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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].

NOTAMs: A Lousy System

One of the dirty little secrets about general aviation is that you can spend as much time preparing for a flight as you do actually flying. It’s not something we’re keen to talk about when discussing the amazing efficiency of traveling by GA, but sooner or later every pilot discovers that flying isn’t always faster than driving. Sometimes it’s a lot slower.

What got me thinking about this was a series of short-range trips I’ve made recently in the Gulfstream: Los Angeles to Phoenix, San Jose, Las Vegas, Fresno, and so on. You’d think it logical that a shorter flight would mean a more effortless work day – but it ain’t necessarily so. The tasks required for a short flight are exactly the same as those needed for a longer one. Filing a flight plan, generating weight & balance data, checking weather, and pre-flighting the aircraft aren’t appreciably faster for a 500 mile leg than a 5,000 mile one.

In fact, once we takeoff, the “hard” work is mostly done and the more congenial, relaxing portions of the trip begin. This is often true for small very airplanes. One might even say “especially” for small aircraft. A flight in the Pitts, for example, averages about 30 minutes, but I can’t imagine completing pre-flight tasks and getting off the ground in less time, especially when there’s a passenger involved. Just getting someone properly briefed and fitted into their seat and parachute can take a considerable amount of time.

The point is, preflight activities are vital to safety in the skies and we can’t shortcut them. Or can we?

The law — 14 CFR 91.103, specifically — requires pilots to obtain “all available information” about a flight before departure. That’s a pretty broad mandate, especially in the Information Age. But it makes sense, because while aviation may be a relatively safe activity, it’s not terribly forgiving of carelessness.

For a typical flight, “all available information” includes NOTAMs, something I’ve found to be a major time suck. While the Feds have made minor changes to the NOTAM setup in recent years, from my perspective it’s still a truly lousy system. It pains me to say that, because the FAA gets some things very, very right. This isn’t one of them.

As Sen. James Inhofe found out a few years ago, the price of missing a NOTAM can be steep. Bringing these notices into the 21st century would greatly improve flight safety and do so at a relatively low cost. If nothing else, it would encourage more pilots to actually read them! It’s difficult to fault pilots for glossing over data when it looks like this:

!JFK 06/204 JFK RWY 13R/31L SE 3263FT CLSD. RWY 13R TORA 10672FT TODA 10672FT ASDA 10672FT LDA 8629FT. RWY 31L TORA 10924FT TODA 10924FT ASDA 10924FT LDA 11248FT. 1506251331-1509211600

Should flight information look like something off a 1950’s teletype or a badly formatted excerpt of assembly language? I’m tempted to say “if we can put a man on the moon…” – you know how the rest of that goes. But perhaps it would be better to simply ask that, in the midst of spending untold billions on NextGen, a few paltry dollars be allocated to overhauling our ghastly NOTAM system.

I know that building a better mousetrap is possible because I’ve been using one for more than a decade. Dan Checkoway, a longtime friend and fellow pilot, saw the same deficiencies in preflight information delivery. But he did something about it, developing a site called Weathermeister. Among other things, it translates NOTAMs into plain English, adjusts the valid times to a more readable format, and best of all, color codes critical items like runway and airport closures so they stand out.

notams

The difference is dramatic. Not only can I scan NOTAMs far more quickly, but I’m also less likely to overlook something important. On several occasions I’ve been the one to unearth important NOTAMs that a fellow crewmember missed. Does that make me superior aviator? No… just a guy with a better sledgehammer.

Dan once told me that despite the fact that Weathermeister provides full weather briefings, 90% of the site’s coding is dedicated to translating the arcane NOTAM texts into readable English. He once tried to sell the FAA on using his format, but for whatever reason (bureaucratic inertia, perhaps?), nothing has changed in the intervening years.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. I keep wishing something or someone would prod the FAA to improve the way NOTAMs are disseminated. Not only would flying be safer, but if time really is money, we’d be a whole lot richer, too.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

ASAP

Aviation, if you haven’t noticed, is loaded with abbreviations and acronyms. There are FARs, the AIM, MAPs (not to be confused with maps), ILSs, and DHs, METARS, TAFs, and NOTAMS. Airspace used to have TRSAs, ARSAS, and TCAs…and I haven’t even mentioned NASA, which speaks acronym-ese. Speaking of NASA, all pilots are able to participate in the ASRS program, which brings me to ASAP.

ASAP stands for Aviation Action Safety Program, and it is commonly in use at Part 121 air carriers. At first glance, it appears to be just like the ASRS program, and it is…sort of. Like the ASRS, pilots and other participating employees can self-disclose when they make a mistake. For example, if a pilot taxis two feet over the hold-short line for a runway, he is guilty of a committing a runway incursion. Now, it is possible that the controller never saw it because of the vantage point of the tower. It’s also possible that no other aircraft was affected.

But the pilot still made a mistake and inadvertently violated a federal aviation regulation. Worse, it’s an area in which the FAA has been aggressive in the last few years to change pilot behavior because the safety ramifications and some accidents.

With ASAP, the pilot is able to fill out a form (usually online) and explain what happened, and if possible, why. In this case, it might be something simple (“I just screwed up.”) or it might be a previously unknown safety issue (“The paint was difficult to see, especially at night,” or “The flashing lights were not working”). The report then goes to a central data base where it is reviewed by a committee.

The committee can be called any number of things, but what’s important is who is on it. At unionized carriers (which is almost all of them), the committee consists of a representative from the FAA, the airline’s safety department, and the safety committee of the union. You typically won’t see chief pilots or anybody who can impose discipline on the pilots. The reason is that the program is built on trust and confidentiality.

Once the report is opened by the committee, they discuss it in detail, and decide how to act on it. If, in the above case, they agree that the incursion was simply inadvertent, they may close the report. Or, if they suspect something else may have been involved, such as fatigue or poor judgment, they may call one or both pilots in for questioning to see what might be done to prevent similar problems in the future. If the problem is poor paint or broken lights or a bad airport diagram, then the information is forwarded to the appropriate people as quickly as possible.

The only time a pilot can face discipline is if the committee agrees that the pilot deliberately violated a FAR or exercised poor judgment, or if the infraction was reported from someone other than the pilot (the assumption then is that the pilot may have gotten caught anyway, even without participation in the ASAP program). Acknowledging that you crossed a hold-short line because you were discussing impact of artificial turf on the lifetime batting stats of career designated hitters is bound to get you not only called in, but also may lead to a Letter of Warning from the FAA.

The overwhelming number of reports in ASAP files fall under “Oops!” banner, but many go deeper than that. Pilots can also report on any aspect of their company or FAA operation that they feel needs to be addressed. Examples run the gamut: Poorly designed approach and arrival procedures have been flushed out; better operational practices have been developed; charting errors have been corrected more quickly; and most importantly, better training has occurred because of the ASAP umbrella. ASAP is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s a tool that is used by the airline, the FAA, and the pilot community to maintain the highest level of safety.

There is much more to the program than what I have described, and it goes beyond pilots. Mechanics, dispatchers, and flight attendants can also craft ASAP programs, and the air traffic controllers also have their own. There have been a few instances when ASAP programs have been shut down by a participating group, and when that happens it almost always comes down to the suspicion that the necessary level of trust has been breached. Airlines and labor don’t always get along, but with ASAP, the level of trust is high, and the real beneficiary is not the participants, but the traveling public.—By Chip Wright