Flight Service integrates satellite trackers in Alaska

After almost two years in the making, the Alaska Flight Service Program issued a Letter to Airmen last week, announcing a new service that combines two of the popular satellite tracking devices with VFR flight plans.  The program is called the Enhanced Special Reporting Service (eSRS), originally designed to track pilots operating over mountains or water using frequent radio calls.  Of course, in much of Alaska there aren’t nearby radio outlets to receive those calls— so enter the era of satellite tracking devices.  These units combine the features of GPS positioning and a satellite communication network to send “Help” messages to a ground facility somewhere on the planet, which forwards them to the email or text message address of our choice.  So why not send those to Flight Service, the people holding your VFR flight plan?

In a nutshell, that is what this service does.  Pilots who own either a SPOT or Spidertracks tracker may sign up to have alert messages from their devices sent directly to Flight Service. In the event of an emergency, FSS will relay the messages to the Rescue Coordination Center, including your location.  Signing up is fairly simple.  Fill out, or update, a Master Flight Plan indicating that you want to participate in the eSRS program, and list the type of satellite tracker you have. (The service is currently limited to SPOT or Spidertracks, however other devices are expected to be tested and added in the future.)  Upon receipt of that plan, Flight Service will email the information needed to add them to your contacts list.  You can still have your family or friends receive the message at the same time.  A few details to be mindful of:

  • FSS is NOT actually tracking your flight. They only expect to receive a message if you are in distress and need help.
  • This supplements, but does not take the place of the legal requirement to have an ELT.
  • There is no charge by FAA for this program; however both SPOT and Spidertracks charge an ongoing fee for their tracking and messaging services.

An example Spidertracks track from a 191 nm photo mission flight into the Alaska Range. Had anything gone wrong, FSS would have received an email with my flight track and my reported position within the last two minutes before the unit quit transmitting. It would have been hard to describe this route precisely for FSS in a flight plan.

I have used both SPOT and Spidertracks devices.  Before the FAA offered this service, my wife was my primary contact to receive a distress message. This was fine until she was riding in the airplane with me. And even though I have other friends set up to receive my messages, they don’t necessarily know where I am going, and who is on board.  So having an alert message go straight to Flight Service, where it can be matched up with my flight plan, brings the information together needed to get help headed my way.  This seems especially well suited for people flying to remote areas where there are no phones or radio outlets to close a flight plan.  While we have always had the option to file a long-duration, “round robin” flight plan, it didn’t offer much protection until we came up overdue, which might be several days.  Combined with a satellite tracking device, Flight Service will respond when they get the help message.   It also makes sense for pilots who fly on complex routes on a “round robin” flight plan where it is difficult to precisely describe to Flight Service where you intend to go.  How well this works does depend on what tracker you have, and how you chose to use it. Do your homework before investing in a device.

This program didn’t just happen.  Adam White, at the time serving as the President of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, and I approached the FAA about this concept.  It took a team of Flight Service staff from the three “parent” flight service stations (Juneau, Kenai and Fairbanks), the Alaska Flight Service Program Office in Anchorage and support from FAA headquarters to develop the concept and operational procedures.  While Adam and I served as the initial “parties in distress” to test the system, before the service was declared operational, a dozen other pilots from the interior, south central and south east Alaska participated in the beta-testing phase of the program.  Spidertracks Ltd. loaned the FAA a system for test purposes while a member of the Flight Service staff loaned their personal SPOT tracker for the test period. My thanks to all that donated their time, talents and resources to incorporate this new technology, which I hope in the future will get pilots help sooner, and reduce the time spend searching for overdue aircraft.

To learn more or to sign up, Flight Service has developed a brochure and other background information to explain how the system works.  It could someday save your bacon!

At Your Service

This past week, I was given the opportunity to attend the Great Lakes International Aviation Conference held on the campus of Eastern Michigan University. As I packed up the AOPA display late on Saturday night, I took a moment to reflect on the interactions I had during the conference so that I could share them with you here.

A Michigan State Police officer and pilot came to the booth and reached out his hand saying “Thank you.”  I returned the handshake and he told me how he had recently attended one of AOPA’s Flight Instructor Refresher Clinics and still hadn’t received his renewed certificate from the FAA. He went on to tell me how he checked with the local FSDO with no success, called FAA Headquarters with no success, and finally talked with a local Designated Pilot Examiner who told him to “Call AOPA.” He then went on to tell me how one of AOPA’s Pilot Information Center Specialists “tenaciously attacked the issue and found my certificate that same day. For that reason alone, I’m incredibly grateful for AOPA — even on top of the great advocacy the Association does,” he went on to say.

This sums up many of my experiences interacting with pilots and aircraft owners from across the great lakes region. Many express thanks for what AOPA has done in the past and many present issues for AOPA to tackle in the future.  During this conference alone, I met with at least 10 Airport Support Network Volunteers who told me of the ongoing issues at their airport, talked with representatives from three local collegiate aviation programs, numerous manufacturer representatives and countless pilots from the area. All of these interactions help guide AOPA’s efforts both nationally and regionally.

I mention this because I think it’s very important for AOPA members to know that we are all in this together.  Making general aviation stronger is a challenge we all must face together.  So, if you see or talk to an AOPA regional manager or other staff member — let us know how we can better serve you.  After all, we are here because of you and for you — and it is not something any of us take lightly.

Ski pilots: Fly In to the Willow Winter Carnival

In what may be the first Alaska fly-in of the year, ski-plane pilots are invited to fly into Willow Lake, and attend the Willow Winter Carnival.  As daylight slooowly starts to return to the north, this event provides an excuse, er good reason, to pre-heat and fly over to Willow.  The Winter Carnival is not new—it has been going on for more than 50 years.  But this year thanks to some hard work on the part of community organizer Jane Dale (one of many hats she wears), provisions were made allowing ski-planes to land on the lake, within easy walking distance of the festivities.

The first airplane to arrive at Willow Lake as part of the Winter Carnival. Mt. McKinley looms in the background.

So what is the Willow Winter Carnival?  The event takes place in and around the Community Center and includes dog sled races, ski competitions, an outhouse race, bridge tournament, extreme dog boarding (I was afraid to ask what this was), ice cream eating contest, and much more.  While I was there today the Colony High School Jazz Band entertained the crowd followed later in the day by a K9 explosive detection demonstration by the Anchorage Airport Police.  Something for everybody!

The fly-in is organized by the Alaska Airmen’s Association and the Willow Airport Support Group.  The skies were blue, and the air cool and crisp, to the tune of about -5 degrees F.  While I was there, the first aircraft landed: a classic yellow supercub.  While most people arrived by car, the community center was packed. In addition to the special events, vendors were selling food, kids faces were painted, a wide range of items were available for sale or being raffled off, including a four-wheeler.  I bought a book on Joe Redington Sr, directly from the author.

If you are looking for a break in this rather bazaar winter we are having (weather wise), consider firing up your ski-plane and flying over to Willow for a few hours.  The Carnival takes place during two back-to back weekends: Jan 26-27 and February 2-3.  If you fly, check out the Willow Winter Carnival Site Plan, showing where the ski-strip and parking areas have been placed on the lake. Be extra alert, as there are dog races and other events also occurring on the perimeter and south half of the lake.  The revenue derived from this event provides the operating funds for the community center.  Details about the carnival are found on the Willow Area Community Organization’s website.  Consider it an Alaskan version of the $50 hamburger!


The Commonwealth of Kentucky slogan is “Unbridled Spirit”. That reference doesn’t just speak to the state’s renowned equine industry, and it is probably interpreted by some as Unbridled “Spirits” because Kentucky is also the worlds supplier of Bourbon whiskey. But after learning about aviation education programs in The Commonwealth, I would argue that Unbridled Spirit best describes a bunch of deeply dedicated aviation educators and volunteers we met this week.

Kentucky boasts that there are more youngsters studying aviation and aerospace in this state than anywhere else in the country – and that it is all S.T. E. M. based. What I found most interesting is that the programs we learned about were complimentary, connected and don’t compete – they actually feed each other.

My AOPA headquarters colleagues, V.P., Michelle Peterson and her side-kick, Lauren Otto joined me in Lexington for a couple of days of familiarization about aviation education in Kentucky. We began at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky where every summer the AMK sponsors Aviation Camps of Kentucky. Students are enrolled at three levels – Level 1 (Ages 10-11), Level 2 (Ages 12-13) and Level 3 (Ages 14-16). The 2-day camps are packed with a rigorous program that introduces youngsters to aviation. Camps are held at the Museum on Bluegrass Airport in Lexington and at other locations throughout the state. Since 1996 there have been over 4,000 children enrolled in two intense days of math, the science of aeronautics, map reading, flight planning, a half-hour of flight training and more. http://www.aviationky.org/

Our next stop was at Capitol City Airport in Frankfort, the home of The Kentucky Institute for Aerospace Education (KIAE). Founder and CEO, Dr. Tim Smith, some of his Board Members and volunteers provided us with astonishing insight into its mission to improve student learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and create career pathways into aviation and aerospace throughout Kentucky. Students can transition into college and/or career readiness programs. The KIAE program now has agreements with Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, The University of Kentucky and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, allowing students to receive college credit for their studies. To date, KIAE has established accredited aviation learning programs in 18 public school districts across the state and is now receiving requests from other states to assist them is setting up similar programs. http://www.kiae.org/

Eastern Kentucky University at Richmond began establishing higher learning programs in aviation management and flight training in the 80’s. I was privileged to serve on an EKU Aviation Advisory Committee as then, Dr. Wilma Walker, was working to establish the aviation curriculum. When the University was granted approval for a minor in aviation in 1984, 18 students enrolled; today there are more than 150 enrolled in aviation flight and management courses. EKU’s professional flight option is the only FAA-approved university flight program in Kentucky. The University also manages the FBO at Madison County Airport. http://aviation.eku.edu/

Our two-day Kentucky learning adventure concluded with a marvelous and inspiring visit with Kentucky’s 2009 National Flight Instructor of the Year… the incomparable Arlynn McMahon of Aero Tech at LEX. Among a very long list of Arlynn’s accomplishments is a “Teen Aviation Camp” at Aero Tech. We wanted to learn more about it. Arlynn has established an all-summer (while school is out) aviation home (my words) for teens. Essentially a place they can come to at the airport where they can gather with a members-only peer group of other teens interested in exploring aviation. Initially, each summer’s Teen Aviation Camp orientation begins with about 35 teens and their parents. Perimeters and objectives are set… afterwards, the youngsters themselves are involved with somewhat informal activities. Aero Tech provides a welcoming, “safe place” where students can learn about aviation – and they can get dual flight instruction if they like – most do! http://www.aerotech.net/

As we all are seeking ways to interest others in General Aviation and to increase the pilot population, I believe the learning programs in Kentucky can be a model of how to proceed and how to succeed. The key ingredient is passionate and very dedicated people like we met everywhere we went. We never heard a negative word and their enthusiasm was contagious.

Addison, TX Mayor Meier Writes to Pres. Obama

Addison, TX’s Mayor Todd Meier has recently sent a letter to President Obama expressing his concern over the President’s repeated negative remarks regarding general aviation as well as his opposition to the proposed $100 per segment user fee. For a copy of his letter, click here: Addison Mayor Meier letter to President 2013-01-04

Mayor Meier joins more than 115 Mayors across the country who have sent letters to the President explaining the critical importance of GA to local towns and communities. FMI and for a listing of these Mayors: http://www.aviationacrossamerica.com/mayors-petition-to-president-obama/

I encourage you to invite your Mayor to do the same.


After 40 years of searching for a resolution to Bradley County’s badly constrained Hardwick Field, a brand new airport will hold its Grand Opening on January 25th.

The new Cleveland Regional Jetport, located about 30 miles north of Chattanooga will open with a host of amenities that include a $1.9 Million 8,000 sq. ft. Terminal Building,  a 5,500 ft. concrete runway,  hangars for transient and based aircraft and more. Construction of the airport reportedly came in at a total of $42.68 million of which $19 million were Federal, $11.73 were State, and $6.01 were local dollars. Fund raising efforts are underway to raise private financial support for the airport as well.