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NOTAMs: A Lousy System

One of the dirty little secrets about general aviation is that you can spend as much time preparing for a flight as you do actually flying. It’s not something we’re keen to talk about when discussing the amazing efficiency of traveling by GA, but sooner or later every pilot discovers that flying isn’t always faster than driving. Sometimes it’s a lot slower.

What got me thinking about this was a series of short-range trips I’ve made recently in the Gulfstream: Los Angeles to Phoenix, San Jose, Las Vegas, Fresno, and so on. You’d think it logical that a shorter flight would mean a more effortless work day – but it ain’t necessarily so. The tasks required for a short flight are exactly the same as those needed for a longer one. Filing a flight plan, generating weight & balance data, checking weather, and pre-flighting the aircraft aren’t appreciably faster for a 500 mile leg than a 5,000 mile one.

In fact, once we takeoff, the “hard” work is mostly done and the more congenial, relaxing portions of the trip begin. This is often true for small very airplanes. One might even say “especially” for small aircraft. A flight in the Pitts, for example, averages about 30 minutes, but I can’t imagine completing pre-flight tasks and getting off the ground in less time, especially when there’s a passenger involved. Just getting someone properly briefed and fitted into their seat and parachute can take a considerable amount of time.

The point is, preflight activities are vital to safety in the skies and we can’t shortcut them. Or can we?

The law — 14 CFR 91.103, specifically — requires pilots to obtain “all available information” about a flight before departure. That’s a pretty broad mandate, especially in the Information Age. But it makes sense, because while aviation may be a relatively safe activity, it’s not terribly forgiving of carelessness.

For a typical flight, “all available information” includes NOTAMs, something I’ve found to be a major time suck. While the Feds have made minor changes to the NOTAM setup in recent years, from my perspective it’s still a truly lousy system. It pains me to say that, because the FAA gets some things very, very right. This isn’t one of them.

As Sen. James Inhofe found out a few years ago, the price of missing a NOTAM can be steep. Bringing these notices into the 21st century would greatly improve flight safety and do so at a relatively low cost. If nothing else, it would encourage more pilots to actually read them! It’s difficult to fault pilots for glossing over data when it looks like this:

!JFK 06/204 JFK RWY 13R/31L SE 3263FT CLSD. RWY 13R TORA 10672FT TODA 10672FT ASDA 10672FT LDA 8629FT. RWY 31L TORA 10924FT TODA 10924FT ASDA 10924FT LDA 11248FT. 1506251331-1509211600

Should flight information look like something off a 1950’s teletype or a badly formatted excerpt of assembly language? I’m tempted to say “if we can put a man on the moon…” – you know how the rest of that goes. But perhaps it would be better to simply ask that, in the midst of spending untold billions on NextGen, a few paltry dollars be allocated to overhauling our ghastly NOTAM system.

I know that building a better mousetrap is possible because I’ve been using one for more than a decade. Dan Checkoway, a longtime friend and fellow pilot, saw the same deficiencies in preflight information delivery. But he did something about it, developing a site called Weathermeister. Among other things, it translates NOTAMs into plain English, adjusts the valid times to a more readable format, and best of all, color codes critical items like runway and airport closures so they stand out.

notams

The difference is dramatic. Not only can I scan NOTAMs far more quickly, but I’m also less likely to overlook something important. On several occasions I’ve been the one to unearth important NOTAMs that a fellow crewmember missed. Does that make me superior aviator? No… just a guy with a better sledgehammer.

Dan once told me that despite the fact that Weathermeister provides full weather briefings, 90% of the site’s coding is dedicated to translating the arcane NOTAM texts into readable English. He once tried to sell the FAA on using his format, but for whatever reason (bureaucratic inertia, perhaps?), nothing has changed in the intervening years.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. I keep wishing something or someone would prod the FAA to improve the way NOTAMs are disseminated. Not only would flying be safer, but if time really is money, we’d be a whole lot richer, too.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

25 Comments

  1. Have you tried flight services? 1800wxbrief.com? Free, funded by the FAA and they have done a lot of work to automate the briefing visually.

    • In the fss update I suggested that all event tfrs be reported to faa by event organizers, if not no tfr and fss is responsible for passing along route applicable tfrs. Classic FAA/gov response …no way they could track that with events being unpredictable …I love that faa makes impossible our problem…

      • I neglected to mention this in the post, but Weathermeister shows the location of stadiums, racetracks, etc. which are covered by the blanket TFR verbiage. WM doesn’t know *when* events are taking place, but at least it points out the location so the pilot is aware.

    • The Lockheed Flight Service effort is a good start. I think they could do much better though. I’d suggest adding color coding, prioritizing NOTAMs by severity, and even adding graphical elements the way they do with the TFR web site. It used to be that TFRs were only available in textual form. Nowadays we get graphical plots of the affected areas. There’s no reason we couldn’t do the same with NOTAMs, showing — for example — taxiway/runway closures and the like right on the actual airport diagram.

    • Alain Miville de Chêne

      July 10, 2015 at 3:45 pm

      The best WAY to access NOTAMS is on the site http://www.notaminfo.com/
      It does not yet handle US or Canadian NOTAMS.

      Since it is map-based, NOTAMs with GPS coordinates are exceptionally easy to visualize.

    • Alain Miville de Chêne

      July 10, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      For example get a look at NOTAMs in France:

      http://www.notaminfo.com/francemap

      so easy to drill down and filter.

      • Thanks for pointing out that site! It’s a good effort, but even there I see room for improvement. So many of the NOTAMs are for low level obstacles away from airports that would probably only be applicable to helicopters. I’d be nice, for example, to have a switch to remove those from the list.

        But the problem goes beyond formatting. I looked at the London FIR, for example, and saw NOTAMs that went into detail about the transponder code ranges that were to be assigned to various operations:

        E) TUE AND THU, SSR MODE 3 CODES 1501-1577 AND 2401-2477 ALLOCATED TO
        EXER RISING PANTHER 15, SFC/FL660. CODES 1501-1547 AND 2401-2477 ARE
        UNVERIFIED AND UNVALIDATED FOR USE OUTSIDE CONTROLLED AIRSPACE. OPS
        CTC 01526 346321 OR 01526 346344. 15-07-0055/AS4.
        Why would that need to be in a pilot NOTAM at all? Here’s another winner:

        E) FOR THE PURPOSES OF RULE 45 OF THE RULES OF THE AIR REGULATIONS 2007
        THE HUCKNALL ATZ, A CIRCLE OF 2NM RADIUS CENTRED ON 530052N 0011306W
        SFC/2281FT AMSL, IS INDEFINITELY SUSPENDED.

        Even in plain English, that’s a tough nut to crack.

        E) ADD FOLLOWING TEXT TO THE UK NOTAM V SERIES
        VOLCANIC ASH RELATED INFORMATION WITHIN EN-ROUTE AIRSPACE LONDON,
        SCOTTISH, IRISH FIR AND SHANWICK OCA.
        UK AIP GEN 3.1 TABLE GEN 3.1-1 REFERS

        This one is an incomplete fragment. The NOTAM is of dubious value anyway. Pilots aren’t getting volcanic ash information from notams, they’ll get it from weather reports dedicated to listing hazardous conditions of that ilk.

        I think the NOTAM mess has to be tackled from two angles: first, improved presentation of data. Second, culling the presented information down to things that are really important and putting the rest of it somewhere else.

        • Alain Miville de Chêne

          July 12, 2015 at 10:44 pm

          I agree with you.

          I use the site for a few weeks every summer when flying in France and it does the job for me. I especially like the circle and center point for many NOTAMs. For example a NAVAID is disabled at a (center) point, but the circle shows the approximate area affected.

          There are options on the site for registered users which might do part of what you want. Maybe you could open a conversation with the site’s creator. I read this on the home page: “If you find this site useful, then please consider sending some beer vouchers to Dave, to keep it going, and to improve it some more.”

          Canada’s NOTAMS are not in ICAO format, therefore are unusable by this site. Soon come…

  2. NOTAM format is left over from the teletype days. We not only have to push the FAA into change, but ICAO too. I just retired after 35 years as an Air Traffic Controller and we pulled NOTAMs at the beginning of every shift for the primary airport and satellites. The system to pull them was arcane, and understanding them was worse.

    • The short, teletype-based codes still have their place at times. For example, we often read that kind of data on the small FMS screen in the jet cockpit. Thanks for the data point though; it’s interesting to know that controllers have some of the same frustrations with NOTAMS that pilots do!

  3. Perhaps Inhofe could have some input since he clearly stated that he does not have to abide by NOTAMS or any other regulations.

    • I believe he admitted he doesn’t check them regularly before flying. Not a great example… but I do understand his frustration. When making a long flight, especially when major airports are involved, the list of NOTAMs can reach impressive lengths.

  4. I’ve been using Weathermeister for almost as long as it has existed. Weathermeister posts many more pireps than any other site I’ve seen, and, as you said, the notams are easier to find.

  5. Right on, Ron!! This system is the only one in 49 years of flying that I agree has never been improved. I have stated this at numerous seminars with FAA present, had discussions with them face to face, and I believe if it’s above their pay grade, there is no inclination or incentive to get anything done about this. Now, with upcoming campaigning and elections, the VIP TFR notams are even worse if there is any change to their plans, which affect us dramatically. Frustrating to say the least.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly. Might as well be greek, and I took a aviation meteorology course in college. What an antiquated bunch of junk. It’s not as if we don’t have the space to read something legible. But, that’s the FAA: don’t improve things – leave them the same and add more complexity. Typical government agency.

  7. I have no problem with the Notam system. Learn your contractions, learn how to read them, stop complaining and crying. You’re a CFI for God’s sake.

    • I read the contractions just fine. But part of being an instructor is making suggestions on how the system can be improved. It seems to me the cost/benefit of improving the NOTAM system argues heavily in favor of investing in improvements. Not only would it be fairly inexpensive, but NOTAMs are something every pilot, from student to professional, has to deal with on every flight, so it would make flying safer for every class of aviator and every segment of aviation.

      • Lee Ensminger

        July 10, 2015 at 4:03 pm

        Ron, “Aviator” is one of these old school guys who believes we should be doing things the way we did them in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He almost certainly thinks GPS is just a passing fad, and refuses to use it in his cockpit. I’m surprised he managed to use a computer to read your article and type his comment. Once upon a time, fires were lit at night to guide early airplanes on the airmail routes. Things change, but some people don’t. There is no need to use archaic terminology in today’s world of the Internet. Just because something “was always done this way” is no reason to continue doing it that way if it can be improved.

  8. Thomas waters

    July 8, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Notams are presented in a bad format with too much useless info hiding important info it should be only info concerning takeoff ,landing and route in between,nothing else.

  9. Both ForeFlight and my G1000 show weather in both contractions and readable text. I violently agree with you that the shorthand is an anachronism. If it had to be printed, it would go away to save trees–as have a lot of paper charts, now that digital versions are available to everyone who has made it to the 21st century.

    As for posted times, I suggested to the FAA and the ForeFlight some time ago that they forget about Greenwich and list times locally. Finally that’s available, at least in ForeFlight. Did I mention that I think ForeFlight is great? Is it obvious?

    JH

  10. The really sad thing is someone creates the NOTAMs in English and translates them to Contractionese. Worse, Contractionese can have multiple English translations. A bunch of services like Wethermeister and even DUATS attempt to put NOTAMs and weather into English, but they often get it wrong. So, we are paying money to have someone take English and make contractions, and then pay someone else to take the contractions and attempt to put it into English. Using English only would not only be an improvement, but most likely save money, resources, and the biggest savings, avoid accidents and incursions.

  11. Do we really need 8 NOTAM items describing each individual lighting component of a specific runway being OTS when the line for that same runway CLSD is buried in the middle? A little database magic should make sorting these things much more efficient.

    • That’s on of my biggest beefs with the current system: critical information (runway closure) is buried in a massive haystack of far less important data (non-standard taxiway signage, ILS outer marker out of service, declared runway distances changed by a couple of feet, etc)

  12. Aren’t NOTAMs now formatted to ICAO standards?

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