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!

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.