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.

Special VFR changes at Anchorage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Fly-in in Garray (Soria), Spain

It is probably no surprise to many of you that my husband and I attended a fly-in while on vacation recently. In previous blogs, I have mentioned how we always try to link our vacation with a little bit of aviation and flying to learn how general aviation (GA) works and is treated in other parts of the country and world. And, yes, we also enjoy seeing places and landscapes from a 3D perspective. Who doesn’t, right?

This time… we headed to my home country of Spain for 10 days to visit family, eat some good food, enjoy a little R&R, and experience traditional festivities during Soria’s fire walking festival (paso del fuego) in San Pedro de Manrique and annual festivities, called Fiestas de San Juan.

The map below shows you where Soria is located within Spain. It is about a 2 1/2 hr drive from Madrid (in the center of the country) to Soria.

Map of Spain with Soria's aerodrome

Map of Spain with Soria’s aerodrome

On Saturday, June 21st, Soria’s aerodrome/airport in Garray (only 7 or so km north of Soria) held a fly-in to introduce the newly re-opened and improved airport to the locals (called sorianos) and pilots. While the airport was opened in the early 20th century, the airport has not always been successful. The airport is owned by the province and managed by a private entity. A new management company, Airpull Aviation, took over the management and control of the airport on December 18th, 2013 for the next 10 years. Their goal is to make the airport attractive to pilots and the local community while ensuring its economic viability. My family had been updating me on the improvements made to the airport since the beginning of the year (resurfacing of the main and existing runway, a new runway, a bigger ramp, a restaurant, a fuel farm, a new roadway leading to the airport, etc.) so the fly-in was the perfect opportunity for me to see it for myself.

To be honest…. I was excited about it, but I truly expected a small event with a low turnout. To my pleasant surprise… the fly-in actually reminded me of a lot of fly-ins I attend here on behalf on AOPA and it was one of my highlights of the trip.

One side of the ramp

One side of the ramp, with a good mixture of aircraft

The airport has a restaurant/coffee shop (restaurante/cafeteria) inside the terminal with a couple of patios outside, where several locals where eating and talking while enjoying the sights of aircraft flying.

Airport terminal in Garray

Airport terminal in Garray

Airport terminal

Locals and pilots talking and watching airplanes

The airport also has a flight school that provides training, rental aircraft, skydiving, etc. The prices seem pretty competitive with other parts of Spain and Europe but, not suprisingly, not with those here in the States. To give you an idea… a 1979 Cessna C172 Skyhawk or a 1985 Piper Warrior II goes for 205 euros an hour wet with taxes (with or without a CFI – the charge is the same!). At the current exchange rate of about 1  = $1.36, that would be $279/hr. Flying club members can get them discounted at 160 /hr ($218/hr). Yes, then you have to pay user fees/landing fees separately.

I introduced myself to the guy who looked to be in charge of the event since he was carrying a portable handheld radio and was giving takeoff/landing/low flying permissions/clearances to the pilots flying. He immediately asked if I had any interest in flying. What do you think I said? “Of course! No need to ask! Thank you!” A few minutes later… my High School friend Lorena (who came to visit us from Zaragoza - 2 hrs drive time east of Soria) and I were in a Piper Warrior with CFI Eduardo at the controls heading out to the runway. I took the back seat and let my friend Lorena sit up front. It was her first flight in a small GA aircraft and I wanted her to experience it first hand. We had a fabulous flight and Lorena left the aircraft (and airport) wanting more and thinking about obtaining a private pilot license (or PPL as they call it in Europe). Mission accomplished!

Lorena

Lorena, a happy flyer during her first GA flight

Departing the airport

Departing the airport

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Garray airport in the distance

Low level pass with a C172

Low level pass with a C172

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Passing the C172 as we do the low pass over the airport

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Aerial of the airport

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Town of Garray

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Landing

Landing

CFI Eduardo with Lorena and I in front of the Piper Warrior

CFI Eduardo with Lorena and I in front of the Piper Warrior

It’s funny how all the people who took “first time rides” left with a big grin on their face and nothing but complementary comments. “Amazing!, Wow!, Fantastic!, How fun!” are some of the things I overheard them say. Ahhhh the joys of flying general aviation aircraft…..

While there, I also spoke with Santi Marti, the airport’s general manager, to thank him for the event, his work with the airport, and get a summary of the day’s and year’s (to date) success. Approximately 500 people and 45 aircraft (airplanes, gyrocopters, ultralights, LSAs, etc) attended from around the country (Valencia, Bilbao, Barcelona, Madrid, Valladolid, Navarra, Soria, Toledo…) as well as four from France and one from Germany. Among the aircraft was an Antonov AN II from 1947.

Antonov

Antonov AN II

Mr. Martin also gave me some great news. Their goal was to have at least 500 aircraft operations in 2014 but they have already exceeded that in only the first few months of service and that’s with Spain’s current recession. Soria’s airport does have a good future ahead… :) The province and the local media have provided a lot of support to the airport and I hope it continues that way.

The airport is located in a great area (centrally located, with beautiful scenery as you saw from my pictures above, and away from busy airspace), making it ideal for GA operations, to include gliding. Glider pilots say it may be the best area in Spain given its thermals, geology, and meteorological conditions.

Based helicopters, mostly used for firefighting

Based helicopters, mostly used for firefighting

But, if that wasn’t enough, the icing on the cake was to meet Victor Gaspar, an AOPA member who flew in from Bilbao, in northern Spain, in the RANS Coyote II he built seven years ago. He is also currently building a second aircraft, this time an RV-10, and he briefly explained to me some of the issues he is running into with the Agencia Española de Seguridad Aérea (AESA), the “Spanish FAA” and a sub-agency of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), as he chooses an engine for his new aircraft. They don’t allow it to have the engine that the kit aircraft is designed for because it has too many horsepower according to current Spanish regulation.

A past Air Venture attendee, he expressed his gratitude towards AOPA and EAA. Without AOPA, general aviation wouldn’t be what it is, he said.

AOPA member Victor Gaspar, my husband Jared and I

With my husband Jared and Victor Gaspar, proudly wearing his AOPA hat

Did I get you excited about flying to Europe or within Europe? If so, here is a website the airport recommends to obtain weather, notams, flight planning info, etc: http://flyingineurope.be/

The airport in Tudela, Navarra is now on my list to visit during my next trip to Spain. =)

General Aviation: A Shark Tale

Monomoy IslandLike a Submarine beneath the surface poised and ready to strike, the 15 foot, 2000 pound behemoth searches for prey. With cunning and grace, she lurks with all senses deployed—her eyes scanning the surface, her nose dissecting particles of water for a familiar scent. While her sense of smell is thought to rival that of dogs and bears, all senses work in harmony as she reserves her secret weapon—electroreception. This unique biological adaption enables her to hone-in with RADAR precision. Always on the prowl, she soon selects her target. She plots her course so as to remain hidden from view until the last possible second with small adjustments for heading and AOA; setting up behind and below her mark. Using depth to remain hidden, she cruises swiftly and silently determined to deliver a single devastating blow. As she approaches the underbelly of her victim she increases her intercept angle to twenty, thirty now forty degrees. Quick oscillations of her powerful tail produce an accelerating burst of speed. Ascending from darkness into light her seeming shadow emerges from the depths; her mouth ajar. Accelerating from three to nearly twenty knots and without warning she explodes from the water’s surface; momentum elevating her aloft. Her now gaping jaws clampdown—SPLASHHHHH—she reenters the water seemingly vanishing. A murky red hue disperses throughout the scene, her brutal objective nearly complete as she then returns to claim her quarry.

Reminiscent of scenes from the 70’s classic “Jaws”, this brash portrayal of one of nature’s apex predators is an otherwise routine occurrence in certain – special – locations around the globe. One of these presumably newly reclaimed locations is not far from where I reside, in the waters surrounding Chatham (Cape Cod), MA. Quite naturally as a pilot and shark enthusiast, this is where I enjoy a great deal of time leisure flying!

As a first order of conduct and #savethesharks devotee I must insist upon the reality that sharks, while maybe intimidating, are in fact NOT out to eat humans! My riveting portrayal is merely that of a White Shark hunting a common food-prey item from a family of semiaquatic marine mammals known as Pinnipeds (Seals, Sea Lions, and Walruses)—thanks Wikipedia, Discovery Channel, Nat GEO, PBS and all of the TV stations I’ve ever watched educational programs relating to the marine science ;) .

Cruising the waters off the southern New England coast in summer months, White Sharks are known to frequent the islands and the Cape, and increasingly so. They are attracted by the throngs of seals making a decisive comeback post regulatory protections that prevent us land-lovers from hunting them; to the angst of many fisherman, so I hear.

Apart from my suggestion for a memorable scenic flight, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you about sharks in New England as a part of an aviation blog. So to add to your confusion, I’ll assure you that where the sharks go, the Scientists follow. Now, I’ve made the uneducated assumption that like normal people, marine scientists’ time is a valuable commodity and with that comes the costs of chartering a boat to take them where the sharks are (in addition to all of the scientific stuff they tend to lug around like cameras, computers, tagging equipment, and a Swiss Army Knives). Still not satisfied with my connection!? Okay, well for those of you who have never been fishing before, they call it that for reason; there is no guarantee of catching anything, let alone savvy camera shy sharks (say that five times fast!). Therefore, not unlike those of us from the Corporate world, scientists (and/or their savvy boat Captains) realized general aviation offers a unique vantage from which their ability to quickly locate these sneaky leviathans is enhanced.

One outfit who regularly employs said creativity is the crew of the F/V Ezyduzit, aka Cape Cod Shark Hunters. Well known for their work with Dr. Greg Skomal, Marine Fisheries Biologist (Mass Department of Fisheries) and multiple episodes featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week”; Pilot George Breen flying in his firebrick red Super Cub accompanies his comrades with an all-out aerial-visual assault on all things aquatic. Up and down the coast he meanders, looking for signs of life or predation. As the scientists and crew follow the sharks, the sharks follow the seals, so fish spotting aviators often focus their attention on the vast areas of water adjacent to large congregations of seal. Over an impromptu phone interview last summer George admitted that some days prove monotonous, however (and in my own words), a bad day FLYING around searching for sharks is akin to a bad day fishing in Florida—still a great day anywhere else! Now while opportunities like this are hard to aspire to this is just one unique example of how GA enhances marine sciences locally. From aerial fish spotting over Narragansett Bay, to tracking Whale migrations down the Atlantic coast for the Boston Aquarium, GA helps pave the way for a multitude of research projects.

Now turning full circle, it turns out that sharks are to aviation science, what aviation is to STEM based sciences. I recalled reading about some institute studying shark skin as means to improve lift and fuel efficiency. In case you are one of the few who don’t watch Shark Week, shark skin is covered in reverse-teeth like plates, giving it a rough texture when dragging your fingers forward against it. These plates are referred to as Denticles. Naturally I Googled the project to see what I could find and sure enough the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing in Bremen, Germany has developed an innovative coating system for large surface structures, such as airfoils, to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency as part of the Clean Sky initiative. Apparently the basic principles of denticles, refined over millions of years of evolution, are not only eco-friendly (reducing emissions) but provides for de facto cost savings—now that’s cool! So as you can see, my love for sharks and aviation is forever intertwined!!

With New Englanders gearing up for AOPA’s Regional Fly-in at the Plymouth Municipal Airport (PYM) in Plymouth, MA on Saturday, July 12, there is plenty to be excited about. As AOPA also looks to promote the local community, whether you fly-in, drive-in, or arrive via marine vessel, the chance to see one of nature’s rare and beautiful creatures from a uniquely safe vantage is only a hop, skip, and/or jump from the festivities in Plymouth. Just please remember to be courteous and give-way to our friends like George, out their working the shores in an effort and learn more about these important animals.

Tweet to @AOPAEastern to tell me about unique flying jobs near you!

Airport open house draws a crowd in Fairbanks

The opportunity to fly in a small plane, take an “inside the fence” tour of the airport, or to sit in the cockpit of a Boeing 727, drew quite a crowd to Fairbanks International Airport on May 17th.  This year’s edition of Fairbanks Aviation Day was blessed with good weather, and in spite of competition from a dozen competing community events, let approximately 2,000 members of the public experience different aspects of aviation.

ATC controllers coaching “pilots” waiting to “take off” on the mini-airport at Fairbanks Aviation Day. Photo by Ron Dearborn

ATC controllers coaching “pilots” waiting to “take off” on the mini-airport at Fairbanks Aviation Day. Photo by Ron Dearborn

The action started early on Saturday morning—at 7 a.m.—with a the traditional pancake feed, inside the University of Alaska Fairbanks/Community and Technical College Aviation Program hangar.  Almost immediately, families with kids eager to fly started to sign up for EAA Chapter 1129’s Young Eagles flights.  At 9 a.m. the event was in full swing with the Fairbanks ATC controllers operating a 70 by 30 ft. mini-airport, complete with real hold lines, taxiway and runway markings.  Kids, wearing orange vests with individual tail numbers were getting instructions from the “tower” to taxi, take off, and–after a trip around the pattern—cleared to land.  No runway incursions were reported during the 140 “airport operations” that took place during the day.  Meanwhile, exhibitors ranging from flight schools to airlines, military groups and the Alaska State Troopers visited with the crowd.

Future pilot inspecting the controls of a Zenith 750. Photo by Shari George

Future pilot inspecting the controls of a Zenith 750. Photo by Shari George

Outdoors, over two dozen aircraft were on display. These featured everything from old (1929 Travel Air on floats) to the newest aircraft (Jack Schnurr’s Zenith 750 made its first operational flight to participate in the event).  While some airplanes were used “just for fun,” many were working aircraft, which demonstrated some of the roles airplanes serve in a big state with few roads. Tasks included hauling fuel, medevac service, corporate travel, game surveys, forest fire initial attack, parcel delivery and everything in between.

Lining up to see the inside of a Boeing 727, donated to the University by FedEx.

Lining up to see the inside of a Boeing 727, donated to the University by FedEx.

 

Aircraft display viewed from the cockpit of the Boeing 727. Photo by Kevin Alexander

Aircraft display viewed from the cockpit of the Boeing 727. Photo by Wes Ford

 

 

 

 

 

 

Driving a rivet at the UAF/CTC Aviation Program demonstration. Photo by Shari George

Driving a rivet at the UAF/CTC Aviation Program demonstration. Photo by Shari George

Other popular activities included a tabletop flight simulator, courtesy of the Fairbanks FSDO, and a face painting/balloon art station.  Outside the hangar, the Airport Fire Department set up an air-filled slide, along with an impressive array of fire and rescue equipment.  Next to the hangar door, UAF operated a “riveting challenge” demonstration, where anyone could try their hand at driving rivets in a mock wing section.  Indoors, short “aviation sound bites” were going on—15 minute presentations on topics such as the history of the Fairbanks Jenny, air touring opportunities and destinations you could fly from the Fairbanks airport. Civil Air Patrol’s presentation included a two-minute video showing their cadet glider camp operated out of the Clear Airport each summer.  In short, there was something for all ages and interests during the day.

Who makes it happen?
Events like this don’t just spontaneously occur.  A committee of over a dozen people put countless hours of their time into planning this event.  Fairbanks Aviation Day is organized by the Airport Operator’s Council at Fairbanks International Airport.  Over two-dozen organizations sponsor the event by providing the cash, equipment and/or labor to share our passion for aviation with the public.

Sponsors of Fairbanks Aviation Day

Sponsors of Fairbanks Aviation Day

Results
And what did this accomplish? A segment of the public, most of whom don’t fly or work in an aviation field, got a look at something very different from the passenger terminal they normally associate with an airport.  Some went for a flight. Many more got to sit in the pilot’s seat of an aircraft on display.  They interacted with people in aviation businesses and groups that make up the fabric of general aviation.  The food they purchased, buying pancakes for breakfast, or burgers at lunch, brought in about $2,500 that will fund aviation scholarships or safety meetings.  Some of these people will be the next generation of pilots, mechanics, airport managers and air traffic controllers.   You could tell by the looks on their faces!

Valdez Fly In: True Alaska aviation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spectators watching the STOL competition.

Spectators watching the STOL competition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Sox & the Yankees; American East – Aviation – Division

As I sit typing this blog on the day of the Red Sox season opener against the Baltimore Orioles—Eastern Region HQ (me) Vs AOPA HQ (colleagues)—I am reminded that competition is indeed a celebrated characteristic of American culture. By the very nature of our nation’s humble beginnings competition is, like in sports, ever present in business and in life.

New York’s aviation industry is credited with an annual economic impact of $4.5 Billion in state and local revenue and the source of 500,000 direct and indirect jobs (or 4.7% of the state’s workforce).  While these numbers are certainly eye catching, as an athlete and competitor, success is less about what is achieved and more about the relationship between ones achievements relative to one’s potential for an interval of time.

There’s an old adage that reigns particularly so for aviation industries in the Northeast where competition between states is compounded by our relatively small geography. That is, “If you are not taking steps to move forward, you are moving backwards.”  In other words, to simply maintain the status quo one must change and adapt.

I recently participated in a phone interview with an NBC news affiliate out of Buffalo regarding the New York Aviation Jobs Act (AJA – A.3677-B/S.273-B)—which is the industry’s sound bite to create jobs and boost revenues through the targeted elimination of a significant financial barrier to the purchase and operation of aircraft in New York.  A respected journalist in his region, I was unable to determine if he harbors personal angst with the legislation or if he is in fact an exceptionally talented devil’s advocate.  I would prefer the latter and of course offer him the benefit of any doubt.    One of his arguments opposing the AJA was a question of Northeastern state’s efforts to repeal targeted sales & use taxes as “a race to the bottom.”  If by bottom he meant the elimination of the associated tax, then I would issue an emphatic “YES!”  His angle (as I understood it) offers the cushy scenario in which the elimination of these exemptions would place states on an even keel and ultimately generate a guaranteed revenue stream for a state.  Within this conjured world I would again reply with an emphatic “YES”, followed by an even more emphatic BUT that world doesn’t exist..”  As some might view this parallel universe a stroke of genius in which big corporations continue to pay government large sums of money with no loopholes to line their deep pockets with additional dollar-signs, reality knows not all things are created equal.  The list of examples is endless so I’ll spare you my own interpretation and point to the first and most obvious of them; differing tax rates.

For fear it isn’t obvious, I’ll jump back to the blog’s title for a moment as I infused a historic Major League Baseball rivalry as a metaphor for competition among the states.  While my intent is always crystal clear in my mind, I am aware that the rhythmic ramble with which I preach results in an uncanny knack for skewing even the most focused minds.  I thank my Nanna for that talent! ;)

Not long after accepting this position I realized politics boils down to a matter of perception.  In New York, our plight has less to do with the economic importance of General Aviation as much as it does its economic potential.  With the annual economic figures as I previously tossed out, no one really disputes GA’s importance to New York—but—with any tax legislation there is a financial value attributed to revenue generated from a given proposal.  We tend to think of this value in terms of a “price tag”, and the value associated with the AJA is $13.4 Million.  Legislators must then weigh the value of these presumed guaranteed revenues against the economic potential, or opportunity for increased (or decreased) revenues.  In other words, an exemption like this one is really an investment and so becomes a case of getting legislators to “see the forest through the trees.”  AND while we have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support our case, the dynamics from upstate to downstate make for a unique challenge gaining support from the Assembly.

Basis for Change: Since 2002, NY has lost approximately 700 income generating aircraft.  Courtesy of our friends at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), we know the average business aircraft generates $1 Million in annual economic activity and 5 jobs.  So where did they all go? I should first point out for those of us who grew up in parts of New England outside of Massachusetts; the Boston Red Sox is considered New England’s baseball team; hence the fan-handle Red Sox Nation.  With the advance of targeted sales tax exemptions throughout Red Sox Nation, many of New York’s aircraft popped-out to airports just over the border.  Why you ask?  It is the generally accepted notion that corporations (as well as individuals) are in business to make money and so the competition of a free market society presents opportunity in the form of reduced expenses.  GA is by its very nature a mobile industry.  Given the simple reality that owner/operators can save hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) basing their aircraft in neighboring states, they did just that.

The net result:If you build it, he will come” – Field of Dreams

Red Sox Nation realized that by creating a competitive financial atmosphere for aircraft, we would not only maintain those aircraft currently based here but pick up additional aircraft, each of which needs to bed-down (hangar/tie-down), purchase fuel, and requires various other services all of which—and most importantly—employs people.  These people earn salaries, their income is taxed and then whatever remains is spent on homes, groceries, entertainment, and so forth.  Over any interval of time, the potential for revenue generating transactions increases exponentially, which is all made possible (in this scenario) because of the economic engines that are state airport systems.

Comparison of Success:  Without breaking into the weeds, New York’s GA industry generates its $4.5billion & 500,000 jobs from its system of 130 public use airports.  Comparatively, the seat of Red Sox nation (Massachusetts) is credited with $4.3billion and 400,000 jobs from only 40 public use airports.  Now while the direct comparison of these states treads on apples and oranges, I am required to remind you that not all aircraft were created equal.  Instead let us consider another viewpoint.  According to the FAA, New York is currently host to 7,455 (based) aircraft at its airports.  Massachusetts, with one-third as many airports, is host to 3,664 aircraft.  The simple law of averages indicates the Red Sox’s have a batting average almost twice that (based on raw numbers alone) of its longtime rival.  So again, it is fair to conclude there is a correlation between the number of based aircraft and the associated success of a state’s aviation industry.

The Yankees are and continue to be a historically successful team, however, (as some fans like to gripe about an unlimited payroll) two-times as many airports offer considerably more economic potential than the neighboring system.  As such, my Red Sox continue to dominate the American East—Aviation—Division.  As we say in sports, there’s always tomorrow so fear not my Yankee friends and colleagues.  The Aviation Jobs Act is alive and well despite the final budget resolution released today (Monday, March 31st).  As the AJA awaits consideration in the Assembly Ways & Means Committee, your industry representatives (AOPA, NBAA, & NYAMA) are hard at work educating lawmakers and changing perceptions.  The opportunity to turn the tide is  ever only one-swing away and no fans know this better than those tuned into the fourth game of the 2004 ALCS between none other than the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Keep GA’s voice strong and join or renew today: http://www.aopa.org/Membership.aspx

National Wind Turbine Map: A new Pilot Resource

As one of the fastest growing forms of renewable energy, wind turbines are sprouting up all over the country.  On a recent airline flight across the country, I was blown away to see areas in northern Texas with rows of wind-turbines that went on for miles—some of which included well over of a hundred turbines. Now I know why they call them wind farms!  This technology is increasingly popular in rural Alaska, where the cost of fuel to generate electricity is through the roof expensive.  As with all good things, they come with potential impacts.  As pilots, wind turbines provide several challenges: initially as obstructions we have to avoid during flight.  If located too close to airports, they interfere with instrument approaches resulting in higher minimums and reduced access.  Finally, when the wind  blows they represent a source of turbulence, which we still have much to learn about (more on that later).

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Interface to the Interactive Wind Farm Map, starts with an overview of where towers are found around the country.

Locating individual wind turbines
Recently the US Geological Survey has given us a new tool to locate wind turbines, on a nation-wide basis.  A new interactive mapping application, provides access to a database that not only shows us where wind turbines are found, but records their height, blade length, and other information on a tower-by-tower basis. Prior to this, while some states captured the locations of individual wind turbines, there was no uniform database that provided this information across the country.  Starting with the FAA’s Digital Obstruction File (through July 22, 2013), a USGS team led by Dr. Jay Diffendorfer located over 47,000 turbine sites, verifying individual tower locations with high-resolution satellite imagery. This data base gives us a much better way to find individual tower locations, with a location accuracy estimated to be within 10 meters.

While fewer in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

While still few in number, wind turbines are sprouting up across Alaska.

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

A row of wind turbines just outside Unalalkeet, on the west coast of Alaska. According to the USGS interactive map, they have a total height of 156 ft. tall

Understanding impacts
This database is designed to support research into environmental effects on both critters that fly, and wildlife habitat.  But these data may also be useful in the future to project the impact of down-wind effects on general aviation airports, which is still an evolving research topic.  A recent study at the University of Kansas has shown that the turbulence from a wind turbine extends further as wind speed increases, up to 3 miles in some cases.  This and the potential increase in cross winds could be a significant impact for small aircraft at GA airports.  Hopefully, more work will be done to quantify these conditions, leading to improvements in the FAA’s obstruction review process, which today only takes into account the height of an obstruction above ground when air space reviews are conducted.

Provide feedback
All maps are only as current as the date used to make them.  This data set incorporated information from FAA’s obstruction file as of last July.  And if you come across wind turbines that aren’t in the database, please capture what information you can and send an email with the location to jediffendorfer@usgs.gov.

Thanks to this effort, we have a better way to learn where wind turbines are located in the areas where we fly!

Airport Management Associations

Today’s world seems to require a specialized Association for everything!  Automobile owners have the American Automobile Association, (AAA); Gun owners have the National Rifle Association (NRA), and of course those of us who own or operate aircraft have the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA)—all of which I belong to.  There are many hundreds, possibly thousands, of similar Associations out there spanning most all industries—I wonder what the actual count is up to?

Naturally some associations, like those I mentioned, are more widely known than others.  Here are a few I previously never heard of:  National Limousine Association (NLA), National Parking Association (NPA), and slightly closer to home—Airport Ground Transportation Association (AGTA).  Knowing there are many other associations out there serving a distinct purpose for their member-base, I often wonder if there are any within GA I am not yet aware of that maybe I ought to be.

As I move around the region I talk to many members and businesses and am always trying to gauge their individual level of engagement with General Aviation.  Frequently I meet people who use aircraft for business and pleasure but maybe by the nature of their work or different life focus remain unaware of even local aviation associations—be they local pilot or airport associations.  Comprised of local businesses and residents (money and votes to a politician ;) ) these associations exude great influence over local and state legislation.

One particular type of association that many pilots remain unaware of is their State’s Airport Management Association.  Now it’s true not every state has one but if yours does, you may consider joining even if you don’t work in airport management.  Where I live, we have the Massachusetts Airport Management Association (MAMA).  Initially I joined because it made sense for me as a Regional Manager to be involved in statewide airport matters, but the more I worked with MAMA and others like it, I realized how they benefit me as a pilot—protecting the very system that allows me to enjoy the privilege of flight.  Airport management associations such as those in Mass (MAMA), New York (NYAMA), New Hampshire (GSAMA), and Pennsylvania (ACP), are often the largest state-based aviation lobbying groups.  These groups generally maintain close relationships with the respective division of the State DOT and this direct link serves advocates like you and me as an excellent communication medium with State officials and industry leaders.

Now like any association, there are usually annual member dues—these monies usually serve to cover quarterly member and Board of Director meetings.  Some Associations also hold annual conferences to bring the membership together with other state leaders and related entities for education and networking.  The most recent of which I participated in was MAMA’s Annual Conference held at Gillette Stadium—surely a place worth visiting even if you’re not a Patriots fan!  In addition to these annual Conferences, Massachusetts and New York host annual Capital Days in which the members gather to represent their respective airports and talk with State leaders about the benefits of our industry while highlighting the immense economic impact airports have on a state’s economy—nothing grabs the unsuspecting legislator like rattling off “Did you know” facts such as: Massachusetts’ 40 public use airports support 400,000+ jobs, and generate more than $4 Billion in annual economic activity.  Of course, these are the kinds of fun facts every pilot and aviation advocate should know about their own state!

So with this information in mind, considering joining if your state has one, of course if it doesn’t—Happy New Year—now is a great time to start one!

“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.