Alaska is a “weather-poor” state

Alaska pilots are poor (impoverished) when it comes to the amount of weather data available to make critical go/no-go flight decisions. According to the FAA’s surface weather observation stations website, Alaska has 133 AWOS or ASOS weather station locations. In comparison, the “contiguous 48 states” have over 1,800 similar sites. Based on average density of stations nationwide, Alaska would need 183 additional stations to be on par with the rest of the country. That is 2.4 times as many observations as we have today. I am not expecting to see that number of conventional stations in Alaska, but it does point to the need for Alaska pilots to be creative, weather-vigilant, and look to non-conventional sources of information. But first, let’s dig a little deeper into our weather observing system of today.

An overview of the over 1,800 aviation weather stations providing data for pilots and forecasters across the "contiguous 48 states"

An overview of over 1,800 aviation weather stations that provide data for pilots and forecasters across the “contiguous 48 states.”

At approximately the same scale as the previous map, note the density of aviation weather stations providing coverage for Alaska.  Some 180 more stations would be needed to provide a comparably dense network to that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

At approximately the same scale as the map above, note the density of aviation weather stations providing coverage for Alaska. Some 180 additional stations would be needed to provide a comparably dense network to that enjoyed by the rest of the country.

Not all weather reports are equal
Not all weather observations are the same quality. The standard weather observation today is an unattended FAA Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) and its National Weather Service counterpart the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). These devices operate 24 hours a day, and report weather based on sensors that measure wind speed and direction, temperature, dew point, altimeter, ceiling and visibility. Some models may detect precipitation type and accumulation and/or thunderstorms. Advanced as they may be, the unattended stations have some significant limitations. The ceiling is measured using a small laser beam directly overhead while a computer calculates the cloud cover based on a 30 minute average of readings. If, for example, a low fog bank is creeping up on the airport, the unit won’t know about it until the field has gone IFR. Another well-known limitation of these devices is the visibility sensor, which measures the particles within a 1 meter beam of light, and calculates the “up to 10 miles” visibility value we see in the reports. A frustration with this sensor at rural Alaska airports results when a four-wheeler parks next to the sensor (perhaps waiting for an arriving aircraft) and its exhaust drifts into the visibility sensor’s “view,” reducing the reported visibility to 1/8 mile. It’s a mere annoyance to most pilots flying under Part 91, but a commercial pilot flying under Part 135 regulations can’t even shoot the approach with reported conditions lower than the allowable minimums. Automated stations operating unattended contain the word AUTO in the report to alert pilots to that fact. The omission of that term lets the pilot know that either a human is making the observation in the first place, or the observation is being augmented by an observer.

Augmented Weather Stations
Given these limitations in automated stations, the FAA has contract weather observers who augment the equipment at select locations. Airports with significant volumes of traffic, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks, are augmented. One of our Alaska adaptations has been that when the network of Flight Service Stations was reduced in the mid-1990’s, locations that were identified as important strategic locations were provided with a contract weather observer to ensure that the known limitations of automated units didn’t catch a pilot off guard. In the summer of 2013, the weather augmentation contract at Gulkana was cancelled. I am concerned that in the interest of budget reductions, other stations may be on the chopping block.

Five more weather stations closed
One of the means of collecting weather information at remote locations that don’t have an automated station is to contract with a local resident using the A-PAID Program. Under this program, an interested person is trained and certified by the NWS to make a set number of weather reports per day the old fashioned way—by looking at the sky and making manual observations, such as using the distance to local landmarks to estimate visibility. A-PAID observers don’t report 24 hours a day, and if the observer has to travel, is sick or otherwise not available, no report gets filed. A-PAID observers also don’t file Special reports to alert pilots when conditions change, but often they are the only source of weather information in remote areas, or along VFR routes, that help pilots make informed decisions on whether to initiate a flight. A few days ago I learned that the FAA had cancelled the contracts for the last five stations that they had funded for years, leaving us with no weather reports from Farewell Lake, Merrill Pass West, Manley Hot Springs, Nabesna and Chandalar Lake. Five more points, of our already sparse weather network, went dark.

Replacements for A-PAID stations
In 2011 the National Weather Service announced its intention to phase out the A-PAID program, and for those areas that they felt they needed continued observations, replace them with an automated observations similar but not identical to AWOS units. The package they selected is called a Modular Automated Weather Station (MAWS). It is built by a company that makes AWOS systems, and the sensors used are all certified by FAA for use in an AWOS system. MAWS stations record the main elements we need for aviation weather, including ceiling and visibility, but don’t have a VHF radio to transmit the data to an aircraft. They are not certified by FAA as an AWOS, and cost about half as much as a fully certified unit. Due to the lack of certification, at least so far, the FAA and NWS haven’t been able to agree on a basis to consider the reports as METARs, and distribute them through the normal FAA weather channels. This is a real problem for John & Suzy Q Pilot, because unless they know exactly where to look, these observations don’t exist. To date these stations have been deployed in the Central/Circle Hot Springs area, Healy and at Whittier. AOPA and other Alaskan aviation groups are pushing both NWS and FAA to find a way to distribute these observations through the normal channels, given that they are intended for use at VFR airports, or non-airport locations along key VFR routes. Given the lack of progress solving this issue between two federal agencies, we have asked Senator Begich, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, for help getting the two agencies to come up with a practical solution to this issue to make the observations available. We will continue to push to make this weather fully available to pilots.

Weather Cameras
The FAA Weather Camera Program is the one bright spot that adds weather information to a pilot’s flight kit when it comes to making go/no-go flight decisions. A set of cameras looking multiple directions, updated every 10 minutes, available on the internet from 221 locations across the state provides a tremendous amount of information for flight planning and decision making. As just one example, the camera at the McKinley Park airstrip is co-located with the AWOS unit there. The camera has helped me “interpret” the AWOS report, which one morning was reporting 1/8 mile visibility. A look at the weather camera revealed blue skys in multiple directions with a few wisps of ground fog in the foreground.  This image let me know I was good to launch for a flight thorough Windy Pass. On another occasion, while the AWOS was reporting “clear below 12,000,” a look at the big, ugly, towering cumulus clouds both to the north and south of the station let me know that this was not a good time to expect smooth sailing through the mountains. The station at the airstrip is located in the of the valley between two sets of ridges, which are often where the clouds form, outside the “view” of the AWOS cloud sensor.

As valuable as the network of cameras is, there is a very serious limitation. Currently, the cameras are good during daylight hours only. Great in the summer, but as days shorten, pilots are back “in the dark” having to make go/no-go decisions before camera observations are available. Even in mid-October a local pilot told me this past week he had to wait until 10 a.m. to get a usable image from an interior camera to tell if he could conduct a flight down the Tanana and middle Yukon Rivers. And we aren’t yet into really short winter days! There are now low-light level cameras on the market that might extend the utility of the camera network, however we need a serious research and development effort to evaluate available sensors, and consider the human factors of how to present other than standard color video data for pilots to use in their decision making process.

Alaska forecasts also have limitations
The sparse network of weather observations impacts pilots in more ways than one. In addition to our own weather interpretation, the NWS forecasters are a major consumer of surface observations. They count on them to make and verify the Area and Terminal Forecasts that we use to anticipate what conditions will be like in a few hours, along a cross-country route of flight. Or how fast a weather system is approaching that will impact even local operations. At a recent conference a map was presented (see below) showing how the Alaska weather forecast areas correspond to a similar size area “outside.” NWS forecasters in three weather offices (Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau) turn out forecasts for areas that would be covered by 68 forecast offices in the lower 48. Even if you discount the marine areas, the three forecast offices are covering an area equal to 30 offices down south. Another way to look at it is that about 50 forecasters in Alaska issue products for an area that is covered by about 400 forecasters “outside.”

The three NWS forecast offices in Alaska cover the an area that overlays 68 forecast areas in the middle of the country.

The three NWS forecast offices in Alaska cover the an area that overlays 68 forecast areas in the middle of the country.

The spatial granularity of Alaska products is also different. Just looking at the winds-aloft product,  Alaska forecasts are reported using a 90 kilometer grid in contrast to a 30 kilometer grid used elsewhere in the country. Pilots flying in Alaska have to bear in mind that while the forecast products look the same across the nation, the informational content of our forecasts are lower than if we were planning a route across other portions of the country.

From this flight planning program screen shot, one can see the difference in density between winds aloft forecast values generated for Alaska versus the rest of the country.

From this flight planning program screen shot, one can see the difference in density between winds aloft forecast values generated for Alaska versus the rest of the country.

We need all the observations we can get
Given the size of Alaska, our reliance on the airplane to provide basic transportation, the diversity of terrain and climate, and paucity of emergency landing areas, we need all the weather observations we can lay our hands on. The lack of conventional weather stations enjoyed by pilots in the rest of the country means that:

a)      We need to continue to have augmented weather in key regional locations.

b)      It is essential that observations from lower cost MAWS sites are fully distributed.

c)      We need fully certified AWOS units at airports with instrument approaches.

d)     It is important to expedite research into expanding the use of weather cameras beyond daylight hours, to obtain better utilization of this innovative program.

AOPA is working with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Air Carriers Association and the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation on these issues, and is engaging both the FAA and National Weather Service to express our concerns. We addressed the Senate GA Caucus meeting held by Senator Begich last spring and have also asked for the help of the entire Alaska congressional delegation. In the current budget climate it will not be an easy sell, but for aviation safety and access, we must make the effort.

Seaplane pilots: Whitehorse Schwatka Lake Plan comments needed by Sept 1

Seaplane pilots spoke up last fall when a survey was conducted regarding the use of Whitehorse’s Schwatka Lake. In fact, 84% of the comments received were aviation oriented! Now, the City of Whitehorse is about to consider the Draft Schwatka Lake Area Plan, and your comments are again needed, and due by September 1st. Please take a minute to look the plan over, and comment TODAY!

The draft plan proposes significantly expanding float plane facilities, yet leaves addressing the needs of transient users to local businesses without any definition of transient parking slips or fueling facilities.  Another section of the plan calls for moving non-motorized boat operations, which have traditionally used the east side of the lake, to the west side. This could put them in conflict with float plane operations.  Also called for is the establishment of a working group to implement the Schwatka Lake Area Plan. It seems that this group should include a stakeholder to represent the interests of the transient seaplane users.

Map of the proposed land use from the draft Schwatka Lake Plan.

Map of the proposed land use from the draft Schwatka Lake Plan.

From my quick read of the document, I would recommend commenting on the following points:

  • Given the international and tourism impacts of aircraft flying between the US, Canada and Alaska, more specifically identify the plans for transient floatplane tie-down spots, refueling facilities, surface transportation, access to telephone and restroom facilities, even if they are provided by private business interests.
  • Express concerns about changing use patterns on the lake between floatplane and non-motorized boat users which could impact safety, and impact the viability of the lake for floatplane operations in the long run.
  • Urge the City to designate a transient float plane stakeholder on the working group to implement the plan.

The plan is available online. Comments may be made by email to city planner Erica Beasley erica.beasley@whitehorse.ca . The Yukon COPA Chapter suggests sending a copy to mayorandcouncil@whitehorse.ca The deadline is September 1, so ACT TODAY!

Flying Clubs: A low-cost way to ‘own’ an airplane, and much more…

Early in my flying career, I learned a painful lesson about flight schools in Fairbanks. Some of them are ephemeral, and don’t operate year round! After passing my check ride in September, I happily exercised my new private pilot privileges, renting one of the school aircraft to take friends and family members for a local flight. [As an aside about the time just after earning a pilots license: Too late I learned another valuable lesson about being a newly minted pilot—don’t demonstrate ALL the things you learned to people who may be uncomfortable in a small aircraft. Years later I realized that I had badly frightened several passengers in my desire to demonstrate the answer their questions about how the airplane worked. But I digress...] After making a business trip for a few weeks later that fall, I returned to find the flight school had closed for the winter! Where was I to find an airplane?

Discovering a Flying Club
Not too long following this devastating discovery, I came across the Arctic Flying Club. After paying a fee to join, and nominal monthly dues, I got checked out in the two C-172’s the club owned at the time. This was the late 1970′s– before the internet, smart phones or apps– yet the club operated on a very efficient basis: each member had keys for the aircraft they were checked out to fly, and scheduling was handled through a 24-hour/day answering service. If at midnight I wanted to fly at 6 a.m. the next morning, a call to the answering service to confirm the aircraft was available was all I needed to do. The club also had a Cessna 150, used primarily for training, which kept pretty busy. And when the club acquired a Super Cub on floats, I used it to finish a float rating and to explore the wonderful world of landing on water. The flying club provided easier access to airplanes than renting from a flight school, at a lower cost, plus there were other more experienced pilots in the club I could learn from—some as instructors, others just as members that I might fly with occasionally to really help reduce the cost per hour.

 

AOPA has a guide to starting a flying club, but also with information that may be valuable to clubs already in operation.

AOPA has a guide to starting a flying club, but also with information that may be valuable to clubs already in operation.

Flying Club Initiative
AOPA has recently launched an initiative promoting Flying Clubs as a low cost way to fly. From their research they also learned that many pilots value the social interaction clubs can provide, both from a mentoring perspective (which I certainly found to be the case), in some cases to fly places together, but also to belong to the wider aviation community. To help promote flying clubs, AOPA has developed an 81 page Guide to Starting A Flying Club to help figure out how to form and operate a club. (Don’t panic over the length—the last half is an appendix with reference materials.) The guide describes different ways to organize a club, which is by definition a not-for-profit of one form or another. It also covers selection of aircraft, budgeting, insurance, operations and perhaps where many clubs suffer—how to market your club. Included are sample forms, and examples of documents from existing organizations.

Finding an existing club
Another tool on AOPA’s website is a Flying Club Finder, to help find an established club in your area. So far a search of the “club finder” for Alaska only lists six entries, two of which are “clubs in formation”—one in Sitka and one in Ketchikan. If you know of other clubs that aren’t listed, please either let me know, or encourage them to go online and add themselves to the list. If you don’t find a club, check out the online guide and consider organizing one in your area. Also on AOPA’s website are a number of webinars on different Flying Club topics. Watch for AOPA seminars on this topic, which are offered from time to time.

The rest of the story…
I belonged to the Arctic Flying Club for several years. After developing enough cross country experience to use an airplane as a tool to fly myself to field camps, I needed an airplane that could stay with me for a week or more at a time. After shopping around I purchased a 1953 Cessna 170B (with the help of a loan from my Grandmother). When it became clear that ALL of my disposable income would be required to keep the 170 operating, I sadly bid farewell to the club. In my case, belonging to the club had been an economical way to fly, to meet other pilots and expand my knowledge base until I figured out that I needed to take the plunge into airplane ownership.

I am pleased to report that the Arctic Flying Club is still around, all these years later. They currently operate a single Cessna 172, and could use a few more members. If you live near Fairbanks International Airport, check them out on the AOPA Club Finder, and see if they might be a good deal for you!

Special VFR changes at Anchorage

Special VFR (SVFR) procedures allow us to get in or out of Class B, C, D or E surface areas when the weather is below basic VFR, but still good enough to fly. In some parts of Alaska they are used routinely, where weather conditions are frequently dicey. A national revision of FAA internal policy caused the Air Traffic staff in Anchorage to re-examine their procedures, which initially caused concern within the pilot community—as Anchorage controllers often respond to requests for “specials” to get pilots in and out of Lake Hood and Merrill Field. When first announced, the use of radar as a tool for separation was the focus. The prospect of changes that could severely impact traffic in and out of area airports loomed large. I am pleased to report, thanks to the efforts of FAA Air Traffic Organization staff in Alaska, that procedural changes are now expected to streamline the process, and many cases increase ATC’s ability to accommodate SVFR traffic.

Special VFR procedures are a tool sometimes needed to deal with conditions around an airport, but should be used with extreme caution.

Special VFR procedures are a tool sometimes needed to deal with weather conditions around an airport, but should be used with extreme caution.

At a recent meeting of the Alaska Aviation Coordination Council, Merrill Tower Manager Brian Ochs shared the good news with representatives from the aviation industry. A challenge for controllers was the national guidance based on a single surface area. This didn’t adequately address the Anchorage situation with multiple adjoining surface areas: Anchorage International (ANC), Lake Hood (LHD), Merrill Field (MRI), Elmendorf (EDF), and Bryant Army Airfield (FRN). A working group was established across the Anchorage facilities to work the issue—spurred on by concerns expressed from aviation groups and local operators. Last March, FAA held a Safety Risk Management panel meeting, and invited AOPA and other stakeholder representatives to evaluate their plan. In the subsequent months, FAA reviews were held and approval ultimately received to implement new internal procedures.

SVFR Process
The process from a pilot perspective remains unchanged. We must ASK for a Special VFR clearance—the controller can’t offer it to us. Ask Clearance Delivery if you want to depart ANC or LHD, or Ground Control at MRI. Arriving traffic may request a special from Anchorage Approach. To address the issue of adjacent, “wing tip to wing tip” operations, ATC defined two cases, high and low visibility SVFR. During High Visibility SVFR conditions, the ceiling is a little below 1,000 ft, but visibility is three miles or greater. When these conditions exist, each facility can issue specials independently. When the visibility comes down to less than 3 miles, a different set of procedures go into effect, and coordination is required across adjacent surfaces. Priority will be given to inbound traffic, and outbound flights will be staggered to reduce congestion over the Point McKenzie area.

Feedback requested
We owe a big THANK YOU to the Air Traffic Control staff for going the extra mile to take what could have been a serious impact on access to the Anchorage airports, and developing procedures that may increase the flow of SVFR traffic. When fall weather arrives, and these procedures get more use, ATC would like your feedback. If you have comments or concerns, please contact: David Chilson, Support Manager, FAA Alaska Terminal District, david.chilson@faa.gov, 907-271-2703. Thanks also to the pilots and operators who communicated their concerns to FAA when the prospect of these changes first was announced, and who participated in the Safety Risk Management Panel. This spirit of cooperation has helped reach a better outcome than I think anyone expected when the national changes were first announced!

Post Script on SVFR
While it is nice to have SVFR procedures in our tool kit, we should be extremely cautious in their application. Conditions that require SVFR by definition mean we are working under restricted circumstances, of either ceiling or visibility, which limit our options. We should be very familiar with the airport, local terrain and weather conditions before asking for a special. Under stable conditions a special can speed us on our way to better weather near by, but in other cases they may be leading us into something worse. Check out AOPA’s Air Safety Institute’s article “How safe is special VFR” to explore this topic in greater detail.

FAA looking for feedback on new Alaska automated weather stations

Knowing current weather conditions and how they are expected to change is important information for pilots. Today, the primary source of information on current weather conditions is the network of automated surface weather observations. Those operated by the FAA are commonly called Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS). Pilots rely on the data from these stations to make operational decisions on whether to fly or not, augmented by the FAA Alaska Weather Camera Program, which during daylight hours provides a visual look at the weather.

The FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program is primarily tasked to implement ADS-B and other technologies, in support of NextGen. As follow-on to the FAA Capstone Program, however, they undertook the challenge of adding additional AWOS stations, as well as a couple Remote Communication Outlets in some parts of Alaska. Working with FAA, Alaskan user groups argued that ADS-B alone wouldn’t improve safety and access—we needed a system solution that also included instrument approaches, weather and communications. Over the past few years, the SBS Program has installed twenty additional AWOS stations in Alaska. Improved IFR access is certainly a result at airports that have WAAS GPS approaches, which most have. In some cases, nearby airports with existing approaches were able to obtain lower minimums, based on these stations. In all cases, pilots have better weather information about these airports to aid their decision making, whether flying under VFR or IFR rules.

Currently the FAA is looking for feedback from users who fly in these areas, and would like to hear from individual pilots, air taxi operators, private business users, communities, or anyone else that has seen a change based on any of these twenty stations.

FAA and industry officials examine an AWOS station in Alaska. Sensors are located above an equipment shelter.

FAA and industry officials examine an AWOS station in Alaska. Sensors are located above an equipment hut that provides shelter for technicians servicing the station at remote locations.

SBS Funded AWOS Stations

Barter Island/PABA

Brevig Mission/PFKT

Chevak/PAVA

Clarks Point/PFCL

Elim/PFEL

False Pass/PAKF

Galena/PAGA

Kiana/PAIK

Kwethluk/PFKW

Napakiak/PANA

Noorvik/PFNO

Weather sensors are above the equipment shelter. The gray antenna in the background is part of a satellite communication system that sends that transmits weather data for distribution in areas that lack direct phone access.

Weather sensors are above the equipment shelter. The gray antenna in the background is part of a satellite communication system that sends that transmits weather data for distribution in areas that lack direct phone access.

Nunapitchuk/PPIT

Quinhagak/PAQH

Shageluk/PAHX

Shaktoolik/PFSH

Shugnak/PAGH

South Naknek/PFWS

Teller/PATE

Wales/PAIW

White Mountain/PAWM

 

 

 

While these twenty stations are an improvement, Alaska is still very sparsely covered with aviation weather stations in comparison to the rest of the country. Additional weather stations are needed to improve aviation safety and access. Letting FAA know the benefits from these stations is a step in the right direction.

Please provide feedback to:
Jim Wright, Sr. Systems Engineer
Surveillance and Broadcast Services (AJM-232)
Lockheed Martin Corporation
1873 Shell Simmons Drive, Suite 110
Juneau, AK 99801

phone: 907-790-7316  email: jim.ctr.wright@faa.gov  Please send AOPA a copy of your comments: airtrafficservices@aopa.org

Practice Runways: A low-cost pilot proficiency tool

It is finally summer in Alaska. Salmon are running in the rivers, wild roses are blooming on the roadsides and paint marks are starting to appear on select gravel runways around the state. Paint marks? On gravel runways? Are you crazy? Only a little, but read on…

Threshold of the freshly painted "practice runway" on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Threshold of the freshly painted “practice runway” on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Last week a twelve-person crew armed with 5 gallons of white paint, a sprayer, couple of plywood templates and a bunch of enthusiasm, assembled to create two “practice runways” on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport. Each end of the gravel runway (named the Ski Strip, because that’s it’s winter occupation) now sports a 25 foot wide by 800 foot long “practice runway.” Delineated by white 2 x 4 foot white rectangles painted directly on the packed gravel surface every hundred feet, it simulates a narrow, short runway pilots are liable to be landing on at back-country airstrips or gravel bars. These landing areas, often surrounded by trees, with rough surfaces, provide access at their favorite hunting, fishing or camping spot. The practice runways don’t provide the full range of conditions encountered in the field, but are also without the consequences– if you don’t get down and stopped in the right place on the first try!

Airports and stakeholder working together
Often these projects are a collaborative effort between the airport owner and a volunteer group that teams up to paint the markings in the spring, after the runway has been graded and packed. At Fairbanks, AOPA Airport Support Volunteer Ron Dearborn put out a call for volunteers using General Aviation Association’s email list, which brought help not only from that group but also from members of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, Midnight Sun Chapter of the Ninety Nines. and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Aviation Program.

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Ron Dearborn lining out tasks for painting the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Ron Dearborn lining out tasks for painting the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

Previously established reference markers off the side of the runway make it easy to lay out markings for the paint crew.

Previously established reference markers off the side of the runway make it easy to lay out markings for the paint crew.

Plywood templates allow the paint crew to quickly leap frog from one mark to the next.

Plywood templates allow the paint crew to quickly leap frog from one mark to the next.

As soon as the NOTAM closing the Ski Strip went into effect, and after a safety briefing by airport operations staff, the crew took possession of the runway. They marked and painted the two practice runways in just under an hour. Assembling the crew and equipment, and cleaning up afterward took more time than actual painting itself. After the work was done, the group celebrated with baked goodies and beverages, before calling it a night. The Ski Strip stayed closed overnight to let the paint dry, but by the following day, airplanes were hard at it, doing stop-and-goes.

This is the fourth year that volunteers have worked with the airport operations staff to create this piece of infrastructure at Fairbanks, and other airports around the state. The practice runways have proven to be popular not only for super cub drivers, but with students just learning to fly and pilots of a wide range of aircraft wishing to calibrate their landing distances. Other airports that have received a “modification to standards” from the FAA to create practice runways on their gravel runways include: Goose Bay (Z40), Nenana (PANN), Palmer (PAAQ), Soldotna (PASX) and Wasilla (PAWS). I encourage you to use one of these practice strips and see how well you can hit the marks– and how much runway it takes to get stopped.

If your airport has a runway you think might be suitable for a practice runway, contact your airport manager to see if they are interested. The airport typically will need to coordinate with FAA Airports Division to approve a “modification to standards” which specifies how the runway may be marked. This is still a new program, only happening in Alaska. A guide has been developed based on experience from several seasons to help airports owners and volunteer groups figure out how to undertake a similar project. I encourage you to consider whether this program makes sense at your airport, as a small but positive way to influence aviation safety and proficiency.

It certainly makes it much more fun to get out and practice take off’s and landings!

Valdez Fly In: True Alaska aviation

11 Years and counting. That is the track-record the Valdez Fly In and Air Show established, and continues to uphold.  Something over 275 aircraft from all over Alaska–and from at least as far away as Idaho–converged on the Valdez airport and turned it into a “happening” with tents, campers, families, food booths and a lot of fun.  Most of the aircraft were tail wheel models. Many were supercubs, with big tires, heavy duty landing gear, and other mods to adapt them for back country conditions.  Approximately 2,000 participants watched them perform over the weekend.

Airplanes parked on the ramp at Valdez on Friday night, with more to arrive when the wind dies down.

Airplanes parked on the ramp at Valdez on Friday night, with more to arrive when the wind dies down.

Situated at the end of a fjord, and surrounded by mountains, Valdez is known as the “Switzerland of Alaska” and on the clear days experienced during this year’s fly-in, you can see why.  Weather can be tricky, and this year it was wind that delayed some aircraft from arriving on schedule, cancelled the poker run and caused the STOL competition to get off to a late start.  But that didn’t keep the participants from exhibiting a typical ‘git-er-done’ attitude—which they did!

Paul Claus describes an experience during the off-airport and float plane panel discussion. Other panel members were the Ellis brothers (on the left), Vern Kingsford and Richard Wien (right side).

Paul Claus describes an experience during the off-airport panel discussion. Other presenters were the Ellis brothers (on the left), Vern Kingsford and Richard Wien (right side).

This event has a nice combination of activities for pilots, while at the same time entertaining and educating the public about aspects of general aviation.  Pilots soaked up a presentation by Brady Lane from EAA about how to capture aviation video footage, illustrated with some great examples.  A second pilot session tackled the topics of off-airport operations, and float flying.  A distinguished panel of pilots shared their experiences on these topics: the Ellis Brothers from Nebesna, Paul Claus from Ultima Thule Lodge in the Wrangell mountains, Vern Kingsford who teaches the art of float flying in Moose Pass, and Richard Wien who grew up flying in a pioneering aviation family in Fairbanks.  These aviation veterans had numerous practical tips to offer, and good stories to tell—with a standing room only audience that was hungry for more.

Spectators watching the STOL competition.

Spectators watching the STOL competition.

STOL Competition
Valdez is probably most famous for the Short Take-Off and Landing contest.  Four classes of aircraft compete to see who can make the combined shortest take-off and landing, with distances for each combined to compute a final score.  The full results are available on the show website, but the “Alternate Bush” class winner was Frank Knapp from Palmer, who

Repositioning Frank Knapp's aircraft, that made the shortest take-off and landing of the event.

Repositioning Frank Knapp’s aircraft, that made the shortest take-off and landing of the event.

flew his home-made “Cub X” with a take-off distance of 41 feet, and a landing of only 35 feet.  You had to see it in action. More like a mosquito coming in for a landing!  Knapp, from Palmer, won last year, but over the winter lost his plane to a hangar fire, and had to build a second plane from scratch, in only a few months.  If you want more information on this homebuilt aircraft, check out Brady Lane’s video.  Knapp is also involved in plans for a first ever STOL flight demonstration at Oshkosh this year.

In the “Bush” class (read here, super cubs), young Bobby Breeden from Sterling took that event with a 61 ft take off and 55 foot landing.  Beating his father, Bob Breeden, by only three feet!  A Cessna 170-B took the “Light Touring” class piloted by Shawn Holly of Soldotna, with a take off and landing of 104 and 115 ft respectively.  Finally, the “Heavy Touring” class went to a Helio Courier piloted by Michael Dietz from Big Lake, 118 and 124 foot t/o and landing.  In the “stranger than fiction” department, Chickaloon legislator—Representative Eric Feige—competed in the “Light Touring” class. Take off distance was 172 feet. Landing was 172 feet.  What was he flying? A Cessna 172.  At the banquet, master of ceremonies Joe Prax reported these results with the added quip—“If he’d been flying a C-150, he could have won.”

Aviation History
This year the Saturday night banquet moved from the airport to the Civic Center down town, overlooking the water front.  In addition to STOL results and a sit-down dinner, the audience was transported back the earliest days of Alaskan aviation. Richard Wien, son of pioneer aviator Noel Wien, showed pictures of the early day aircraft and pilots who established many aviation firsts, starting in the early 1920’s.  Richard has a vast collection of photographs, most taken by his father, which recorded some of the early “lessons learned”—like carrying a spare prop for the unexpected forced landing or soft field.

The crowd watches action on the flight line. Families with young children flocked to the event.

The crowd watches action on the flight line. Families with young children flocked to the event.

Bombs Away
Sunday saw a return to the flight line, with Scot Sexton performing an aerobatic routine, balsa wood airplane competitions and the flour bombing contest.  Chuck Miller, flying a WWII vintage Stinson L-13, took first place, placing his flour bomb within 21 feet of the target.  Another impressive demonstration was watching Paul Claus land his turbine Otter land in a few hundred feet, back up under engine power, and then taxi away. While the airplane was not fully loaded, it was carrying a thousand pounds of fuel on board.  By the end of the weekend the crowd had been well supplied with competitions, presentations, demonstrations and food, and ready to declare it another outstanding show of Alaskan aviation.

A big THANK YOU to all the people, businesses and organizations who planned and executed this outstanding event!

Mat Su Valley CTAF Frequencies Change on May 29th

Heads up for pilots who fly in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. On May 29, 2014 a significant change takes place to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequencies (CTAFs) assigned north and west of Anchorage.  If you aren’t religious about buying new flight charts, or updating your GPS databases, plan to do so with this charting cycle, as approximately 78 airport CTAFs will change on that date.  In addition, 36 airports will have CTAFs assigned for the first time.  In total, FAA is sending letters to 178 airport owners notifying them of the CTAF assignment changes.  Goose Bay, Wolf Lake and Anderson Lake are just three of the airports whose CTAFs will change.  The new frequencies will be found on flight charts, in individual airport listings in the Alaska Supplement, along with a map in the Notices section that shows the “big picture” change taking place.

Background
In the summer of 2011, a number of mid-air collisions occurred in the Mat Su Valley, one with fatal results.  During the subsequent NTSB investigation, it appeared that both pilots involved in that accident had been using what they believed was the correct frequency for the location they were flying—but they were not communicating on the same frequency.  A working group with representation from industry and government was established that fall to look at the published guidance regarding CTAF usage.  Over the past two and a half years, the group methodically examined CTAF assignments, civil and military flight patterns, ATC infrastructure and the results of an AOPA pilot survey.  After agreeing that changes needed to be made, different scenarios for creating “area CTAFs” were evaluated and reviewed by seasoned pilots, commercial operators, flight instructors and pilots based at different area airports.  Like all good Alaska discussions, not everyone agreed with everything, but there was widespread support to reduce the complexity—and overlap—between CTAFs used at different airports and landing areas.  Last fall a set of recommendations was made to the FAA, elements of which will go into effect at the end of May.

New CTAF Areas defined
To eliminate the overlap from adjacent airport frequencies, the FAA is designating new “CTAF Areas” within which, all the airports will be on the same frequency. This concept is not new in Alaska, as the airspace over Denali National Park has had designated “mountain traffic advisory frequencies” for many years.  Cook Inlet and the Knik Glacier areas also have established CTAFs.  On May 29th, there will be four new CTAF area frequencies identified, to let pilots know what frequency to use, if they are not in contact with ATC or a Flight Service Station.  There are corresponding changes to the north boundary of the Cook Inlet CTAF area that become effective at this time.  A diagram showing these areas will be on page 399 of the Notices Section of the Alaska Supplement, however the information is also listed on the FAA’s website  www.faa.gov/go/flyalaska.

Depiction of the Mat Su CTAF Areas that go into effect May 29. Notice that the adjacent Cook Inlet CTAF Area to the sound also has a change in boundary

Depiction of the Mat Su CTAF Areas that go into effect May 29. Notice that the adjacent Cook Inlet CTAF Area, west of Anchorage, also has a change in boundary

How were boundaries selected?
The Mat Su Valley is a highly aviation oriented place. In addition to over 200 private and public airports in the FAA’s database, there are other landing areas (lakes, gravel bars and rivers) that are heavily used either seasonally or on a year-around basis.  The boundaries were designed, as much as possible, to avoid areas where traffic concentrated—along major rivers, at area airports, etc.  Consequently, the boundaries were offset from rivers and coast lines, recognizing that they are often used for navigation when weather is down.  Flight patterns in and out of area airports were also considered, and verified with ATC radar data. During the review process, numerous boundary revisions were made to minimize conflicts with existing flows of traffic along commonly used routes to popular locations.  Ultimately, the beauty of the airplane is that it can go anywhere—weather permitting—so no set of boundaries will meet everyone’s needs.  Hopefully assigning advisory frequencies to different areas will reduce some of the ambiguity experienced previously.

Hi Traffic areas are also depicted within the Mat Su CTAF Areas.  While some are popular airports, others are not shown on flight charts.

High Traffic areas are also depicted within the Mat Su CTAF Areas. While some are popular airports, others are not shown on flight charts.

High Traffic Locations
The working group also identified “high traffic” locations in the Mat Su Valley.  Many of these are airports that already appear on the charts, familiar to us all.  Others are popular lakes, rivers and gravel bars used during fishing season or to access recreational cabins.  These are also depicted on the CTAF Area diagram, along with their names, to let pilots know which CTAF frequency to use when operating to or near these locations.  We hope those locations not charted as airports will eventually become VFR waypoints that may be depicted on FAA flight charts.

Feedback Needed
Any significant change of this magnitude has the potential to solve some problems, and may cause others.  As a result, the working group set up a feedback mechanism to report problems or concerns.  A feedback form has been established on the Alaska Aviation Safety Foundation’s website so that pilots may report problems or ask questions, regarding this change of CTAF architecture.  www.aasfonline.org/feedback  Please let us know if you encounter problems that need to be addressed.  The working group will continue to address other areas, such as the Glenn Highway corridor between Anchorage and Palmer, to consider further refinements in the future.

What can I do?
This is a significant change, a long time in the making.  Please make sure to pick up the May 29th issues of flight charts, the Alaska Supplement, and update GPS databases.  Make it a point to check the CTAF of the place you are flying from and to-especially if you have gone there a hundred times before.  Talk about these changes with your friends and neighbors, to make sure they know about it.

This only works if we truly are all on the same frequency!

May 23rd Update:
Here are two additional documents to help “navigate” the changes to the Mat Su CTAFs.

Mat Su single-sided transition map This document is a single-sided map of the Mat Su CTAF Areas, which also has the high traffic areas combined.  The document size is 11 x 17 inches, in Adobe  PDF format, but may also be printed on 81/2 x 11 inch letter size paper.

 

MatSuValley Airports CTAF Listing  This document lists Mat Su Valley airports, seaplane bases and helipads, their identifiers and assigned CTAF frequency as of May 29, 2014.

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!