AOPA and Aerial Applicators- Working Together to Improve Low Level Aviation Safety

13In late November, I had the privilege of attending my first aviation event focused on agricultural aviation and aerial application, known to fans of the movie “Planes” and most of the public as cropdusting.  While I’ve been around aviation and airports nearly all of my adult life, my exposure to agricultural aviation has been limited, and as I learned, my knowledge naïve.  And even though my wife grew up in northwest Kansas in a family that farmed and with a dad who owned a spray service, I never had the opportunity to meet him, or learn much about this small aviation niche during my days on the airport side of our industry. 

So with that background, I attended a day of the Colorado Aerial Applicators Association’s (CAAA) annual conference in Loveland, where about 150 ag pilots, vendors and their families had convened to talk all things ag.  And what did I learn?  That ag pilots are some of the most welcoming, passionate, entertaining and knowledgable pilots I’ve met.  During the course of my day, I spent time learning about the myriad of challenges faced by ag pilots- stringent rules on materials handling, complex EPA stormwater requirements at airports, continuing agricultural and aviation education demands, and of course, the constant threat posed by structures and obstructions like Meteorlogical Evaluation Towers (METs).

METIf you’re not familiar with METs, these are small towers used to evaluate wind power generation feasibility at a particular location.  METs are small, difficult to see, and often erected quickly with no notice, posing a significant hazard to low level aviation activities such as aerial application, firefighting and emergency medical service (EMS) operations.  Because most METs are less than 200’ tall and typically located in rural areas away from airports, they are not usually subject to obstruction review or approval by the Federal Aviation Administration under FAR Part 77.  In the Northwest Mountain region, legislation addressing the marking, lighting and reporting of such towers has recently been passed in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  Such marking, lighting and reporting of METs significantly improves aviation safety.

Recognizing this, the National Transportation Safety Board weighed in last May, when it released a Safety Recommendation about the towers and how ideally they should be lit, marked and reported.  For those not familiar with METs, the Nebraska Aviation Trades Association has comprehensive MET information, along with an excellent five minute video.

Across the country, my fellow AOPA regional managers and I are working with aerial applicators and others to mitigate the impact of (METs) on aviation. In Colorado, through the initaitive of AOPA and the recently established Colorado General Aviation Alliance, discussions about legislation to require the marking and lighting of METs in the state began earlier this year.  At the CAAA convention in November, I had the opportunity to participate in a legislative forum led by State Represenative Jerry Sonnenberg, an AOPA member and active GA supporter from Sterling, who has agreed to sponsor a bill in the 2014 Colorado General Session addressing the hazards posed by METs. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Colorado’s aerial applicators and learning more about this unique segment of general aviation.  I’m looking forward to collaborating with them and others to improve aviation safety in Colorado, and across the Northwest Mountain Region.  In fact, myself and AOPA are also already hard at work with our partners in Washington state on similar MET legislation in 2014, so stay tuned.

Oh, and the best part about hanging out with ag pilots?  Hands down, I think they have the best flying stories of any pilots I’ve encountered.  When was the last time you met a pilot who survived a mallard strike through the windscreen and into his chest at 140 knots while in a climbing turn at 50′ AGL?

 

 

 

Mat Su Traffic Working Group makes Recommendations

For the past two years a working group of industry and government stakeholders have looked at ways to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions in the Mat Su Valley. Initially the group listened to briefings from CFI’s, charter pilots, military users, Air Traffic Control, FAA Airports Division, Flight Service and others.  During the summer of 2012, AOPA conducted an online survey, which gathered feedback from over 500 pilots who fly in this airspace.  Communications ranked highest among the factors that pilots said contributed to unsafe situations when flying over the Mat Su.  Based on this information, the working group started work on a plan to simplify radio frequency usage in the area.  By April, 2013 two different scenarios were proposed, and taken back to the aviation community for review.  Starting with the Airmen’s Trade Show in May, numerous meetings were held with individual pilots, flight schools, air taxi operators as well as the government participants in the group.  Air Traffic Control staff members produced a set of radar tracks, showing traffic patterns that lead to modification of some of the initial boundaries.  At a meeting near the end of October, the working group selected a single alternative, and finalized an initial set of recommendations that will go to different parts of the FAA requesting changes in the guidance regarding CTAF frequency usage in this area.

 

Recommended "Area Frequency" zones for consideration by the FAA to simplify radio communication when not in contact with ATC.

Recommended “Area Frequency” zones for consideration by the FAA to simplify radio communication when not in contact with ATC.

Initial Recommendations
The group crafted four “Area Frequency” zones, where a single discrete VHF radio frequency would be recommended, when not in contact with ATC.  The accompanying image map shows the proposed frequency zones.  Within each area, individual airport CTAF frequencies would be changed to match, to eliminate conflicting guidance for aircraft flying in this airspace. The working group suggested making changes to some of the existing “area frequency” zones in Cook Inlet and around the Knik Glacier, to conform to the newly proposed zones.  Outside the defined zones, pilots would use the CTAF frequencies assigned to an individual airport, or the “default” 122.9 MHz frequency used for airports or landing areas without an assigned frequency.

Another recommendation is to create VFR reporting points for a number of “high traffic” areas identified by the working group, and confirmed by the 2012 user survey.  This would allow pilots not familiar with these sites to understand their proximity to areas that are heavily used (in some cases on a seasonal basis) but that aren’t charted as airports.

An additional recommendation is to clarify the language in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), to recognize Area Frequency zones.  Pilots need to understand how they differ from conventional CTAF areas, which today the AIM defines as a 10 mile zone around an individual airport or landing area.

More work to come
With this initial set of recommendations completed, different parts of the FAA will have to go through their own internal process to change aeronautical charts, airport CTAF assignments, and guidance in other documents such as the Alaska Supplement.  Meanwhile the working group will continue to address other issues that need attention, such as the corridor along the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Anchorage, extending to the Kenai Peninsula.  Further work is needed to review and possibly revise the guidance to pilots on best operating practices in that area.

It will take months for the changes described above to be implemented by the FAA.  At this time these are only recommendations that are not in effect today.  The industry and government members of this team also agreed that a significant educational campaign will be needed when changes are made. Stay tuned as guidance is revised for more details in the months ahead. Meanwhile, keep your head on a swivel and be vigilant as you fly!

This update by Tom George, AOPA Alaska Regional Manager and Adam White, Government Affairs, Alaska Airmen’s Association

Mat Su Area Traffic Frequencies: Your input needed

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

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

Rex Gray's map showing overlapping CTAF frequencies.

Rex Gray’s map showing overlapping CTAF frequencies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilot Survey focuses on Mat Su Mid-Air Collision Concerns

A little over a year ago an Alaskan industry/government working group was established to look at the rash of mid-air collisions that occurred in 2011.  To support that effort, AOPA fielded an online survey to hear directly from pilots concerning this topic.  The goal of the survey was to discover what methods pilots used to avoid mi-air collisions, and to find out how often they encountered unsafe conditions while flying in the Mat Su Valley.

The survey was emailed directly to a sample of 2,942 AOPA members who live in Alaska. In addition the Alaska Airmen’s Association, FAA and other aviation groups broadcast the link to the survey through their communication networks.  Over 600 people took the time to respond.  This will help the industry working group focus its efforts as it considers recommending ways to minimize the potential for mid-air collisions.  While that process goes forward over the months ahead, I wanted to share the summary of the survey so that you could see what the cumulative results tell us about how we operate—and what the respondents of this survey had to say regarding this topic. A summary of the survey is available here:   2012_04 Mat Su Valley Collision Avoidance Survey Final Report.    Look for more information in the months ahead as the working group starts to develop recommendations.