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Author: Tom George (page 1 of 15)

FAA to extract visibility from weathercams through crowd sourcing: looking for Alaskan volunteers

Since its inception the FAA Weather Camera Program has provided Alaska pilots with a valuable tool, helping us make critical go/no go decisions.  Today, FAA is looking to squeeze more information out of the system by estimating visibility from the images.  To conduct a demonstration project, they are looking for 40 weather camera users—pilots, dispatchers or other users, to make visibility estimates based on web camera images.  If you are willing to help advance this effort, consider participating in a short training session, and signing up to help.

The FAA Weather Camera Program has provided supplementary weather information to pilots in Alaska for 25 years.

Background:
A weather camera system for aviation use was first demonstrated as part of a PhD graduate student’s program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in April, 1996—in what was supposed to be a six month operational demonstration at three locations.  It proved so popular that FAA took over those sites, and has continued to add camera locations, now operating some 230 sites across Alaska. More recently FAA is installing cameras in Hawaii and Colorado and is hosting third-party camera data from more locations, including in Canada.

Breaking new ground:
A new phase of the program is underway today—to extract additional, more quantifiable information from the camera sensors.  Earlier this year pilots were asked to evaluate visibility data derived from image processing of weather camera images.  Now, the FAA is looking for volunteers to explore a crowd-sourcing approach to estimating visibility.  If you are a pilot, dispatcher, or other FAA weather camera user, and would be willing to spend two hours a week over the course of a few weeks, consider signing up to help FAA explore this means of collecting weather camera data.  You will be asked to look at weather camera images and estimate the visibility based on what you see in the image. Scheduling is flexible and a one-hour online training session provides the background you need to participate.  The project is expected to run between two and four weeks in duration. Your participation would help advance our understanding of how to extract more value from the weather camera system.

To access the presentation:

FAA ZoomGov Meeting.
Optional ways to join are:

Click to Join:
https://faavideo.zoomgov.com/j/16130653524
• Passcode: 642640
• If prompted, accept the Zoom application as instructed.

Mobile Device:
• Download the ‘Zoom Cloud Meetings’ App.
• Select ‘Join a Meeting’ and enter Meeting ID: 161 3065 3524
• Passcode: 642640

Phone Audio Only:
• Call 1-888-924-3239; enter Meeting ID: 161 3065 3524
• Passcode: 642640
• Unmute or mute yourself by pressing *6.

How to help:
Please consider helping to explore this use of the FAA Weather Camera data by volunteering some of your time and expertise. Participate in the virtual training session shown above.  Send an email with your contact information (email address and phone number) to: [email protected] or [email protected] who will respond with additional information regarding the project and how to schedule your participation.

NASA terrain avoidance flight system demonstrated

NASA is developing technology initially created for fighter aircraft into a tool to help general aviation aircraft to avoid collisions with terrain.  While many of us fly today with features in our GPS that will alert us to the proximity of terrain, the basic response is, “pull up—pull up.” If, however you are in a confined location that option may not be the best response—or even possible.  While still ‘work in progress,’ NASA is hosting a live, online demonstration of their Resilient Autonomy Activity, an outgrowth of a system developed for use in the F-16 fighters.  Mark your calendar for Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time, to watch a simulation demonstration in some Alaskan  mountainous terrain.

Background
Most of the terrain awareness and warning devices that we see today in our general aviation cockpits do little more than flash orange or red, depending how close we are, with the only guidance being to climb.  But NASA has been working on something better.  The NASA Resilient Autonomy Activity is developing a system that provides more options on how to escape terrain, when you get too close.  Based on work in conjunction with the FAA and DOD, they have software under development that came from their Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), developed for, and today in use in F-16’s.

A screen shot of a simulated flight indicating that a turn to the left is the only remaining maneuver to avoid the terrain ahead.  Credit: NASA/Mark Skoog

This work is being conducted by the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center.  In an event coordinated with the Alaska Airmen’s Association, they plan to give an online demonstration of the system’s capabilities.  Instead of just directing a pilot to climb, the system uses digital terrain data to offer lateral escape routes, depending on the location.  Planned in stages, the system is anticipated to be coupled to an autopilot, and eventually into totally autonomous aircraft.

The virtual presentation will be conducted using Microsoft TEAMS, with time for questions and answers following the demo.  To check out this evolving capability, and ask questions of NASA staff,  join the meeting with the information below:

Wednesday, September 22, at 6 pm Alaska Daylight Time

Microsoft Teams meeting

Join on your computer or mobile app

Click here to join the meeting

Or call in (audio only)

+1 256-715-9946,,104378964#   United States, Huntsville

Phone Conference ID: 104 378 964#

Find a local number | Reset PIN

 

Ptarmigan Pass gets a new name

A popular mountain pass through the Alaska Range connecting Anchorage and McGrath just got a “facelift.”  The flight route that has for many years been known as Ptarmigan Pass is the longer, lower, and more open pathway through the Alaska Range. It provides an alternative to Rainy Pass, which is at a higher elevation along a more confined route.  As the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Services is reviewing Alaska mountain passes, discrepancies are being corrected.  During this process, two issues were discovered regarding the route formerly associated with Ptarmigan Pass, which are resulting in significant changes to features on the McGrath Sectional, including renaming and relocating Ptarmigan to Houston Pass.

Background
Pilots flying VFR through the Alaska Range between Anchorage and McGrath for many years have used either Rainy Pass—if the weather was really good—or the longer, lower route that goes up the Happy River into Ptarmigan Valley, down Ptarmigan Creek before taking a turn to the west and following the South Fork of the Kuskoskwim River out of the mountains and on to McGrath.  This route is frequently used when clouds limit more direct pathways across the range.  The description from a 1934 Naval Air Pilot publication provides a compelling comparison of the two routes, which was probably relevant for the capabilities of the airplanes of that time– in addition to many that we fly today.

This description of the air routes between Anchorage and McGrath was published in the Naval Air Pilot, Hydrographic Office Publication No 188, published June 1, 1934. (Thanks to Marshall Severson for locating this document.)

In the interest of providing more information to pilots to improve safety, the FAA is currently looking at mountain passes in Alaska and the information presented to pilots on flight charts.  In the course of this review, two problems were discovered regarding the location that had for years been labeled as Ptarmigan Pass:

  • the U.S. Geological Survey’s recognized name for this landmark is Hellsgate Canyon, not Ptarmigan Pass and,
  • further inspection revealed that while it may be the narrowest segment of the route, it is not a pass.

Where IS the Pass?
A “pass” represents the highest point along the lowest route between two drainages.  For VFR flight planning, pilots need to know the location and elevation of that point.  Adding the altitude needed to comfortably fly the route based on their personal flight minimums, a pilot can now evaluate the weather enroute.  When flying up a valley toward a pass, a pilot encountering ceilings lower than needed to cross the pass now have a basis to make the decision to turn around—while they still have the opportunity to do so.

Changes to the McGrath Sectional as of the August 12, 2021 chart cycle. After this date, Houston Pass is added to the chart, while Hellsgate is changed to a VFR checkpoint.

Along this route through the Alaska Range, the actual pass is about 10 nautical miles northeast of Hellsgate Canyon. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s place names dictionary, Houston Pass is the name of that location.  Houston Pass has an elevation of 2,749 feet and sits in a wide valley, providing an alternative to the higher and more confined terrain along the route that goes through Rainy Pass, which sits at an elevation of 3,524 feet.  As of the charting cycle starting on August 12, changes to the McGrath Sectional include adding Houston Pass  and converting Hellsgate Canyon from a pass symbol to a VFR checkpoint.

A comparison of the elevations of three features along the Rainy and Huston Pass routes.

Looking ahead
As part of the FAA review of Alaskan mountain passes, it was noted that the pass elevation data normally found on sectionals in other parts of the country is missing for Alaska.  The FAA charting team has already added elevation data to a few passes and is working to add it to a large number of other passes across the state later this fall. For now, with regard to these passes, please make it a point to:

  • Update your databases or buy a new paper chart with the August 12 revisions
  • Note these changes and use the new placenames when making CTAF calls along the route, allowing other pilots to know your location relative to these features, reducing the likelihood of mid-air collisions
  • Help pass the word–as this represents a significant change along a route that has been used since the earliest days of flying in Alaska

When we’re talking about Houston Pass or Hellsgate Canyon, let’s help keep everyone on the same page – especially when that page is a sectional chart.  Fly safe!

Decommissioning of NDB’s and Airspace changes in Alaska

FAA is proposing changes to the aviation infrastructure in Alaska.  Public notices have been issued for decommissioning of non-directional beacons (NDBs) and to modify the Class D and E airspace around the Kodiak Airport.  Please review these proposals and let the FAA and AOPA know if they impact the flying you do in these areas.

NDB Decommissioning
FAA is continuing to look at decommissioning Non-Directional Beacons (NDB) in Alaska, as we make the transition to a GPS based NAS.  Notices of proposed decommissioning of the NDB’s at Homer, Deadhorse, Moses Point, Point Lay and Soldotna were issued recently, inviting public comment on potential impacts of these changes. In most cases FAA cites the availability of other ground-based approaches or airways and plans for T-Routes that are being developed to replace the old colored airways, to mitigate the loss of these navigation aids.  Below are graphics of the NDB’s proposed for decommissioning.

 

Moses Point (Norton Bay–OAY)

 

Deadhorse (PUT River–PVQ)

Homer (Kachemak –ACE)

Soldotna (OLT)

Point Lay–(PIZ)

AOPA generally supports moving to the more modern space-based systems but recognizes that in some cases unique needs may justify keeping the older technology in place.  We also recognize that the resources required to support NDB’s inhibit FAA’s ability to invest in the newer infrastructure, including weather reporting and ADS-B ground stations.

Please take a moment to examine the proposed decommissioning locations (links below to the individual notices). If you are adversely impacted, file a public comment to explain the situation.  Comments are due by July 15, 2021 and may be sent to:

Group Manager, Operations Support Group
AVJ-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]

To read the public notices for these changes see:

FAA Public Notice for OAY NDB

FAA Public Notice for ACE NDB

FAA Public Notice for PVQ NDB

FAA Public Notice for the OLT NDB

FAA Public Notice for Point Lay NDB

Kodiak Class D/E Airspace:

Proposed changes to the Class D (dashed green line) and Class E (yellow line). Note that the proposed expanded Class E starts at 700 ft agl. 

In another public notice, the FAA has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to modify the Class D airspace at Kodiak Airport (PADQ), while at the same time removing the Class E surface area east of the airport. It also significantly expands the Class E airspace with a 700 foot floor, north and east of the airport.

The changes are designed to better manage IFR operations at the airport. We are particularly interested in whether they impact VFR operations in the area.  To examine the details of the proposal see:

https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/06/04/2021-11668/proposed-amendment-of-class-d-and-class-e-airspace-and-removal-of-class-e-airspace-kodiak-ak

Comments on this proposal are due by July 17, 2021 and should be addressed to:

U.S. Department of Transportation, Docket Operations
1200 New Jersey Avenue SE
West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140
Washington, DC 20590

They may also be submitted via the internet: https://www.regulations.gov. Please share these comments with AOPA as well at: [email protected]

Action to Take
Please review these proposals and let FAA as well as AOPA know if these changes impact your flying activities for either IFR or VFR operations.

Hearing from our members who fly in these areas helps us advocate for you!

Anticipating Break-up of Alaska’s Rivers: Pilot Observations Needed

As the long, cold and dark part of the year departs, break-up of Alaska’s rivers is getting underway.  The National Weather Service expects this that year, it could trend toward more of a mechanical event, with ice jams and flooding being more likely in some parts of the state.  NWS Hydrologist Crane Johnson presented the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center’s outlook at a webinar hosted by the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP).  Pilots are encouraged to consider participating in the River Watch Program this year,  sharing photos and/or pilot reports of ice conditions as we fly along the rivers between mid-April and perhaps into early June, to help monitor this situation.

Forecast for 2021
Factors that influence the nature of river break-up include thickness and areal extent of ice that formed over the winter, the quantity of the snowpack, and spring weather.   Crane was joined by ACCAP Climatologist Rick Thoman, who summarized the temperature and precipitation over the past winter and then looked ahead at the forecasts for the weeks ahead.  Based on this data, we should expect more of a mechanical break-up with the ice jams and associated flooding this year, as opposed to a gentle thermal break-up where ice largely melts in place and does not provide much resistance to the increased river flow associated with melting snows.  For more details on the processes in play, and the specifics of what areas are most at risk, I encourage you to watch the recording of the webinar, presented on April 13.

 

Breakups can vary in intensity depending on winter conditions, and how fast warming conditions develop in the spring. Based on existing conditions and forecasts, this season is expected to have more mechanical characteristics.

 Areas at Risk
Looking across the state, some regions are more at risk than others.  While ice thickness and snow cover are known to some extent, the remaining wild card is the temperature in the weeks ahead.  Based on forecast data to date, the break-up outlook map depicts an above average potential for flooding across the interior along the Yukon, Tanana and Kuskokwim drainages, as well as in the Copper River drainage and in the southeast panhandle.

The Spring Flood potential will be updated periodically. The current version will be found at: https://www.weather.gov/aprfc/floodpotential.

Historical Distribution of Ice Jams
While attention is often focused on the larger rivers, Crane also presented a map of the historic distribution of ice jams across the state.  It shows that they have occurred in more locations than just the major rivers.  Given this widespread distribution of possible locations for ice jams, observations from pilots can be particularly helpful to the River Forecast Center in monitoring break-up.

Ice jams can occur on a wide variety of rivers across the state. Consider flying segments of the smaller rivers to look for ice jams and related flooding.

What can Pilots Do?
If you are willing to devote some flight time to help the National Weather Service monitor break up this Spring, consider participating in the River Watch Program.  Initially designed to use Pilot Reports as the primary mechanism for reporting ice or flooding conditions, it now more commonly uses pictures taken with a smart phone (preferably with GPS turned on) of river conditions.  Email them to the River Forecast Office after getting back on the ground.

Information about the program, what to look for, and how to communicate results, is available on the River Watch page.  As the season progresses, NWS will update their breakup status map and indicate areas they are specifically interested in learning about–so check back periodically for updates.  Please keep in mind that not all communities are open to outside visitors; so, check the state’s Safe Travel site for local restrictions, before you plan your flights.

River Watch image on the Yukon River using the Theodolite App to capture location direction and altitude.

River Watch is a way for general aviation to contribute to the public good, while clearing out the cobwebs if you didn’t fly much over the winter.  Check out the details on the River Watch website and consider this a good reason to get airborne.  And while you are capturing river details with a smart phone, take time to file a Pilot Report or two with Flight Service when you are in locations that don’t have reported weather. Your PIREPs are appreciated!

Extracting Visibility Information from Weather Cameras

Deriving visibility information from weather cameras has been in the works for several years—and you may be in a position to help determine if it is ready for prime time.  The Visibility Estimation through Image Analytics (VEIA) Program looks at FAA weather camera images and derives an estimate of the visibility using an automated comparison to clear day images.  The FAA will be evaluating this product starting in April 2021.  They are looking for Alaskan pilots willing to help with the analysis by looking at the camera-derived visibility, examining observations and completing a questionnaire.  If successful, this program could significantly expand the number of locations across the state where visibility information is provided to the aviation community.

Background
The FAA Weather Camera Program is very popular–used by pilots, FAA Flight Service Station staff, National Weather Service forecasters, and just about anyone else interested in current weather conditions and trends.  The capability was first operationally demonstrated by a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student’s PhD thesis project, by installing camera stations at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag, and Ruby.  The demonstration was supposed to run from April through October of 1999.  Subsequently the FAA took over those three camera sites and, through several twists and turns, ramped up to the statewide operational network found in Alaska today.  There are currently over 230 camera locations, typically comprising three or four cameras per site.  The system also hosts camera data from the extensive Canadian network of stations and has integrated 13 Colorado weather cameras into the FAA Weather Camera Program through a partnership with the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.  Building on the success of the program in Alaska, the FAA is also installing 23 cameras along popular flight routes in Hawaii to enhance aviation safety and pilot decision-making.

With images updated every ten minutes and distributed through the program website, pilots may look at locations along routes they intend to fly to see if conditions are suitable for VFR operations, using this supplementary source of data.  By viewing images over the previous few hours, one can also look at recent trends in weather conditions.  Even more information is available in locations where camera sites are collocated with AWOS or ASOS stations, as this data is displayed along with the camera views. This gives the user the benefit of both visual images as well as current conditions in a textual (METAR) format as sources of information to consider in making flight planning assessments.  An example of this type of display is seen in the accompanying illustration from Ketchikan International Airport (PAKT).  But there are far fewer AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska than weather cameras — so can we derive more quantitative weather information from the camera data itself?

FAA Weather Camera Display and current METAR. The display of weather camera observations at Ketchikan, where cameras looking in four directions show conditions and may be compared against an annotated clear day image.

Extracting Visibility from WeatherCams
A variety of techniques have been explored to derive visibility estimates from weather camera observations, including image processing and crowdsourcing techniques.  For several years FAA-funded research has been underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to use image processing techniques to derive visibility from weather camera data.  Images from approximately 10 days of observations are used to develop a “best” clear day composite image. New images from the cameras are then compared with the composite image. An edge detection algorithm, using a ratio technique, is used to estimate visibility in statute miles.  The results are presented via website along with the trend showing potential changes over a maximum of six hours.  An example of the output from VEIA is shown with the weather camera views in the illustration from the Seward Airport (PAWD).  This technique only works during the day when there is adequate illumination to create suitable images, so no information is derived by VEIA during hours of darkness.

FAA Weather Camera Display and Camera Derived Visibility Estimates. This display includes weather camera observations at Seward, where cameras also look in four directions to show condition, and may be compared against an annotated clear day image. The visibility estimates are presented to the user to show the most current estimate of visibility and the visibility trends at a given location.

How can you help?
This spring, the FAA’s Aviation Weather Demonstration and Evaluation Services team will be evaluating the VEIA product.  The team is looking for a cross-section of individual end-users to actively examine and evaluate the experimental data.

The evaluation will be conducted between April and June 2021.  Participants will be provided individual accounts to access products and provided with training materials to understand the VEIA capabilities and functionality.  All participants are asked to use the VEIA system and participate in two virtual meetings to provide feedback to the evaluation team.  At the end of the assessment, each participant is expected to complete a final questionnaire.  Please consider participating in this cutting-edge research to expand weather reporting capabilities at weather camera sites and develop additional sources of weather information for pilots, dispatchers, meteorologists, and Flight Service Specialists in Alaska.  If you fit into one of the following categories and would like to participate, use the registration links below to sign up:

VEIA Registration links:

Pilot:  https://forms.gle/cZLychGHER9fgeuk9

Dispatcher:  https://forms.gle/x5UMCYBtUXxNhdJT7

Meteorologist:  https://forms.gle/VFewc2bnucnxoEfCA

FAA Flight Services:  https://forms.gle/7MQWDHdfbZkHuxmcA

If you have questions or need more information, please contact Jill Miller at [email protected] or call 609-412-9080 (east coast time zone).

If you are already a user of the FAA Weather Camera System, please consider devoting a few hours of your time to evaluate this new product, which has the potential to significantly expand the network of locations reporting visibility in Alaska.  If this technique proves to be successful, it will be a significant advancement for the network of reporting points in Alaska and a momentous innovation in extracting supplementary information from weather cameras.

 

[This article was originally published in the April-June 2021 issue of the Alaska Airmen’s Association newsletter,  The Transponder.]

Experimental Graphic Aviation Weather for Alaska

The National Weather Service is looking for your help to provide comments on the Experimental Graphical Forecast for Aviation (GFA) covering Alaska.  This tool has been operational in the rest of the country since 2017, and is now being populated with datasets to cover Alaska.  The public notice announcing the availability of this product indicates that it is anticipated to potentially replace the text-based Area Forecast (FA) for Alaska in the future.  But the GFA really is much more than a replacement for the string of text that used to spit out of a teletype machine.  It is really an integrated display that allows pilots to visualize multiple types of information in a graphical form. This includes aviation forecasts up to 18 hours in the future, and providing current conditions—METARs, PIREPs, satellite and radar products, up to 18 hours in the past.  Along with the increase in the potential amount of weather information provided, there are additional tools for pilots to use to select the specific weather information they are looking for. These tools are different and will take some getting used to but are well worth the time to learn. For example, the ability to display a multi-leg route can help the user apply the forecast conditions to the route they are intending to fly.

Using the GFA
As a new user to the system, it helped me to realize that one first must choose whether to look at the future (Forecast button) or current and past conditions (Obs/Warn button), and that for each of these products, selecting the Map Options button allows the user to change features such as the base map, size and opacity of map features.  This is especially important when dealing with some elements, such as PIREPs.  The default for PIREPs is to display those no older than ninety minutes but using the Map Options control allows one to display them in 90 minute increments back to a maximum of 12 hours.  This is a very dynamic system—each map product has its own legend displayed at the bottom of the frame, and most have different feature settings, allowing a high degree of customization.  I personally like the ability to display airports and rivers, for geographic reference.  Learning the nuances of each map and how to customize them to your preferred view will take time and some willingness to understand the new system.

Graphic Forecast: A view of the Experimental GFA looking at the forecast ceilings and visibility for a route between Fairbanks and Anchorage via Healy River and Talkeetna. Being able to display a multi-leg route helps relate to the forecast conditions along each leg of the flight.

Some of these custom options include controls for layers that allow a user to select times and altitudes to display information specific to those settings.  These options demand some study to ensure you have correctly adjusted your settings to display the desired information.  Winds, turbulence, and icing forecasts can be selected for different altitudes. Care will also be needed when viewing PIREPs.  An altitude selector scale is provided but it might be good initially to use the ALL option to get the complete picture before focusing on a single altitude range.

For those of us long-time users of the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit website, the GFA is different—and will take getting used to.  This system combines point observations such as METARs and PIREPs with graphic layers showing the lateral extent of sky cover and includes yet a third element– spot features that forecast cloud bases, tops, and sky cover at regular intervals.  This last layer shows what we used to get in a paragraph of text for an entire forecast zone, but it is now broken into smaller elements, providing additional spatial resolution (see figure below).

Gridded Forecast: This example shows a forecast predicting sky cover, bases, and tops on a gridded basis. The pilot selected route depicted as the pink line is superimposed along with rivers and public use airports in this example help provide for geographic reference. The legend, displayed at the bottom, is never far away.

This weather evaluation product is highly customizable.  The number of features displayed change as one zooms in and out of the product, while continuing to show the route selected in the first place. I particularly like being able to turn on the major rivers for situational awareness.

Share Your Thoughts
The comment period for this experimental product is slated to run through September, 2022.  Please take some time now, during the short dark days of mid-winter, to try planning some routes you normally fly, and see how this system delivers the data. If you are unfamiliar with the GFA, a short video tutorial is available to help get started.  The Info button at the upper right corner of the window will provide a brief description, with links to the tutorial video, the product description document, and a link to the survey to provide feedback. You may also use the “Contact AWC” link in the “fine print” at the bottom of the page if you want to comment on the product.

NWS wants our feedback.  Using the Survey button near the top right corner of the frame to provide feedback will help the product designers and interface experts at the NWS better understand how to adjust the weather evaluation tool as required for Alaska and ensure the system is user-friendly and meets the needs of pilots. Please also share your thoughts on this system with AOPA by email at [email protected]. The time you invest in this today will impact the quality of the product we have to work with in the future!

 

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!

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