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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!

Alaska Pilot Reports Are Increasing!

When we pick up the mike and file a Pilot Report (PIREP) with Flight Service or ATC, we add an observation that helps the entire aviation community.  If weather is questionable, the first aircraft out in the morning is often the “weather ship” that reports conditions back to other pilots waiting to make their decision to fly. When we are that pilot sitting at the airport, with a forecast that could go either way, it can be very frustrating to wait for that first report along the route, or from the other side of the mountain pass.  Fortunately, a lot of attention has been given to PIREPs in the last couple of years, which I am cautiously optimistic to say is starting to produce results!  I would like to share with you some of the efforts that have brought us this far.

Lack of PIREPs concerning

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

Aircraft at the 2015 Valdez Fly-In, but no PIREPs in the system. Photo by Russ Ingram.

The Valdez Fly-In, that takes place nominally the second weekend in May, is the largest event of its kind in the state. When the weather allows,  several hundred aircraft fly in to participate in the short field landing contest or other competitive events, or pilots may want to observe, socialize and simply enjoy aviation.  For the past couple of years, the weather has been a little dicey flying into Valdez, and yet both in 2014 and 2015 there were almost no PIREPs filed by those that did make it in.  This would have been a tremendous tool to help those flying behind decide if it was good idea to fly into what can certainly be considered some challenging terrain.   When I shared that observation with our friends at the Alaska Flight Service Program, they were interested enough to stand up a small working group to dig into the problem.  A number of industry organizations, including the Alaska Airmen Association, Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Alaska Air Carriers Association have been meeting with FAA, the FAA Weather Camera Program, National Weather Service, National Institute of Occupational Health and others to explore issues regarding how PIREPs are collected and distributed — as well as look at ways to encourage pilots to file more of them.  Based on the work of this group, Flight Service has been more actively training their staff to solicit reports beyond the generic request normally received when pilots open a flight plan.

NTSB joins the party
Separate to this Alaska based activity, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had seen a number of cases nationally in which PIREPs — had they been shared in a timely fashion — could have averted several accidents.   We learned that the NTSB was undertaking a special investigation into PIREPs, which prompted AOPA to conduct a national survey on the topic.  Many hours went into designing, conducting, promoting and evaluating the results. Last May, approximately 700 pilots took the time to respond to the survey—thank you to those who participated!  The survey revealed some interest results, here are a few highlights:

  • 83% of the pilots said PIREPs were “very” or “extremely” important for aviation safety
  • 71% indicated the emphasis on PIREPs during initial flight training was “little” to “none.”
  • While three-quarters of the respondents said they filed reports, 84% said they did so “sometimes” or “rarely.”

There are more results from the survey, but I will save that for another time.  A couple of interesting perceptions came out of the study. There is a general feeling that ATC isn’t interested in recording PIPEPS, with one respondent stating, “I have little confidence my PIREPS are going past their ears.” It was also felt that the reports are mostly a high-altitude feature.  The chief problem expressed was a shortage of reports, especially at lower altitudes: “Too few PIREPs are available for my route of flight to be useful” and “For flying lower than 5,000 feet, there just isn’t much PIREP information available.”  There were many complaints about difficulties in filing PIREPs, some of which are related to procedures in the lower 48 states rather than here in Alaska.  The feature that pilots wanted to see the most was an automated filing ability through applications such as Foreflight.

The NTSB held a two-day PIREP Forum at the end of June in Washington, DC where these and other results were shared with an impressive mixture of industry and government aviation stakeholders.  We are expecting to see what the NTSB gleaned from their investigation, due out in a report any day now.

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

The graphic display of PIREPs make it easier to access during flight planning (courtesy of SkyVector.com)

Access to PIREPs has improved
It has become easier to access PIREPs in the past two years.  In addition to getting them via phone from FSS, or in a DUATs briefing there are now several websites that have either added or upgraded their capabilities to include graphic displays of PIREPs.  The National Weather Service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit has featured PIREPs for years, but now has a more dynamic zoomable map.  The FAA weather camera website has added PIREPs as a feature that the user may select to view, and SkyVector.com added reports with a graphic symbol that gives pilots a clue to the nature of the report as you plan your flight.  More details on these systems and features may be found on an earlier blog post (http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=2737).

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2015 to 2016

Results are encouraging
The good news is that the Alaska Flight Service Program reports some dramatic increases in PIREPs filed this summer in contrast to last year.  The figure below shows reports received by Flight Service for the months of July, August and September.  The graphic is a little complex, but shows a combination of the total number of 2016 PIREPs and the percent change from the same months in 2015. A third variable is the change in “traffic” for those months. By traffic, we mean the number of radio contacts FSS had with pilots that month.  For example, in July of  2016 there were over 3,000 PIREPs filed with Alaska FSS.  That was a 39% increase over July, 2015 while there was only 1.3% more traffic over the past year.  August saw a 26% increase in the PIREPs, while the number of calls to FSS was actually lower than the previous year. September was the lowest number of PIREPs received at just under 2,500, which still represented an 8 percent increase over the previous year.  I am still puzzling over whether September was such a good weather month that fewer pilots felt the need to file, but it is still very good news overall.

Comparison of PIREPs filed with the Alaska Flight Service Program for three months in 2016 in comparison to 2016

Looking ahead
It is easy to look at a single set on numbers and get excited, but there is still work to be done. One thing that was clear from the NTSB Forum—there are more audiences for PIREPs than just pilots. The weather forecasters say they rely on them heavily to create and validate their forecasts.  Atmospheric scientists archive and use PIREPs to develop and test new forecasting models.  ATC uses them to decide when to change arrival and departure routes during dynamic weather situations, and of course the pilot behind you who hasn’t yet entered the mountain pass is waiting to hear what conditions are like today.

Please be sure to file a PIREP or two as you fly, even if it reporting flight good conditions. The weather forecasters are also interested in reports that confirm the lack of turbulence, or other conditions that might be better than the forecast.  They will change the extent of an AIRMET or create a SIGMET, sometimes on the strength of a single report.  If you want to contribute to improving safety in the aviation community, but feel you need to bone up on how to give a PIREP, the AOPA Air Safety Institute offers an online PIREPs Made Easy class (https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/online-courses).

The real test will be to see how many PIREPs are filed leading up the Valdez Fly-In next May!

Alaska Weather TV Program Schedule Changes: Can you view it?

Pilots in Alaska are able to maintain “situational awareness” of the weather with the help of Alaska Weather, a half-hour TV program created jointly by the Anchorage PBS station KAKM and the National Weather Service (NWS).  Recent programming changes at KAKM have changed when the program is aired around the state.  If you aren’t finding the program when you used to watch it, check to see if it has shifted time slot, or in some cases even to a different channel.  Programming changes at KAKM/Alaska Public Media appear to be responsible for the shift in air times.  KUAC, the PBS TV station in Fairbanks, initially announced cancellation of the program.  Fortunately, station management responded to feedback from the aviation community and resumed broadcast of the program, but at a new time and channel.  If these program changes have impacted your ability to view the program, please let us know!

New schedule
According to NWS, the new show times are as depicted below:

new schedule for AK Wx

This may still be a bit dynamic, so check with NWS for the latest schedule information.

Background
Alaska Weather dates back some four decades to the early days of public television. It started life as “Aviation Weather” devoted primarily to aviation, before broadening its scope to include more public and marine forecasts.  In between the aviation and marine forecasts, the show includes a short segment on a safety related topic. Two days a week that segment is “Hangar Flying” hosted by the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation, which introduces the viewers to aviation topics and personalities around the state.

Alaska Weather covers conditions at a state-wide scale, and provides a two-day forecast of the synoptic patterns that are influencing our weather. In my own experience, this has been helpful to have in my head before I start checking weather for a flight, especially when headed to a different region of the state, where conditions might be quite different from those in my local area.  It also helps evaluate whether I can expect to make the return flight, which is often information outside the range of the normal aviation forecasts.

I believe the program has many viewers other than pilots and mariners.  Alaska is full of outdoor people who hike, ski, hunt, camp, travel by canoe, dog sled and snow machine, all of which makes them vulnerable to the weather.  Rural residents also tend to pay close attention to the weather that impacts their subsistence and travel activities.

More opportunities to watch?
The internet wasn’t around when Alaska Weather started in the middle 70’s.  Since that time, we have a much greater range of choices to obtain weather information.  Today, in addition to viewing on television, after 6 pm each day the program is available online at: http://www.weather.gov/afc/tv  While this creates schedule flexibility, not everyone has access to the internet, or sufficient bandwidth to view it in this form.

As we understand from pilot training, weather forecasts are a very perishable commodity.  If you end up viewing Alaska Weather on one of the Alaska Public Media stations (Anchorage, Juneau and Bethel) at 5 a.m. the next morning, the forecasts are already twelve hours old. Under dynamic conditions, the value of this information may be much diminished.

Please study the new broadcast schedule, and make sure you know how to find Alaska Weather in your community.  If these schedule changes have negatively impacted your ability to view the program, please speak up.  Below are points of contact for the stations involved.  If you comment, please send me a copy:  [email protected].

Alaska Public Media (KAKM-TV Anchorage, KTOO-TV Juneau, KYUK-TV Bethel):

http://www.alaskapublic.org/about/contact/

or email Kristen Doogan, Director of TV Programing and On Air Promotions, Alaska Public Media: [email protected]

KUAC-TV Fairbanks:

http://kuac.org/about-us/contact-us/

 

The indispensable AFD

I’m not talking about the handy little green book that so many of us lugged around for years prior to the advent of wonderful flight apps like Foreflight.

I’m talking about an AFD in a totally different realm of aviation-the Aviation Forecast Discussion. The AFD has become an absolutely indispensable part of my daily and subsequent on-going weather “go-to” resources as a helicopter pilot.

What is it?

For starters, have you ever read a terminal forecast and wondered what the heck were they thinking when they made the forecast? Now you can know exactly what they were thinking. The Aviation Forecast Discussion quite simply is a discussion on the particular elements that made a particular TAF or set of TAF’s for a geographical region. I’m not suggesting this is a new product but in my experience it surely seems to be a great source that many pilots know nothing about. AFDs are issued by each Weather Forecast Office (WFO) and essentially describe weather conditions within their particular region.

As described on the NOAA Aviation Weather Center’s website the AFD, “provides the local office forecaster’s thoughts, reasoning, and uncertainty factors considered for aviation weather, ceiling, and visibility information contained in the TAFs.” Wow! This is a powerful statement. This is more than a TAF that has been “translated” via an app or other software process. The AFD offers insight from the forecaster on why one may see the presence (or lack thereof) of various conditions in a TAF. Additionally, the AFD may very well contain various aviation related weather issues that cannot be encoded into the TAF. Conveniently the AFD is typically generated every 6 hours to coincide with the release of the latest TAF for a particular WFO.

Let’s take a look

Let’s take a look at one example. On a warm summer late afternoon in the Southwestern Ohio Valley this is the colorful radar snapshot of what I saw on the screen.

radar

And this was the most recent TAF for the area:

KCVG 041730Z 0418/0524 25006KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB
FM050100 VRB03KT P6SM SCT060
FM050900 VRB03KT 5SM BR SKC
FM051300 13004KT P6SM SCT040
FM051900 09005KT P6SM BKN050

By looking at the radar snapshot and the TAF it was obvious the forecaster had some uncertainty about when the storm may move out of the area as indicated by the “VCTS” in the trend section of the TAF and not listed at any particular timeframe.

When going to the AFD for that area and taking a quick read it was obvious why the TAF appeared the way that it did and the radar showed something totally different (for a particular timeframe).

This is what the AFD contained:

AFD

BINGO! The AFD told me many things that clarified the current conditions that I was observing. As predicted in the TAF the conditions would in fact improve, but isolated showers and thunderstorms were popping up across the area due to a continued warm and unstable airmass. This made it difficult for the forecaster to be more precise in the TAF as evidenced by the statement, “tough to time the storms in to any of the TAF sites though so will stick with the trend of covering the threat with a VCTS through the daytime period.” What was evident based on the TAF and the AFD was that the thunderstorm activity was dissipating much slower than expected but one could in fact expect improving conditions as it related to the showers and storms. (But note the possibility of “patchy MVFR” and the probability that the same airmass will be in place the following day.) 

How to find the AFD for your area

The AFD can be easily accessed. Simply go to www.aviationweather.gov and click on “FORECASTS” and scroll down to “Aviation Forecast Discussion.” From there simply click on the region you are most interested in.

After clicking on your region you will get a textual discussion from that particular WFO giving you an idea of what to expect.

It’s free, it’s basic and just a few sentences from the AFD can give you an idea of the “big picture” of what to expect for a small geographic area.

More on “scud running”

In my post about long cross-country flights I brought up the topic of scud running. Apparently, my account of a flight into low visibility conditions, which I referred to as “scud running,” hit a nerve. As an example, someone called for a “definitive statement from you declaring NO to EVER scud running.” That got me thinking about the reality of flying.

My Definition of “Scud Running”

Let’s start with exactly what I’m talking about when I use the phrase “scud running.” Reader Dan Schiffer nailed it when he responded to one of the commenters. He said, in part:

It’s a term most pilots use to discuss low visibility conditions that we all are faced with occasionally due to changing weather.

To me, scud running is any situation where low ceilings or low visibility require you to alter your route around weather. And yes, low ceilings are a part of low visibility–after all, if you’re in mountainous terrain, don’t low ceilings obscure your visibility of mountainsides and peaks?

The FAA discusses scud running in its Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge:

This occurs when a pilot tries to maintain visual contact with the terrain at low altitudes while instrument conditions exist.

I discuss this in more detail later, when I cover weather minimums for helicopter pilots.

Neither my definition nor the FAA’s have anything to do with so-called “scud clouds.” I can’t find any mention of these clouds in either the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) or Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. I did find a definition in AC 00-6A, Aviation Weather:

scud – Small detached masses of stratusfractus clouds below a layer of higher clouds, usually nimbostratus.

A Google search brought up a similar, but more detailed Wikipedia definition:

a type of fractus cloud, are low, detached, irregular clouds found beneath nimbostratus or cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds are often ragged or wispy in appearance. When caught in the outflow (downdraft) beneath a thunderstorm, scud clouds will often move faster than the storm clouds themselves. When in an inflow (updraft) area, scud clouds tend to rise and may exhibit lateral movement ranging from very little to substantial.

For the record, I’m definitely not endorsing flying anywhere near a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus cloud. The FAA says to maintain 20 miles separation from thunderstorms and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

So, in summary, when a pilot uses the phrase “scud running,” it usually means flying in low visibility conditions and has nothing to do with so-called scud clouds.

 


 

A Note about flying in remote areas

I’ve done just about all of my flying in the west: Arizona (where I learned to fly), Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (where I now live). In the 3,200 hours I’ve logged, I’d say that at least half of them were in relatively remote areas. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to remember that most pilots fly in more populated areas, where they’re seldom out of sight of a town or building.

As difficult as this might be for some people to believe, there are still many places in the U.S. where a helicopter pilot can fly for over an hour and not see a single sign of human life. I’ve flown 90 minutes in a straight line somewhere between Elko, NV and Burns, OR without seeing a building or a vehicle on one of the few dirt roads–just herds of wild horses running at the sound of my approach. I’ve flown over the high desert of the Arizona Strip, crossing just one dirt road over an 85-mile stretch of forest and canyons. I’ve flown the length of Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam to Canyonlands National Park in the winter, passing just three seasonally closed marinas along the lake’s blue water and canyon mouths. I fly with a SPOT personal tracking device for a reason; if I go down out there–even by choice in a precautionary landing–no one would find me without some help.

So while “scud running” might seem like an unreasonable risk when you’re in an area with towns and airports every five or ten miles, it could be a matter of life and death when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and need to get somewhere safe. It’s not a black and white situation with a right or wrong answer.

 


 

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’ve done all your flight planning and believe you can make a two-hour flight to Point A, which is a rather remote place, without any weather/visibility concerns. You start the flight and things are fine for the first 90 minutes or so. Then the weather starts deteriorating. Maybe the ceiling drops or there are scattered rain showers that lower horizontal visibility in various places along your path. You can see well enough in your general forward direction and easily find paths around those showers that will get you closer to your destination, but things might be worse up ahead. Who knows? Even a call to Flight Service–if you can reach them on the radio in mountainous terrain with low ceilings preventing you from climbing — might not be able to provide adequate weather information if the area is remote enough.

Here’s where experience, judgement, and personal minimums come in. As helicopter pilots, we have three options:

  • Alter your route to completely avoid the weather, possibly ending up at a different destination. This might be the best option if there is an alternative destination and you have enough fuel to get there. But if your intended destination is in a remote place and you’re only 30 minutes out, there might not be an alternative.
  • Land and wait out the weather. Heck, we’re helicopter pilots and can land nearly anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with landing to wait out a storm. Remember, in an emergency situation, you can land if necesary, even in an area where landing is normally prohibited, such as a National Park, National Forest, Wilderness Area. (Again, I’m not recommending that you land in any of these places in non-emergency situations.) Do you have gear on board for an extended or perhaps overnight stay? This is another good reason to bring food on a cross-country flight.
  • Continue toward your intended destination. At the risk of sounding like I’m a proponent of “get-there-itis,” the destination is a known that’s a lot more attractive than the unknowns offered by the first two options.

There are many variables that will determine which option you pick. Here are a few of them:

  • Experience. If you’ve encountered situations like this before, you have a better idea of your comfort level than if you haven’t. You’ve likely also established personal minimums, possibly fine-tuned by real scares. The more experience, the better you’ll be able to deal with the situation and make the right decision.
  • Alternatives. If there is an alternative destination within range that you can safely reach with available fuel plus reserves, why wouldn’t you go for it?
  • Available fuel. There’s a saying in aviation: “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” One of the challenges of planning a long cross-country flight is making sure you have enough fuel on board to deal with unplanned route changes. But when flying to extremely remote areas, you might need almost all the fuel you have on board to get there. That definitely limits your options.
  • Actual weather conditions. If you can see a path ahead of you with potential landing zones and escape routes along the way, you’re far more likely to succeed at moving toward the destination than if the weather is closing in all around you. Never continue flight to the point where you don’t have at least the option to land and wait it out. The trick is to turn back or land before that happens; experience will be your guide. Likewise, if what you’re seeing tells you that the weather is localized and better conditions are just up ahead — perhaps you see sunlight on the ground beyond those heavy showers? — continuing flight might be the best option.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. As the pilot in command, you are the decision maker. You need to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation as it develops. You need to make a decision based on your knowledge and experience. If in doubt, choose the safest option.

With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

Weather Minimums

Despite the severe clear weather I’ve been seeing around my home in Central Washington State this week, weather minimums are on my mind lately. Why? Mostly because I just took my Part 135 check ride and was a bit hazy on them. Spending most of my flying career in Arizona didn’t do me any favors when it comes to knowing when it’s legal to fly — or being able to identify different types of fog by name, for that matter.

So let’s look at weather minimums as they apply to helicopters.

FAR 91.155, Basic VFR weather minimums sets forth weather minimums for each type of airspace. I’m going to concentrate on Class G airspace, mostly because that’s the type of airspace I’ve been talking about.

According to the FARs, a helicopter may legally operate under VFR in Class G airspace during the day with a minimum of 1/2 mile visibility clear of clouds. Conditions less than that are technically IMC, thus invoking the FAA’s definition of “scud running” discussed above.

But what if visibility in your desired flight path is 1/4 mile or less but visibility 30 degrees to the right is a mile or more? That is possible with localized showers or very low scattered clouds. Are you allowed to fly? I think that if you asked five different FAA inspectors, you’d get a bunch of different answers. But if you crashed while flying in those conditions, the NTSB report would claim you were flying VFR in IMC.

What’s the answer? Beats me.

Scud Happens

What I do know is this: If all your preflight planning indicates that weather and visibility will not be an issue during a flight but unexpected weather conditions come up, you need to react to them. As helicopter pilots, we’re lucky in that we have options to avoid flying into clouds and the terrain they obscure. At the same time, we don’t want to push that luck and get into a situation we can’t get out of safely. Experience, skill, and wisdom should guide us.

Scud running is never a good idea, but sometimes it’s the best idea under unforeseen circumstances. It’s your job as a pilot to (1) avoid getting into a dangerous situation and (2) make the best decision and take the best actions to complete a flight safely.

Learning about Flying in Alaska

No matter how many certificates or ratings a pilot has in their pocket, when planning to fly in a part of the world you’re not familiar with, it has always been good advice to talk with a local pilot to get the “lay of the land.” But who do you ask?

A number of years ago members of the Interior Alaska Flight Instructors Association, based in Fairbanks, partnered with the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and the Fairbanks FAA Flight Standards District Office to create a program for pilots who flew themselves to the state. During the summer months of June to August, pilots camped in the Air Park (a camp ground for airplanes) at Fairbanks International Airport may take advantage of this program. Three nights a week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 6 p.m. a member of the CFI group drops by to chat with visitors in the Air Park, and answer questions about flying in Alaska. They are armed with a full case of charts, pamphlets, special maps and information specific to Alaska aviation.

An aerial view of the Air Park during an aviation event.

An aerial view of the Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport during an aviation event.

Why Fairbanks?
Fairbanks is a popular destination for pilots who fly up the Alaska Highway, along the historic Northwest Staging Route from Montana that was established during World War II for the Lend Lease program. Being centrally located in the state, Fairbanks makes a good jump-off location for visitors wishing to explore the state, whether planning to venture north into the Brooks Range and more arctic environs, west to the gold-rich beaches of Nome, or south to Mt. McKinley and southcentral Alaska. Many of the visitors that arrive in Fairbanks are looking for ideas on places to go, things to see and what to watch out for.

What is different about Alaska?
Yes, the laws of physics are the same when it comes to lift and drag—but Alaskan infrastructure is perhaps different, depending on what you may be familiar with at home. Most communities in Alaska have airports, however very few have gas, maintenance facilities or even a phone to call Flight Service for a weather briefing. In fact, 82% of Alaskan communities are not connected to the state’s road system. While they represent the primary access to those communities, many consist of a 3,000 foot plus gravel runway, a small pad for aircraft parking and a road to town. No FBO, no fuel, no airport loaner car, no phone. You are on your own, which is fine so long as you planned for those conditions.

Another difference is the density of our aviation facilities. Weather reporting stations, NEXRAD weather radar, RCO’s, and nav aids are all in very short supply in contrast to the rest of the country.  Let’s dig into weather just a bit. According to the FAA’s listing, there are 133 AWOS and ASOS stations in Alaska. We would need 183 more stations to have the same average density that is enjoyed by the “lower 48 states.” This not only limits the most basic information pilots use for planning and conducting flights, it also impacts the weather models that are used by the National Weather Service to create aviation forecasts. While our products (METARs, TAFs, Area Forecasts, winds aloft forecasts) LOOK the same as what you may be used to, they are much less ‘informationally rich’ in nature. [More info on this is available at “Alaska is a weather-poor state.”] The upshot: the weather you see out the window is what you need to deal with.

Alaska specific infrastructure
The FAA recognizes some of these differences, and has made accommodations to address certain issues. Alaska has a network of web cameras that, during daylight hours, provide an additional source of information on weather conditions. At over 220 locations across the state, you may actually look at the weather to get a better idea of conditions along a given route of flight.

Weather is just one topic. Alaska also has an incredibly large Special Use Airspace complex, with special services to make it easier to navigate; FAA still operates a network of Flight Service Stations to help pilots obtain information; and the National Weather Service has a dedicated web site for aviation weather. These services are all summarized in a document developed by the flight instructors group which is now available on AOPA’s Flight Planning website www.aopa.org/Flight-Planning/Alaska on the Alaska Info tab, in Guide to Aviation Visitors to Alaska. A second document in that section lists a number of websites with Alaskan aviation references, including the aviation weather cams, Flight Service Station map, NWS aviation weather site and a lot more.

But if you would like to learn about Alaska flying in the old fashioned way— stop by the Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday summer evening around 6 p.m. and talk with a local flight instructor, to get the low-down on flying in Alaska.

Post Script:  The Air Park at Fairbanks International Airport has 15 camp spaces, along with two covered pavilions complete with a BBQ pit, and a restroom with shower facility. That’s right—during summer months it has running water! A few bicycles are available (first come, first serve) if you want to make a quick ride to town or down the ramp to one of the airport businesses or the Flight Service Station.

Master your environment

Helicopter pilots work in an amazing, ever-changing environment. The skills necessary to accomplish the task at hand require a high level of concentration, ability, and finesse. Whether it is flying circles around some of God’s greatest work, air medical operations, or instructing the next generation of helicopter pilots how well you utilize your skills can easily be determined by how aware you are with all components of your flying duties. In other words, you must be fully involved and a master of your environment.

WHAT IS YOUR ENVIRONMENT?

You can’t master what you don’t know. Environment can be defined as “the setting or conditions in which a particular activity is carried on.” The activity is easily defined as flying, however, it is the setting or conditions that can make or break you. It would be impossible to list all of the components that define a particular flying environment but several are common to most, if not all, flight operations. These mainstays include: aircraft, airspace, weather, and regulations.

AIRCRAFT If you really want to get to know your aircraft, its systems, and emergency procedures, make a plan to review the Rotorcraft Flight Manual on a regular basis. Pick a chapter in the RFM each month of the year and review it religiously. Know the RFM inside and out.

AIRSPACE I used to wonder why designated pilot examiners and check airmen were so stringent about airspace during checkrides. After a few years of operational flying and getting the life scared out of me by people that didn’t know understand it, I realized why this was a pet-peeve of many examiners. Not knowing airspace is like driving in a foreign country with road signs in a language you can’t begin to comprehend. If it has been a while since you actually used a sectional chart to navigate the various classes of airspace here is a good way to humble yourself; on one of your next flights turn the GPS off. Use good old fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning to find your way. Ask yourself where you are on the chart, where you came from, and where you are going. What airspace are you travelling through? What are the weather minimums? What equipment is required? Transponder? Who do you need to talk to? On what frequency? You get the idea. If you are going to master your environment you must know everything about the airspace you are transiting in and out of.

I have a rule about avionics and eyeballs that are in any aircraft I am flying. No avionics or eyeballs ride for free. If you got’em use them! As an example, if you have two GPS systems use both of them. Use one for your destination and the other for a nearby airport close to your departure area that has an instrument approach in the event you inadvertently fly in to the clouds shortly after take-off.

WEATHER If you think all you need to know about weather comes from those ridiculous questions on the FAA knowledge exams you are mistaken. Most areas experience some sort of regional microclimate. Get to know the weather patterns in your area and when to expect them. If you are flying in an area unfamiliar to you, reach out to other helicopter pilots and pick their brains on local weather patterns. The accident statistics are full of stories about helicopter pilots that didn’t have a working knowledge of local weather patterns.

REGULATIONS In this day and age of technology the current regulations can easily be placed in electronic format on all of your neat gadgets. Know all of the regulations that apply to your particular operations and know them well. If you don’t understand a particular regulation, seek clarification. Wiggle-room has no place when The Man is ready to take enforcement action against you. A quick survey of NASA reports shows several high-time pilots making mistakes involving regulations. Like the Rotorcraft Flight Manual, the federal regulations pertaining to your certificate privileges and operating activities need a periodic review.

HOW TO STAY SHARP? Whatever you do, don’t lose the awe factor. Not long ago I read a story about a 39-year physician. This fellow was in his late 80’s, and he still went to the office every day. His friends and family tried to get him to retire, but he simply refused. He had invented a procedure that he had performed more than 10,000 times. He was asked in an interview if he ever got tired of doing it, if it ever got old. He said, “No. The reason why is because I act like every operation is my very first one.” If you find yourself losing that awe of spooling up and pulling pitch, it may be time for a break. Taking pride in what you do and doing it with excellence can foster an attitude that enables you to master your environment.

Tips for long cross-country flights

Because I take my helicopter where the work is, I often do long cross-country flights between my permanent and various temporary bases of operation. (After a lot of careful consideration, I’ve decided that it’s safer and more cost-effective to fly the helicopter from point to point than to buy a custom trailer and tow it.) I’ve been making cross-country flights in excess of 500 miles since 2004 and, for six consecutive years, made an annual round trip between the Phoenix area (where I lived) and north central Washington state (where I now live) for cherry drying work. Nowadays, I make an annual round trip between north central Washington and the Sacramento area for frost control. I flew solo on about half of these long flights; the other half was usually spent with a low-time pilot building PIC time at the controls while I tried not to be bored (or sometimes sick from PIO—long story for another time).

I flew home from California in late April. It was another solo flight, one that I’d been looking forward to mostly because I would be doing all the flying. And, instead of the 5-6 hour direct flight, I planned to fly west and then north up the California and Oregon coasts before turning inland again. Total flight time would be about 6-7 hours.

CA Coast

My first look at the California coast on a recent flight from the Sacramento area to Washington State.

Although the flight wasn’t as pleasant and uneventful as I’d hoped, I’m not complaining. But it did remind me of some tips I could share with other pilots preparing to do long cross-country flights.

Planning the Flight

Whether you plan to file a flight plan (which I recommend doing) or not, it’s important to plan for the flight. This pretty much goes without saying. In addition to the usual things to check in advance–weather, fuel availability, TFRs, route options–consider the following:

  • Make your flight segments shorter than they have to be. Sure, Robinson Helicopter claims I can get 16 gallons per hour in my R44 so I should be able to fly 3 hours (less 20 minutes reserve) between stops. But do I really want to fly that long without a break? Probably not–especially after those first two cups of coffee. Yet I’ve seen more than a few flight plans that had us in the air as long as possible.
  • Don’t just study your route before the trip—study everything around it. How many times have I tried to fly up or down the coast, only to be forced inland by a typical “marine layer” of fog? Too many to count. I’ve learned to study my route and alternate routes that would be easy to get to if I needed to change course.
  • Know where the fuel is along the way. Do you think you could make a planned fuel stop if you hit  30 mph headwinds that weren’t in the forecast (or flight plan)? This happened to me on my April flight. I was lucky that there were several airports with fuel along my planned route so I could stop sooner than expected.

Preparing for the Flight

Once you’ve planned the flight, you can prepare the aircraft for conducting the flight.

  • Gather and prepare your charts. If you use paper charts, mark them up with your intended route and fold them with the route easy to access. Then stack them in the order of use. That’s how I used to do it when I used paper. Sure beats fumbling around one-handed. Fortunately, we’re in the 21st century and have tools like Foreflight to provide accurate, up-to-date charts. Make sure you’ve loaded and updated all the charts you’ll need. Use the flight planning tools to mark your route. Then make sure you’re fully charged up and, if necessary, have backup power available. A backup device is handy, too. I use, in order: Foreflight on my iPad, Foreflight on my iPhone, and a panel mounted Garmin 430 GPS.
  • Make an airport and frequency list. I don’t do this much anymore–Foreflight makes it easy to get this info on the fly–but when I used paper charts, I also made a list of all the airports along the way that included frequencies for CTAF (or tower) and AWOS/ASOS (or ATIS). I could then program all the airport codes into my Garmin 430 as a flight plan and make frequency changes as I flew from one airport to the next.
  • Bring oil. I use W100Plus oil in my helicopter. It’s isn’t exactly easy to find. That’s why I usually bring along a quart for every expected fuel stop. That’s not to say that I’ll use it all, but it’s there when I need it.
  • Pack snacks. I always have a small cooler on board for long flights and do my best to fill it with ice (or frozen water bottles) and good snacks before I go. Even if you planned a meal stop along the way, circumstances might prevent you from making that stop. Maybe you had to change your route. Maybe the restaurant closed 30 minutes before you arrived. Or maybe the restaurant that was supposed to be a quarter-mile south is really more than a mile and a half from the only airport gate on the north end of the field. Bringing beverages like water or Gatorade-like drinks is also important. You don’t want to get dehydrated.
  • Pack an overnight bag. If you weren’t planning an overnight stay, pretend you were. A change of clothes, toothbrush, and credit card can make an unscheduled overnight stop a lot more pleasant. And if you think roughing it might be necessary, consider a sleeping bag or bedroll, either of which can make sleeping in an FBO–or the helicopter–a lot more comfortable.
  • Pack an emergency kit. I’ve spent so much time flying over remote areas that I forget that many pilots don’t. My helicopter has an emergency kit under the pilot seat that includes a first aid kit and equipment like fire starters, a signal mirror, a “space blanket,” energy bars, water, and so on. If weight is a factor–and it certainly is in my R44–you’ll have to limit what you bring. But some essentials can save your life if you’re forced to land in the middle of nowhere.
  • Make sure any required power supplies, cables, or batteries are handy. If you rely on electronic devices for navigation, you’d better make sure you’ve got back up power for them. My iPad’s battery can’t survive a 7-hour flight with the screen turned on and the GPS running. I use USB cables hooked up to a power supply to keep the battery charged. If you have a battery-powered GPS, make sure you have a spare set of batteries.
  • Set up your tunes. I listen to music or podcasts when I fly solo. My aircraft’s intercom system automatically cuts the music sound when a radio transmission comes through. Handy.

During the Flight

It’s during the flight that your preparation will really pay off. If you’ve done everything right, you’ll be prepared for anything.

  • Open your flight plan. I recommend filing and opening a flight plan for each segment of the flight. Again, with a tool like Foreflight this is very easy. I can open and close a flight plan with a few taps on my iPad screen. This beats the frustration of trying to reach Flight Service on the radio in a mountainous area when only 700 feet off the ground.
  • Remember that your flight plan is not carved in stone. I can’t tell you how many flight plans prepared by pilots who were accompanying me that went out the window before the second fuel stop. Stuff happens–usually related to weather–and changes are a fact of cross-country flying life. The only time I’ve ever done a long cross-country flight plan exactly as planned was on one trip from Wenatchee, WA (EAT) to Phoenix, AZ (PHX), and that’s because our straight line route across the Nevada desert didn’t have any other options for fuel stops. We had to do it as planned.
  • Know when to pull the plug and wait it out. Weather an issue? While scud running is something we’ve all probably done at one time or another, it probably isn’t something we should be doing. Tired? Tired pilots make mistakes. When low visibility, severe turbulence, or simple pilot fatigue makes flying dangerous, it’s time to set the ship down and take a break. If you did all your homework before the flight, you should know whether there’s an airport nearby to make the wait a little more comfortable. I remember unplanned overnight stays in Rosamond, CA (not recommended) and Mammoth Lakes, CA (which would have been nicer if I’d been prepared for snow).

Experience Is Everything

Low Clouds

Hard to believe that only a few hours after hitting the coast I was forced inland by low clouds and rainy weather.

My April flight was a mixed bag. It started with a beautiful but slightly hazy dawn just west of Sacramento, a gorgeous morning on the coast, moderate turbulence with strong headwinds, low clouds, hazy coastal weather, drizzly rain, more low clouds, even lower clouds (and scud running), and bumpy air on a cloudy day. If you’re interested in details, you can read about it in my blog. Although it isn’t common, it is possible for me to have a perfectly uneventful cross-country flight of 500 miles or more in a day.

If you do enough long cross-country flights, planning and conducting a flight becomes second nature. I’m always thinking about what’s up ahead and working on ways to get more information about alternative routes when things aren’t looking as good as you want them to. I’ve occasionally used my phone to call AWOS and ATIS systems at airports I think might be along a better route. I use radar in Foreflight to get a feel for how weather is moving and where it might be better or worse than I am. I’ll change altitude to avoid mechanical turbulence. If I have to do any scud running, I do it slowly and carefully, always aware of exactly where I am and where I can go if things get worse.

It’s all about planning and preparing and using your experience to handle unexpected situations as they come up. After a while, there’s very little than can surprise you.

Alaska weather forecast graphics updated

The Alaska Aviation Weather Unit (AAWU) recently upgraded a number of their graphic weather products in ways which makes them easier to use. An arm of the National Weather Service, this unit generates the Area Forecasts, along with SIGMETS and AIRMETS for Alaska. These statewide products help us see the “big picture” regarding where icing, turbulence and poor weather are forecast for the next twelve hours or so, and are found under the GRAPHICAL FORECASTS tab at the AAWU home page: http://aawu.arh.noaa.gov/

Select the Icing Forecast, and you will notice something new!

In this 12 hour Icing Forecast Summary, major rivers have been added in blue to provide geographic reference.

In this 12 hour Icing Forecast Summary, major rivers have been added in blue to provide geographic reference.

In the past, other than the outline of the state, pilots have relied on the forecast zone boundaries as the sole means to “navigate” the charts. At least in my experience, at times it has been a challenge to figure out where weather relative to my intended route of flight. While the forecast zones (slightly subdued) are still there, the AAWU added major rivers to the products. For my money, that is a lot more useful feature for geographic reference. Kudos to the AAWU staff for adding these to the Forecast Weather, Icing and Turbulence forecasts! The Surface Chart and Prog Charts remain unchanged.

Better time resolution too!
Not as new, but worth mentioning is that a little more than a year ago the AAWU made a few other changes that make these charts easier to interpret. Instead of a single static map, the graphics now cover twelve hours, and show changes as often as every three hours, when conditions are expected to develop through the forecast period. On a Windows based system, just hover the mouse over the time intervals shown at the top of the frame, and watch the forecast areas change. On my iPad, I have to select each image individually, but the extra information showing how conditions are expected to develop is just what I am looking for. Also notice, the times on at the top of the product are local, as opposed to UTC.

This example product shows forecast icing for the 3 hour period starting at 15:00 local (yellow oval).  Other selections on that status bar would show how conditions were forecast the change during the 12 hour period.

This example product shows forecast icing for the 3 hour period starting at 15:00 local (yellow oval). Other selections on that status bar would show how conditions were forecast to change during the 12 hour period.

For more information on how the graphic products were revised see this earlier article, but for now focus on the addition of the river boundaries. If you have comments, feel free to share them with the AAWU at the following email address: [email protected] NWS appreciates hearing from pilots, as they continue to refine the products we use to figure out when it is safe to fly.

Special VFR changes at Anchorage

Special VFR (SVFR) procedures allow us to get in or out of Class B, C, D or E surface areas when the weather is below basic VFR, but still good enough to fly. In some parts of Alaska they are used routinely, where weather conditions are frequently dicey. A national revision of FAA internal policy caused the Air Traffic staff in Anchorage to re-examine their procedures, which initially caused concern within the pilot community—as Anchorage controllers often respond to requests for “specials” to get pilots in and out of Lake Hood and Merrill Field. When first announced, the use of radar as a tool for separation was the focus. The prospect of changes that could severely impact traffic in and out of area airports loomed large. I am pleased to report, thanks to the efforts of FAA Air Traffic Organization staff in Alaska, that procedural changes are now expected to streamline the process, and many cases increase ATC’s ability to accommodate SVFR traffic.

Special VFR procedures are a tool sometimes needed to deal with conditions around an airport, but should be used with extreme caution.

Special VFR procedures are a tool sometimes needed to deal with weather conditions around an airport, but should be used with extreme caution.

At a recent meeting of the Alaska Aviation Coordination Council, Merrill Tower Manager Brian Ochs shared the good news with representatives from the aviation industry. A challenge for controllers was the national guidance based on a single surface area. This didn’t adequately address the Anchorage situation with multiple adjoining surface areas: Anchorage International (ANC), Lake Hood (LHD), Merrill Field (MRI), Elmendorf (EDF), and Bryant Army Airfield (FRN). A working group was established across the Anchorage facilities to work the issue—spurred on by concerns expressed from aviation groups and local operators. Last March, FAA held a Safety Risk Management panel meeting, and invited AOPA and other stakeholder representatives to evaluate their plan. In the subsequent months, FAA reviews were held and approval ultimately received to implement new internal procedures.

SVFR Process
The process from a pilot perspective remains unchanged. We must ASK for a Special VFR clearance—the controller can’t offer it to us. Ask Clearance Delivery if you want to depart ANC or LHD, or Ground Control at MRI. Arriving traffic may request a special from Anchorage Approach. To address the issue of adjacent, “wing tip to wing tip” operations, ATC defined two cases, high and low visibility SVFR. During High Visibility SVFR conditions, the ceiling is a little below 1,000 ft, but visibility is three miles or greater. When these conditions exist, each facility can issue specials independently. When the visibility comes down to less than 3 miles, a different set of procedures go into effect, and coordination is required across adjacent surfaces. Priority will be given to inbound traffic, and outbound flights will be staggered to reduce congestion over the Point McKenzie area.

Feedback requested
We owe a big THANK YOU to the Air Traffic Control staff for going the extra mile to take what could have been a serious impact on access to the Anchorage airports, and developing procedures that may increase the flow of SVFR traffic. When fall weather arrives, and these procedures get more use, ATC would like your feedback. If you have comments or concerns, please contact: David Chilson, Support Manager, FAA Alaska Terminal District, [email protected], 907-271-2703. Thanks also to the pilots and operators who communicated their concerns to FAA when the prospect of these changes first was announced, and who participated in the Safety Risk Management Panel. This spirit of cooperation has helped reach a better outcome than I think anyone expected when the national changes were first announced!

Post Script on SVFR
While it is nice to have SVFR procedures in our tool kit, we should be extremely cautious in their application. Conditions that require SVFR by definition mean we are working under restricted circumstances, of either ceiling or visibility, which limit our options. We should be very familiar with the airport, local terrain and weather conditions before asking for a special. Under stable conditions a special can speed us on our way to better weather near by, but in other cases they may be leading us into something worse. Check out AOPA’s Air Safety Institute’s article “How safe is special VFR” to explore this topic in greater detail.

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