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Author: Tom George (page 1 of 14)

Neither rain nor COVID defeats practice runway at Fairbanks

It took a little longer than normal, but despite setbacks with weather and equipment, the practice runway is set up at Fairbanks International Airport. Only five days before the start of sheep hunting season, pilots again have an 800 by 25-foot wide strip to brush up on short field operations before heading to the field.

Background
For the past nine years, a partnership between the Fairbanks General Aviation Association (the airport user group) and Fairbanks International Airport and other local aviation stakeholders including volunteers from the Ninety Nines, EAA, Alaska Airmen Association and the UAF Aviation Technology Program has provided an enhancement on the gravel runway. This gravel runway is referred to as the “ski strip” because during the snow-covered months it is used exclusively for ski equipped aircraft. During the summer, this 2,900-foot by 75-foot gravel runway sees a lot of use by tail draggers, especially those with big tires that have an aversion to pavement.  In 2011 the FAA Airports Division approved a Modification to Standards allowing the runway to be marked by painting two by four-foot rectangles on the gravel to outline a simulated much smaller “bush” runway.  The rectangles are spaced at 100-foot intervals, providing a convenient reference to estimate landing or take off distances.

Paint being applied to the runway, while other members of the crew move a second template to the next mark. With two templates, it only took an hour to mark practice runways on both ends of the Ski Strip at Fairbanks International Airport.

This year was different
Not much of a surprise that with all the other changes associated with the COVID pandemic, it took a little longer this year to get the job done.  Painting doesn’t get scheduled until the runway is graded and packed for the summer, which took longer than normal.  Added to that, interior Alaska has experienced a rainy summer, and finding a weather window was a challenge. The final hurdle was a clogged paint sprayer causing further delays.  In spite of all these impediments, during the third attempt– on August 4th— a crew of eight volunteers appeared and completed the project.

Masked crew members admiring the threshold on Ski Strip 02, after painting was complete.

Value beyond safety
While the concept of creating practice runways of this nature was born out of a desire to reduce off-field accidents, a project of this nature has other benefits.  It provides an opportunity for airport stakeholders to work with each other and airport management on a project all see as a positive contribution to the community.  Having a local airport group to coordinate the project and bring the individuals and organizations together is very helpful.  In the course of these efforts, relationships are formed and reinforced, and can carry goodwill when working on other airport issues.  Getting to know each other in this relaxed setting can make it easier to tackle other potentially contentious airport issues, which has certainly been the case at Fairbanks.

Ski Strip 02 at Fairbanks after painting is complete. Both ends of the runway are marked in this fashion.

Practice at your airport?
Five other airports in Alaska already have the “paperwork” approved to put paint on their gravel runways.  I am sure the FAA would be willing to consider issuing similar approval at other airports, after looking at the details and weighing the benefits to pilots.  It might be too late this year to launch a project at your airport, but while we are still a little constrained by the pandemic, consider talking with others about a project for next year.  For more details on the mechanics of a project like this, see the article Practice Runways: A Low-cost Pilot Proficiency Tool or the Guide to Creating a Practice Runway. And if you have questions, don’t hesitate to send me an email for more information.

Meanwhile, pilots around Fairbanks—go sharpen your skills on the practice runway!

Planned Decommissioning of the Chandalar Lake NDB impacts Airways

FAA is inviting public comment on their plan to decommission the Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) at Chandalar Lake (CQR), in Alaska’s Brooks Range.  The station has been out of service for a number of years, however the navigation aid has continued to serve as the anchor for low-altitude IFR airways.  Formal decommissioning will cause these airways to be shut down, although a GPS based T-Route will still provide a means for low-altitude IFR operations between the North Slope and locations in interior and southern Alaska.

Low-altitude IFR airways will be decommissioned when the Chandalar Lake NDB goes away.

Background
Chandalar Lake is a remote location in the central Brooks Range, with no roads connecting it to the outside world.  The 3,000 ft gravel/dirt runway provides access to this location on the shores of a beautiful lake in a glacier scoured valley surrounded by mountains.  The airstrip, owned and maintained by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, provides access for miners and recreational users, as well as an  emergency alternate landing strip halfway between Fairbanks  (162 n miles to the south) and the oil fields at Deadhorse (162 nautical miles to the north).

The NDB serves as a ground-based nav aid defining two Victor Airways (V436 and V447) and a Colored Airway (A11) which will be decommissioned if the proposal is adopted.  The high altitude IFR routes (J115 and J155) will also experience an increase in the Minimum Enroute Altitude.  A low-altitude GPS airway (T227), will remain for aircraft suitably equipped.  FAA Tech Ops reports that the station is not repairable, and must be taken care of before environmental contamination occurs.

 Action to Take
The Public Notice  announcing the proposed change solicits comments through August 20, 2020.   If the loss of these low-altitude IFR airways impacts your operations, you may comment to the FAA’s Western Service Center at the following addresses:

Group Manager, Operations Support Group, AJV-W2
FAA Western Service Center
2200 South 216th Street
Des Moines, WA 98198

Or via email to:  [email protected]

Please also share your comments with AOPA at: [email protected]

Some private airports risk disappearing from flight charts

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is cleaning up their airport database, and is on the verge of removing almost 3,000 private airports from the flight charts across the nation. Some 114 of those are in Alaska.  While we want and need current and accurate information for flight planning, many of these facilities are still active airports and seaplane bases.  Reaching out to airport owners and encouraging them to update their information will help keep viable airstrips and seaplane bases on the charts.

A sample of the private airports needing to update their listing with FAA to avoid being removed from the flight charts

Updating Airport Information
Flight planning starts with having good information about the airports we plan to visit.  Aeronautical charts and facility directories, along with numerous online websites and data services, are the places we look–but where does the airport data come from?  For public use airports, the FAA pays someone to periodically go to that field and check details like runway length, condition, obstructions, etc.  Private use airports, however, have a different process. The FAA relies on the owners to update their information.  The FAA periodically sends a survey to airport owners, asking them to update their entries.  But what if they don’t hear back?

FAA is currently starting a campaign to change the status of airports whose owners or managers have not provided updates since December 31, 2017.  The airport’s record in the FAA’s airports database will be changed to a “CLOSED INDEFINITLY” which will trigger removal of the airport from the flight charts in the subsequent charting cycle.  This process is slated to start in July, 2020 for airport owners or managers who have not responded to the letter or updated their information online.  The change may be undone, however. If an airport owner belatedly updates their record, the status can be revised, and data restored. But it will take waiting for a publication cycle for the airport to appear on the charts again.

You can help
Check to see if airports you are familiar with are on FAA’s list.  Explore this map of airports in Alaska needing updates.  If you know the airport owners or managers, consider reaching out to them to see if they have updated their entry since this list was created in early May. Here are several ways they may accomplish that task:

  1. Return the FAA survey letter, if they still have it.
  2. Log onto their account on the Airport Data and Information System, https://adip.faa.gov and update their data. Even if the airport owner makes no update to any of their data, by virtue of logging in they have confirmed that their airport is active.
  3. Submit an FAA Form 7480-1 to Alaska Region Airports Division (hardcopy or email) identifying any revisions, or confirming there are no changes.
  4. Contact Patrick Zettler, with the Alaska Region Airports Division for assistance.  He may be reached at 907-271-5446 or [email protected]

While you are at it, thank them having an airport. Private airports are an important component of our aviation infrastructure. They provide capacity beyond that available from public airports and can provide an added layer of safety for aviation operations!

Automated local airport aviation forecasts for Alaskan communities

The National Weather Service (NWS) has fielded an experimental aviation weather product for many Alaska communities that lack a Terminal Area Forecast (TAF).  It represents the latest step in helping pilots anticipate local weather conditions before they fly. The Alaska Aviation Guidance (AAG) product takes the current conditions and applies a model to predict how conditions will change over the next six hours.

A state-wide display of the 61 airports where the AAG product is available, color coded for the predicted weather category (VFR, MVFR, IFR, LIFR).

 What does this mean for Alaska?
Today NWS only issues 39 TAFs for airports across the state—an area one fifth the size of the continental US.  Adding this new experimental product that covers 61 additional airports greatly increases a pilot’s ability to anticipate weather in the immediate vicinity of those locations.  An overall display of the state includes a graphic depiction, color coded for the major flight conditions categories (VFR, marginal VFR, IFR and low IFR), providing a synoptic awareness of conditions over larger areas.

What’s different?
Unlike a TAF, that covers a twenty-four-hour period, these forecasts only project conditions for the next six hours. They are updated each hour, however, to give a fresh look ahead—while TAFs are only routinely updated four times a day.  The product describes the elements pilots most care about; ceiling, visibility, wind and weather.  If conditions are expected to be stable during the next six hours, a single set of elements will be provided, however if change is expected, the guidance will break the time into finer segments. The results are also displayed in an easy to read decoded fashion.

A sample forecast, broken down into time blocks when conditions are expected to change.

Pilots should be aware of some limitations.  This product is completely automated, with no oversight or input from a human forecaster.  And while it covers the key elements we most care about, it does not forecast conditions such as localized convective activity, blowing snow or smoke during fire season.

How can pilots use the product?
Unlike the TAF, which is the staple for IFR operations, the AAG is intended for VFR use only.  On March 25th,  FAA Flight Standards released an InFO sheet that describes how it may be used for flights conducted under different operating regulations, with some limitations.  NWS also cautions us that this is not monitored on a 24 hour basis and may experience outages. AAG should be used in conjunction with all other weather forecasts (such as SIGMETs, AIRMET, Area Forecasts, etc) to best inform pilots of the expected weather conditions.

Where do I find it?
The AAG is an online product found at: https://www.weather.gov/arh/aag. Users will also find an FAQ with additional information, a link to the FAA InFO document and to a user survey.  Please use this product as you fly this summer. The experimental period currently runs to October 16. What happens after that may be influenced by your feedback!

More on Alaska weather developments
On April 8th, the National Weather Service organized a webinar which featured information from the FAA describing plans to deploy a Visual Weather Observing System in Alaska, on a test basis.  To learn more about this project, slated to start this summer, check out the Alaska Aviation Weather Update Webinar.

Alaska Pilots: Heads Up for VIP TFR’s

Typical VIP TFR containing inner and outer rings, with special requirement for communication and transponder use, when active.

TFR’s are not uncommon to Alaskan pilots, often associated with forest fire fighting activities during the summer months.  According to Air Force officials, however, we have had a rash of incursions associated with VIP TFR’s specifically in the Anchorage area. These take place when Air Force One or other high-level officials are moving through the area, making a stop for fuel at JBER.  The national security nature of these TFR’s; however, has a different “side effect” requiring the Air Force to scramble fighters to respond when incursions are observed.  It was reported at the March meeting of the Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board that during a recent VIP TFR, there were eight unauthorized aircraft incursions concurrently.  It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what could happen when an F-22 intercepts a small GA aircraft. With widely disparate operating airspeeds, aircraft maneuvering in close proximity to each other could end up in a dangerous situation for both the civil and military pilot.

Checking NOTAMs before you fly, even for a local flight off a private grass strip, is essential.  The FAA and Air Force has been reaching out to airport sponsors and local airport groups to provide advance notice via email.  Alaska DOT is looking at putting electronic road signs at the entrances of some of their airports.

Pilots have many tools to learn about NOTAMs today—from free websites like www.SkyVector.com to electronic flight bag programs and the NOTAM website itself. AOPA’s Air Safety Institute also has a document that gives tips for TFRs and NORAD Intercept Procedures, that would be a good resource.

Take the extra few minutes before you fly to check for NOTAMs – particularly those posted for Anchorage Center (ZAN).  In the Anchorage area, the F-22 pilot in the ready room at JBER will be happy that you did!

Mountain Pass Charting: What should be on the sectionals?

Mountain passes are important features, particularly for VFR pilots on cross-country flights.  Terrain is often a limiting feature for those of us that don’t fly in the flight levels and knowing how to navigate through mountainous areas is a key part of pre-flight planning.  The indication of a mountain pass on Sectionals is one feature to look for, especially when flying in an unfamiliar area. But how well are mountain passes denoted on the flight charts?  AOPA recently raised this issue at the Aeronautical Charting Meeting, a national group that meets twice a year to consider charting specifications, and is starting an effort to review the charting of mountain passes.  Are there passes that should be charted but aren’t?  Passes charted that shouldn’t be? And what more could we do to help pilots successfully navigate major mountain passes?

Mountain Passes Missing?

An oblique view of Atigun Pass from the southwest. Pilots turning into the pass can’t see conditions ahead and may not have room to reverse course if encountering poor visibility on the other side.

Alaska has some significant mountain ranges that pilots must navigate to get around the state.  Today, the mountain pass chart symbol is the primary clue to where the “gaps” in the terrain are located, that mark significant passes.  But not all passes are created equal.  Some are pretty benign low altitude corridors, often carved out by streams, and widened by glaciers, with no big surprises.  Others are little more than gaps between mountain peaks, with sharp turns, that may be very challenging to fly.  Perhaps the poster child of the later case is Atigun Pass, in the eastern Brooks Range, and the scene of numerous aircraft accidents over the years.  It is a narrow notch, requiring the pilot to make a pair of ninety degree turns—without being able to see what is on the other side.  Yet, only seventeen nautical miles to the west is a much more friendly pass that connects the North Fork of the Koyukuk with the Itkillik River.  Charting this location would at least let pilots know there is an alternative they should check out during their flight planning activities.  Should we add this pass to the Sectional?

While Atigun Pass is charted on the Sectional, 17 miles west is an uncharted pass, at a lower altitude with more forgiving terrain that locals normally use when transiting this section of the Brooks Range.

Mountain Passes Not Needed?

In contrast, there may be passes on the charts that were imported from USGS maps that aren’t helpful to pilots. Holmes Pass, also in the eastern Brooks Range, was named by a Robert Marshall in 1930, traveling by dog sled. Should this be on Sectional charts today

At the same time we examine at this topic, are there passes shown on the charts that may not be needed, which may lure pilots to fly through them.  Passes on flight charts are typically imported from USGS topographic maps.  Recognizing that locally any notch in the terrain can serve as a route through higher terrain, the features assigned on topographic maps may have little to do with aviation.  Again looking at the eastern Brooks Range, consider Holmes Pass, about 30 nautical miles southwest of Atigun.  According to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, published by USGS, it was named by Robert Marshall in 1930—a time when he was exploring the area by dog sled.  (Marshall’s book, An Arctic Village provides a fascinating account of his activities and what conditions were like at the time.)  Does this pass have value for aviation purposes today?  If not, perhaps we should remove it.

The path ahead
To address these issues, AOPA is in the process of setting up a working group, with the Alaska Airmen Association and other industry stakeholders, to examine these questions.  While the effort will initially focus on Alaska, the goal is to make a recommendation back to the FAA and Aeronautical Charting Meeting which would address these topics nationally.  While this process is just getting underway, I am seeking input on these two questions:

(1) Do you know of significant mountain passes not on Sectionals today that you think should be added?

(2) Are there mountain passes charted today that you don’t believe are used, and should be removed?

Please feel free to email me ([email protected]) with any candidates corresponding to either of these questions.

Watch for more information on this topic in the months ahead!

 

[This article was originally published in the January-March, 2020 edition of the Alaska Airmen Association’s Transponder]

State of Alaska Capstone Aviation Loan Program to Sunset

Alaska may be the only state in the nation to make financial loans available to encourage aviation safety.  This unique Capstone Program helps individual aircraft owners and aviation businesses finance avionics upgrades to take advantage of ADS-B and the WAAS GPS instrument approaches that have become key elements of the NextGen air transportation system.   After being available for a dozen years, however, only 20 loans have been approved, and the program will sunset on July 1st 2020.  It may still be worth considering, if you are planning upgrades that meet the program criteria.

Information on the loan program is available at: https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/ded/FIN/LoanPrograms/CapstoneAvionics.aspx or google “Alaska Capstone Loan”

Background
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Capstone Program pioneered the use of ADS-B and other technologies to improve aviation safety.  From the time the demonstration project became operational in 2000 until 2006, the program demonstrated a 47% reduction in the accident rate for aircraft operating in southwest Alaska that were equipped with ADS-B, WAAS GPS navigators, and moving map displays compared to the non-equipped aircraft.  Those technologies along with the installation of additional weather stations to support instrument approaches in the area contributed to this change.  But it was recognized early on that the cost of equipping aircraft would be an issue. While the demonstration equipment had been funded by the FAA, subsequent equipage would be a financial burden on aircraft owners and operators.

On the strength of these results in accident reduction, to encourage use of this safety equipment in the state, the Alaska Legislature established the Capstone Avionics Loan Program in 2008.  For the past 12 years, the program has made it possible for Alaskans to obtain a 4% fixed rate loan that will pay for 80% of the cost of installing ADS-B, GPS/WAAS navigation equipment and a multifunction display in aircraft that are principally operated in Alaska.

Not Many Takers
During the life of the program, only 20 loans have been approved. Seven of those went to private individuals and the remaining were taken out by businesses.  I was one of the individuals that used this program to install ADS-B, and a WAAS GPS in my aircraft.  The loan application process was straight forward. It required filling out a financial statement, information about the aircraft, providing a copy of my preceding year’s tax return and a $50 application fee.  One detail that is worth noting–many people that are making upgrades choose to change out other components of their panel at the same time. In my case, I installed a Garmin G5 attitude indicator and directional gyro so I could ditch my vacuum system.  It was no problem to have the avionics installer split the items that were eligible on a separate invoice from those that were outside the scope of the loan program.  Once approved, the check was sent directly to the installer, and I only had to come up the remaining 20% at the time the bill was due.

Loan Program Sunsets Next July
The legislation that established the program has a sunset clause, and unless further action is taken it will be terminated on July 1st 2020.  There are two important details related to that deadline:

First, if you haven’t yet equipped with any of this suite of equipment, there is still time.  But don’t put it off much longer, as it does take time to have a loan application reviewed and approved.  I would recommend calling the folks that run the program at the Division of Economic Development and review what you are planning, to figure if it fits your circumstances.  They have offices and staff in Anchorage and Juneau that are a phone call away.  They can be reached at (800) 478 5626 (toll free in Alaska) or (907) 465-2510 and ask to speak with one of their loan officers.  Their office hours are 7:30am – 4:30pm,  Monday – Friday.

Second, the low use of the program makes it hard to justify an extension.  Please take the one-question survey to express your needs regarding this program:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/323WWR2

If you are considering purchasing ADS-B or WAAS GPS navigation equipment for your aircraft, this opportunity may be worth exploring.  Don’t let a lack of current funds stop you from making technology upgrades that can help keep you and your passengers safe.

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This article was initially published in the Alaska Airmen Association’s Transponder

Experimental Alaska weather product predicts clouds along routes

Update: October 10, 2019–This experimental period has been extended another 30 days, and will be available through November 8th.

A new generation of weather satellites is making it possible to help Alaska pilots anticipate weather along their route of flight.  An experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section (CVC) Product shows the estimated extent of cloud cover along a route, as well as whether the clouds contain ice, liquid or supercooled water.  These products are available on an experimental basis from September 11th to November 8th.  Check them out, and help provide feedback!

Background
Imaging sensors on new NOAA weather satellites are supporting R&D activities by NOAA and Colorado State University’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere to create a number of new weather products for Alaska.  While the rest of the country relies primarily on geostationary satellites, parked some 22,000 miles above the equator, they don’t provide very detailed information as you go toward the poles. At Alaska’s latitudes, we are better served with polar-orbiting satellites that make multiple passes per day sweeping over the state a little more than 500 miles overhead, capturing swathes of imagery as they fly by.  Image data from these passes are extracted, processed and used to create a new generation of weather products for Alaska.  Starting in mid-September, one set of these products is available to users for evaluation.

Entry page to the Experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section Product. Click on the highlighted link on this page to see what satellite passes covered Alaska.

Cloud Vertical Cross-Section (CVC)Product
Shortly after a satellite passes over a portion of the state, data from the sensors is extracted and processed to created a cross-section product.  Four routes that have been defined, to estimate cloud conditions between the cities of Anchorage and Bethel, Fairbanks and Juneau, plus a route from Fairbanks to Barrow (Utqiagvik).  With each satellite pass that covers some or all of these routes, a cross-section product is generated and made available through a website:

http://rammb.cira.colostate.edu/ramsdis/online/npp_viirs_arctic_aviation.asp

This window shows an animation of satellite passes over Alaska, used to create the CVC Product. It also provides an overview of synoptic weather pattern motion.

Navigating the CVC Product
To get a sense of how these products work, click on Pop-up Loop on the Overview with Flight Routes panel.  This animated loop will show the progression of satellite passes that covered the state, and which passes cover the defined routes.  It also provides a good depiction of the cloud cover over the last day or so. Use the controls on this window to change the animation speed, or to step through individual frames for an overview of weather system motion across the state. Times are listed in both UT and Alaska Daylight Time for your convenience.

A sample product from Anchorage to Fairbanks, depicting cloud conditions expected along the route.

Using the Route Product
After pursuing the overview, select a route of interest.  Either the HTML5 Loop or the Pop-up Loop launches an animation that steps through the products available for the route you picked.  Here too, the animation speed can be adjusted.  Or one can hit STOP and step through each frame individually.  This product is highly derived and is pulling data from several intermediate products that estimate cloud height, the cloud base, as well as the type of cloud they think will be present (water, ice or supercooled liquid).  Notice that at times there is missing data, color coded as light gray. In this case the product is not able to make a prediction.  The cross sections also have a backdrop of the terrain along each routes, and an estimate of the freezing level.

How you can help
As described, these are experimental products, and your help is needed to validate them.  First and foremost, please file Pilot Reports when you are flying anywhere within 50 miles of these routes.  During this experimental period, PIREPs are needed to help the science team learn about their accuracy.  Since they forecast the cloud base, as well as top, PIREPs for better than forecast conditions are needed, as well as those associated with icing, and cloud tops.  In addition, if you have questions or specific feedback, there is a Feedback link on the site which will put you directly in touch with the researchers involved in this effort.

This is an exciting step forward in providing weather information for aviation.  Please try out these new products during the 30 day experiment, and do all you can to help the science team understand how their products are working!

Alaska’s Fire Season isn’t over yet: Check for TFRs

With the unusually dry weather in south central Alaska, and rash of late season wildfires, Temporary Flight Restrictions are again popping up in different areas.  DNR has observed numerous light aircraft flying thorough TFR’s along the Parks Highway.

Please check TFR’s and stay clear when they are active.  While sources like SkyVector.com and tfr.faa.gov make it easy to see a visual representation of TFR’s and the scheduled active times, give a call to Flight Service for the current status.

The mid-air collision (or FAA infraction) you avoid, may be your own!

An example  TFR display on SkyVector.com showing the associated active times. Check with FSS for current status.

GA Safety in Alaska: A conversation with Robert Sumwalt and Richard McSpadden

Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is himself a pilot with extensive experience in the airline world.

The Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and Alaska Airmen Association are continuing their Hangar Talk seminar series with a conversation on general aviation safety in Alaska. Taking advantage of having NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden in Alaska, you are invited to join us for a discussion on this topic. Moderated by the Airmen Government Affairs Liaison, Adam White, this session provides an opportunity to explore how Alaska aviation safety compares with the rest of the country, the unique challenges we face, and possible mitigations to help increase aviation safety in the state. It also provides a chance to understand how NTSB and the AOPA Air Safety Institute function and address aviation safety challenges. Bring your questions and join the conversation!

Richard McSpadden, Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, has a strong background in GA, corporate and military aviation.

The session will be held on Thursday, Sept. 5, 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Alaska Airmen Association Building on Lake Hood.   Refreshments will be served. The session will also be broadcast by the Airmen on Facebook Live.

This event precedes the NTSB Roundtable: Alaska Part 135 Flight Operations, which takes place the following day, Sept. 6.  For information on that event see the NTSB Notice.

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