Presidential TFRs come to Alaska!

Revised TFRs: FAA revised the VIP TFR for ANC to include a seaplane gateway at Wasilla Lake. Graphics of Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue added. Times updated.

The newspapers have for weeks reported that President Obama is coming to Alaska for a three-day visit, August 31 through September 2nd. Along with the President comes a VIP Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) that will make it challenging for general aviation operations in Anchorage and other Alaskan communities. AOPA, along with the Alaska Airmens Association, Alaska Air Carriers Association and other airport and aviation groups met with the Secret Service and TSA a few days ago to understand the nature of these restrictions, and to see what we could do to help mitigate the impacts.

Before going into details, I want to stress that it is critical to check NOTAMs before you fly. I know we always do, but during this period DOUBLE check the NOTAMS, as the Secret Service warned us that the NOTAMs posted today may be modified as conditions change.

VIP TFR ANC revised

FAA revised the ANC TFR on Aug 28 to incorporate a gateway airport at Wasilla Lake for seaplanes, and again on Aug 29 & 30 with changed hours.

TFR Structure
The basic structure of this VIP TFR consists of two parts: an inner and outer ring.
Inner Core: Inside a ten nautical mile radius, known as the inner core, flight operations will be prohibited except for approved law enforcement, military and regular scheduled commercial flights—operating to and from Part 139 airports. Flights not included in the approved category must undergo security screening, arranged for no less than 24 hours prior to scheduled departure. Airports that will support screening inside the inner core are Anchorage (PANC), Merrill (PAMR) and Lake Hood (PALH). For aircraft needing to fly into these airports, Palmer (PAAQ) has been designated as a gateway airport where inbound aircraft may land and be screened before proceeding into the designated airports. Read the NOTAM carefully for more details on what is required. But before focusing only on those details, look at the hours the TFR will be in effect. Adjusting your schedule to avoid the times the TFR is in effect may be the easiest thing to do.

Outer Ring: A second concentric ring of airspace extends from 10 out to 30 nautical miles, designated as the outer ring. Aircraft operating in this segment are limited to those arriving to or departing from local airfields, but only on active IFR or VFR flight plans, with assigned transponder codes, and maintaining communication with ATC. This clearly excludes the non-transponder equipped aircraft that live on many airfields in the area. There is a long list of operations not allowed while the TFR is active, including flight training, aerobatic flight, glider operations, ultralight operations, etc. Again, check the NOTAM for details. One piece of good news. This list of prohibited activities that appears in the TFR in other locations around the country (and initially for Alaska) included seaplane operations. This was brought up the Secret Service by the Alaskan aviation stakeholders, who recognized that “Alaska is different” and was willing to make accommodations to allow seaplane operations.

Timing is everything
While these restrictions are very limiting to general aviation, perhaps the best tool to deal with them is timing. The Secret Service has provided blocks of time each day of the visit that the TFR will not be in effect, and GA operations may come and go unrestricted. Studying the active times, and planning ahead may allow you to avoid these restrictions completely.   The Secret Service has also committed to releasing the airspace early if at all possible, to reduce the impacts on our operations.

Other communities impacted too
While the focus of this piece is on the TFR over Anchorage, the President is planning to visit other Alaska communities for shorter periods of time. Those mentioned in the initial planning meeting were Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue. We were advised to expect TFRs in those areas, nominally for about a four hour window. These will not involve gateway airports or special access procedures, so look for NOTAMs covering these areas during this three day window (see graphics below).

I appreciate that the Secret Service and TSA invited the Alaska aviation groups to participate in their planning, and were responsive to our concerns. Please check—and double check NOTAMs, check out AOPA’s TFR information resources http://www.aopa.org/Flight-Planning/Tfrs and help spread the word to your fellow aviators.

Additional Information: The FAA released additional diagrams to help explain the TFR’s associated with the President’s visit, the timing and nature of flight activities. Remember that these are for general planning purposes. Be sure to check NOTAMs in case plans change!

150831-150903 PANC REISSUE-4TFR alert handout thumbnailClick on the following link to download the above handout. 150826 TFR Alert Handout – AK

150902 Dillingham VIP ZAN 5-1668150902 Kotzebue VIP ZAN 5-1666150901 REISSUE 5-1587 Seward ZAN VIP

Does a Transponder help when flying in the JPARC?

Recently a member who flies in the vast MOA complex in Interior Alaska posed the question: “Would installing a transponder in my Super Cub make me more visible to military aircraft?” This prompted both some thought, and a few phone calls to colleagues. Like most things in aviation there are complexities and multiple situations to consider. Here is an attempt to break down the issue into several parts, specifically relative to the Interior Alaska section of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC). This contiguous set of MOAs and Restricted Areas starts near Fairbanks and extends east to just shy of the Canadian border, north to Fort Yukon and southward across the Alaska Range into the southcentral region, almost to Lake Louise.

Outlined on this map is the Interior Alaska segment of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC). There are other smaller MOAs and Restricted Areas in other parts of the state that are also element of the JPARC.

Outlined on this map is the Interior Alaska segment of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC). There are smaller MOAs and Restricted Areas in other parts of the state that are also element of the JPARC. (Map courtesy of SkyVector.com)

Ground Based Radar: A transponder makes your aircraft more visible to ground based radars if you are in range and line of sight of the station. In addition to the FAA Air Traffic Control Radars at Murphy Dome (northwest of Fairbanks) and at Fort Yukon, the military has two radars— one just east of Eielson AFB, and the other on Donnelly Dome, south of Delta Junction. Military range and safety personnel monitor the radars which are compatible with our civilian transponders, while the Special Use Airspace is active. For the lower and mid-altitudes in which many GA aircraft operate, coverage should be good east and south of Fairbanks, around Delta Junction, on the north side of Isabel Pass and in the vicinity of Fort Yukon. As you fly farther east, in the vicinity of Tok, the Taylor Highway and upper Yukon Valley, you are probably not in ATC or military radar coverage. Also, if you operate south of the Alaska Range over the Denali and Richardson Highway areas, you will probably not be visible by either a military or civil ground based radar. Fortunately for us, that is not the only way military training aircraft may detect our presence.

TCAS Equipped Aircraft: A segment of the military fleet is equipped with a traffic collision avoidance system known as TCAS. Aircraft with this on-board system may detect an active transponder and be issued a warning if a potential collision threat exists. C-17’s and C-130’s are among the military aircraft that use this system. It works based on direct interaction between the two aircraft, without requiring ground based radar, or being in contact with a controller on the ground. It is important to note that the fighter aircraft typically involved in these training exercises don’t have TCAS.

Airborne Radar in Fighter: While not equipped with TCAS, many of the fighter aircraft do have other onboard radar systems to detect “threat” aircraft—and a transponder increases their ability to detect a civil aircraft.

Flying Surveillance Platforms: Another class of aircraft that sometimes operates in the airspace are the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, or AWACS. The original AWACS were Boeing 707s with what looked like a flying saucer mounted on their backs. Today additional models of aircraft are designed to provide airborne early warning and control. These are literally flying radar stations, with multiple means to track targets at considerable range. AWACS are routinely deployed during the major flying exercises, and are used during routine training in some sections of the JPARC. A transponder-equipped civil aircraft should be readily detected when AWACS are orbiting at altitude, and that information is passed on to other participating military aircraft if a safety issue arises.

Activity Periods
Just as the weather can be benign, challenging or downright dangerous, the risk associated with Special Use Airspace also varies greatly. When planning to operate in the JPARC MOA complex, keep in mind the following categories and associated risk of encountering a military training aircraft.

Closed: About 100 days a year the ranges (both MOAs and Restricted Areas) are shut down. Typically, during weekends and holidays these airspaces are wide open to us.

Routine Training: Another ~240 days a year, the airspaces may be active, but at relative low levels of activity.

Major Flying Exercises: There are only about 40 days a year (could be up to 60 days max) when the major exercises like Red Flag and Northern Edge are conducted. These exercises routinely use AWACS, which are able to track transponder equipped aircraft within line of sight even at low altitude over the majority of the MOA complex. These exercises also represent the highest level of risk of encountering military aircraft operating in the ranges.

Don’t forget, whether you call them by phone before departure, or on the radio (125.3 MHz) after takeoff, the Special Use Airspace Information Service (SUAIS) operated by Eielson Range Control can tell you what level of activity to expect for the time and place you plan to fly.

Equipping with a Transponder: If you are not already transponder equipped, do careful research before investing. The mandate for equipping with ADS-B Out by 2020 is influencing transponder designs, as ADS-B communicates with the transponder. (At a future time we will explore the role ADS-B plays in the MOAs.)

While neither a transponder nor ADS-B Out will be required to fly in the JPARC, the transponder will certainly make you more visible to military aircraft in the MOAs.   How much so depends on where, how high and when you fly!

North Slope exercise planned for July 12-17, 2015

If you fly in the vicinity of Deadhorse and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields or in waters to the north, heads-up for an upcoming Search and Rescue exercise, scheduled for July 12-17. Unmanned aircraft will be operated within the Restricted Area R-2204 at Oliktok Point, and in the newly created Warning Area, W-220 which is located offshore to the north. This is part of a joint exercise involving the Coast Guard, Sandia and industry participants.

Restricted Area R-2204 is located at Oliktok Point, approximately 35 n miles nortwest of the Deadhorse Airport.

Restricted Area R-2204 is located at Oliktok Point, approximately 35 n miles northwest of the Deadhorse Airport. (Skyvector.com map segment)

While civil flight operations are precluded from the Restricted Area, the Warning Area does not restrict VFR operations. Sandia National Laboratories, the agency that manages the restricted and warning areas for the Department of Energy, has put out a notice about the exercise, including points of contact so that you may coordinate directly with them.

New Warning Area
W-220 is a new airspace feature, designed to support climate research, and allow the occasional use of exotic equipment such as tethered balloons, sounding rockets, or other equipment to understand arctic clouds and their influence on sea ice. Since charting won’t occur until the 2016 publication date of the Barrow Sectional, a notice has been issued with the details. The diagram below shows the southern part of the area.

Warning Area chart

The southern segment of Warning Area 220, a new airspace feature on the North Slope.

AOPA participated in the Safety Risk Management Panel that evaluated the impact of the warning area. While at first glance this may appear to be a remote area away from civil aviation activities, a surprising amount of flight operations take place over these waters in support of marine mammal surveys, resource exploration, aerial data collection as well as the occasional recreational trip to the north pole. Renewed interest in the Arctic may see further increases in these areas in years to come.

We are pleased that Sandia is providing advance notice of the upcoming activities, and providing phone and email contacts for the aviation community to coordinate with them, in case they need to share this airspace.

The July exercise only plans to use W-220A LOW. As always, check NOTAMs for specific information before you fly.

 

 

Learning about Flying in Alaska

No matter how many certificates or ratings a pilot has in their pocket, when planning to fly in a part of the world you’re not familiar with, it has always been good advice to talk with a local pilot to get the “lay of the land.” But who do you ask?

A number of years ago members of the Interior Alaska Flight Instructors Association, based in Fairbanks, partnered with the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Fairbanks FAA Flight Standards District Office to create a program for pilots who flew themselves to the state. During the summer months of June to August, pilots camped in the Air Park (a camp ground for airplanes) at Fairbanks International Airport may take advantage of this program. Three nights a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 6 p.m. a member of the CFI group drops by to chat with visitors in the Air Park, and answer questions about flying in Alaska. They are armed with a full case of charts, pamphlets, special maps and information specific to Alaska aviation.

An aerial view of the Air Park during an aviation event.

An aerial view of the Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport during an aviation event.

Why Fairbanks?
Fairbanks is a popular destination for pilots who fly up the Alaska Highway, along the historic Northwest Staging Route from Montana that was established during World War II for the Lend Lease program. Being centrally located in the state, Fairbanks makes a good jump-off location for visitors wishing to explore the state, whether planning to venture north into the Brooks Range and more arctic environs, west to the gold-rich beaches of Nome, or south to Mt. McKinley and southcentral Alaska. Many of the visitors that arrive in Fairbanks are looking for ideas on places to go, things to see and what to watch out for.

What is different about Alaska?
Yes, the laws of physics are the same when it comes to lift and drag—but Alaskan infrastructure is perhaps different, depending on what you may be familiar with at home. Most communities in Alaska have airports, however very few have gas, maintenance facilities or even a phone to call Flight Service for a weather briefing. In fact, 82% of Alaskan communities are not connected to the state’s road system. While they represent the primary access to those communities, many consist of a 3,000 foot plus gravel runway, a small pad for aircraft parking and a road to town. No FBO, no fuel, no airport loaner car, no phone. You are on your own, which is fine so long as you planned for those conditions.

Another difference is the density of our aviation facilities. Weather reporting stations, NEXRAD weather radar, RCO’s, and nav aids are all in very short supply in contrast to the rest of the country.  Let’s dig into weather just a bit. According to the FAA’s listing, there are 133 AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska. We would need 183 more stations to have the same average density that is enjoyed by the “lower 48 states.” This not only limits the most basic information pilots use for planning and conducting flights, it also impacts the weather models that are used by the National Weather Service to create aviation forecasts. While our products (METARs, TAFs, Area Forecasts, winds aloft forecasts) LOOK the same as what you may be used to, they are much less ‘informationally rich’ in nature. [More info on this is available at “Alaska is a weather-poor state.”] The upshot: the weather you see out the window is what you need to deal with.

Alaska specific infrastructure
The FAA recognizes some of these differences, and has made accommodations to address certain issues. Alaska has a network of web cameras that, during daylight hours, provide an additional source of information on weather conditions. At over 220 locations across the state, you may actually look at the weather to get a better idea of conditions along a given route of flight.

Weather is just one topic. Alaska also has an incredibly large Special Use Airspace complex, with special services to make it easier to navigate; FAA still operates a network of Flight Service Stations to help pilots obtain information; and the National Weather Service has a dedicated web site for aviation weather. These services are all summarized in a document developed by the flight instructors group which is now available on AOPA’s Flight Planning website www.aopa.org/Flight-Planning/Alaska on the Alaska Info tab, in Guide to Aviation Visitors to Alaska. A second document in that section lists a number of websites with Alaskan aviation references, including the aviation weather cams, Flight Service Station map, NWS aviation weather site and a lot more.

But if you would like to learn about Alaska flying in the old fashioned way— stop by the Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday summer evening around 6 p.m. and talk with a local flight instructor, to get the low-down on flying in Alaska.

Post Script:  The Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport has 15 camp spaces, along with two covered pavilions complete with a BBQ pit, and a restroom with shower facility. That’s right—during summer months it has running water! A few bicycles are available (first come, first serve) if you want to make a quick ride to town or down the ramp to one of the airport businesses or the Flight Service Station.

Talking GA in the Beehive State

Since joining AOPA as our Northwest Mountain Regional manager three years ago, I’ve had many opportunities to visit all seven of the beautiful states I cover.  But by virtue of few aviation issues to address, Utah has not been as frequent a destination for me as my other six states.  I was able to rectify that last week, however, as I at last had an opportunity to spend several days in the Salt Lake Valley, participating in a variety of productive aviation functions and meetings.

My first stop after arriving at KSLC was to visit with Pat Morley, a great friend of GA (and an AOPA member) who is the Director of the Utah Division of AeronauticsB4bHjJaCUAARVysI’ve known Pat for nearly 13 years, since my time as the airport manager in St. George, Utah.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a harder working, more dedicated aviation professional.  With minimal resources, Pat and his small staff do a fantastic job supporting the maintenance and improvement of Utah’s 47 public use airports.  Utah is a great example of effective application of GA revenues- 100% of GA fuel taxes and aircraft registration fees collected are allocated to the Aeronautics Division, where they are invested back into the state’s airport and aviation system.  The Aeronautics Division also operates the state’s general aviation aircraft, efficiently transporting state employees between the state’s far-flung communities that are often difficult to reached easily by road.  It was great seeing Pat again, and finally seeing his operation first hand.

The primary reason for my trip to SLC, however, was to represent AOPA and GA at the annual Runway Safety Summit, presented by the American Association of IMG_1063Airport Executives (AAAE) and the Salt Lake City Department of Airports.  This valuable two day event focused on how GA, airlines, airports, air traffic control, FAA and others are collaborating to improve runway safety, minimize runway incursions, and keep airports and their users safe.  I participated on a panel that addressed “Preventing GA Runway Incursions”, where I discussed GA cockpit technology evolution, as well as products and devices like Foreflight and IPads available to pilots to improve situational awareness and help minimize incursions.  I also briefed attendees on the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s excellent training resources for GA pilots on runway safety, which were developed in partnership with FAA.  If you haven’t seen them, have a look.  And don’t forget to have a look outside that cockpit and avoid those incursions!

What I was most excited about on this trip, however, was my evening visit on Tuesday December 9th to the South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan, south of SLC.  Just a few short years ago, this GA reliever airport to KSLC was struggling, with little activity and lackluster aviation services.  All that changed three years ago when local pilots Don and Scott Weaver opened Leading Edge Aviation. In that short time, with the strong support of the Salt Lake City Department of Airports, the Weavers have B4eArgNCQAAVeC_developed and fostered a thriving GA community, and the airport is vibrant and re-energized.  Each month, the Weaver’s host a monthly dinner and meeting for GA users on the airport, and I was fortunate to participate in December’s dinner while I was there.  We all enjoyed a fantastic meal prepared by the Weaver’s, and I updated the group on AOPA’s latest advocacy efforts, and our initiatives to grow GA.  This airport is a perfect example of the camaraderie, fun and engaging social community aspect of GA that AOPA President Mark Baker talks so much about.  If you want to see how successful a GA airport can be, drop in to U42 some time.

I finished up my trip with a visit to the Ogden-Hinckley Airport (KOGD), a very busy GA reliever about 30 miles north of SLC.  I met with our Airport Support Network Volunteer Bob Foxley to discuss a variety of airport topics that AOPA is engaged with, including challenges faced by GA tenants and users as a result of Allegiant Airlines’ two weekly flights, and TSA regulations and their impact on the rest of the airport.  We also B4h-9TcCAAAevPBdiscussed the airport’s rules and regulations and how AOPA can help airports like KOGD implement rules and regulations that are reasonable, fair and not overly burdensome.  And while at KOGD, I was treated to a rare sight of not one, but two airworthy Grumman Albatrosses.  Thanks to the gracious staff at CB Aviation I was able to check out the interior, and even get a chance to sit up front!

And with a few hours to kill before my flight home, and being the true avgeek that I’ve always been, I finally was able to visit the Hill Air Force Base Aerospace Museum, a B4mJem0CYAA3Plafantastic and comprehensive collection of military aircraft, including the world’s only C-model SR-71.  If you ever have free time in Salt Lake City, this is definitely a place not to miss.

Although I was in Utah for just three days, my time there was incredibly worthwhile, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with a variety of GA professionals and enthusiasts about AOPA and our advocacy, as well as our shared love of flying and all things aviation.  To keep tabs on all that AOPA is working on in Utah and at state and local levels across the country, be sure to check out our regional advocacy pages.  I look forward to seeing you in your state in 2015!

 

 

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.

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!

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.

Alaska Flight Service adds InReach to satellite tracking program

A little over a year ago Flight Service offered a new service to Alaskan pilots, allowing them to incorporate satellite tracking devices into their VFR flight plans.  Named eSRS for Enhanced Special Reporting Service, pilots sign up for (or update) a Master Flight Plan to identify the satellite tracking device they use, and obtain contact information so that a distress signal will be received by FSS—along with your GPS location. (For a more complete description of the service see http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=396)

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

While this was initially restricted to SPOT and Spidertracks devices, starting on March 10, 2014, FAA has added Delorme InReach to the list of supported devices.  The InReach has some features worth noting.  Its purchase price, in the $300 range, is attractive.  Like the other devices in this class, the user has to subscribe to a messaging or tracking service—which ranges between $10 – $25 per month.  Flight Service has already been paid for— so no added cost there.  And they operate 24/7, with someone always on duty to receive a distress call.  FSS already knows your aircraft type, number of people on board and other detail from your flight plan, and is poised to expedite getting help on the way during an emergency. Add to that the GPS coordinates with your location. This service could take hours off the time required to summon help, when you need it the most!

The InReach has some attractive features in addition to price.  It uses the Iridium satellite constellation, which provides excellent coverage in Alaska.  The unit also supports two-way texting, so in addition sending a HELP message, you may be able to communicate with rescuers to let them know exactly what assistance is needed. It is portable and can go with you outside the airplane.  The only down side, from an aviation perspective, is that it lacks the automatic tracking feature used in the Spidertracks system, which automatically sends a distress in an emergency—even if the unit is destroyed in the crash. That is a powerful feature that trumps a 406 MHz ELT, from my perspective.

AOPA and the Alaska Airmen have worked closely with the FAA in support of this service.  In a little over a year’s time 55 pilots have signed up and, almost 1,000 flights have been conducted under the program.  Hopefully more people will consider participating with the addition of the InReach unit to the program.  For more details on eSRS and information on how to sign up, see: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/systemops/fs/alaskan/alaska/esrs-ak/

Cessna owners: Check your Atlee Dodge Seats!

Recently an Airworthiness Concern from the FAA found its way to my email, regarding F. Atlee Dodge folding seats.  Designed by Atlee Dodge to replace the rear seats in Cessna 170 and 180 series aircraft, these seats are very popular in Alaska and other places that use their aircraft as a utility vehicle.  They not only fold, but are easily removable to accommodate the cargo many of us haul in our aircraft.  The concern stems from an accident where a passenger using one of these seats was ejected through the windshield of an aircraft when it nosed over.  The subsequent investigation determined that how the seats were installed may have played a role.  This prompted the FAA to look at other aircraft with these seats installed, which revealed that more than half of those examined were also not installed according to the STC.  To address this problem, F. Atlee Dodge Aircraft Services LLC has issued a Mandatory Service Bulletin which calls for a visual inspection of the folding seat installation.

I have a set of Atlee Dodge seats in my Cessna 185 that were installed in 1987, prior to the issuance of the STC. And sure enough—I needed to correct two problems: my installation had no seat belt guides, and the outboard belt straps were attached to the old Cessna anchors, not the slide rail.  A call to Dave Swartz at the FAA Aircraft Certification Office in Anchorage shed a little more light on the subject.  It turns out that not only is the strength of a seatbelt anchor important, the angle the belt crosses your body has a lot to do with how they function during a sudden stop.  The seat belt guides, and placement of the anchors are important details.  If you have a set of these seats in your airplane, take a copy of the diagram from the service bulletin and look at how they are installed.

Diagram from Service Bulletin showing point to check regarding installation of Atlee Dodge folding seats.

Diagram from Service Bulletin showing points to check regarding installation of Atlee Dodge folding seats.

Steve Kracke at Atlee Dodge had me email him photos of my installation.  That and a phone call got the parts I needed headed my way.  Steve tells me he has plenty of the parts that might be needed on hand.

Seat installation with newly installed seatbelt guide, attached to the end of the seat track.

Seat installation with newly installed seatbelt guide, attached to the end of the seat track.

 

Outboard seatbelt attached to the side rail-- not the original Cessna seatbelt attach point.

Outboard seatbelt attached to the side rail– not the original Cessna seatbelt attach point.

F. Atlee Dodge Aircraft Services is a phone call or email away: (907) 344-1755 or atleedodge@acsalaska.net.  If you have questions or feedback for the FAA Aircraft Certification Office concerning the  Airworthiness Concern, contact Aviation Safety Engineer Ted Kohlstedt  ted.kohlstedt@faa.gov or 907-271-2648.  You owe it to your passengers to check into this, and make sure your seats are properly installed!