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Author: Tom George (page 1 of 11)

Upgraded weather web tools for Alaska pilots

Our ability to access weather data for pilots in Alaska continues to evolve.  Recently both the National Weather Service and the FAA have released new operational versions of their websites for Alaska weather.  They are both well worth a closer look.

Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s New Look
For years the NWS Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) has provided an excellent website with a combination of current and forecast weather products specifically for Alaska aviators.  It just got a new look, to increase security and migrate to a nationally supported server. While you will recognize most of the products, the home page has a different look, and increased functionality.

The main page on the new AAWU site has controls to toggle Airmets, TAFs and/or PIREPs.

The home page uses a new base map, and offers increased functionality without having to dig into the menu structure.  Not only is it a zoomable map base, but one can now toggle on (and off) Airmets, Terminal Area Forecasts and/or display PIREPs.  TAFs sites are color coded by weather category. You may also display and filter pilot reports, to look up to 24 hours into the past for trend information. New features to watch for include adding METARs to the user choices on the front page, and updated winds aloft graphics. Also explore the tiled quick links at the bottom of the homepage.

In this screen shot above, PIREPs for the past three hours are displayed. They also include a text list of the PIREPs for the selected time block at the bottom of the page, in case you want to browse them in that form.

The old site will continue to run in parallel with the new site until June 20, 2017, but start using the new site today at: weather.gov/aawu.  As with any site that is developing, you may need to let the National Weather Service know if you have problems, or questions.  Direct those to: [email protected].

New FAA Weather Camera site goes operational
By all accounts, the Aviation Weather Camera Program is the most popular thing the FAA has done in many years.  After months of development and testing, it too has a new look, web address and loads of new functionality.  Thanks to many of you who participated in the recent beta-testing activity, the FAA made significant upgrades and declared the new site operational as of May 1st.

More current and forecast weather information has been added to the site.

While the FAA will continue to operate the old site in parallel for a while, you should note the new address:  avcamsplus.faa.gov. The major changes have to do with the presentation of current and forecast weather in graphic form, on the map page.  If zoomed in far enough, airports that have reported weather and terminal area forecasts will give reveal conditions at a glance, before even selecting and reading the full text reports.

METARs, TAFs and PIREPs are visually presented, with an idea of the trend presented graphically.

Other new features include an increased selection of base maps to choose from, including Sectionals, IFR charts or a terrain enhanced display.  Note, however, that several the menu selection choices are not active. There is more development ahead, making it very important that you remember to take the Pilot Survey that is linked from the hope page. Also note that this version of the program is not optimized for tablets or smart phones. Those devices are to be incorporated in future releases.

Exercise them!
Both of the NWS and FAA tools are coming out just as the flying season ramps up. Please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with them before taking off this summer. And keep your comments rolling in to drive improvements in the months ahead!

GPS Jamming in Alaska: Maybe not as bad as it looks

Along with the return of waterfowl to Alaska, there is another sign of spring: the start of the military training exercise season.  This year’s lead off exercise is Northern Edge, scheduled from May 1-12, including an extended plan for GPS jamming.  An overview of the jamming activities was presented in a briefing to the Alaska Civil Military Aviation Council (ACMAC) recently. These are becoming an increasingly important part of the exercise. Our military uses of GPS, as well as the development of jamming devices by foreign powers, make it an essential component of the “train like we fight” nature of these exercises.  Of course, at the same time civil aviation is becoming reliant on GPS for navigation, and as a key component of the ADS-B system, for surveillance by Air Traffic Control.

Civil Impacts of GPS Jamming
When the military is “testing” their jamming systems, what is the impact on civil aviation?  At the ACMAC meeting, we were informed that the equipment used during the Northern Edge exercise is ground based, operated at two location:  R-2205 east of Eielson Air Force Base, and at Chena Hot Springs.  The jamming will be highly directional in nature, focusing on targets to the north east of those locations.  But be prepared for a shock when you look at the NOTAMs issued regarding these activities.  Even though the plans for jamming are directional in nature, the FAA requires that the NOTAM cover the impact as if jamming was taking place in any direction. Consequently, we end up with projected impacts having a radius of several hundred miles at altitude.

Diagram of the predicted impact of jamming in all directions from the ground locations at R-2205 and Chena Hot Springs. Jamming is planned to take place only to the north east of those locations

Map of potential impacts from GPS testing from NOTAM JFAK 17-01. Please check current NOTAMs before you fly.

The NOTAM issued to warn civil aviation when these exercises are being conducted shows a huge “circle” of airspace that may be impacted, intended to represent an absolute worst case. The actual plans confine the highly directional jamming activities to the north east from the ground locations.  The figures above represents this omni-directional worst case.  At the briefing, FAA advised us that ATC plans to continue to use ADS-B, and to issue clearances for GPS routes and GPS approaches, after cautioning pilots about the activities scheduled during their flight.

Provisions to Cease Jamming
Since the jamming activities can interfere with aircraft navigation, provisions have been made to cease operations should an emergency arise.  ATC will have a direct line of communications to stop jamming and confirm the jammers are off within 60 seconds of receiving the request, in the event of a safety-of-flight issue.  Pilots finding themselves in trouble should contact ATC, in the event of an emergency.

In addition to JPARC airspaces, Northern Edge operations will take place in the Gulf of Alaska, using a corridor between FL220 and 260 to transition between areas

Northern Edge
This exercise is massive in scale.  Over 150 aircraft, launching from bases at Eielson, JBER and Anchorage International Airport are scheduled to participate.  The MOAs and Restricted Areas in the JPARC, along with an offshore airspace over the Gulf of Alaska will see action.  While the exercise runs Monday through Friday for the first two weeks of May, no flying is scheduled on the weekends.  There is a daily pattern to the exercises, with the most intensive flying activities taking place from 10 am to noon for the morning mission, with a second window from 5 to about 7:30 pm. Aircraft departing before and recovering after the mission will extend those times by up to an hour on either end of the day.  Please check NOTAMs carefully during these days, as plans sometimes change in response to weather and other factors.

Getting it right
This training is obviously important to maintain our military readiness. Yet it feels like we still need to find a better balance between communicating the potential impacts of the GPS jamming, without interfering with ongoing civil operations in the National Airspace System.  Please pay close attention during these exercises (there will be more to come later in the season) and tell ATC or Flight Service about any problems you encounter with GPS or ADS-B usage that might relate to this activity.  Please also drop AOPA a message at [email protected].

ADS-B Coverage in Alaska: Where you have it—and where you don’t!

Equipping our airplanes with ADS-B is on our “radar” these days.  What does this new technology do for us? Is it worth it to equip? The FAA just provided a tool to anticipate where ADS-B coverage is available, which could help you decide whether to equip your aircraft.

Background
Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) was born in Alaska, as a demonstration project in the Bethel area — part of a safety program to reduce aircraft accidents.  It succeeded by significantly reducing the accident rate in southwest Alaska, along with the addition of more weather stations, instrument approaches, and other improvements.   This and follow-on projects contributed to the national system (NextGen) we are transitioning to today.  By 2020, pilots wishing to fly in certain classes of airspace will be required to have ADS-B Out, the component of the system that broadcasts your position once a second to other airplanes that are equipped to receive it.  And ADS-B Out also broadcasts to stations on the ground, which relay your position to Air Traffic Control facilities who may track you inflight, something that in the past only radar could do.  Of course, ADS-B also has an IN side. With additional additional equipment added to your airplane, you receive not only the location of OUT equipped aircraft, but weather information, pilot reports, NOTAMs and more.  However, to get the full benefits of the system, you need to be within the coverage footprint of a ground station to receive that data.  And that’s the rub. The network of ground stations in Alaska is pretty sparse.  The good news is that this month the FAA added Alaska coverage to the Google-Earth tool to see where you can expect to receive ADS-B coverage at different altitudes.  Below is an example.

The figure above shows that the ADS-B coverage at 3,000 feet above ground level is selected. Other choices in the file allow you to select altitudes from 500 feet to 10,000 feet agl. The file also contains ATC radar coverage which may be toggled on and off as well. Two routes between Anchorage and Fairbanks are displayed.

The screen shot above shows what ADS-B coverage at 3,000 agl looks like. Also displayed are two flight routes—a direct flight for those clear days when you can climb to altitude, and the more indirect route past Palmer, through Tahneta Pass, across the Copper River Valley to Isabel Pass, and then on to Fairbanks.  The more indirect route illustrates that there is no coverage in the Copper River area, until you make it through the pass, and are in the Tanana Valley.  With Google Earth, you may define any route you like, and get an idea of where you will or won’t receive the full benefits of the ADS-B system.

RADAR Coverage Included
Another information source is included in this package.  For each of the altitude categories in the KML file, you may also display ATC radar coverage.  This can be helpful if you are trying to determine where, and at what altitudes you might be able to get VFR Flight Following from ATC, which is another handy feature.

Alaska ADS-B Coverage Lacking
There are many benefits of the ADS-B system, but to receive the full value of the system, the airspace you fly in needs to be in coverage.  Zooming out and looking at coverage statewide, it becomes apparent that large portions of the state have no coverage.  AOPA, the Alaska Airmens Association and other organizations have and will continue to advocate to increase coverage across the state. While no ground-based system will ever cover the entire state, we estimate that another 12-14 stations would be required to provide an adequate minimum operational network of coverage.  We continue to work with the FAA to push for more stations, however the cost benefit calculation is in part determined by how many aircraft are equipped to utilize the system.

Benefits Still Exist
While we continue to advocate for improved coverage, there are many safety benefits regardless of coverage.  For example, two aircraft flying opposite directions on a drizzly day under a low cloud layer following the Yukon River half-way between Fort Yukon and Eagle will be able to “see” each other, without the benefits of any ground station, if both are equipped with ADS-B.  This benefit, along with the ability to receive weather information, current pilot reports and NOTAMs from a remote area or while enroute are features that can help improve pilots’ situational awareness and should be considered when deciding if, and how to equip your aircraft. You can use the FAA’s ADS-B coverage map to asses the availability and value for the flying that you do.

Statewide coverage of ADS-B for 3,000 ft agl shows huge holes in coverage across mainland Alaska. AOPA is pushing for additional coverage for the state.

Getting the Tool
To obtain this KML file, go to the FAA’s Equip ADS-B page  https://www.faa.gov/nextgen/equipadsb/airspace/ and select the link to download the Google Earth map.  If you don’t already have Google Earth on your computer, you will need to separately download and install that free program.  The KML file from the FAA encompasses the entire country, and at first may appear overwhelming, as it contains airports and airspace in addition to the ADS-B and radar coverage folders.  After opening the file in Google Earth on your own computer, you may turn off those other features. The FAA includes the Alaska ADS-B and radar coverage in a separate folder, which you may save independently, if you like. Scroll down the list of folders to find the Alaska section.

With this tool, it is easy to look at the places you fly, and see what kind of ADS-B coverage to expect along the routes most important to you. It may help you make an investment decision!

 

Other ADS-B References that might be helpful:

Online course on ADS-B Basics:  Link directly to an AOPA Air Safety Institute interactive course that provides the basics on what ADS-B is and how it works.  https://flash.aopa.org/asf/ads-b/

AOPA’s ADS-B OUT selector:  A flow sheet to help figure out what equipment might be most appropriate for your flying.  https://www.aopa.org/go-fly/aircraft-and-ownership/ads-b/ads-b-selector

Updated information on the FAA ADS-B Rebate Program: https://www.faa.gov/nextgen/equipadsb/rebate/

https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2016/october/05/pilots-seeking-ads-b-rebates-some-steps-clarified

https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/january/pilot/ads-b-early-adopters

https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/february/pilot/adsb-passing-the-test 

https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/march/pilot/adsb-npe

Exemption for aircraft without electrical system:

https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2017/april/pilot/adsb-broadcast-clarity

Alaska Backcountry Airstrip survey: Do you use them?

Backcountry airstrips serve an important role in Alaska’s aviation system.  Over the past couple years, a Backcountry Airstrips Working Group, led by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), has been exploring this topic, and just released a survey for pilots to weigh-in on their use of this often-unnoticed component of our aviation infrastructure.  If you use back-country airstrips, please take a few minutes to share your thoughts, and identify any concerns you may have on this topic.  Here is a link directly to the survey, which runs through May 10th. https://goo.gl/forms/6aPBJ7h3BbzS7oxq1

What is a backcountry airstrip?
While the international, regional and community airports are familiar to us, there is another network of “facilities” scattered around the state that is often overlooked.  These are airstrips that were built to provide access for some purpose, often a mining claim or mineral exploration project, which has since gone away—but the airstrip remains.  Depending on the other resources in the area, given Alaska’s vast size and lack of road system, these airstrips typically serve other needs, generally to access public lands. Uses might include establishing a camp, in support of a hunting trip or other recreational activity. Depending on the adjacent land ownership, it may provide access to remote cabin sites.  On a river, it could be the transfer point to drop off or pick up people from float trips.  When the weather turns bad, or in any other kind of emergency, having a place to land is a safety consideration.  Finally, backcountry airstrips can also serve as staging areas to support access for more distant off-field landing sites.

Backcountry versus Off Field landing areas
Defining what a backcountry airstrip is might seem like an easy task, but it has taken quite a bit of discussion.  The working group definition includes landing areas that are “improved” although they may have little or no maintenance routinely performed.  It is important to differentiate between backcountry airstrips, and true off-field landing areas—which means a gravel bar, hill top, or other terrain feature that one is able to land on.  From the air, there wouldn’t necessarily be noticeable features, such as trees cleared to create a safety area, or modification of the natural landscape to make it a landing area.  Fortunately, in Alaska we are allowed to perform off-field landings on most public lands, unless regulations have specifically been adopted to declare the area off-limits.  The working group is not addressing off-field landing areas, but does recognize that one of the potential uses of a backcountry airstrip is to serve as a staging area to reach off-field landing locations.

Kansas Creek, in the central Alaska Range, has provided access for hunting and other uses for about fifty years. In the context of this discussion, it would be considered a backcountry airstrip.

 

This off-field landing area, along the Ivishak River on the north side of the Brooks Range is an un-improved piece of tundra that just happens to be flat and firm enough to land on. It would not be defined as a backcountry airstrip in this discussion.

Case Study: Gold King Creek
While every airport has its own story, Gold King Creek (AK7) is an case worth examining.  Located 40 nautical miles south of Fairbanks, in the foothills of the Alaska Range, the 2,500 foot airstrip was originally built at the site of a microwave communications station. The facility connected the military radar station at Clear with the Cold War era “White Alice” communication system that linked Alaska to the lower 48.  Fuel for the generator that powered the relay site was flown in, from Delta I believe, to keep the facility operating around the clock.  When the relay site was no longer needed, it was shut down, and years later the tower removed, but the airstrip remains. Miners, hunters, seismologists, berry pickers and others continued to use the airstrip, which is on stable ground, and doesn’t require much in the way of maintenance.

The federal government eventually transferred the land to the State of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), who later allocated recreational land parcels near the airstrip, some of which have inhabited cabins today.  The property containing the airstrip was transferred from DNR to DOT, more recently. Prior to that happening, we almost lost Gold King off the charts completely.

An aerial view of Gold King airstrip, with cabin sites off the edge of the runway.

Charting history of Gold King
When owned by the federal government, the airstrip was charted as a Private Use facility (see figure below).  After the military use ceased, for a while it disappeared from the charts completely.  With the transfer from federal government to State of Alaska ownership, it was again charted, initially shown as closed, and with no information about the length or elevation of the airstrip.  In the late 1990’s, a Military Operations Area (MOA) created that covered this area.  Because Gold King was a known entity, a MOA exclusion area was defined around it, up to 1,500 ft agl. The cut-out helps prevent an aircraft just lifting off the runway from coming nose to nose with a high-speed jet on a training exercise.  Today, the airstrip is charted with more complete information for pilots, including a CTAF frequency.  Charting is one of the issues that needs to be considered for other backcountry airstrips in the state.

This figure shows the charting history of Gold King, from its time as a communications support facility, to when it disappeared from the charts completely, and slowly back to having more complete information today, including a cut-out under a Military Operations Area.

 Gateway to Public Land
While most back-country airstrips are remote, it doesn’t necessarily mean some of them might not be on the road-system.  A notable example is the airstrip at Happy Valley, some 65 nautical miles south of the Deadhorse Airport (SCC) at Prudhoe Bay.  This 5,000 foot airstrip was built during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970’s to support the construction camp located there, along the Sagavarnirktok River, and on the haul-road that today connects the oilfields on the north slope with the rest of Alaska. After the construction, the camp was removed, but the herc-strip sized runway remained.

Today, it serves as an important staging area in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range. Far enough inland to often avoid coastal fog, yet distant enough from the peaks of the Brooks Range to escape some of the weather conditions associated with the mountains.  It’s location on the haul road, which is maintained year-round, makes it a critical jumping off facility for guides, scientific studies, game surveys, as well as a key emergency strip when weather precludes getting to the coast, or through the mountains.

I have personally experienced the benefits of the Happy Valley airstrip.  Late one fall, the weather was deteriorating to the point we couldn’t make it through the Brooks Range to return to Fairbanks.  After tying up a pair of Super Cubs at Happy Valley, we had to hitchhike in what became a ground-blizzard to Deadhorse, and catch the jet back to town.  Many days later, we drove up the haul-road to pre-heat and fly the airplanes back south of the range.  Yet this airstrip is not listed on a flight chart, nor is any information provided about it in the Alaska Chart Supplement.  While not advocating that all back-country strips should necessarily be charted, this is one that needs to be on the charts so pilots can find it, when needed.

Happy Valley Airstrip. Not what we normally think of as a backcountry airstrip, this former pipeline camp on the Dalton Highway is used today, and should be recognized as an airstrip.

Backcountry Survey
Backcountry airstrips are an important, and often neglected component of our airport system.  Now that DOT has started looking at this segment of our airports, it is important that the people that use them speak up.  The online survey provides an opportunity to identify the issues you think are important when it comes to these landing areas.  Under current budget conditions, we can’t expect the State of Alaska to devote a lot of resources to them, but recognizing they exist and perhaps taking the first few steps to protect them, could make a great deal of difference in the years to come.

Please take a few minutes to take the survey! https://goo.gl/forms/6aPBJ7h3BbzS7oxq1

Aviation Weather Camera Site upgraded: Beta testers wanted!

FAA is making a significant upgrade to their Alaska Aviation Weather Camera website.  Pilots are invited to test the site, and provide input to help refine the presentation of aviation weather data that will eventually be extended nation-wide.   A Beta-test version of the site is currently available. It integrates camera images with weather observations, forecasts and pilot reports, customized for aviation. The Aviation Weather Camera program is seeking feedback from pilots both in Alaska, and from across the country.

Background
Aviation weather cameras have helped Alaskan pilots make flight planning decisions since 1999.  Starting with prototype system constructed by a university graduate student that included only three camera locations, the network today lets pilots see the weather at over 220 locations from all parts of the state.  This visual form of weather data helps in several ways.  Each site has between two and four cameras, pointed in different directions, to let us see the weather, within the last 10 minutes.  In some places, the cameras are the sole source of weather information. At other locations they are co-located with an AWOS or ASOS, and give us a means not only to evaluate the accuracy of the METAR–but to see if the reported ceiling is comprised of threatening cumulus buildups, or just a thin layer of clouds with sunlight streaming through.

Initially the website was limited to the current camera image, along with a “clear day” image for comparison.  To help calibrate what we were seeing, the clear day image was annotated with the distance and elevation of prominent landmarks.  The site also featured a video loop that allowed the user to play a time-lapse of the past six hours, which can be tremendously valuable when it comes to monitoring weather trends.  The current operational site includes current surface weather observations (METARs), along with Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAFs).  More recently, PIREPs joined the party, taking a significant step forward in providing a more complete idea of conditions a pilot would encounter on a cross-country flight.

Overview of the Beta test site, showing weather cameras, current and forecast weather, pilot reports and airports. Note that while it contains real data, it is a test site not intended for operational use.

Whats new?
The next version of the website continues all the features we have come to count on, and focuses on presenting the information more visually.  The Beta-test site starts with a satellite base map (although you may still select a more conventional map base if desired), and provides a more graphic depiction of the weather data.  METARs are color coded based on the category of weather reported, green for VFR, red for IFR, etc.  For those stations that have a TAF, it too is color coded by the individual time periods of the forecast, allowing a user to see if conditions are forecast to improve, without even having to click on the icon.  Drop-down menus at the top make the program highly configurable, but the most popular features that pilots want to toggle on and off still remain available as buttons on the main page.  A considerable amount of sophistication has gone into making the icons dynamically change as you zoom in or out, to avoid saturating the screen when looking at the big picture. A link to the legend is available in the lower right hand corner to help interpret the icons, many of which change as a function of scale.  Not all features are functional yet, so some menus or buttons are grayed out.

An example airport cluster with current and forecast weather, and a weather camera.

Clicking on the weather camera icon brings the first of multiple displays showing the conditions, along with a color-coded indication of the current and forecast conditions

How you can help
Like any significant tool of this nature, there are many ways to use it.  A core group of volunteer pilots were selected at the start of the project to test the Alpha version of the website and help advise project developers on refinements to make the program responsive to our needs.  These efforts are being coordinated by Dr. Daniela Kratchounova, from the Flight Deck Human Factors Research Lab at the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI). The program is now in a Beta-testing mode of operation, and Dr. Kratchounova is looking for a much larger set of users to put it through its paces.  Since the website is being designed for the future extension of the program beyond Alaska, it has to work in parts of the country with greater density of airports and weather stations than are found in Alaska, so she is looking for pilots from across the country to participate in the program at this time.  While the FAA weather cameras are only in Alaska, supplemented by Canadian and some third party camera sites, the METARs, TAFs and PIREPs cover the entire country.  If you are outside of Alaska, consider trying the site for the areas you fly, to see how information is presented. To understand what the weather cameras add, scroll up to Alaska and evaluate the weather for a flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, where you will find a number of camera sites to see what this visual data adds to the METARs along the route.  The beta test site may be found at: avcamstest.faa.gov.  [Note: The latest version of the site became operational on May 1st–so if you have looked at this link before, make sure to check after this date.] If you are not familiar with the current operational site, look at:  avcams.faa.gov

May 1, 2017 Update: The beta-site became operational on May 1st, with a new address: avcamsplus.faa.gov. FAA continues to seek user input using the Pilot Feedback button, as additional development is continuing. The beta-test link will be re-directed to the new address. The legacy site avcams.faa.gov, will continue to operate in parallel for a few months.

Providing feedback
After trying the weather camera site for a while, look for the “Pilot Feedback” button that leads to a number of questions regarding the features of the site.  Scrolling down this window reveals a matrix of detailed questions to rate the different features on a 1-5 scale, which sends your “vote” to the FAA.  I know— one’s eyes can glaze over when first encountering this array of questions. My suggestion is to read through the questions, close the window and spend some more time using the site before going back and completing the survey.  This may seem a little daunting, but with several hundred people using the site, compiling feedback using a form like this is about the only reasonable way to see trends.  Note, however, for each question area there is a comment field. This is your opportunity to tell the FAA what you liked, or what didn’t work, and how you think it could be improved.  I would suggest paying close attention to what zoom level you use, as you evaluate a flight route, and the features that are displayed at that scale.

To provide feedback, rate the different features using a 1-5 scale. Note that for each question area, there is a place for to comment on features you liked, or think should be changed.

This is a significant development effort, so please take the time to give the system a good work-out, and let FAA know what you think.  As one who has used the weather camera program since its inception, I am excited to see camera data integrated in with the other weather products we use for flight planning.  There are more features planned for the system, so look forward to watching this site continue to develop.

For now, please fill up your coffee cup, click on the link, and spend some quality time looking at this site.  Your efforts to evaluate the program may have a significant impact on where it goes from here!

Augmented weather reports to be reduced in Alaska

As pilots, we rely on weather reports to decide whether to fly—or not.  Yet not all weather reports are equal.  While most aviation surface observations are generated by a machine, in some cases humans still confirm or correct the observations–making them more trustworthy than totally automated reports.  Recently proposed changes by the National Weather Service (NWS) to reduce their role in collecting weather data will lessen the quality of these reports at some of our weather stations in Alaska—with fewer stations being “augmented” by a human to provide a more complete and representative weather report.   This is a concern both for the reports that pilots use to make those critical go-no go decisions, and possibly for the quality of the forecasts that we rely on to anticipate changing conditions while inflight.

What is augmented weather?
Today most aviation weather reports (METARS) are generated by a machine, either an Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) or Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) depending on who owns it.  These machines operate 24 hours a day, and can generate “specials” when weather conditions are changing, but have limitations that have been recognized since they first became operational.  For example, even though the beam of light that measures cloud height is more precise than a human just looking out the window, the extent of a cloud layer isn’t known until enough of it has drifted across the sensor to allow a computer to determine if the sky condition is FEW, SCATTERED, BROKEN or OVERCAST.  It also doesn’t alert the pilot to the fog layer that has been approaching the station for several hours, and is about to make an airport go IFR.  Visibility is another case where very local conditions can trick the system.  The estimate of visibility is computed from the number of particles that break a one meter beam of light.  It can be fooled by local disturbances such as a patch of fog, or exhaust from a vehicle. And it can’t report the reduction in visibility as a weather system approaches until it envelopes the station.  For a pilot on a cross country flight—this may be too late!

If there were enough weather reporting stations distributed over the landscape, they would tend to fill in the gaps, and provide a good spatial picture of the weather. But with the large size of Alaska, and general lack of infrastructure, we are woefully short of reporting stations.  Even in the “lower 48” the limitations of automated stations are recognized, and the US has adopted a system of service levels so that the larger, more heavily used airports have human observers who double check the automated stations. In these locations, trained weather observers augment the reports to overcome system limitations, and can back them up when components of the system fail. Here again, Alaska loses out, as our traffic counts often don’t qualify for augmentation services.  Fortunately, the FAA recognized this when they consolidated Flight Service Stations in the 1990s.  In response to push-back from the aviation community, they kept either a part-time Flight Service Station, a contract weather observer, or in some cases NWS staff at locations formerly served by a Flight Service Station to perform the augmentation task.  Today, we are being advised that the NWS is shifting the responsibility for this function to the FAA, and withdrawing this service at eleven locations across the state, which is the current source of concern.

Which stations are augmented?
There are several entities that can augment weather reports. Flight Service Station staff are trained to make weather observations, and may augment them.  Tower controllers and NWS weather staff in some locations also perform augmentation, as well as contracted weather observers.  Some stations are augmented 24 hours a day, while others only during hours when an FAA facility is open—either daily or seasonally.  To see a list of stations and times, see the Alaska Augmentation Sites.pdf  file.  For a more visual form, see the map below.

This image shows METAR locations at the end of 2016 across Alaska in green. Sites with a yellow circle are augmented part-time, orange circles show sites with 24-hour augmentation.

 

What is the change?
Recently the NWS came out with a public notice indicating that the responsibility for aviation weather augmentation and back-up is transitioning to the FAA. The NWS plans to discontinue augmentation at eleven stations across the state.  In some cases, this would merely reduce the hours the observation is augmented.  In four locations augmentation would be eliminated entirely—Yakutat, Saint Paul, Kodiak and Annette Island.  McGrath would have no augmentation from October through April.  Reductions in augmentation would be seen in an additional six locations, including Nome, Kotzebue, King Salmon, Cold Bay, Bethel, and Barrow.  The FAA has already suspended the contract weather observer at Gulkana, which is another former Flight Service Station location, and regional hub in the Copper River Basin. AOPA has asked to have the Gulkana observer re-instated, given its importance as a regional cross-roads in the Copper River Valley.

Who cares about augmentation?
I hope all pilots consider whether the METAR they are evaluating is augmented or not.  Especially when conditions are changing, one should be wary of unattended, automated sites.  If the METAR is augmented, you can place greater reliance on its being accurate, and to capture hints of change, which are often recorded in the REMARKS section.  While IFR-capable operators can generally handle more weather than VFR pilots, even they are subject to minimums and need decent alternates in their hip-pockets.  As primarily a VFR pilot, I am always looking closely at the reports available, to see that I will continue to have a suitable place to deviate, if needed. Remember, the term AUTO in a raw METAR means that the station is NOT being augmented!

Trends and the future of aviation weather reports
Zooming out to the bigger picture, this proposed change is yet another reduction in weather information available to pilots.  In the past few years, we have seen A-Paid observers eliminated, leaving holes in the weather picture, vital for cross country flights to remote parts of Alaska.  We continue to have weather-related accidents, and now the quality and quantity of reports from some of the automated weather stations are  eroding. AOPA has written a letter to the NWS and FAA challenging this recent proposed change, and asking that, at a minimum, a safety risk analysis be conducted, with aviation community input, prior to reducing these services. We also want to see a comprehensive review of the overall weather reporting system needed to support aviation in Alaska.

Stay tuned for further developments!

Alaska aviation motor fuel tax increase under discussion

Alaska’s fiscal crisis is again in the news. As oil revenues decrease, lawmakers struggle to make ends meet for almost 90% of the state’s operating costs. In January, the Alaska Aviation Advisory Board (AAB) passed a resolution supporting the Governor’s bill to increase motor fuel taxes to help cover the costs of maintaining the 240 airports operated by the state. This year’s bills call for a two-stage increase, which would result in rates of 14.1 cents per gallon for avgas, and 9.6 cents for jet fuel.  While larger than last year’s proposal, which was not adopted, these rates are still in the middle of the pack of what pilots in other states pay for fuel taxes.  If adopted, the total income from motor fuel tax and other revenue streams that support airports will cover about half the cost of operating the rural airport system.

Will our tax money go to aviation?
When the state collects motor fuel taxes, they are deposited into the state’s General Fund, which the legislators decide how to spend.  There has been a concern that our fuel taxes would go to programs other than aviation.  Last year, however, a separate account was established within the General Fund which treats aviation fuel tax money as a restricted fund, to be spent on airport maintenance and development.  Provisions in this year’s bill set up a similar situation for the other modes of transportation.

Is this the best way to support the aviation system?
Over the past year and a half the Aviation Advisory Board worked with DOT to evaluate options for supporting the rural airport system (excluding Anchorage and Fairbanks International Airports that are operated as an enterprise fund, which pays its own way). Landing Fees and an aircraft registration program were both explored. After looking at the details of these other options, both would cost more to implement, and make life more complicated for aircraft owners.  Consequently, the AAB again this year adopted a resolution to support the motor fuel tax bill.  Based on the AAB’s recommendation, AOPA, the Alaska Airmens Association and some other aviation groups have supported the Governor’s proposed legislation.

What is the impact?
If the proposed increase in motor fuel tax is implemented, what will it cost?  Adam White, Government Affairs Manager for the Alaska Airmens Association computed the potential costs for several different GA aircraft types, using 50 and 100 hours of operation per year. If you own aircraft in these categories, the increase in cost would range between $40 and $140 per year.

Type A/C Hours flown GPH Current Tax Proposed 2018 Tax Difference
$0.047 $0.141
C180/185 50 15 $35.25 $105.75 $70.50
C180/185 100 15 $70.50 $211.50 $141.00
C172 50 12 $28.20 $84.60 $56.40
C172 100 12 $56.40 $169.20 $112.80
PA18 50 9 $21.15 $63.45 $42.30
PA18 100 9 $42.30 $126.90 $84.60

 

Since 2015, DOT has reduced its operating budget by 62 million dollars which is a 22% reduction.  So far the impacts have been limited. Several highway stations have been shut down, and at least one airport will not get winter maintenance this year.  Several airports have been handed off from DOT to other entities.  DOT is also making changes that should allow them to better account for the levels of service they provide—measured in how long it takes to restore service after a storm, or how many hours a Part 139 airport is staffed to support operations.  It will take some time to find the right balance between services and revenues to keep this component of Alaska’s transportation operating. We must all watch closely as the Governor and Legislature work through these challenging times.

Alaska weather reporting survey

Weather is a constant and important topic in Alaska aviation discussions.  Our network of aviation weather reporting stations is sparse in comparison to the rest of the nation.  Today, there are twenty one airports across the state that have instrument approaches, but don’t have weather reporting.

Currently, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is doing a survey, inviting the aviation community to express our opinions regarding the priorities to provide automated weather stations (AWOS) for those airports.  Please take a moment to look at the list, and use this opportunity to help establish the needs for weather at these locations, or to nominate other locations that would benefit from additional weather reporting.

Please act today, as the survey runs through March 6th.  Access the survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/AirportWS

Alaska GA Survey time—help us help you

Quantifying the nature of General Aviation in Alaska is a big challenge, when it comes to advocating for our needs in the state.  Whether arguing against losing weather reporting stations or evaluating proposed rule changes, the data collected each year by the General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey (GA Survey) helps establish our case.

Alaska IS different!
Any of us who have flown in the lower-48 know that Alaska is indeed different, in many ways.  Ownership of our airports (most are operated by the State of Alaska), the density of weather reporting stations (low), towered airports (few), make up of our fleet (think tail-wheeled aircraft), our reliance on aviation (high), and many other things make us different.  The GA Survey designers recognize that, which is why they do a 100% sample of aircraft owners in the state.  That means YOU should by now have found a flyer in your mail box, which is a personal invitation to participate in the survey.

 

Look for this flyer in your mail box. It is your invitation to participate in the GA Survey.

How hard is it?
Not difficult to do, but takes a little bit of preparation. Sit down with your pilot log book, and add up last years flight hours. They would like a breakdown of your uses, in percentage, including categories like business, pleasure, instruction, proficiency, etc.  Other questions ask about the kind of equipment installed in your airplane, including types of GPS, and whether you have equipped with ADS-B.  Total time on your aircraft is another question, along with your average fuel burn.  It took me about 15 minutes to complete the survey online, using the website provided on the notice.  If you are not comfortable with that, give a call or fire off an email and they will send you a hard-copy form, along with a post-paid mailer.

Who gets the data?
The survey is conducted by Tetra Tech, an independent research firm, on behalf of the FAA. No personal information that relates back to your aircraft is released, just summary information that allows both the government, and organizations like AOPA to quantify GA. Things like how many active aircraft are operating in Alaska, how many hours they flew, and how they are equipped.  This helps AOPA and other aviation organizations when it comes to advocating for you.  If you would like to look at the results from previous years’ surveys, check it out at: http://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/general_aviation/

Even if you didn’t fly last year, or sold your aircraft, please respond to help round out the picture.  If you have questions or need more information, please call Tetra Tech toll free at 1-800-826-1797, or email [email protected]

If you already completed the survey, thank you.  If not, please do so today!

Alaska Pilot Reports Are Increasing!

When we pick up the mike and file a Pilot Report (PIREP) with Flight Service or ATC, we add an observation that helps the entire aviation community.  If weather is questionable, the first aircraft out in the morning is often the “weather ship” that reports conditions back to other pilots waiting to make their decision to fly. When we are that pilot sitting at the airport, with a forecast that could go either way, it can be very frustrating to wait for that first report along the route, or from the other side of the mountain pass.  Fortunately, a lot of attention has been given to PIREPs in the last couple of years, which I am cautiously optimistic to say is starting to produce results!  I would like to share with you some of the efforts that have brought us this far.

Lack of PIREPs concerning

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

The Valdez Fly-In, that takes place nominally the second weekend in May, is the largest event of its kind in the state. When the weather allows,  several hundred aircraft fly in to participate in the short field landing contest or other competitive events, or pilots may want to observe, socialize and simply enjoy aviation.  For the past couple of years, the weather has been a little dicey flying into Valdez, and yet both in 2014 and 2015 there were almost no PIREPs filed by those that did make it in.  This would have been a tremendous tool to help those flying behind decide if it was good idea to fly into what can certainly be considered some challenging terrain.   When I shared that observation with our friends at the Alaska Flight Service Program, they were interested enough to stand up a small working group to dig into the problem.  A number of industry organizations, including the Alaska Airmen Association, Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Alaska Air Carriers Association have been meeting with FAA, the FAA Weather Camera Program, National Weather Service, National Institute of Occupational Health and others to explore issues regarding how PIREPs are collected and distributed — as well as look at ways to encourage pilots to file more of them.  Based on the work of this group, Flight Service has been more actively training their staff to solicit reports beyond the generic request normally received when pilots open a flight plan.

NTSB joins the party
Separate to this Alaska based activity, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had seen a number of cases nationally in which PIREPs — had they been shared in a timely fashion — could have averted several accidents.   We learned that the NTSB was undertaking a special investigation into PIREPs, which prompted AOPA to conduct a national survey on the topic.  Many hours went into designing, conducting, promoting and evaluating the results. Last May, approximately 700 pilots took the time to respond to the survey—thank you to those who participated!  The survey revealed some interest results, here are a few highlights:

  • 83% of the pilots said PIREPs were “very” or “extremely” important for aviation safety
  • 71% indicated the emphasis on PIREPs during initial flight training was “little” to “none.”
  • While three-quarters of the respondents said they filed reports, 84% said they did so “sometimes” or “rarely.”

There are more results from the survey, but I will save that for another time.  A couple of interesting perceptions came out of the study. There is a general feeling that ATC isn’t interested in recording PIPEPS, with one respondent stating, “I have little confidence my PIREPS are going past their ears.” It was also felt that the reports are mostly a high-altitude feature.  The chief problem expressed was a shortage of reports, especially at lower altitudes: “Too few PIREPs are available for my route of flight to be useful” and “For flying lower than 5,000 feet, there just isn’t much PIREP information available.”  There were many complaints about difficulties in filing PIREPs, some of which are related to procedures in the lower 48 states rather than here in Alaska.  The feature that pilots wanted to see the most was an automated filing ability through applications such as Foreflight.

The NTSB held a two-day PIREP Forum at the end of June in Washington, DC where these and other results were shared with an impressive mixture of industry and government aviation stakeholders.  We are expecting to see what the NTSB gleaned from their investigation, due out in a report any day now.

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

Access to PIREPs has improved
It has become easier to access PIREPs in the past two years.  In addition to getting them via phone from FSS, or in a DUATs briefing there are now several websites that have either added or upgraded their capabilities to include graphic displays of PIREPs.  The National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit has featured PIREPs for years, but now has a more dynamic zoomable map.  The FAA weather camera website has added PIREPs as a feature that the user may select to view, and SkyVector.com added reports with a graphic symbol that gives pilots a clue to the nature of the report as you plan your flight.  More details on these systems and features may be found on an earlier blog post (http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=2737).

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Results are encouraging
The good news is that the Alaska Flight Service Program reports some dramatic increases in PIREPs filed this summer in contrast to last year.  The figure below shows reports received by Flight Service for the months of July, August and September.  The graphic is a little complex, but shows a combination of the total number of 2016 PIREPs and the percent change from the same months in 2015. A third variable is the change in “traffic” for those months. By traffic, we mean the number of radio contacts FSS had with pilots that month.  For example, in July of  2016 there were over 3,000 PIREPs filed with Alaska FSS.  That was a 39% increase over July, 2015 while there was only 1.3% more traffic over the past year.  August saw a 26% increase in the PIREPs, while the number of calls to FSS was actually lower than the previous year. September was the lowest number of PIREPs received at just under 2,500, which still represented an 8 percent increase over the previous year.  I am still puzzling over whether September was such a good weather month that fewer pilots felt the need to file, but it is still very good news overall.

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2016 in comparison to 2016

Looking ahead
It is easy to look at a single set on numbers and get excited, but there is still work to be done. One thing that was clear from the NTSB Forum—there are more audiences for PIREPs than just pilots. The weather forecasters say they rely on them heavily to create and validate their forecasts.  Atmospheric scientists archive and use PIREPs to develop and test new forecasting models.  ATC uses them to decide when to change arrival and departure routes during dynamic weather situations, and of course the pilot behind you who hasn’t yet entered the mountain pass is waiting to hear what conditions are like today.

Please be sure to file a PIREP or two as you fly, even if it reporting flight good conditions. The weather forecasters are also interested in reports that confirm the lack of turbulence, or other conditions that might be better than the forecast.  They will change the extent of an AIRMET or create a SIGMET, sometimes on the strength of a single report.  If you want to contribute to improving safety in the aviation community, but feel you need to bone up on how to give a PIREP, the AOPA Air Safety Institute offers an online PIREPs Made Easy class (https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/online-courses).

The real test will be to see how many PIREPs are filed leading up the Valdez Fly-In next May!

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