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Author: Tom George (page 1 of 11)

HAARP Project under new management: Watch for the TFR

The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) is a research program that has been used to study the ionosphere since 1990. The facility, north east of the Gulkana Airport, is home to radio transmitters and an array of antennas that can transmit 3.6 megawatts of energy into the atmosphere, in support of research projects.  It doesn’t operate very often, a few times per year at present, but when it does, pilots don’t want to be in the path of this beam of radio energy.  Consequently, we should be on the lookout for a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) that will be activated during campaigns, to avoid flying over the facility.  The next campaign is from September 21-25, but there will be others to follow.  Make sure to check NOTAMs, in case this TFR is active when you are flying in the Copper River Basin, or transiting the area to or from the Alaska Highway route to Canada.

Social media notice of the September research campaign at the HAARP facility near Gakona. Watch for a TFR when the facility is in operations.

What is HAARP?
Located about 16 nautical miles northeast of the Gulkana Airport (GKN), the facility houses a 33-acre array of antennas, and when operating, can send pulses of energy into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to stimulate this zone, providing a means to study what happens there. Research has potential implications for understanding properties ranging from the aurora to long-range communications. Until recently, the Air Force operated the facility, in support of Department of Defense research interests, primarily dealing with communication and navigation interests.  In 2015, the facility was transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute to operate.  For more information on the facility, see the frequently asked questions document at http://gi.alaska.edu/haarp/faq.

Why a TFR?
AOPA has followed the operation of the HAARP facility for many years, primarily out of concerns with possible disturbance to aircraft navigation and/or communications systems. While managed by the Air Force, operations were conducted as a Controlled Firing Area (CFA), meaning that the Air Force had to shut down their transmitter if an aircraft came within a prescribed distance.  They used a radar system to detect aircraft and shut down the transmitter if an aircraft got too close.  When the Geophysical Institute took over operations, FAA re-examined those procedures and decided that the CFA was not adequate, in part due to the high-altitude nature of the impacts. The TFR language is expected to define an area from the surface to FL250.

The HAARP Facility north east of the Gulkana Airport, will have a TFR protecting the airspace around the facility when in operations, similar to this graphic. Check NOTAMs for details and active times.  Map courtesy of SkyVector.com

The HAARP Project has re-established a phone number that pilots may call during times the facility is operating.  They have also temporarily re-established a VHF radio frequency, to allow pilots to contact the facility while airborne. These mechanisms should allow pilots operating in the area to have a direct line of communication to obtain more detailed information than the NOTAM is expected to contain, given the real-time nature of changes in the experimental world.  AOPA has also requested that the facility be charted on the Anchorage Sectional, to make it easier for pilots to become familiar with the location of the facility.  In addition to a NOTAM for a TFR, during operations pilots may call the HAARP site, near Gakona, at 907-822-5497, or on VHF radio frequency 122.25 MHz.  Information will also be available on Facebook and Twitter at @uafhaarp.

Stay tuned for more information as the transition from Air Force to university operations proceed. And make sure to check NOTAMs to find out when the TFR is activated.

Alaska Governor recognizes role of aviation

Governor Bill Walker has declared September to be Aviation Appreciation Month in Alaska.  In his proclamation, the Governor recognized some of the ways that aviation stands out here:

  • Providing access to 82 percent of the communities in the state—that are not connected to our sparse road system
  • As operating 242 airports across the Alaska, more than any other state in the nation
  • Supporting the economy, not only by providing basic transportation infrastructure, but by generating almost 17,000 jobs tied to the airports at Anchorage and Fairbanks alone.
  • Including backcountry airstrips among the components of the aviation infrastructure important to Alaska

Please join us in celebrating aviation during the month of September, with thanks to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities staff who plan, design, build and operate airports; municipal governments that manage airports in their communities; maintenance facilities, parts suppliers, flight schools, aviation organizations and many other stakeholders that keep us flying!

 

Alaska Backcountry Airstrip Survey Results

Earlier this spring, Alaska pilots were invited to take part in a survey regarding backcountry airstrips. I am pleased to report that 245 of you took the time to respond – thank you to those of you that responded. This information helps provide some measure of the importance of these airstrips to Alaska’s transportation system. The people who participated also shed some light on their concerns regarding these assets, and many reported that they are willing to help maintain them. Before digging into the survey results, let’s define what a backcountry airstrip is and what it isn’t.

What is a backcountry airstrip?
Conventional public airports are typically developed with FAA funding, and operated either by the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF), a municipal government or the military. Alaska also has quite a few airparks and private use airports, developed and owned privately.  However, there is another type of aviation infrastructure that is important to many Alaskans. These are often just a runway, with no other facilities, defined as backcountry airstrips or landing areas, rather than airports. These may or may not be charted, or listed in the Alaska Supplement, but they were developed for use by aircraft, and represent an important component of our aviation transportation system.

Tolovana Hot Springs: A landing strip that has been improved for aircraft operations, and would be considered a backcountry airstrip for purposes of this survey.

To go one step further, we need to distinguish between backcountry airstrips and off-field operations that use landing areas that are not recognized as airstrips. Beyond the established backcountry airstrips, people often land on gravel bars, ridge tops, tundra benches or other locations which are not otherwise improved or modified specifically for purposes of landing or take off.  This survey did not cover true off-field operations.

A spike camp on a gravel bar on the North Slope. This would be considered an off-field landing location and NOT a backcountry airstrip.

Backcountry airstrips may be the destination themselves, especially in cases where people have cabins or camps nearby. In other cases, the backcountry airstrip is the gateway to off-field operations, and serves as a staging area, or an emergency refuge when weather moves in.

Backcountry working group
In 2006, the Governor’s Aviation Advisory Board passed a resolution that called attention to the value of backcountry airstrips, and called for DOT&PF to take action to recognize and protect this component of our aviation infrastructure. Late in 2014, as part of the FAA-funded Alaska Aviation System Plan, the department established a working group to explore this subject. The group created a definition for backcountry airstrips and conducted this survey. Other planned activities include creating a partial inventory of backcountry airstrips, and identifying potential future strategies to preserve and maintain them. Look for more on these topics in the future, but for now, back to the survey.

Survey Results
A survey was conducted online and by hard-copy from early April to mid-May 2017, and was publicized by DOT&PF, AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), and Alaska Air Carriers Association. Here are some of the results:

  • Of the 245 pilots responding, 91 percent said they used backcountry airstrips in Alaska.
  • The frequency of use was very evenly distributed among those that used them just a few times per year, on a seasonal basis, or regularly year-round.
  • When asked about concerns regarding backcountry airstrips, the leading issue was loss or closure (42%), followed by physical condition, maintenance and safety issues (35%).

Just over half of the respondents said that the airstrips they generally visit are in need of repairs or maintenance. Some of the comments included “Growth of brush and trees that hinder approaches and ground taxi operations” and “Lack of maintenance. Overgrown approach and departure.”  I was most encouraged to see that almost 80% of these pilots said they would be willing to volunteer to help maintain these facilities. One respondent summarized this issue as follows, “Backcountry airstrips are some of our only access point[s] in a state that sports a vast amount of land with no roads.”

Recreation, emergency use, hunting and general access were the most frequently cited uses of backcountry airstrips in this survey.

Word of mouth from other pilots was the most frequent method of collecting information on backcountry airstrips.

Where do we go from here?
There is clearly more to do regarding identifying, preserving and maintaining backcountry airstrips.  On June 3rd, RAF Alaska State Liaison Al Clayton organized a work party at Jake’s Bar, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Nine volunteers flew from Clayton’s airstrip near McCarthy to the 1,000 foot airstrip along the Chitina River and trimmed or removed trees along the airstrip. This work was coordinated with the National Park Service in advance–working with the land-owners on efforts like this is one of the ways we can continue to protect and maintain these valuable facilities. Kudos to the RAF for undertaking this effort. I invite you to check them out and see how you can become involved http://theraf.org/.

Stay tuned for more on this topic in the months and years ahead as we promote and support pilots’ access to backcountry Alaska.

Note: This article was originally published in the July-September Issue #105 of The Transponder, the Alaska Airmens Association’s newsletter.

Alaska Weather: not just on TV anymore

The half-hour TV show, Alaska Weather, has helped pilots understand, and visualize, statewide weather patterns for over forty years.  Produced jointly by Alaska Public Media and the Nation Weather Service-Alaska Region, it airs nightly on public television channels starting at 5:30 pm on some stations, and later on others. More on this later, but pilots should take note that Alaska Weather is available any time you want to view it after 6 pm, on YouTube.  Rather than timing your day around the broadcast schedule of a local station, as long as you have reasonable internet access the program is sitting there, ready to watch at your convenience.

Value added
When the program first started in September, 1976 it was called Aviation Weather, and focused specifically on the aviation community.  Over the years the value of providing a statewide summary of weather conditions became apparent, and the scope of the program was expanded to include general public and marine forecasts.

As pilots, we have access to some excellent online aviation weather resources today, including the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit’s website (note their new address: weather.gov/aawu) but I still find it helpful to listen to a meteorologist explain what is going on, and provide the “big picture” before I look at individual observations, forecasts and weather camera sites.  The National Weather Service has gone to significant efforts to utilize satellite imagery and animation loops to help viewers see the flows of air and moisture that influence the atmospheric conditions we can expect the following day.

A mixture of satellite images and graphics used by Meteorologist Dave Snider, help visualize weather patterns.

The program also features seasonal information, which currently includes warnings about areas of high wildfire danger. In the spring, reports of flooding and break-up on the rivers are included in the broadcast.  Last night’s episode included mention of a new weather camera just added by the FAA at Honolulu.  I admit that until seeing the map showing the camera site location between McKinley Park and Talkeetna, I was thinking that the camera station was in Hawaii…

Hangar Flying segments
From the beginning, there has been a short break in the middle of the half hour weather program (on commercial stations, this would have been filled with advertisements). Often a safety or short educational feature is included.  To help provide content for this 10 minute break between aviation and marine forecasts, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation (AASF) stepped up to the plate, and created a short segment, Hangar Flying, which aired twice a week.  This feature was also as a joint effort with Alaska Public Media, who provided the studio and staff to produce the program.  These short segments, regularly hosted by AASF Board Chair Harry Kieling and Board Secretary Mary O’Connor, featured interviews with a wide range of pilots, mechanics, educators, government officials and other “persons of interest.”  Unfortunately changes at KAKM resulted in suspension of production of the program last April, but I hope to see it back in the future.

Where to find Alaska Weather on TV
Realizing that not everyone has internet access capable of streaming video, it is important also to know where and when to find the program on public television channels across the state.  The following link takes you to a page about the show: http://www.weather.gov/afc/tv. The table below provides the time and networks that carry the program.  In most cases the Alaska Weather is aired in the early evening, arming you with weather information for the following two days.  Unfortunately, Alaska Public Media stations in Southcentral, Southeast and Southwest Alaska don’t broadcast the show until 5 am the following morning.  If those stations are your only broadcast TV access, it is another good reason to consider firing up your computer and watching on YouTube.

Table shows the networks and timing of Alaska Weather broadcasts across the state.

However you access it, Alaska Weather continues to be a great way to load the big picture in your head, helping plan the following day.  Weather is one of our biggest challenges in aviation.  We know there is a shortage of reporting stations in Alaska that sometimes makes it difficult to figure out what to expect along a flight route.  Being armed with the synoptic view of weather patterns, even before you start a weather briefing, gives you a leg up on safety planning your next flight.  Thanks to the National Weather Service for providing this tool for our flight kit!

Upgraded weather web tools for Alaska pilots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other ADS-B References that might be helpful:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exemption for aircraft without electrical system:

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

Alaska Backcountry Airstrip survey: Do you use them?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aviation Weather Camera Site upgraded: Beta testers wanted!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augmented weather reports to be reduced in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Stay tuned for further developments!

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