Mat Su Area Traffic Frequencies: Your input needed

A group of industry and government stakeholders is working to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions in the Mat Su Valley, but they need your help to reach that objective.  Over the past five months, the working group has taken the results of last summer’s AOPA pilot survey and inputs from pilots who fly in and through the area.  The goal is to clarify the use of radio frequencies used to maintain situational awareness when operating in this busy airspace.

Home to over two hundred private and public use airports, airstrips, lakes and landing areas, the Mat Su experiences a wide range of aviation uses.  The airspace in the valley sees everything from private pilots heading to cabins or hunting and fishing areas, to commercial operators hauling visitors, groceries and supplies to remote lodges and mines. It is also used for military training flights at low-level by helicopters and C-17s, and student flight training from Anchorage and valley airports. Add to the list, those of us that fly through the Mat Su headed to more distant destinations.  One of the tools we use to share the airspace is reporting our location and listening for nearby aircraft, but on what frequency?

Rex Gray's map showing overlapping CTAF frequencies.

Rex Gray’s map showing overlapping CTAF frequencies.

During the “inventory” phase of this project, it became apparent there was a lack of agreement even among seasoned professionals on what radio frequency to use for situational awareness in different parts of this airspace.  Rex Gray, a valley resident who also serves as the President of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, took the time to sit down with the Anchorage Sectional and the Alaska Supplement and map out overlaps in CTAF coverage in the valley.  According to the AIM, a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency serves an area 10 miles around its assigned airport.  This map, coupled with other area frequency guidance in different publications highlighted the problem. Pilots who consciously used the CTAF for the airport they were headed to were often sharing airspace with aircraft on other frequencies enroute to adjacent landing areas.  A priority was identified within the working group to reduce this confusion, and promote the use of defined area frequencies, as has been done on a case by case basis in other parts of the state.

Developing a plan that would address the diversity of users is a challenge.  Over the past two months, using Google Earth as a tool, the group developed a number of scenarios to identify areas that might share a common frequency.  Subsequently, these were reduced to two scenarios which are still in need of refinement before focusing on a final course of action.

Scenario which assigns frequencies to different zones in the Mat Su Valley.

Scenario which assigns frequencies to different zones in the Mat Su Valley.

Area Frequency Scenario: This option would assign the frequency 122.9 to the zone west of the Susitna River, to the flanks of the Alaska Range. It also cuts across the lower valley, to accommodate traffic that departs Anchorage headed northwest.  A second zone, running along the Parks Highway toward Talkeetna under this scenario would use 122.8.  The zones around Palmer and Talkeetna, with part time Flight Service Stations, would use the FSS Advisory Frequency, 123.6.  These proposed zones would connect to other areas, such as the Cook Inlet Area Frequency to the west and the Knik Glacier advisory frequency, both of which use 122.7.  Northwest of Talkeetna, a Mountain Traffic Frequency of 123.65 has been in use for years to accommodate the aircraft hauling climbers and flightseeing visitors between Talkeetna and the Alaska Range.

Scenario that provides a discrete frequency above 2,000 ft to reduce congestion on 122.8.

Scenario that provides a discrete frequency above 2,000 ft to reduce congestion on 122.8.

Vertical Area Frequency Scenario:  In the second case, the zones to the west and around Palmer and Talkeetna (described above), would remain the same. The frequency 122.8 would still serve the area along the Parks Highway, but aircraft operating between 2,000 and 5,000 feet MSL would have the option to use a discrete frequency, we’ll call it 122.XX, to reduce the frequency congestion from the traffic flying in airport traffic patterns and at lower altitudes in the zone.

What happens after I leave a zone?  Several people have raised the question of what happens once you leave one of these zones. At that point, pilots would resort to the standard rules involving CTAF’s.  Chapter Four in the AIM addresses this topic. Section 4-1-9 defines the protocol for traffic advisory practices for airports without facilities:  Within 10 miles of the airport or landing area, monitor and communicate on the designated CTAF.  Section 4-1-11 indicates that an airport with no tower, FSS or Unicom should use the multi-com frequency 122.9.  Table 4-1-2 indicates that for air-to-air communication, the FCC has authorized the use of 122.75, which helps keep the chatter down on the other frequencies in congested airspace. Checking the Alaska Supplement Notices Section is a good idea, as a number of areas around the state have had special area frequencies assigned.

These scenarios are still taking shape. AOPA would like to hear your thoughts on these approaches to reducing the confusion on radio frequency usage in the Mat Su Valley. Please email your comments to: airtrafficservices@aopa.org.  If you attend the Alaska Airmen’s Great Alaskan Aviation Gathering this weekend in Anchorage, stop by the AOPA booth and look at these scenarios in more detail.  While this work continues, fly with your lights on, keep your eyes out of the cockpit and fly safe!

Experimental Winds Aloft graphic for Alaska

As pilots, we are very interested in the weather.  An early lesson one gets while learning to fly is not to put total faith in weather forecasts.  I believe it was President Reagan who made famous the phrase– trust, but verify. That certainly applies to forecasts and flying.  For the last year-and-a-half AOPA has been working with our friends at the National Weather Service in Alaska to bringing together groups of seasoned pilots from different parts of Alaska to sit down with forecasters and have a discussion about aviation weather needs, primarily focused on VFR flying.  Questions asked in these sessions typically start with, “What route do you fly to get from Fairbanks to Eagle?” followed by, “Where along that route do you encounter adverse weather?”  A lively discussion regarding the nature of the weather conditions normally follows.

Don Moore manages the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit, located on Sand Lake Road, just south of the Anchorage International Airport, and has led these discussions.  After listening to pilots describe some of the conditions that plagued them, he pulled up an experimental forecast product the weather service is working on, and asked if we thought it might be helpful.  Following a look at the product, heads started to nod around the table.  A few weeks later, an experimental winds aloft forecast was added to the AAWU website, and is available for pilots to use.

sample winds aloft graphic 1

Sample output from the experimental product, showing winds at 6,000 feet for the 12 hour time period. Users can select the altitude, set through time periods, and toggle features on and off.

This product is based on a computer model, but has finer resolution in time and space than current products we are used to seeing.  The arrows indicate the direction of the wind at an altitude selected by the pilot, but the intensity is displayed as a color.  Temperature is also displayed as a contour line, with its own color scheme. The legend at the bottom provides the color codes for each feature.  Several details about this product are worth noting:

1)      The user selects the altitude at the top of the page
2)      The tabs across the top allow you to step through different forecast periods
3)      The + and – symbols on the top left corner of the image allow you to zoom in (only one step, currently)
4)      The + symbol on the upper right edge of the product lets you toggle features on and off (click to expand)
5)      The color patches represent the area forecast for each wind speed, the vectors merely show direction.

Please give this product a try.  You will find this graphic by clicking a link at the bottom of the Winds Aloft page on the AAWU’s website (see yellow arrows, below).

page to find experimental productThis product is still in development.  For now, the National Weather Service would really appreciate receiving pilot reports to help validate this product, as well as their other forecasts.  So when you are headed out to fly, please take a few minutes and file PIREPs enroute, including an estimate of the winds aloft.  Remember– trust, but verify!

A 50-year-old aviation survival story, with lessons for today…

From the “Looking Back” section of the Feb. 11, 2013 Fairbanks Daily News Miner.

The “Looking Back” section of yesterday’s Fairbanks Daily News Miner reported that on that day fifty years ago (February 11, 1963) an aircraft from Fairbanks was the object of an search along a Canadian stretch of the Alaska Highway.  The missing aircraft, a single engine Howard, was on its way to San Francisco. As a kid growing up in Fairbanks when this story first hit the papers, I followed with the rest of the country as the search, in severe winter conditions unfolded.  Initially searchers had no luck finding the downed aircraft.  Missing was 42 year old pilot Ralph Flores and his passenger, 21 year Helen Klaben, who had been sharing expenses for what was planned to be a three-day trip from Fairbanks down the Alaska Highway.

As the days passed, searchers found no trace of the missing pair. Winter temperatures in the areas plunged to 40 below and colder, and hopes begin to fade.  After two weeks, search efforts were called off, with the assumption that no one was able to survive in those conditions.

It definitely made headlines when 49 days after their disappearance the couple was found— ALIVE!  Not equipped with conventional survival gear, the little food they were carrying had been consumed in the first few days, leaving them to survive on melted snow and a tube of toothpaste for the better part of 40 days in the sub-Arctic wilderness.  Both had sustained injuries in the crash, so how did they survive?

Years later as a relatively new pilot, I attended a seminar organized by the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation on survival skills, taught by the late Ray Tremblay. He used the Flores/Klaben accident to illustrate several aspects of a survival situation. Having no conventional survival equipment (sleeping bags, axe, firearm, food, etc.), they managed to survive 49 days in the wilderness in sub-zero temperatures.  How did they accomplish this feat, which would today challenge seasoned professionals?  Tremblay studied the case in detail and came up with his own answers, in part from the account of the ordeal written by Helen Kalben in her book, “Hey, I’m Alive.” 

There were two aspects of this accident that Tremblay suggested held important lessons  to consider:

  1. Conventional wisdom is to stay with your airplane, in a survival situation in the wilderness.  Not only is the aircraft easier to see from the air than a human, but it may supply a wealth of materials to use if you are stuck for an extended period.  In this case, the victims could hear search aircraft, but couldn’t attract their attention due the wooded nature of the crash site.  About five weeks after the accident, they moved to a more open area, and made a signal which was spotted by a pilot making a routine flight a few days later.  His point was this: conventional wisdom is valuable, but you have to consider all the factors and come up with the best course of action for the situation you find yourself in. Had they moved sooner, rescue undoubtedly would have been earlier. Had they not moved, their survival would have been in doubt.
  2. As the ordeal progressed, Flores attempted to convert Klaben to his religion.  Both were reasonably strong willed.  The discussions and mental conflict between the two kept them occupied, and provided a continued reason not to give up.  Tremblay impressed upon us not to overlook the role mental attitude plays (not necessarily always conflict) in a survival situation.

In addition to carrying standard items like food, first aid kit, signaling devices, and a sleeping bag in my survival gear, I include reading material to occupy the mind, in the event of a forced landing.  Even in non-emergency situations, I have found it valuable to read a chapter of a book while waiting for conditions to improve, to help reduce the temptation to “push the weather.”  And if push comes to shove, I can always use the pages to light a fire…

Helen Kaben did us a favor in writing her book, published within a year of the accident, that provides a detailed first-person account of the ordeal.  There are many factors that went into the success of this situation, leading to their survival. I recommend it for those interested in survival stories.

I will be watching the “Looking Back” section of the Fairbanks paper during the weeks ahead to see if other accounts of this story surface, and how it was reported, a half century ago.

Spotlight on GA in Alaska on Monday, Sept 17: Show your support!

AOPA President Craig Fuller, along with Pete Bunce (GAMA), Tom Hendricks (NATA) and Ed Bolen, (NBAA) are all heading to Alaska to recognize the role general aviation plays in Alaska.  On Monday, September 17, they will join Alaska Senator Mark Begich and Alaska DOT Commissioner Marc Luiken in a brief celebration paying tribute to the role GA plays in the state.  This is part of a national campaign to recognize the value we provide to the country both in terms of the service provided and economic benefits.

In Alaska, where 82% of the communities are not connected by road, GA takes on a vital role. Individuals use airplanes like pickup trucks to get places and move things around. Search and rescue, game surveys, access for camping, backpacking, hunting and fishing often involve ga aircraft.  Contractors that build  things and technicians that maintain our telecommunication infrastructure fly to get to the job site.  Helping the public understand the role aviation plays is important to achieve the long term support we need to improve our airports, keep aviation infrastructure healthy, and improve aviation safety.

Come over to Signature Flight Support, in the South Airpark at Anchorage International Airport at 9:30 a.m. Monday morning to participate in this event.  And if you would like to have a chance to visit with Craig Fuller, come by at 8:30 a.m. and enjoy a hot continental breakfast from Diannes Restaurant.  Details may be found on the GAMA Invitation.

I hope to see you there!

General aviation aircraft like the venerable Grumman Goose are part of the fleet that transported people, food, and gear to parts of Alaska without airports. My first trip in one was as a 19 year old emergency fire fighter, from Minchumina to Wien Lake, where we waded ashore to fight a forest fire.

Web Survey on Alaska “practice runways”

AOPA has launched a web-survey to solicit input from pilots who used any of the “practice runways” that were marked in Alaska this summer. For details see AOPA’s story. For more background on this project see earlier blog post.

If you used one of the runways, please take the survey!

A vertical view of Ski Strip 2 at Fairbanks International Airport. The 2×4 ft rectangles define a 25 foot wide “practice” runway. Marks along the runway are spaced 100 ft apart to give a measure of landing/take off distance.

Visiting our Canadian friends: the Atlin Fly-In

This article is re-printed from the Alaska Airmen’s Association Transponder.

Looking down the flight line at the Atlin Fly-In

The last day of June saw the birth of a new northern aviation activity that I hope to see continued for many years: the Atlin Fly-In.  Organized by a gung-ho group in Whitehorse, this three-day event was a fun-packed combination of aviation and local activities at the historic community of Atlin, British Columbia, on the eastern shore of the 65 mile-long Atlin Lake. About half way between Whitehorse and Juneau, but on the dry side of the coastal mountains, this is a scenic location for a flying, camping and all-around fun place to be.  Fifty aircraft from all directions made the trip to Atlin, with close to 100 people enjoying the weather, scenery, food, events and chance to interact with other aviation minded folks.

Getting there is half the fun

After filing our eAPIS report, and calling Canadian Customs, my wife and I departed Fairbanks on Friday, June 29, in our Cessna 185. We were flying with Canadian friends and colleagues Bram Tilroe from Edmonton and Bob Kirby from Calgary, in a Piper Dakota (you will read more about the purpose of their trip in future reports).  Skirting rain showers, we headed down the Alaska Highway. Our first stop was at Beaver Creek, just east of the border, where we painlessly cleared customs before continuing down the highway toward Whitehorse.  Conditions were not so nice along Kluane Lake and around Haines Junction, but picked up the closer we got to Whitehorse.  After refueling both ourselves and the airplanes, we continued down the valley to Atlin. We felt right at home landing on their gravel runway, taxied past an impressive array of aircraft, and parked along the old runway which would be home for the next three days.  The GPS track later showed we had covered 644 nautical miles.  The Fly-In was also billed as a camp-in, as there are not many commercial establishments in Atlin, a community of about 300 residents. After pitching our tent, we took in the variety of aircraft, ranging from big tired Cubs and Cessnas to a number of low-wing Piper products, even a Mooney. For accent, a beautiful Staggerwing Beech and a resident Skyvan, a handful of float planes tied down at the lake, and at a couple helicopters added flavor to the mix. This is a serious flying community!

Taking in the aircraft at Atlin

This was organized!

The event was organized by members of the Canadian Pilots and Owners Association (COPA) based in Whitehorse.  COPA encourages the establishment of local units called Flights, and the Yukon Flight 106 http://www.copayukon.com/) happens to be the Whitehorse group.  An energetic and very organized member, Jean Michel Sauve, and a small committee from Flight 106 did the legwork that made this event a pleasure for the participants.  But maybe that is just the Canadian way, eh?

If you didn’t wish to cook, arrangements had been made for locally prepared meals, which provided an instant social occasion, and the opportunity to meet other participants.  The food was provided, for a donation, by local establishments, who set up and cooked in hangars at the airport.  Picnic tables owned by the COPA Yukon Flight, had been trucked down from Whitehorse, making a dining facility.

On Saturday, the tables served as a class room for a talk on mountain flying by veteran Whitehorse pilot Rick Nielsen, and local Atlin pilot Jamie Tait.  This orientation to the local area was the lead-in to a fly-out to the Llewellyn Glacier, Juneau Icefield and Taku River, with a landing at a remote strip.

An evening program included a talk by glassier pilot Andy Williams, who flew a Helio Courier for the Kluane Lake Research station, supporting projects deep in the St. Elias Mountains. Tim Cole, the COPA Regional Director for the Yukon and BC, gave an extensive update on COPA activities.

But it wasn’t just about airplanes.

The Taranhe, which plied the waters of Atlin Lake starting in 1907, and site of the annual high-tea.

Similar to Dawson, Fairbanks, Eagle and other northern communities, Atlin is a gold rush town.  An offshoot of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, mining still plays a significant role in the area.  Like many surviving gold rush era towns, there is an interest in history.  The Tarahne is an old lake boat that used to haul people and supplies along the lake, but today is drydocked, and in the process of being restored.  Once a year, in true British tradition, a high tea is held on the boat. A fund-raiser for the restoration process, locals and visitors alike don their 1890’s attire and come aboard.  For women that didn’t happen to bring a suitable hat, they were available to use for the occasion, for a small donation. We went, and met some fascinating local residents—and had a great time!

Sunday was Canada Day. A pancake breakfast (with REAL Canadian maple syrup) was served downtown, which also provided a ring-side seat for the Atlin Canada Day Parade.  Leading the procession were a sharp looking group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in full dress uniform.  The Mountie in the second row looked familiar—oh wait, that is our fly-in organizer, Jean Michel, in the uniform of his day job!

The Canada Day Parade in downtown Atlin

Sunday afternoon following the parade it was back to the airport for another aviation activity.  COPA has a program similar to the EAA Young Eagles program called COPA for Kids, where they provide free flights to youth, to introduce them to general aviation.  COPA Kids was a hit in Atlin, with flights provided for 30 youngsters.  While that may not sound like a huge number, remember, this is a community of a little more than 300 people. On a per capita basis, that beats the pants off of any other event I am familiar with.  The local Lions Club provided lunch, both for the kids and the fly-in participants, another example of community involvement.

To wrap up the Fly-In, a banquet was held in a hangar at the airport. In addition to great food and a three piece band to provide live music, a raffle for a host of goods and services was conducted.  The raffle along with a live auction for a travel package of hotel, RV, car rental, and air travel raised something over $5,000. The raffle and auction provided the income to cover the costs of the fly-in leaving a healthy surplus, which was donated to a local Atlin youth group.

Returning to Alaska

While the weather held nicely at Atlin, Monday morning saw rain and five mile visibility in Whitehorse, as we motored back north.  Neither weather reports nor forecasts looked good further along the Alaska Highway route, so we were treated to two ‘bonus days’ in Whitehorse, which also proved delightful.  If you have time spend in Whitehorse, right next to the airport is a transportation museum with a nice collection of historic aviation photos and information.  Next door is the Beringia Interpretive Centre, also worth a visit. Clouds finally lifted, and we were able to fly back to Alaska on July 4th.  We cleared customs in Northway, which was another lesson in logistics.  While we had no difficulty filing an eAPIS report, the Alcan Border Station is short staffed at the moment, and they ask pilots to clear only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (two hours less than the normal published times). This makes an already short window for entering Alaska even smaller. If you combine weather conditions with customs hours of operations, it makes getting into Alaska more challenging, now that Eagle has no customs officer to allow clearing there.  Folks with longer range (and good weather) can fly on into Fairbanks, or Anchorage, but that doesn’t help a lot of the general aviation community.  This is an issue we need to address if we want to see more cross-border GA activities.

Community Involvement

In reflecting on the Atlin Fly-In, there were several aspects of the event that are noteworthy. First, pilots came from all points on the compass.  Of the fifty, ten were from the US.  Alaska pilots from Juneau, Sitka, Healy and Fairbanks were joined by a Cessna 172 from Idaho and an Austrian couple that keep a C-182 in the states, who were flying on to Alaska.  As we got talking with the Canadian participants, in addition to the locals from Whitehorse, we discovered groups of airplanes from Fort St. John, and as far south as Vancouver.  Not everyone who started out made it. A Cessna 140 had departed from Quebec, but encountered strong headwinds, and turned back when they realized that at their current rate of progress, the event would be over before they arrived.  These Canadians are a flying bunch of people!

The mountain flying seminar and fly-out over to the Juneau ice field was not only fun for those that participated, but provided an introduction to that type of flying for those not used to this terrain and local weather. While not billed as a safety program, this was an aviation educational element designed into the event.

This fly-in was also well integrated into the Atlin community.  By engaging the services of the businesses in Atlin to cater meals, and plug into the local events, the citizens of Atlin were aware that the infusion of visitors (and dollars) into their community that weekend was tied to the Atlin airport.  Hopefully, that will help when it comes time to support the airport in the future.  Having the proceeds for the fundraiser not only pay off the event expenses, but creating a significant contribution to the local youth centre, also provides another connection for general aviation to the community.

Finally, I would like to recognize the hours and effort that the Whitehorse group invested in making the arrangements, soliciting donations for raffle items and door prizes, and hauling all those picnic tables back and forth from Whitehorse! A big thank you to Jean Michel and the COPA Yukon Flight 106 for starting what I hope will become an annual tradition. You can see more details about the Atlin Fly-In, and the sponsors that supported it at http://www.copayukon.com/flyin_Atlin.html.  To have 20% of the aircraft at the Fly-In possessing N numbers was an impressive showing. The challenge I throw out to Alaskan pilots, and our neighbors in the “lower 48” states, is to improve upon that percentage next year. You won’t regret it!

Extras:

Additional  Atlin pictures from the Fly-in

Podcast covering the Atlin Fly-in by My Yukon Life podcast host Jennifer Hawkins

Alaska Creates Practice Runways to Sharpen Pilot Skills

Knowing that you can get down in stopped in 600 feet is a good skill if you plan to land on some of Alaska’s backcountry airstrips.  And now you can practice in the comfort of a conventional runway, before taking on all the challenges of off-field conditions.  To improve aviation safety and reduce off field landing accidents, the FAA has entered into an experimental program in partnership with airport owners, and aviation user groups to create a number of practice “bush” runways within the confines of a conventional gravel runway.

 

Volunteers paint a 2′ by 4′ rectangle on the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

The “practice” runway is created by painting a series of two by four foot rectangles to mark a “bush” airstrip that is 25 feet wide, and either 600 or 800 feet long.  Marks are spray-painted on the gravel surface at 100 foot intervals, providing an easy reference to judge your landing, or take-off distance.  Volunteer groups at six Alaskan airports are stepping up to the plate this summer to create these training aides.  And while not simulating all the conditions of a true off field situation, developing the precision to get down and stopped on a short, narrow surface is certainly a skill one wants to have mastered before taking on the other variables involved in off-field operations.

 

Kudos to the participants in this project, which include the FAA, Ninety Nines, Alaska Airmen’s Association, Alaska Airports Association, Alaska DOT&PF, Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation, AOPA and the individual airports. In all cases, volunteers stepped up to the plate to provide the labor and equipment to do the painting.

A 25′ wide by 800′ long “practice” bush strip on the East Ramp at Fairbanks International Airport

The six airports approved for this year’s test are: Fairbanks International (PAFA), Goose Bay (Z40), Nenana (PANN), Palmer (PAAQ), Soldotna (PASX) and Wasilla (PAWS).  Once a runway has been marked, a NOTAM will indicate the non-standard markings.  Check out one of these runways near you, and take advantage of the opportunity to test your landing and take-off skills. The benefit of using these facilities is that if you don’t make it the first time, only your ego is bruised — which is a lot less costly than bending your airplane far from home!