Learning about Flying in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alaska weather forecast graphics updated

The Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) recently upgraded a number of their graphic weather products in ways which makes them easier to use. An arm of the National Weather Service, this unit generates the Area Forecasts, along with SIGMETS and AIRMETS for Alaska. These statewide products help us see the “big picture” regarding where icing, turbulence and poor weather are forecast for the next twelve hours or so, and are found under the GRAPHICAL FORECASTS tab at the AAWU home page: http://aawu.arh.noaa.gov/

Select the Icing Forecast, and you will notice something new!

In this 12 hour Icing Forecast Summary, major rivers have been added in blue to provide geographic reference.

In this 12 hour Icing Forecast Summary, major rivers have been added in blue to provide geographic reference.

In the past, other than the outline of the state, pilots have relied on the forecast zone boundaries as the sole means to “navigate” the charts. At least in my experience, at times it has been a challenge to figure out where weather relative to my intended route of flight. While the forecast zones (slightly subdued) are still there, the AAWU added major rivers to the products. For my money, that is a lot more useful feature for geographic reference. Kudos to the AAWU staff for adding these to the Forecast Weather, Icing and Turbulence forecasts! The Surface Chart and Prog Charts remain unchanged.

Better time resolution too!
Not as new, but worth mentioning is that a little more than a year ago the AAWU made a few other changes that make these charts easier to interpret. Instead of a single static map, the graphics now cover twelve hours, and show changes as often as every three hours, when conditions are expected to develop through the forecast period. On a Windows based system, just hover the mouse over the time intervals shown at the top of the frame, and watch the forecast areas change. On my iPad, I have to select each image individually, but the extra information showing how conditions are expected to develop is just what I am looking for. Also notice, the times on at the top of the product are local, as opposed to UTC.

This example product shows forecast icing for the 3 hour period starting at 15:00 local (yellow oval).  Other selections on that status bar would show how conditions were forecast the change during the 12 hour period.

This example product shows forecast icing for the 3 hour period starting at 15:00 local (yellow oval). Other selections on that status bar would show how conditions were forecast to change during the 12 hour period.

For more information on how the graphic products were revised see this earlier article, but for now focus on the addition of the river boundaries. If you have comments, feel free to share them with the AAWU at the following email address: nws.ar.aawu.webauthors@noaa.gov NWS appreciates hearing from pilots, as they continue to refine the products we use to figure out when it is safe to fly.

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.