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.

Listing of Aviation Programs at Middle and High Schools

Interested in a career in aviation? Your kid is the one who is interested? Your grandkid, friend, or neighbor is interested but don’t know where to start? Looking for a middle or high school to get her/him started? Live in the Central Southwest Region (NM, TX, LA, OK, AR, KS, MO, NE, IA)? Well, you came to the right place.

AOPA’s Flight Training magazine publishes an annual College Aviation Directory with a list of colleges and universities with aviation programs. Here is next year’s (2014′s): http://flighttraining.aopa.org/magazine/2013/December/1312f_college%20directory2.pdf. Flight Training’s College Aviation Directory is the largest, most comprehensive database available anywhere.

You can also search the interactive College Aviation Directory by state and type of program (pilot training, maintenance, ATC… and associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s) here: http://flighttraining.aopa.org/learntofly/school/aviation_colleges/

By the time a teenager gets to college, he/she usually knows what he/she wants to do as a career and the path to follow. Therefore, I believe it is far more important to attract students to aviation from a younger age. Realizing that a similar listing of schools does not exist for programs below college level, I have started to compile a listing of pre-college aviation programs at schools in the AOPA Central Southwest Region.

I have been wanting to compile this list for quite some time. I am a graduate of Sterling H.S.’s aviation program in Houston, TX. I think I mentioned this in my “10 year flying anniversary” blog last year. I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was a toddler. Therefore, during my junior year in High School, in preparation for college, I started researching how I could start flying and what it would take since no one around me knew anything about it or knew how to help me. Google and the AOPA website were my best friends. They were highly used and abused :) However, one day, I ended up in Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) website because my sister was looking for a school with an arts program she had heard about (what we now know as the High School for the Performing and Visual arts or HSPVA, which she attended) and, under the list of “vanguard” or “magnet” programs, I saw “aviation.” Uh huh, magic word! I was very lucky to find it and, after having graduated from the program years ago, I still find it amusing that most pilots or people in aviation in the Houston area have not even heard about it.

Anyway, that’s my long story for wanting to create this list. I want to make it a little easier for kids and parents to find schools with aviation programs in their areas, especially for those with no ties to aviation. Hope it is helpful.

Listing of Pre-College Aviation Programs

This list might not be inclusive of all such programs so, if you know of any missing, or if you have more information about any of the programs currently listed, please e-mail me (yasmina.platt@aopa.org) or reply to this blog.

Aviation History at Glenwood Cemetery

Today was a grey and cold day in Houston so my husband Jared and I decided it would be nice to visit the Glenwood and Washington Cementeries and visit the graves of some famous people, especially those with ties to aviation.

The first grave we were most excited about was Howard Hughes, Jr’s. I know all of you know who Mr. Hughes was but here is a brief bio from the cemetery’s website as a refresher:

Hughes, Jr., Howard R. (1905-1976)
Billionaire and man of legendary accomplishments in business, aviation and film making. He assumed control of the Hughes Tool Company at the age of 19, following his father’s death. In the late 1920s he moved to Hollywood. His best-remembered films are the epic Hell’s Angels (1930) and The Outlaw (1941). During WWII and the decade that followed, he pursued his fascination with aviation, forming Hughes Aviation and receiving government contracts for development and manufacture of aircraft (including the wooden flying boat dubbed “The Spruce Goose”). In 1956 he acquired TWA and pushed it into the jet age. By the late 1960s, he was becoming increasingly reclusive, eventually running his business empire from a penthouse atop the Dessert Inn in Las Vegas. He died on a flight from Acapulco to Houston.”

Most non-aviation enthusiasts know about Howard from the 2004 movie “The Aviator,” played by Leonardo DiCaprio (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338751/).

According to the cemetery’s website, the Howard Hughes family plot is one of the most frequently visited sites at Glenwood. I’m very happy to hear that; I’m happy to hear that some people care about aviation history. Even though his eccentric behavior and reclusive lifestyle became very apparent later in life, caused in part by a worsening obsessive–compulsive disorder and chronic pain, Mr. Hughes should be remembered by his aviation entrepreneurship as well as his piloting and engineering skills.

Grave of the Hughes Family

Grave of the Hughes Family

Grave of Howard Hughes, Jr and his two parents

Grave of Howard Hughes, Jr and his two parents

We were also interested in seeing William P. Hobby’s grave. He was Governor of Texas for a few years but, most importantly (for us, anyway), Houston’s second commercial airport (KHOU – William P. Hobby Airport) is named after him. I may be wrong here, but it is my understanding that this is the timeline of the airport’s name over the years:

- W.T. Carter Field in 1927 when it was a private landing field in a 600-acre (240 ha) pasture

- When the City of Houston acquired it in 1937, they changed the name to Houston Municipal Airport

- In July, 1938, after setting a new speed record flying his Lockheed 14 Super Electra around the world, Howard Hughes visited Houston for a 3 day celebration. During a banquet at the Rice Hotel, the City announced that Houston Municipal Airport was to be renamed Howard Hughes Municipal Airport. A few months later (about 4 months), the City learned that the airport will be disqualified for Federal grant money if it is named after a living person and the name was changed back to Houston Municipal Airport. (source: 1940 Air Terminal)

- Renamed Houston International Airport in 1954

- And renamed to its current name (William P. Hobby Airport) in 1967

Grave of William P. Hobby and his two wives

Grave of William P. Hobby and his two wives

Grave of William P. Hobby

Grave of William P. Hobby

I am not exactly sure what William P. Hobby’s involvement with the airport was, but Howard Hughes was responsible for several improvements to the airport, including its first control tower in 1938, in addition to being the era’s most influential aviator and a user of the airfield. If any of you know what Mr. Hobby’s involvement with the airport was, I’d like to know; please e-mail me or post a reply to this blog. I do not want to ignore Mr. Hobby’s accomplishments; however, I think I would prefer the airport to be named after Howard Hughes once again. Mr. Hobby has a local school named after him (William P. Hobby Elementary School – http://www.houstonisd.org/HobbyES). Mr. Hughes only has a restaurant/bar named after him – Hughes Hangar (http://hugheshangar.com/) - and, as a private enterprise, it could close and we could lose it. Hobby Airport is also the place where my husband and I met so it definetely has a special place in our hearts. =)

If you are interested in learning more about KHOU’s history, the 1940 Air Terminal Museum does a fabulous job of capturing it. I would suggest that you visit them sometime. It is pretty impressive. Here is their website: http://www.1940airterminal.org/history/timeline/.

For more information about the cemetery, visit their website at http://www.glenwoodcemetery.org/. If you click on “About Glenwood,” you can learn more about the cemetery and the significant and important people buried there. By clicking on “Visiting,” you can find a map of the cemetery.

We will be back to take a guided walking tour when my husband recovers from his running injury. I’ll update this if we learn some more interesting information.

“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.

Michigan’s Operation Good Cheer Looking For Pilot Volunteers This Weekend!

This weekend, I will be representing AOPA during Operation Good Cheer.  The weather is scheduled to be beautiful and an influx of additional children necessitates additional volunteer pilots!

From Operation Good Cheer Headquarters:

During the December 7th event, pilots can help make a Christmas special for children across the State.  Leaving from Pontiac International Airport, pilots from all over volunteer to help deliver gifts to kids so that they will be insured to have a good Christmas. Even pilots from out of state come to help.

With over 4000 chilred in need and over 13,000 gifts to be delivered more pilots are needed to deliver the gifts!

Visit Operation Good Cheer to volunteer at :http://www.cfsm.org/OperationGoodCheer.htm

AOPA and Aerial Applicators- Working Together to Improve Low Level Aviation Safety

13In late November, I had the privilege of attending my first aviation event focused on agricultural aviation and aerial application, known to fans of the movie “Planes” and most of the public as cropdusting.  While I’ve been around aviation and airports nearly all of my adult life, my exposure to agricultural aviation has been limited, and as I learned, my knowledge naïve.  And even though my wife grew up in northwest Kansas in a family that farmed and with a dad who owned a spray service, I never had the opportunity to meet him, or learn much about this small aviation niche during my days on the airport side of our industry. 

So with that background, I attended a day of the Colorado Aerial Applicators Association’s (CAAA) annual conference in Loveland, where about 150 ag pilots, vendors and their families had convened to talk all things ag.  And what did I learn?  That ag pilots are some of the most welcoming, passionate, entertaining and knowledgable pilots I’ve met.  During the course of my day, I spent time learning about the myriad of challenges faced by ag pilots- stringent rules on materials handling, complex EPA stormwater requirements at airports, continuing agricultural and aviation education demands, and of course, the constant threat posed by structures and obstructions like Meteorlogical Evaluation Towers (METs).

METIf you’re not familiar with METs, these are small towers used to evaluate wind power generation feasibility at a particular location.  METs are small, difficult to see, and often erected quickly with no notice, posing a significant hazard to low level aviation activities such as aerial application, firefighting and emergency medical service (EMS) operations.  Because most METs are less than 200’ tall and typically located in rural areas away from airports, they are not usually subject to obstruction review or approval by the Federal Aviation Administration under FAR Part 77.  In the Northwest Mountain region, legislation addressing the marking, lighting and reporting of such towers has recently been passed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  Such marking, lighting and reporting of METs significantly improves aviation safety.

Recognizing this, the National Transportation Safety Board weighed in last May, when it released a Safety Recommendation about the towers and how ideally they should be lit, marked and reported.  For those not familiar with METs, the Nebraska Aviation Trades Association has comprehensive MET information, along with an excellent five minute video.

Across the country, my fellow AOPA regional managers and I are working with aerial applicators and others to mitigate the impact of (METs) on aviation. In Colorado, through the initaitive of AOPA and the recently established Colorado General Aviation Alliance, discussions about legislation to require the marking and lighting of METs in the state began earlier this year.  At the CAAA convention in November, I had the opportunity to participate in a legislative forum led by State Represenative Jerry Sonnenberg, an AOPA member and active GA supporter from Sterling, who has agreed to sponsor a bill in the 2014 Colorado General Session addressing the hazards posed by METs. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Colorado’s aerial applicators and learning more about this unique segment of general aviation.  I’m looking forward to collaborating with them and others to improve aviation safety in Colorado, and across the Northwest Mountain Region.  In fact, myself and AOPA are also already hard at work with our partners in Washington state on similar MET legislation in 2014, so stay tuned.

Oh, and the best part about hanging out with ag pilots?  Hands down, I think they have the best flying stories of any pilots I’ve encountered.  When was the last time you met a pilot who survived a mallard strike through the windscreen and into his chest at 140 knots while in a climbing turn at 50′ AGL?