, and notified his crew that they were going to stay put.  After spending over an hour removing ice from the rotor blades, they waited for conditions to improve to try again–but no break in the weather arrived.  By now, the buildup of ice on the helicopter was too great to fly, thus commencing a two day ordeal, which received national media coverage.  The Air National Guard’s 210th Rescue Squadron was finally able to reach them by helicopter, and fly them off the mountain.  There is much more to this event than can be told here, but the story, with photos, kept the audience on the edge of their seats.  Egli credited both the 210’s Rescue Squadron, and the team work of his passengers, who had the appropriate gear, supplies and attitude to spend the night, with the successful outcome of the incident. He later retrieved his helicopter.  As a nice complement to Egli’s story, Dave Obey, a seasoned pilot with a local air carrier gave a presentation, “Being Prepared to Spend the Night.” He discussed items that should be carried on one’s person and in a survival bag, using items from his vest and pack as a show and tell demonstration.

Near the end of the day, members of the 210th Rescue Center made an appearance at the seminar. They were presented with commemorative coins that Sam Egli had made for them, and received a standing ovation from the audience.  These are some of the folks who WILL come to your aid when stranded in the remote parts of Alaska.

“What If” Scenarios

Participants voted on answers to aviation scenarios posed by Roger Motzko, FAA ATO

Participants voted on answers to aviation scenarios posed by Roger Motzko, FAA ATO

Many safety seminars involve a presenter talking to an audience with, at best, time for a few questions at the end.  AASF decided that it was important to try and engage the audience in a more interactive way.  Teaming up with Roger Motzko, who works for FAA’s Air Traffic Organization in event forensics, they created a number of questions and scenarios for discussion–with a twist. During this session, participants were handed an “interactive response device” that allowed them to respond.  After Motzko presented each scenario, a multiple choice question was posed–and the audience voted, using interactive devices provided by the Chariot Group.  The responses were tabulated and appeared onscreen. In almost all cases, a lively discussion ensued.  Topics ranged from the kinds of equipment people carry, to their response to a given flight scenario.  This technique was thought provoking, and illustrated that there is often not a single right answer…

Right Stuff Award

Sam Egli receiving the  "Right Stuff" award, presented by AASF Board Member Mary O'Conner. Behind Egli are members of the ANG 210th Rescue Squadron.

Photographer Rob Stapleton captures Sam Egli receiving the “Right Stuff” award, presented by AASF Board Member Mary O’Conn0r. Behind Egli are members of the ANG 210th Rescue Squadron.

In keeping with the “emphasize the positive” tone of the day, the Safety Foundation felt it is important to recognize people that had made good decisions in a challenging environment or situation.  Consequently at this seminar AASF launched the “Right Stuff” Award, which is presented to someone (pilot, mechanic, dispatcher, etc.) that used good judgment in a difficult situation.  Presenting awards to people with the knowledge, skills, and courage that are needed to prevent accidents is a way to highlight the right things that can happen, and to positively change the culture of safety within general aviation.  This year’s recipient of the award was Sam Egli, for his superior decision making skills and moral courage in his decision to stay put on the edge of a volcano in a very exposed location rather than attempt to fly out in icing conditions. It was fitting that he received the award in the company of the 210th Rescue Squadron.  If you know of someone you think is a candidate for this award, please let AASF know.  The contact for the Right Stuff Award is AASF Board Member Mary O’Connor (email or call 907-229-6885).

My compliments to the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation, and the many sponsors and supporters that organized this session. Also thanks to Alpha Eta Rho, the student aviation fraternity at UAA that organized food service for the seminar.  Aviation safety is important to us all. We owe it to ourselves, our passengers and the public to take the time to participate in events like this, and learn from the experience of others.  NTSB Investigator Chis Shaver shared this quote:

“Learn all you can from the mistakes of others.  You won’t have time to make them all yourself.”

The author of this quote was Alfred Scheinwold—not a pilot but a world class bridge player.  But his words are even more important to pilots, as the mistakes we may make often come at a very high cost. Seminars like this one provide an opportunity to benefit from the experience of others, who knew how to do the right things to stay alive.

Sponsors of the AASF Safety Seminar.  Their support is vital to make events of this magnitude possible.

Sponsors of the AASF Safety Seminar. Their support is vital to make events of this magnitude possible.

Jenny returns to the “sky” in Fairbanks, 90 years later

Curtis Jenny, after assembly but prior to being suspended in the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport

Curtis Jenny, after assembly but prior to being suspended in the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport

In 1923, then school teacher Ben Eielson talked a group of Fairbanks businessmen into buying a Curtis JN-4D, a bi-winged aircraft commonly known as a Jenny.  Eielson proceeded to fly out of the local ball field, and soon demonstrated that an airplane could reduce the time it took to travel to remote mining camps from days—or even weeks—to hours.  Even with a larger engine, it remained an open cockpit airplane, without a heater, which is pretty limiting for a cold climate like the interior of Alaska.

As more capable planes became available, the Jenny was sidelined and donated to the University of Alaska Museum in the mid-1930’s.  It spent almost half a century in a warehouse, before being brought back to the public’s eye in 1981. At that time, it was fitted with a set of wings from a different type of aircraft, and suspended In the terminal at Fairbanks International Airport (FAI).  When the terminal was reconstructed a few years ago, the Jenny was taken down, and became the object of a restoration project that started in 2007.  Now, thanks to a volunteer effort by the Pioneer Air Museum, University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Technology Program and Experimental Aircraft Association’s Chapter 1129, the Jenny sports new wings, built from scratch, a fresh coat of paint, and is aloft again over the baggage claim in the new terminal at FAI.  The history of the airplane was recently summarized in a feature story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Another section of the paper recognized the team of volunteers who performed the restoration.

This airplane has earned its place in the history.  Jenny’s flooded the market after World War I, and in many respects jump started civil aviation.  It was affordable, and became a popular airplane for barn-storming, which is how much of the public was initially introduced to aviation. In Alaska, with fewer road-miles today than the state of New Hampshire, the Jenny showed the promise of aviation—even with its limited range and open cabin.  A fuel tank was designed and added to the upper wing to extend the range. A set of skis were fabricated to make it functional during the winter months—thus starting the Alaskan tradition of modifying aircraft to make them more suitable for our conditions. That tradition continues to this day.

An early aircraft repair and recovery on Wickersham Dome, northwest of Fairbanks. George King Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

An early aircraft repair and recovery operation on Wickersham Dome, northwest of Fairbanks. George King Collection, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

A picture in the News-Miner article showing two Jenny’s on Wickersham Dome caught my eye.  In the mid-1920’s, Noel Wien was flying passengers to Livengood, a mining community fifty miles northwest of Fairbanks, when the water pump broke, causing Wien to make a forced landing.  In a landscape nominally covered with forest or boggy tundra, the top of Wickersham Dome was about the only place he thought he could attempt a precautionary landing, with any hope of avoiding major damage to the aircraft.  After getting the airplane on the ground, Wien and his two passengers walked the twenty-two miles to Olnes, the nearest mining camp, where they could use a phone to summon assistance.  Since this was after break-up in the spring, walking conditions were terrible.  It took them twenty hours to make the trek to Olnes.  After returning to Fairbanks, a second Jenny with the necessary parts and a mechanic was pressed into service to make the rescue.  On landing, a wheel was damaged on the second aircraft, but they had anticipated that possibility, and brought an extra wheel along. After making the necessary repairs, both airplanes took off successfully. This story is documented in Ira Harkey’s book, Noel Wien, Alaska Pioneer Bush Pilot.  In that time, before the gravel and paved runways we enjoy today, even the planned “landing fields” were hard on another part of the airplane–the propeller.  It was a common practice to have an extra prop tied on to the side of the aircraft to be used, if necessary, for the trip home.

Earlier this year Alaska celebrated the centennial of the first powered flight, which took place in Fairbanks on July 3rd, 1913.   The Jenny arrived in Fairbanks on July 1, 1923, almost exactly a decade after that first demonstration flight.  Even with its limitations, I think it is fair to say that the Jenny claimed the prize as the first aircraft in Fairbanks to show the commercial potential of “the aviation.”   Seeing the Jenny “fly” again is a fitting way to wrap up the Centennial of Flight in Alaska.

Mat Su Traffic Working Group makes Recommendations

For the past two years a working group of industry and government stakeholders have looked at ways to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions in the Mat Su Valley. Initially the group listened to briefings from CFI’s, charter pilots, military users, Air Traffic Control, FAA Airports Division, Flight Service and others.  During the summer of 2012, AOPA conducted an online survey, which gathered feedback from over 500 pilots who fly in this airspace.  Communications ranked highest among the factors that pilots said contributed to unsafe situations when flying over the Mat Su.  Based on this information, the working group started work on a plan to simplify radio frequency usage in the area.  By April, 2013 two different scenarios were proposed, and taken back to the aviation community for review.  Starting with the Airmen’s Trade Show in May, numerous meetings were held with individual pilots, flight schools, air taxi operators as well as the government participants in the group.  Air Traffic Control staff members produced a set of radar tracks, showing traffic patterns that lead to modification of some of the initial boundaries.  At a meeting near the end of October, the working group selected a single alternative, and finalized an initial set of recommendations that will go to different parts of the FAA requesting changes in the guidance regarding CTAF frequency usage in this area.

 

Recommended "Area Frequency" zones for consideration by the FAA to simplify radio communication when not in contact with ATC.

Recommended “Area Frequency” zones for consideration by the FAA to simplify radio communication when not in contact with ATC.

Initial Recommendations
The group crafted four “Area Frequency” zones, where a single discrete VHF radio frequency would be recommended, when not in contact with ATC.  The accompanying image map shows the proposed frequency zones.  Within each area, individual airport CTAF frequencies would be changed to match, to eliminate conflicting guidance for aircraft flying in this airspace. The working group suggested making changes to some of the existing “area frequency” zones in Cook Inlet and around the Knik Glacier, to conform to the newly proposed zones.  Outside the defined zones, pilots would use the CTAF frequencies assigned to an individual airport, or the “default” 122.9 MHz frequency used for airports or landing areas without an assigned frequency.

Another recommendation is to create VFR reporting points for a number of “high traffic” areas identified by the working group, and confirmed by the 2012 user survey.  This would allow pilots not familiar with these sites to understand their proximity to areas that are heavily used (in some cases on a seasonal basis) but that aren’t charted as airports.

An additional recommendation is to clarify the language in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), to recognize Area Frequency zones.  Pilots need to understand how they differ from conventional CTAF areas, which today the AIM defines as a 10 mile zone around an individual airport or landing area.

More work to come
With this initial set of recommendations completed, different parts of the FAA will have to go through their own internal process to change aeronautical charts, airport CTAF assignments, and guidance in other documents such as the Alaska Supplement.  Meanwhile the working group will continue to address other issues that need attention, such as the corridor along the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Anchorage, extending to the Kenai Peninsula.  Further work is needed to review and possibly revise the guidance to pilots on best operating practices in that area.

It will take months for the changes described above to be implemented by the FAA.  At this time these are only recommendations that are not in effect today.  The industry and government members of this team also agreed that a significant educational campaign will be needed when changes are made. Stay tuned as guidance is revised for more details in the months ahead. Meanwhile, keep your head on a swivel and be vigilant as you fly!

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

The Value of an Airport: Lake Hood Seaplane Base

Float planes line the shore at Lake Hood, in Anchorage, AK

Float planes line the shore at Lake Hood, in Anchorage, AK

Those of us lucky enough to fly airplanes know the value of an airport: priceless!  Some of our non-aviation friends and neighbors may not have the same warm, fuzzy feeling.  Across the country  population centers have expanded, and started to encroach on our airports—even though the airport has been there decades ahead of the subdivisions, schools, and other community infrastructure.  One of the tools the aviation community uses to help communicate the value an airport brings to the community is to quantify its economic benefits.  This was recently done for the seaplane base at Lake Hood.  And the numbers are impressive!

Based on a September, 2013 study, the Lake Hood Seaplane Base (LHD) is responsible for an overall economic impact estimated at $42 million for 2012.  Employment associated with the facility is estimated at 230 jobs during the same time period.  With approaching 800 aircraft based at the facility, Lake Hood not only supports a world-class crop of seaplanes, the 2,200 gravel runway is heavily used by a host of wheel planes. During the winter, many of the aircraft trade wheels and floats for skis, making good use of the lake surface after the water is firmly frozen.

Next time you look at the Lake Hood airport diagram, think "230 jobs and $42 million economic impact."

Next time you look at the Lake Hood airport diagram, think “230 jobs and $42 million economic impact.”

Like many other general aviation airports, Lake Hood is home to a variety of aviation related businesses: air taxis that take residents and tourists to remote locations, maintenance and repair facilities, flight schools, etc.  Government agencies base aircraft and maintenance facilities at LHD (state and federal), in addition to the Civil Air Patrol. Other aviation related tenants include the Alaska Airmen’s Association and the Alaska Aviation Museum.  Seasonally, the Iditarod Air Force uses the lake as a base of operations in support of the famous 1,049 mile race to Nome.

The recently released report, authored by the McDowell Group, acknowledges that there are additional economic benefits not captured in their study. Jobs and income associated with remote businesses that rely on Lake Hood operations are not included in their estimates.  The numbers also don’t take into account the jobs that result from capital projects, funded principally by the FAA. Those projects totaled almost $35 million over the past twenty years or so.  There were more than a few jobs and supplies purchased to make those improvements happen!

So in addition to the benefit we pilots get either from keeping our airplane at Lake Hood, or flying in for business or pleasure, the base adds a significant number of jobs and dollars to the economy of the local area. Don’t hesitate to point that out to your non-aviation friends and neighbors when they ask how the airport might matter to them.

Seaplane pilots need to speak up to preserve access in Whitehorse

Seaplane base at Whitehorse on Schwatka Lake, a section of the Yukon River.

Seaplane base at Whitehorse on Schwatka Lake, a section of the Yukon River.

Seaplane pilots who fly to and from Alaska through Canada need to speak up if they want to continue to use Schwatka Lake, the seaplane base at Whitehorse, Yukon Territories.  While the facility directory indicates there are tiedowns and fuel available, pilots often have a difficult time getting access to either one.

The City of Whitehorse is conducting an Area Plan for Schwatka Lake that will impact the future of the lake for aviation as well as marine users.  Planners are conducting an online survey, which only runs through November 5th.  Pilots who have, or plan to use this facility need to speak up, to counter non-aviation interests.

The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association’s Yukon Chapter is asking Alaskan and other U.S. seaplane pilots to participate in the survey to help the planners understand the importance of this facility—the only suitable float plane lake in the city.  COPA Yukon Chapter Director Jean-Michel Sauve says that support from pilots outside Whitehorse is critical to helping them explain the value of the seaplane base to pilots transiting along the Alaska Highway.  Sauve was one of the organizers of the highly successful Atlin Flyin in 2012, which attracted pilots from across Canada, Alaska and even a few western US states.  If seaplane pilots need more information on the Whitehorse Seaplane Base, they may contact him directly.

Please take the survey today to help protect this seaplane facility!

Aerial photography: a time machine

Cameras and airplanes have been used together for many years.  The vantage point that an airplane provides—the ability to look down from above—is a powerful perspective when it comes to seeing patterns in the landscape.  One simply can’t get this view from standing on the ground.  While exciting to experience in flight, it is even more powerful to capture with a camera and bring this view back to earth.  Now one can examine the landscape in detail, take measurements, create maps and make all kinds of interpretations.  Geologists use them to help prospect for oil. Foresters determine the volume and location of wood resources. Biologists map animal habitat. The list goes on…

A fundamental property of a photograph is time.  The fraction of a second the shutter is open freezes a little slice of time, which turns a photograph into a record of the past from the instant the shutter closes.  So it was with much interest that I recently opened the August 25th edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner to discover an oblique aerial photograph taken over my home city (Fairbanks) some 70+ years ago.

A few days later, I was contacted by the Fairbanks metropolitan transportation planning organization, who had also seen the photograph, and wanted to locate a recent image from a similar vantage point for comparison.  A couple weeks later the weather cooperated, and I managed to bring camera and airplane together to orbit over Fairbanks and attempt to replicate the photo from the late 1940’s.  Then the real fun began, in comparing features from the two images.

Viewing 74 years of change

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1393.

Aerial photograph of Fairbanks, taken June 17, 1939. Sources: Fairbanks Daily News Miner, Archive Source: Aerometric.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Modern view of Fairbanks, acquired September 24, 2013.

Fairbanks, Alaska in 1939.  Some research helped put a more precise date on the old aerial.  It was taken on June 17, 1939, and the negative of this image (frame 3224) is still in the archives at Aerometric in Anchorage.  [Coincidentally, this image was taken just a month after AOPA was incorporated. AOPA will be celebrating it’s 75th anniversary next year.]

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two images is the Chena River, which bisects down town Fairbanks. In the 1939 photo it much larger than today.  Even though the old image is black and white, the light tone of the river is because it was filled with water laden with glacial silt. At the time, this stretch of the river was a slough of the much larger Tanana River, whose main channel flows a few miles south of town (see map below).  Modern flood control structures upstream today (hopefully) keep the glacier fed Tanana river water out of the Chena, leaving it a smaller, but clearer river. And making the town to be less susceptible to flooding.

Then sporting a population of something over 3,000 people, Fairbanks has obviously grown with houses and buildings filling in where fields or undisturbed land once prevailed.  Today downtown Fairbanks has a population over 30,000 and the surrounding metro area is just shy of 100,000.  In the background of the 1939 picture, just on the southern edge of town is Weeks Field, the city airstrip.  As with airports at many communities then and now, the town grew up around the airport, eventually forcing it to move.  Today, the stretch of land that was Weeks Field is occupied by Lathrop High School and the Noel Wien Library on one end, extending to Growden Memorial Park, other ball fields, and the Carlson Community Activity Center on the other.

Looking ahead
In the upper right corner of the modern photograph—barely visible—is the northern edge of Fairbanks International Airport.   The map (below) is part of a 1952 USGS topographic map which at that time depicts Weeks Field as well as the newly constructed “Fairbanks Airport” that would grow to become a major transportation hub for Fairbanks and interior Alaska, responsible for over 2,000 jobs and a total economic impact of about $225 M annually to Fairbanks and the State of Alaska.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Portion of the 1952 USGS topo map of Fairbanks. White arrow shows location and direction of the aerial photos above. The map shows both the location of Weeks Field and the location of the modern Fairbanks International Airport.

Comparing these two pictures certainly made me appreciate some of the changes that have taken place over time.  Photographs and images taken from the “aerial perspective” can be powerful tools to study the present and appreciate change through time.  In thinking about the next 75 years, we will need to remain vigilant to ensure that future growth at Fairbanks doesn’t threaten the viability of the airport, which fortunately has a good buffer of land around it today.  I hope someone acquiring an aerial image 75 years from now will be able to report that we were good stewards of our towns and airports for the generations to follow!