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Author: Tom George (page 1 of 13)

Best Practices for Aircraft Survival Gear in Alaska

What kind of equipment do you carry as survival gear when you fly?  When flying over the vast boreal forests, endless tundra, massive glaciers and rugged mountains of Alaska, one really wants to have some equipment for the off chance of an unplanned landing, or even something as simple as not being able to get the engine started when returning from a remote location.

I regularly receive calls and emails from pilots planning to fly from the “Lower 48” to Alaska. One of the most frequent questions is: “I know Alaska is different. What do I need to bring in the way of survival gear?”  This is often the start of a discussion that explores topics such as, “When are you coming?”, “What part of the state are you planning to fly to?”, and “What type of aircraft are you flying?”  After all, a DC-3 has a lot more space for survival gear than a Super Cub.

People have also heard that Alaska has a law requiring survival gear be carried on board.  It does.  The first regulation dates back to 1943, before Alaska was a state. The regulation adopted at that time provided a short list of items to be carried. More recently, the state statute was revised which changed the requirements a bit, but is still basically a list of items, with some seasonal additions for winter operations.  It also contains language indicating that these “…are considered to be minimum requirements…” indicating that this topic is worth more attention.

More than a List
To address the requests for information, and provide some guidance for pilots, representatives from several aviation groups drafted a “Best Practices” document, intended to touch on key factors to consider when putting together a survival kit.  Elements such as shelter, signaling, fire arms, and food are covered, along with some discussion about where to carry components of your kit. This document does not include a prescriptive list of items to carry, although it has several references with more information and ideas regarding items to carry, and how to personalize your individual kit.

What is a Survival Situation?
Many of us like to go camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing, skiing, snow machining, etc.  We probably consider ourselves to be fairly handy operating in remote areas. The skill and experience gained from those activities certainly is a benefit over someone who is not comfortable in these settings.  But a survival situation has one key difference—you didn’t PLAN to be there.  Plus, the camping gear carried behind the back seat might not have made it out of the aircraft, following a forced landing and subsequent fire.  You, or some of your passengers, may have injuries. Just taking one hand out of commission makes it much more difficult to open a can of beans, or to heat water for a freeze-dried meal.  THESE are the situations we need to prepare for, both in terms of what we carry in our aircraft, on our person, and perhaps most importantly, in our minds.

Planning for an unplanned situation, figuring out in advance what equipment to have with you, and mentally preparing for a variety of situations is important to achieve a successful outcome when things go wrong.

Practice
The best practices document includes a brief discussion about the importance of training.  I would like to suggest a fun exercise you can perform to test your survival gear.  Years ago, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation held a workshop in Fairbanks, with about a dozen aircraft participating, that executed this scenario.  Get with a few aviation friends and plan an overnight outing to a nearby back-country airstrip, or someplace you can camp.  Instead of taking the normal load of camping gear, and shopping bag of steaks to cook, fly out and spend the night ONLY USING YOUR SURVIVAL GEAR.  Construct a shelter, make dinner out of your survival food. See if the stove you carried for the past five years really works.  Make breakfast the next morning, also ONLY from your emergency supplies. No sneaking in a dozen eggs from the store!

Make some signaling devices, such as a Canadian smoke generator, and launch one of the aircraft to see what it looks like from the air.  Be sure to monitor the local CTAF frequency in case a non-participating aircraft is attracted and thinks you are really in distress.

At the end of this outing, take stock of what worked as you thought it would, and what didn’t.  Use this as a basis both to refresh supplies, and to consider ways to upgrade the equipment you carry.  It could be a fun first outing of the year, or a long weekend spent cold and hungry. Either way, it can be a great lesson in preparing your survival gear and survival attitude for the busy flying season ahead!

Thanks to the organizations that supported the effort to prepare this best practices document:

Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation

Alaska Airmen Association

AOPA Air Safety Institute

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

Alaska pilots: Planning to fly to Canada in January? Test a new app to cross the border

January is not generally the month of choice to fly yourself from Alaska to Canada.  But if you are planning such a trip, why not help test an app to make filing your eAPIS notices easier?  AOPA is collaborating with Jeppesen and Airside Mobile to develop an app to use when filing eAPIS reports, required when you leave or enter the US.

A free beta version of the app, Jeppesen Mobile QuickClear will be tested in the next 5-6 weeks.  If you are planning a cross-border trip in this time period, and would like to provide feedback to the developers, contact Matt York at [email protected] for details.  And don’t forget that in addition to filing an eAPIS report when leaving or returning to the US, you must also contact the Canadian and US port of entry you plan to fly to, by phone, to arrange for arrival.  See AOPA’s website for details on flying to international destinations at http://aopa.org/travel#international_travel.

Sharing Aviation with the Public—over Pizza!

Pizza—always good. Pizza at the airport, even better. Pizza with a view of the runway—fantastic!

For years pilots, airport staff and employees of local aviation businesses have hungered for a restaurant on the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.  In September 2017, East Ramp Wood-Fired Pizza opened—and satisfied more than our hunger for food.  The establishment sits on the top floor of a hangar facility with a great view of the airfield.  In the background is the 11,800 foot air carrier runway, where heavy metal arrives and departs, interspersed with Beech 1900’s, the occasional  formation of military fighters making practice approaches. Every now and then the Antonov 225 drops in for a refueling stop.

Open just a little over a year, an airport restaurant is bringing a much-needed element of the general aviation side of Fairbanks International Airport.

Closer to the diner’s view, the shorter, 6,500 ft GA runway and the 2,900 ft gravel “ski” strip provide a stream of smaller aircraft—from Navajos and Cessnas to Super Cubs, landing and taking off.  Between these two is a view of the south end of the float pond with a mix of seaplanes splashing down.  In the immediate foreground is a gas pump and transient parking area, which provides diners with the opportunity to watch planes load, fuel and do their preflight checks.  All from a warm, safe, comfortable vantage point—with food!

Inspired by a local pilot and CFI, Wendy Ehnert first considered building a restaurant on airport property, but after spotting an ad in the Alaska Airmens Assocation newsletter, the Transponder, she knew she had the perfect spot.  Her initial target audience was feeding the airport crowd, but with a little more than a year in operation, she estimates that three quarters of her business is from the larger community-and not just “airport people.”

Separating the public from aviation
The growth of fences and security at airports may well be one of the factors that hinders bringing the next generation of pilots, mechanics, and air traffic controllers into the fold. Just by making it difficult to observe aviation in operation.  As a kid, I recall standing at the rail in front of the airline terminal at this airport and getting blasted by the prop wash of the DC-6’s as they taxied away from the gate and turned toward the runway. I wondered what it must feel like to sit in the driver’s seat and apply power to those four big engines.  Ok, I still wonder—but that’s beside the point. It made me aware of the excitement and thrill of taking off, and going to distant, exotic places.  Today, minus the prop wash, sitting over a meal and watching airplanes of different shapes and sizes provides a connection that is important to make, both with future pilots and other practitioners of this craft.  It is also something we need to share with the interested public, who votes on bond issues, ordinances and other policy matters that impact the viability of our airports.

Gathering place for social events
Beyond allowing the public a great spot for aviation viewing, East Ramp Pizza also provides a venue

Binoculars are provided to let patrons…

for groups to meet.  The local 99’s Chapter, Aviation Explorer Post, and other groups hold meetings there. The restaurant has organized several hangar flying nights, and is currently hosting a photo contest—with plans to produce a calendar in the future.  These are all activities that help bring people together, and encourage engagement, which is important to the overall community.  The restaurant is decorated with historical artifacts and pictures, most of which have

…satisfy their appetite for aviation.  (Photo pair by Chef Shawn Kerr)

been loaned by local enthusiasts, that sets it apart from other eating establishments.  So how is the food?  In the short time they have been in business, the establishment won a spot in the local paper’s 2018 Readers Choice Awards for pizza!

We need more facilities like this at our airports, to feed as well as inspire. While it often isn’t included in the list of necessary airport general aviation infrastructure, it should be.

Alaska Governor’s Forum focused on Aviation

The three leading candidates in the Alaska Governor’s race addressed an Aviation Town Hall on Monday, Oct 1st and responded to questions on a variety of aviation topics. Hosted by the Alaska Airmens Association, the forum provided the three leading candidates; Incumbent Governor Bill Walker, former State Senator Mike Dunleavy and former US Senator Mark Begich, an opportunity to explain how they would address a variety of issues.  Questions covered topics ranging from funding of the 239 airports operated by the Alaska Department of Transportation and defending access rights, to how their administration would support training the next generation of pilots and mechanics.

Held at the Alaska Aviation Museum, on Lake Hood, the event drew a crowd of close to 200 people. Airmens Association Executive Director Corey Hester, and the Director of Government Affairs, Adam White, moderated the session. Audience questions, collected in advance, were delivered by members of the Airmens NextGen Group.  Partners in the event included AOPA, Alaska Air Carriers Association, EAA Chapter 42, Women in Aviation and the Lake Hood Pilots Association.

I encourage you to watch this session and see what the candidates had to say.  To view the session hour-long forum, go to: https://youtu.be/1-boHf8SVcI

From left to right, candidates Dunleavy, Begich and Governor Walker address an aviation crowd. The session was moderated by Airmens Exec. Dir. Corey Hester and Govt. Affairs Dir. Adam White.

What happened to Alaska’s Department of Aviation?

While still a territory, and well before achieving statehood, Alaska had a dedicated aviation department.  Acknowledging the Alaska pioneers’ foresight in creating a dedicated department speaks to the importance of aviation in Alaska’s past. And with regards to Alaska’s future, the question most importantly asked is—what happened to it?  After some digging in the shelves at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the answers to these and other questions are starting to see the light of day.  Along with some hopeful thoughts about the future.

Communications and weather came first
Going back to the 1920’s, airfields developed organically as individuals or companies acquired airplanes, and needed a place for them to take off and land. Often a ball park or agricultural field was pressed into service for early day aircraft operations, which eventually turned into a dedicated “airfield.”  While considered a luxury in some parts of the country, in Alaska airplanes were appreciated from the beginning for their potential to reach remote locations quickly—places previously only serviced by water ways, or trails.  The Territory of Alaska first invested in aviation infrastructure in 1929, when it appropriated funds to “…purchase, install and maintain radio-telephone station equipment for the larger towns.” This task was conducted under the direction of the Territorial Highway Engineer, who was soon overwhelmed, given the existing responsibilities to develop roads and harbors. At the time, this was a one-person operation, responsible for an area a fifth the size of the lower 48 states.

The Alaska Aeronautics & Communications Commission was established in 1937 to oversee installation of weather stations and radio equipment. This allowed weather reports and other information to be transmitted between communities, and to weather forecasters. In its first few years, recognizing the importance of communications, the commission also adopted regulations requiring airplanes to install radios, and to carry survival gear. https://blog.aopa.org/aopa/2018/03/14/alaska-aviation-infrastructure-history-p1/

Funding to build Alaska airports—almost
In 1946 Congress approved 10 million dollars to build or expand airports in Alaska over a seven-year period. The funding formula provided 75% of the cost of construction, requiring a 25% match by the territory or municipality that owned the airport. While that sounds like a lot of money, it was recognized by the Aeronautics Commission as “a drop in the proverbial bucket to properly expand our airfield program in a new, undeveloped country having an area equal to six western states…”.  But there was a catch.

The territory had to adopt new enabling legislation to allow the money to be accepted, either by the territorial government, or individual municipal airport owners.  This legislation was introduced but not passed in 1948. At the time municipalities could own and operate airports, but their authority did not extend from year to year, which was a requirement to enter into an agreement with the federal government for airport funding.  Frustration in the Aeronautics Commission report from 1947-48 clearly expresses this sentiment, “…the foregoing explains why Alaska has not received five cents of the ten million dollars allotted to the Territory under the Federal Airport Expansion Program…”.

Federal Funding for Alaska Airport: then and now
$10 million dollars was a significant resource for the Territory in 1946. In today’s dollars, that is about $127 million, spread over 7 years, or an average of $18 million/year.
In comparison, presently Alaska receives over $220 million/year from FAA’s Airport Improvement Program to improve airports across the state.

Territorial Department of Aviation established
The Alaska Aeronautics Act, passed by the Territorial Legislature in February 1949, finally solved this problem and established the Alaska Department of Aviation, a peer organization to the Department of Highways, effective June 1st of that year.  Revenue for the department came from allocating one third of the 2 cent tax on motor fuels then in effect.  The first report from the department, covering just six months of operation, reported 73 projects started “improving existing airports and seaplane bases, and building new air facilities.”  Having lost three of the seven years to invest the federal funding, the department was ramping up to develop airports that would support transport category aircraft operations, which were typically DC-3s at that time.

Dedication of the new air-carrier runway at Seward in 1952, from the Alaska Department of Aviation Biennial Report.

Golden Age for Aviation
By 1953, fifty years since the Wright Brothers demonstrated powered flight, the Alaska Department of Aviation was in full swing, developing the airport system across the Territory. In the biennial report for 1951-52, the Department had a hand in building many of the 360 airports and 73 seaplane facilities existing then.  The report summarizes the accomplishments of the department over the first 3½ years of operation.

A new seaplane base at Juneau was one of several similar facilities constructed in southeast Alaska by the Alaska Department of Aviation with a combination of federal and territorial funding.

Having grown from a short, type-written report to a type-set 65 page document, it contains descriptions and pictures of many of these facilities.  This document (link above) provides a flavor, not only of the range of projects, but the enthusiasm shown by the department for expanding Alaska’s airport network.  In addition to significant work on “air carriers” runways, they were building seaplane bases, emergency airstrips, and installing radio beacons. Provisions were also made for snow removal and general maintenance at the airports and seaplane bases in the Territory.

Documented in the Territorial Department of Aviation 1951-52 Biennial Report, the Alaska Department of Aviation constructed aviation infrastructure needed to support the entire system. In this case constructing an emergency landing strip east of Fairbanks, in support of the Fortymile and Chicken mining districts.

Alaska was well on its way to expanding the network of aviation facilities needed to provide access across the Territory. Alaska was on the path to become a state by the end of the decade.

Aviation under the State of Alaska
Alaska became the 49th state on January 3rd of 1959, and with that, transitioned from territorial to state government.  The territorial Alaska Department of Aviation now became the Division of Aviation under the State of Alaska, Department of Public Works.  It continued to plan, design, build and operate airports across the new state.

A relic of the Alaska Division of Aviation still exists at the Cold Bay Airport. Photo by Harold Kremer

By 1973, the division reported operating 235 airports, and had recently taken over operation of the Kodiak airport from the Navy.  This unit of state government continued to improve the aviation infrastructure across the state, until a major re-organization in state government lead to the structure more familiar to us today.

After eighteen years, the Division of Aviation was re-organized when the Department of Public Works and the Department of Highways were combined. Executive Order No. 39, signed by Governor Jay Hammond, created the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF), effective July 1, 1977.  The aviation functions previously managed under a single division were now spread across many of the seventeen divisions in the new organization. In addition, more emphasis was given to regional geographic divisions. There were five regions at the time, which have been consolidated down to only three today; Northern, Central and South Coast Regions.  Each region is managed by a Regional Director, and has separate staff who perform planning, design, construction, maintenance and operations functions.

The regional divisions of the modern Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.

Needs for the Future
Today aviation roles are largely spread across the structure of the three regions that dominate our modern DOT&PF (often pronounced dot-puff).  The functions of planning, airport design, construction, and maintenance and operations are managed jointly for highways and airports—separately in each region. As an aviation advocate, it is challenging at times for a community member served by an airport to figure out where to go to address an issue. Entirely different teams from DOT&PF typically interact with a local community during the life-cycle of a project.  This is not to in any way fault the employees of the department—but is a consequence of the organizational structure.  Another difficulty with this structure is that each transportation mode has its own highly technical set of rules, regulations, and standards—defined largely by the FAA for airports.  Expecting the professional staff of the department to keep up to date on both airport regs and rules as well as highway requirements and standards is a tall order.

AOPA, along with the Alaska Airmen and other aviation organizations, has long advocated for a true division of aviation within the DOT&PF.  During the past few years, the department has taken some steps in this direction. The oversight of leasing and safety functions for the rural airport system has moved from the regions into the Statewide Aviation Division.  Lead by the Deputy Commissioner for Aviation, this group also conducts aviation system plans, and develops spending plans for the federal funding that builds and improves airports. Headquartered in Anchorage, it has staff that are based in each of the regions.    Also, under the current administration, DOT&PF is prototyping the use of cross-functional teams to work on projects in specific geographic regions, which may improve communications both within the department and for local stakeholders.

AOPA would like to see other functions become specific to transportation mode, allowing staff interested in airports to pursue that career path.  There will probably always be staff shared between highways and airports in the field, however, having the planning, design and operations performed by employees focused and trained on airport rules, regulations, and standards should help the aviation users, as well as the local communities served by each airport.

Look for more advocacy on this front in the months and years ahead!

Improving Backcountry Airstrips: New Windsock at Gold King

If you fly into Gold King (PAAN), look for the new windsock on the north east corner of the field.  The old windsock remains at the other end of the airport, giving pilots an additional “tool” to evaluate the wind before landing on this backcountry strip, on the northern flank of the Alaska Range.  While it might not seem like a big deal, this represents a collaborative effort between a small group of stakeholders that rely on the airstrip and the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT), who owns the facility.  AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer Dave Pott helped coordinate between DOT and the locals, to accomplish this upgrade to the airfield.  While it took over a year and two work parties to complete, this is a success story about improving a backcountry airstrip.


New windsock flys on the north east corner of the Gold King Creek airstrip.

Background
Gold King is not a typical “community airport” operated by DOT&PF. It fits into the realm of backcountry airstrips, generally located off the road system that provide access to public lands across the state.  Each backcountry airstrip has its own story, and Gold King is no exception.  Established in 1959 as the Gold King Creek Radio Relay Station, it housed a microwave radio relay tower, equipment building and ~2,000 foot airstrip. The station connected the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Clear Air Force Base (35 n miles west) with a chain of stations that linked defense radar stations, known as the White Alice Communication System.  These radio relay stations stretched across Canada ultimately providing communication to the NORAD headquarters in Colorado.  The unattended facility was powered by diesel generators with fuel flown in to the airstrip.  Satellite communications eventually replaced the need for the ground-based system, and the facility was closed in 1988.  When the Air Force returned the land to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources made some of the surrounding property available to the public, which resulted in construction of a number of summer or year around homes in the area, with the airstrip serving as the principal source of access.

Beyond meeting the needs of local property owners, Gold King serves a much larger role in the north central Alaska Range.  Today listed as a 2,500’ airstrip, Gold King satisfies a number of needs. Due to the access provided by the airstrip, the University of Alaska utilized it as a location to locate a seismic sensor.  The Bureau of Land Management has established a Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) there, to help monitor fire danger.  Because it is situated on gravel deposits underlain by bedrock, the airstrip is quite stable, making it a good staging area for aircraft hauling gear or supplies into mines, cabins or recreation sites with smaller airstrips or off-field landing areas.  It becomes a popular staging area during hunting season in the fall.  Finally, the airstrip serves as an alternate place to land and wait when weather keeps aircraft from getting to their planned destinations.

Almost lost as an Airport
After the Air Force suspended its use of the relay station, the federal government transferred the land to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  While they made the land around the airstrip available to the public for homesites or recreational cabins, keeping the documents current for the airport was not a priority. When the Fairbanks Sectional Chart was published in 1998, Gold King had completely disappeared from the map!  Fortunately, in response to aviation industry requests, the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, and slowly re-appeared—initially in 2003 as a “closed” airport, with unknown runway length or condition.  Today the chart and entry in the Alaska Supplement, reflect more complete information, including a CTAF to use when operating in the area.

Under Air Force management, Gold King was charted as a private airstrip. After the Air Force shut down the facility and transferred it to the State of Alaska, it briefly disappeared from the charts. After the airport was transferred from DNR to DOT, it has been more completely described.

 


Local equipment was used to excavate a spot for the new windsock at Gold King.

New windsock
Dave Pott is the Airport Support Network Volunteer at Gold King. He is retired and spends the majority of the year living just off the airport.  Working with other land owners, a volunteer group keeps an eye on the airport, and has banded together to do limited maintenance on the field.  Last year, he reached out to DOT and requested their assistance to replace the windsock, which was in a state of disrepair.  DOT responded by supplying a new windsock assembly. They had it delivered to the airport in the fall of 2017, along with bags of cement to properly anchor it, deep in the ground.

Volunteer crew placing the form for the base.

In early June, the locals held a work party to start the installation.  The volunteers provided a back hoe to excavate a hole for the base and flew in a cement mixer to support the project.  On July 5th, a second work party took place to put the stand on the base and raise the windsock.

We owe both DOT and the Gold King volunteers a big THANK YOU for working together to keep this

Work party two: mounting the windsock stand on the base.

airstrip in good condition.  In these times of tight budgets, collaborative efforts between stakeholders will be essential to keep our backcountry airports across Alaska in good working order.  Look for projects in your part of the state, and if possible, lend a hand!

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park holds Listening Sessions

National Park Service (NPS) is the planning to hold listening sessions, and would like to hear from people who use any parts of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Session are scheduled for four communities in the vicinity of the park this summer, but additional sessions are anticipated later for more than a dozen communities including Anchorage and Fairbanks.  Given the importance of aviation for access to most of the park, individual pilots, as well as businesses that rely on aviation should participate in this effort.

Largest park in the nation, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is holding listening sessions.

Background
Management plans often drive what happens in national parks. Periodically NPS updates these plans, using the opportunity to evaluate how the park is being used and what pressures it is experiencing.  Part of that process involves hearing from the wide range of people that use the park, be it for hiking, mountain climbing, camping, flight-seeing or exploring the historic mining operations that once took place in the Wrangells.  This the largest park in the nation, at something over 13 million acres in size, with few roads and trails, making the airplane a key tool for access.

Backcountry airstrips
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has a network of public use cabins, many of which are only available by aircraft.  The aviation community has a history of working with NPS to help maintain some of the strips used to reach these cabins.  This July 13-15, the Recreational Aviation Foundation is organizing a work party to maintain the Peavine Bar Airstrip.  For information, or to participate, see: http://theraf.org/civicrm/event/info?id=398.  This is a good opportunity to help improve this infrastructure, while having some fun at the same time.

Wrangell Plan
NPS started a “backcountry” plan in 2015, and held an initial set of listening sessions. Since that time, key positions at Wrangell-St. Elias have turned over, including the superintendent.  As the new management team evaluated the previous work, they discovered that a number of the comments received were focused on the frontcountry—or more developed and accessible parts of the park.  Consequently, Superintendent Ben Bobowski is interested in hearing from stakeholders, to learn about their issues and concerns for all parts of the park.  Once they have a better handle on stakeholder issues, they will decide what type of a plan to develop.

The first four listening sessions, scheduled for this summer. More sessions will be help in the months ahead.

How to be involved
If possible, participate in any of the listening sessions currently scheduled.  Comments may also be provided by email at: [email protected] or through the NPS planning website:  http://parkplanning.nps.gov/WRSTListens.  As the planning process proceeds, AOPA will follow it closely, and may be asking your input on aviation issues related to this park that encompasses everything from active volcanoes to massive glaciers and ice fields.  It is a national treasure, and the airplane provides one of the few ways to reach its most distant features.

Proposed change to Juneau Class D and E Airspace

The FAA is proposing to change the Class D and Class E airspace surrounding Juneau.  In the proposed rule modification, FAA outlines the changes which will expand the Class D airspace west and south east of the current boundaries, and eliminate some of the Class E airspace that is an extension to the Class D surface area west of the airport. The FAA also proposed to reduce the size of the Class E airspace extending upward from 700 feet above the surface around Juneau. Pilots using this airspace should study the changes and provide comments, if the proposed changes impact your operations.

A depiction of the entire change to airspace around Juneau International Airport.

Close up of the proposed changes showing the expanded Class D airspace and elimination of the Class E extension to the Class D surface area.

The proposal is available online at: https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FAA-2018-0125 . Comments may be filed online, and are due by June 18. If you comment, please share your input with AOPA [email protected].

What is a Fire Traffic Area?

Canadair water scooper aircraft. One of the of aircraft types that frequent Alaskan skies during fire season.

As wildfire season approaches in Alaska, we can expect to see the migration of fire-fighting aircraft into the state.  Only slightly behind the migrating waterfowl.  I had the opportunity to sit in on a briefing recently that described how the aircraft that are used to tackle wildfire are managed—and more specifically, the airspace around a fire that is “under attack.”  They use a structure called a Fire Traffic Area. This is not necessarily the same as a TFR, which would apply to those of us not participating in fire fighting operations.  More on that later.

Structure of a wildfire operation
Typically, first on the scene is an air attack aircraft.  Aero Commanders are used to perform this function in interior Alaska.  Onboard is a pilot and a fire-fighter.  From their vantage point overhead, they manage the air assets, which might include air tankers, helicopters, cargo planes making drops to crews on the ground, etc. They also monitor operations on the ground, and watch the development of the fire, among other things.

Fire Traffic Area Diagram. Note that aircraft may be arriving or holding in the airspace outside the 5 nm controlled area. Water scooper aircraft or helicopters may also be ferrying to and from nearby waterbodies. Monitor the tactical frequency, 128.45 MHz when flying in the vicinity of a fire fighting operation.

Fire Traffic Area
A piece of airspace five nautical mile in diameter called a Fire Traffic Area, is defined over the blaze during fire suppression operations. It typically extends from the surface to 2,500 feet above terrain.  Within this airspace, altitude zones are used to separate the different type of aerial operations (see diagram for altitude stratifications).  Aircraft involved in the operation are required to contact “air attack” when they are within 12 miles of the center of this structure, and not allowed within 7 nautical miles until they have established communication with the air attack ship.  This airspace will often, but not always, be accompanied by a TFR. When a TFR is established for fire-fighting operations, it should include a radio frequency and phone number, in case you do need to transit the airspace.

Communications
The two-person crew in the air attack aircraft not only directs tanker and other aerial activities—they also maintain communications with crews on the ground and dispatchers back at air bases.  Between VHF and FM radios and a Sat phone, they may have as many as eight com channels to manage.  If one is flying in the vicinity of a fire operation, a good thing to note is the primary air tactical frequency: 128.45 MHz.  Monitoring this frequency should give you an idea of what is happening.  If you need to transit the area, give a call.  If the frequency is extremely busy, that is a clue that you might want to detour around, and not add to the congestion they are already dealing with.  At other times, however, give a call, perhaps starting with a position report, and let them know what you would like to do.

Fire related radio frequencies that may be handy to know.

Reporting a wildfire
Depending on what part of the state you are in, either BLM or the State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources will have jurisdiction over fire suppression activities. In case you need report a wild fire, two other frequencies to note are: State Forestry, 132.45 MHz and BLM Fire, 127.45.

Safety is our number one concern when sharing airspace with fire-fighting activities.  Keep these radio frequencies handy, check NOTAMs for TFR’s and enjoy the summer flying season!

GPS Testing Part of Military Training this season

Sample of the map included with a GPS Testing NOTAM. Pilots filling out online GPS anomaly reports may help develop a better understanding of the real impacts of these activities.

Military Training is a routine part of the flying season in Alaska.  Sporting the largest contiguous complex of special use airspace in the country (the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex or JPARC), military planners last week announced the dates of four Red Flag exercises over the coming months.  The thing that is a little different is that each of these 10 day exercises this year will include “GPS testing” where military forces on the ground will jam the GPS signal from participating aircraft, to test this real-world threat now faced by our armed forces.  The challenge is, it may also impact civil aircraft, outside the boundaries of the MOAs and Restricted Areas used by the military aircraft.

When/where will this happen?
The GPS testing will take place within the ten-day windows of the Red Flag Exercises.  At a briefing last week, the dates of this years exercises were shared with civil aviation operators.  We also learned that some of these exercises will have as many as 120 aircraft, participating, including visitors from several foreign countries.  These are dates you may want to put on your calendar, and pay attention to as you plan your flying activities:

JPARC Airspace Complex, largest military training airspace in the country, will be again host Red Flag flying exercises this summer.

26 April – 11 May
7-22 June
9-24 August
4-19 October

On the dates within these ranges that GPS testing is planned, NOTAMs will be issued at least 72 hours in advance, with defined date and time ranges that will limit the testing.  Even though the testing is highly directional in nature, aimed at military participants, the potential for it to disrupt GPS signals outside their airspace is significant.  As we progress into the NextGen era, where GPS is the primary basis for IFR as well as VFR navigation, this is something we all need to plan for.

What if I lose my GPS?
We still have a lot to learn about the impacts of GPS testing.  If you lose GPS signal while flying please do two things:

(1) Notify ATC, whether it be Anchorage Center, approach control, a control tower or a flight service station.  Let them know when and where you lost GPS signal, or experienced any other problems with GPS navigation. This holds for both IFR and VFR operations.

(2) After your flight, please fill out a GPS Anomaly Reporting Form to help us learn the extent and nature of impacts that may be caused by this testing.  https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/nas/gps_reports/

AOPA is working this issue on a national level and getting reports from Alaska will help define the impacts of this training activity—which influences all segments of civil aviation. Through time, we hope this will result in more accurate NOTAMs, or other accommodations to provide more precise understanding of the impacts of these training activities.

What else can I do?
As pilots, we are trained to have back-up plans.  If you are operating IFR, remembering to tune in the VOR and ILS frequencies from our “legacy” equipment.  For those of us that fly VFR, it might be a good idea to make a flight or two this summer just navigating with a good old paper chart—and re-discovering the joys of pilotage.

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