Winging It: Where Alaska’s aviation system came from

A lot of my time is spent advocating for the aviation infrastructure that we count on to fly around Alaska.  Airports, nav aids, weather stations, Flight Service, weather cameras, etc. are all things that we use and often take for granted. But where did they come from?  If you are at all interested in that question, check out Jack Jefford’s book Winging It,  originally published in 1981, but more recently released in paperback.

winging it coverJack Jefford came to Alaska in the fall of 1937, to take a job flying for Hans Mirow in Nome.  Like many pilots of the time he learned to fly by shear persistence. Jefford kicked around the mid-west trying any way he could to make flying into a career—including a stint as a barn-stormer—before coming north.  Travel to and from Alaska at that time was by ship. Once arriving in Nome, the airplane was pressed into almost around-the-clock service transporting miners to the creeks for the short summer season.  Aviation was all by visual reference, when the weather allowed.  “City” airports were located at the larger communities like Fairbanks, Anchorage, Nome, Bethel. In-between, the airports literally were “fields” or gravel bars; frozen rivers, lakes and sea-ice in the winter months.

Pre-1940, radios were just starting to be installed in airplanes.  Not the VHF radios we know today, but HF radios initially requiring the pilot to learn Morse Code.  Even that was greatly appreciated, Jefford explains, when he crashed in the mountains east of Nome in severe winter conditions. The distress call he tapped out in code eventually brought local natives on dog teams to his rescue, ending his six day ordeal.

In the spring of 1940, Jefford made a change that corresponded with a huge growth spurt in aviation infrastructure development. He was hired by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (precursor to the FAA), as an Airways Flight Inspector just as the country was headed into World War II.  This was the start of his government career which “…would span thirty two years and over twenty thousand flying hours.” It put him in the cat-bird seat during the establishment of the initial airway structure that linked Alaska to Seattle, and connected the communities across the state.

The Japanese invading the Aleutian Islands certainly kicked military activity into high gear. A number of Jefford’s stories involve building the airports and airways down the chain.  The federal DLAND (Development of Landing Areas for National Defense) Program started in 1940, and poured $400 million into the development and improvement of military airfields across the nation.  Over two dozen airports in Alaska were constructed or improved under that program, many of which would later be turned over to the Territory (and eventually the State).  Jefford spent considerable time shuttling engineers and equipment between these construction projects.  Airstrips constructed under the DLAND program included King Salmon, Cordova, McGrath, Galena, Northway and Moses Point, to name a few.

At the same time, radio ranges to establish IFR airways were under construction.  These were low-frequency ranges that operated with dots and dashes to define the different “beams” leading to the station.

Not only did Jefford help site these facilities and transport the teams in to construct them, his job included flight checking and hauling the supplies to the technicians, specialists and families that staffed the network of facilities. Some of the most compelling stories center around rescue missions.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

Old Illiamna Flight Service Station.

One memorable event took place on December 11, 1950.  The CAA manager at the Illiamna station, also a relatively new private pilot, crashed his Piper Clipper near the small community of Nondalton, on the shores of Lake Clark– badly injuring himself and his passenger.  The military flew a doctor to Illiamna, who was transported by dog sled to treat the injured pilot and passenger. He reported that the pilot was in critical condition, not stable enough for dog sled transport, and in need of air evacuation to Anchorage. Snow and icing, severe enough to force a military rescue helicopter to retreat, thwarted an earlier rescue attempt.  Departing from Anchorage in the FAA’s DC-3, Jefford encountered moderate icing as he crossed the Alaska Range but made the approach into Illiamna, which was reporting a 500 foot ceiling and less than a mile visibility. He managed to land and waited for conditions to improve.  Reports from the doctor advised that the injured pilot probably wouldn’t survive the night if he couldn’t get advanced medical attention.  After testing the snow cover on the unplowed crosswind runway at Illiamna in a truck, Jefford asked the residents of Nondalton to put out an array of gas lanterns on the lake ice in front of the village.  The flight crew calculated how many minutes they could fly the north leg of the low-frequency range before arriving at Nondalton, knowing that beyond were the peaks of the Alaska Range.  Jefford took off and flew the prescribed number minutes before being forced to circle back—without seeing any lights. On the second try he extended slightly, and just as he started his turn back, a crew member spotted the lanterns, allowing them to land on the unconsolidated snow. The deceleration in the unpacked snow made for a very short landing roll, requiring all of Jeffords talents to keep the Dug from nosing over.  After loading the patient and doctor, it took multiple attempts before they were able to get airborne, and make the trip back across the mountains to Anchorage.

This book is not a traditional biography, but was developed from many hours of tape-recorded stories Jefford told over a five year period.  It reads as though you were listening to the master story teller himself.  He and the CAA/FAA employees of that era transformed Alaskan aviation, allowing the development of more reliable service.  Low frequency airways gave way to VOR-based airways that are now the “legacy system” we are watching transition to space-based navigation.  Even though Alaska still has a sparse network of infrastructure in comparison to the lower-48 states, it is good to look back and appreciate what aviation was like in earlier times.  A big THANK YOU to Jack’s daughter Carmen Jefford Fisher, who with the assistance of her husband Mark and the late Cliff Cernick, made it possible for the rest of us to enjoy Jack Jefford’s stories—and have a greater appreciation for the men and women who developed aviation system we rely on today!

FAA Upgrades Alaska Aircraft to National ADS-B Standard

It isn’t always best to be an early adopter of a new technology.  Aircraft owners in Alaska that participated in the FAA demonstration program to implement ADS-B were among the first in the nation to experience the benefits of this new technology. Today ADS-B has become a core element of NextGen.  But when the FAA finally approved a technical standard for NextGen, the prototype equipment didn’t meet that standard.  Now FAA is offering to upgrade those aircraft that were “early equippers” so they won’t be left behind.

ADS-B display showing traffic during the Capstone Demonstration Program

ADS-B display showing traffic during the Capstone Demonstration Program

Background
From 1999 to 2006, FAA conducted an operational demonstration program in Alaska to address some serious aviation safety issues.  Known as the Capstone Program, FAA used Alaska as a test bed to launch a new technology, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, better known as ADS-B.  This GPS-based system broadcasts (automatically) an aircraft’s location once a second, allowing another “equipped” aircraft to receive that information—a powerful tool for collision avoidance!

When within range of a ground radio, additional benefits become available.  Your aircraft position may be tracked by ATC, similar to what ATC radars do today—but with better accuracy in both time and space. If you fail to reach your destination, your ground track may speed search and rescue. But there is more… Ground stations allow aircraft to receive weather reports, NextRad weather radar and other information.  (If you are not familiar with ADS-B, AOPA has an online course which will walk you through the basics).

To obtain these benefits, the aircraft must be equipped.  In the course of the Capstone Program, FAA bought and installed the necessary equipment in about 400 aircraft in Alaska. Most of these aircraft operated commercially and were flying in the system on a daily basis, although some GA aircraft were included in the demonstration.  During this time, a few brave souls invested their own money and equipped their aircraft in order to receive the benefits of real-time traffic and weather in the cockpit.  Recognizing the benefits to aviation access and safety that this new technology represented, the Alaska Legislature adopted a low-interest loan program to help individuals and commercial operators (based in Alaska) to purchase and install this equipment in their aircraft.  The loan program continues today.

After the Capstone Program ended, a national standard for ADS-B avionics was adopted, however the original “demonstration” equipment no longer met the new standard.  To address this problem, FAA has launched a one-time project to upgrade the equipment installed in aircraft that were ADS-B equipped by November 30, 2013, to new “rule compliant” equipment. This includes not only the aircraft equipped by the FAA, but any Alaska-based aircraft that had invested in this technology prior to that date.  FAA has hired an installer who will be operating from different bases around the state on a defined schedule to make the upgrades.  Owners wishing to participate will be required to sign agreements, to have some equipment removed and new, rule-compliant avionics installed.  It may not be the way you wish to upgrade your airplane, but if you qualify, it would be worth checking with FAA to see if this upgrade program could work for you.  If you own an Alaska based aircraft equipped with Capstone-era equipment, contact the FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program (907-790-7316 or jim.ctr.wright@faa.gov) to see if this helps upgrade your airplane!

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/

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.

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

Heads up Lake Hood Users: Z41 is going away!

Now that I have your attention, let me clarify: the Z41 Identifier is going away, not the Lake Hood Strip.

Airport diagram for Lake Hood, including the Lake Hood Strip. Pilots will no longer file flight plans to Z41 when flying to or from the gravel runway associated with the float plane facility.

Airport diagram for Lake Hood, including the Lake Hood Strip. Pilots will no longer file flight plans using Z41 when flying to or from the gravel runway associated with the float plane facility.

For as long as I can remember, Z41 has been the identifier for the 2,200 foot gravel runway on the north side of Lake Hood.  But as of 0901 Z, October 17, 2013, that identifier is being retired, and the strip will just be runway 14/32 at LHD (or PALH if you prefer the four digit ICAO designation).  This cleans up an administrative detail, as having a unique identifier it was treated in certain FAA publications as a separate airport.  While the Lake Hood Strip entry in the Alaska Supplement is gone, the detailed maps of the seaplane base and the gravel strip in Section C, Notices (pages 344-345 in the Oct. 17 edition) will remain.

When I fly to Anchorage International Airport, Z41—I mean the Lake Hood Strip— is my favorite destination.  Generally quicker and easier to get into than the paved runways on the “big airplane” side of the airport.  Less worry about wake turbulence with the heavy jet traffic that is the lion’s share of ANC’s business.

If you have questions about this change, get in touch with the Lake Hood Seaplane Base Manager, Tim Coons at 907-266-2741 or via email: tim.coons@alaska.gov

So long, Z41. But long live the Lake Hood Strip!

PS. Concurrent with this change is a revision to the Chickaloon VFR Departure.  Pilots who use this procedure should examine these changes.

Alaska Aviation Weather Forecast Changes and Enhancements

Update:  Due to the government shutdown, the changes described below have been delayed, and are planned to go into effect on November 12.

The weather is still one of the most important factors we need to evaluate before each flight.  Whether you fly VFR or IFR, knowing the current conditions and how they are expected to change is critical to that all important GO/NO GO decision,  figuring out which route to take, and what to watch for inflight.  On October 15th, the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) will make changes that should help you make those decisions, as you plan to fly.  Here are some of the changes.

Area Forecast/Airmets
Starting in mid-October, new Area Forecasts (FA’s) will be issued three times a day—at 4:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m., local Alaska time.  Updates will come out at 12:15 a.m., 6:15 a.m. and 6:15 p.m.—or as needed if things are changing faster than anticipated.  AIRMETs will be either issued or updated using a similar schedule, the details of which may be found on the AAWU website at: aawu.arh.noaa.gov/changes/

Icing and Turbulence Graphics
In a trend which I find helpful, more information is being presented in graphic form.  Starting on Oct 15, the AAWU will issue new icing and turbulence graphics, showing the forecast in three-hour time slices, as opposed to the 6 hour charts we have been using.  Found under the Graphical Forecast tab on their home page, in the sample Icing Forecast product below, the user has a choice of viewing a single 12 hour summary, or on the bar immediately above the product, selecting one of the three-hour charts to see how the forecasters expect conditions to develop during the day.

Sample Icing Forecast Product summarizes over the entire 12 hour period. Individual charts showing 3 hour intervals show how conditions are expected to develop.

Sample Icing Forecast Product summarizes over the entire 12 hour period. Users can select individual charts showing 3 hour intervals to see how conditions are expected to develop.

Another change is that the Turbulence Forecast will be split into separate low and high altitude products.  Along the top, in the sample image below, the user again has the option to look at the 12 hour summary— showing the entire forecast period—or can mouse-over a progression of graphics to see how the turbulence is expected to develop during the forecast period.  Note that while the products are split at Flight Level 180, if conditions span that flight level, they will be depicted on both sets of products.  A little time spent examining the legend to become familiar with the new conventions will help become accustomed to these products.

sample turbulence lo level

Sample low altitude turbulence product, covering a 3 hour period. Users may also select the 12 hour summary chart to get the “big picture.”

A more subtle difference in the product to note:  An additional turbulence category, “Isolated Moderate” is being added. Previously the products only depicted “Occasional Moderate” and “Isolated Moderate to Severe” conditions.

table 2 issuance times

Table showing when both graphic and text products will be updated. Helpful if the weather is bad and you are waiting for the next forecast!

Other graphic products, such as the Surface Map and IFR/MVFR Chart won’t change, however the issuance and update times will.  The AAWU has provided a table (above) summarizing the timing of both text and graphic product which provide a roadmap to the new scheme.

These are significant enhancements to the products available to Alaskan pilots, and a downloadable document summarizing them is available online that contains examples and a more complete description of the schedules and changes.  If you have feedback on products, the National Weather Service would like to hear it. An easy way to reach them is to shoot an email to mailto:nws.ar.aawu.webauthors@noaa.gov.

As pilots we need to remember that the accuracy of these products is influenced by the PIREPs we file, either confirming forecast conditions, or alerting forecasters when conditions are changing faster than expected. Please take time to file an extra PIREP or two as you fly.

So a modification to an old adage might be… “If you don’t like the weather you see at the moment, just wait for the new forecast.”  Thanks to these changes, the new forecasts will be showing up more graphically and more frequently than before.

Hauling to the cabin—by air

In a state with few roads, airplanes take on an important role as basic transportation.  Getting supplies to your “cabin in the woods” often means loading them into the plane, instead of tossing them in the back of a pick-up.  But what about those bulky items that don’t fit inside?
custom cabin title photoI recently received an email from my next door neighbor with the subject line, “If only I had a Beaver…”  Attached was a photo story that documented in pictures the steps he took to accomplish the simple task of building and hauling a screen door to his families cabin, on a lake about 70 miles west of Fairbanks.  Getting it attached to the outside of the airplane was a good part of the challenge.

Carrying external loads takes some time, training, patience, and (at least in Alaska) paperwork from the FAA.  But it is often the only way to haul those bulky items that don’t fit inside.  Canoes, moose antlers, and lumber are a few of the things that you may find strapped on the outside of a float plane, heading to a remote cabin or hunting camp. Even if you do have a Beaver in your fleet!

Centennial of Flight in Alaska

This Fourth of July marks 100 years since the first powered flight in Alaska.

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

Lily and James Martin with their Gage-Martin biplane in Fairbanks, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-081)

It happened during the Fourth of July in 1913, in Fairbanks.  Early day aviator and inventor, James V. Martin and his wife Lily, (also a pilot) made the lengthy trip from Seattle to demonstrate what would come to be known as ‘the aviation.’  Sponsored by a group of local businessmen, the bi-winged Gage-Martin aircraft, with a 60 horse power motor, was crated and transported by ship through southeast Alaska to Skagway, transferred to the White Pass Railroad for the trip to Whitehorse and loaded on a stern-wheeler for the long trip down the Yukon to Tanana, The final leg up the journey was by another riverboat up the Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks.  According to aviation historian and University of Alaska Film Archivist Dirk Tordoff, the journey was made in just over twenty days—with good connections—which was quite efficient travel at that time.

The plan for Fairbanks was to make demonstration flights out of the local ball field, as part of the Fourth of July festivities. This timing was good, Tordoff asserts, as that holiday was the only time in the short summer season that the miners (which WAS the economy of the day) took time away from their diggings to celebrate.  The riverboat companies cut their fares in half, allowing miners from across the region to attend the holiday festivities.  So an audience was guaranteed. Tickets sold for $2.50 a head would cover the cost of the aerial demonstration.

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913.  (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Fairbanks flight on July 4, 1913. (Basil Clemons photograph, Alaska States Library, ASL-P281-011d)

Devil and details
But like most things in aviation, the devil is in the details.  Martin’s aircraft required high-octane fuel that had been ordered, but didn’t arrive for several days, forcing him to operate on low-octane fuel. The poor engine performance required securing the tail with a spring setup, which was released by his wife when full power was developed, and even then he barely made it into the air.  Another problem: it was a bad wildfire year, and the smoke in the area was thick enough that visibility was a factor (something that still plagues Fairbanks aviators on occasion).  Consequently, during his test flights on July 3rd, he only managed to climb a few hundred feet, and stayed over familiar landmarks, right over the city itself.  This allowed the population of the town, about 3,500 people at the time, to realize they didn’t need to buy a high priced ticket (almost 60 bucks in today’s dollars), but could easily view the show from their own roof or wood pile.  A series of five flights were made between July 3-5, according to Tordoff. While thrilling for Fairbanksians, it was a commercial disaster for the businessmen.  The further plan had been to sell the aircraft in Alaska, but given the limited performance, there were no takers and the plane was taken apart and shipped back to Seattle, where it disappeared from the historic record, Tordoff told an audience in Fairbanks recently.  While a commercial failure, this event signaled the start of aviation, which over the next few decades would significantly alter transportation in Alaska, with airplanes displacing mail routes otherwise served by dogsled, and transporting miners in two hours over a distance that previously took weeks to cover. This flight occurring just as the first successful climb of Mt. McKinley was completed—which required a combined total of almost 1,500 miles of dogsled, snowshoe, hiking and river travel—make the contrast of how airplanes have changed Alaska particularly noteworthy.

Commemorating that historic ‘waypoint’

AACentennial-PosterRecognizing that a century has passed since this event, the Alaska Airshow Association has organized an ambitious plan with a group of warbirds and other vintage aircraft to make the rounds of many Alaskan communities.  They started in Cordova on May 9th, and are scheduled to appear in Fairbanks to celebrate the actual first flights on July 4th.  They, and other vintage aircraft from Fairbanks, will launch just before noon and fly over celebrations in Ester, Fairbanks and North Pole before returning to the airport for further festivities.  This flight is timed to ‘parade’ over Pioneer Park at noon as part of their Fourth of July ceremony.

Back on the East Ramp at Fairbanks International Airport, The Alaska Airmen’s Association is coordinating an event in conjunction with the Airshow Association to treat the public to free hot dogs and popcorn (food you would find a hundred years ago), an opportunity to see the airplanes “up close and personal” and to meet the pilots.  At the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Facility, 3504 South University Avenue, a museum display about the centennial will be set up for viewing, youth activities are planned, and did I mention the free hot dogs?  Pilots will sign commemorative posters, and talk about the aircraft they are flying.  The finale will be at 3 p.m. when the aircraft take off and fly a race track pattern around the airport, before heading south to their next destination.  If you are in Fairbanks (or want to fly in for the occasion), come out to enjoy the fun, and reflect on how far aviation has progressed in 100 years. Or just to enjoy a free hot dog!