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.

FAA looking for feedback on new Alaska automated weather stations

Knowing current weather conditions and how they are expected to change is important information for pilots. Today, the primary source of information on current weather conditions is the network of automated surface weather observations. Those operated by the FAA are commonly called Automated Weather Observing Systems (AWOS). Pilots rely on the data from these stations to make operational decisions on whether to fly or not, augmented by the FAA Alaska Weather Camera Program, which during daylight hours provides a visual look at the weather.

The FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program is primarily tasked to implement ADS-B and other technologies, in support of NextGen. As follow-on to the FAA Capstone Program, however, they undertook the challenge of adding additional AWOS stations, as well as a couple Remote Communication Outlets in some parts of Alaska. Working with FAA, Alaskan user groups argued that ADS-B alone wouldn’t improve safety and access—we needed a system solution that also included instrument approaches, weather and communications. Over the past few years, the SBS Program has installed twenty additional AWOS stations in Alaska. Improved IFR access is certainly a result at airports that have WAAS GPS approaches, which most have. In some cases, nearby airports with existing approaches were able to obtain lower minimums, based on these stations. In all cases, pilots have better weather information about these airports to aid their decision making, whether flying under VFR or IFR rules.

Currently the FAA is looking for feedback from users who fly in these areas, and would like to hear from individual pilots, air taxi operators, private business users, communities, or anyone else that has seen a change based on any of these twenty stations.

FAA and industry officials examine an AWOS station in Alaska. Sensors are located above an equipment shelter.

FAA and industry officials examine an AWOS station in Alaska. Sensors are located above an equipment hut that provides shelter for technicians servicing the station at remote locations.

SBS Funded AWOS Stations

Barter Island/PABA

Brevig Mission/PFKT

Chevak/PAVA

Clarks Point/PFCL

Elim/PFEL

False Pass/PAKF

Galena/PAGA

Kiana/PAIK

Kwethluk/PFKW

Napakiak/PANA

Noorvik/PFNO

Weather sensors are above the equipment shelter. The gray antenna in the background is part of a satellite communication system that sends that transmits weather data for distribution in areas that lack direct phone access.

Weather sensors are above the equipment shelter. The gray antenna in the background is part of a satellite communication system that sends that transmits weather data for distribution in areas that lack direct phone access.

Nunapitchuk/PPIT

Quinhagak/PAQH

Shageluk/PAHX

Shaktoolik/PFSH

Shugnak/PAGH

South Naknek/PFWS

Teller/PATE

Wales/PAIW

White Mountain/PAWM

 

 

 

While these twenty stations are an improvement, Alaska is still very sparsely covered with aviation weather stations in comparison to the rest of the country. Additional weather stations are needed to improve aviation safety and access. Letting FAA know the benefits from these stations is a step in the right direction.

Please provide feedback to:
Jim Wright, Sr. Systems Engineer
Surveillance and Broadcast Services (AJM-232)
Lockheed Martin Corporation
1873 Shell Simmons Drive, Suite 110
Juneau, AK 99801

phone: 907-790-7316  email: jim.ctr.wright@faa.gov  Please send AOPA a copy of your comments: airtrafficservices@aopa.org

Alaska Aviation Weather Forecast Changes and Enhancements

Update:  Due to the government shutdown, the changes described below have been delayed, and are planned to go into effect on November 12.

The weather is still one of the most important factors we need to evaluate before each flight.  Whether you fly VFR or IFR, knowing the current conditions and how they are expected to change is critical to that all important GO/NO GO decision,  figuring out which route to take, and what to watch for inflight.  On October 15th, the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) will make changes that should help you make those decisions, as you plan to fly.  Here are some of the changes.

Area Forecast/Airmets
Starting in mid-October, new Area Forecasts (FA’s) will be issued three times a day—at 4:15 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m., local Alaska time.  Updates will come out at 12:15 a.m., 6:15 a.m. and 6:15 p.m.—or as needed if things are changing faster than anticipated.  AIRMETs will be either issued or updated using a similar schedule, the details of which may be found on the AAWU website at: aawu.arh.noaa.gov/changes/

Icing and Turbulence Graphics
In a trend which I find helpful, more information is being presented in graphic form.  Starting on Oct 15, the AAWU will issue new icing and turbulence graphics, showing the forecast in three-hour time slices, as opposed to the 6 hour charts we have been using.  Found under the Graphical Forecast tab on their home page, in the sample Icing Forecast product below, the user has a choice of viewing a single 12 hour summary, or on the bar immediately above the product, selecting one of the three-hour charts to see how the forecasters expect conditions to develop during the day.

Sample Icing Forecast Product summarizes over the entire 12 hour period. Individual charts showing 3 hour intervals show how conditions are expected to develop.

Sample Icing Forecast Product summarizes over the entire 12 hour period. Users can select individual charts showing 3 hour intervals to see how conditions are expected to develop.

Another change is that the Turbulence Forecast will be split into separate low and high altitude products.  Along the top, in the sample image below, the user again has the option to look at the 12 hour summary— showing the entire forecast period—or can mouse-over a progression of graphics to see how the turbulence is expected to develop during the forecast period.  Note that while the products are split at Flight Level 180, if conditions span that flight level, they will be depicted on both sets of products.  A little time spent examining the legend to become familiar with the new conventions will help become accustomed to these products.

sample turbulence lo level

Sample low altitude turbulence product, covering a 3 hour period. Users may also select the 12 hour summary chart to get the “big picture.”

A more subtle difference in the product to note:  An additional turbulence category, “Isolated Moderate” is being added. Previously the products only depicted “Occasional Moderate” and “Isolated Moderate to Severe” conditions.

table 2 issuance times

Table showing when both graphic and text products will be updated. Helpful if the weather is bad and you are waiting for the next forecast!

Other graphic products, such as the Surface Map and IFR/MVFR Chart won’t change, however the issuance and update times will.  The AAWU has provided a table (above) summarizing the timing of both text and graphic product which provide a roadmap to the new scheme.

These are significant enhancements to the products available to Alaskan pilots, and a downloadable document summarizing them is available online that contains examples and a more complete description of the schedules and changes.  If you have feedback on products, the National Weather Service would like to hear it. An easy way to reach them is to shoot an email to mailto:nws.ar.aawu.webauthors@noaa.gov.

As pilots we need to remember that the accuracy of these products is influenced by the PIREPs we file, either confirming forecast conditions, or alerting forecasters when conditions are changing faster than expected. Please take time to file an extra PIREP or two as you fly.

So a modification to an old adage might be… “If you don’t like the weather you see at the moment, just wait for the new forecast.”  Thanks to these changes, the new forecasts will be showing up more graphically and more frequently than before.

Atmospheric conditions show pilots what to expect aloft

It is a cold winter day in Fairbanks, Alaska. But some places are not as cold as others.

Temperature inversion over Fairbanks creates vivid optical effects, transforming distant mountains into greatly distorted features. Photo by Carol Lee Gho

The front page picture on the November 28th edition of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner gives a dramatic view of what is happening. A temperature inversion is holding a layer of cold in the valley bottoms, with temperatures as low as -26 degrees F. At the same time in the hills behind Fairbanks, the thermometer registers as high as +8 degrees F.

The change in air density marking the boundary of the inversion distorts the peaks of the Alaska Range, located 90 miles south of Fairbanks. Under these conditions, the normally sharp skyline– with peaks pushing above 14,000 feet– looks more like mesa’s of the south western US.

Map of surface temperatures observations show conditions as cold as -26 deg. F in valley bottoms, where hill tops register as much as +8 deg F.

During these events, local pilots know that even though it is cold at the airport, once above the surface, they can expect to be flying in warmer air. If one looks at the horizon during the climb-out, it is not uncommon to see the skyline flip-flop wildly while crossing through this boundary until solidly into the warmer air above.