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.
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!