A recent Washington Post article republished by Alaska Dispatch News, “Alaska’s outdated maps making flying a peril,” told the story of a tragic 2006 accident in which a pilot encountered bad weather and crashed while attempting to navigate Mystic Pass, near Mount McKinley. While there’s no question that Alaska’s maps would benefit from improved accuracy, there is an even more immediate danger facing Alaska’s pilots: An inadequate weather reporting system.
The gaps in our weather information can mean the difference between a safe flight and one that puts a pilot into difficulty, if not danger. Some timely improvements to our weather infrastructure will go a long way toward making aviation in Alaska safer.
Weather reports are one of the fundamental pieces of information that a pilot looks at before deciding whether to venture aloft, or to continue a flight. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Alaska has 133 automated aviation weather reporting stations. The “contiguous 48 states” have over 1,800 stations. To achieve a similar density of stations in Alaska, the FAA would need to add over 180 new sites — 2.4 times as many as are in place today.
That’s not likely to happen, which means Alaska pilots must be creative in obtaining the information they need.
One of those resources is the network of “A-Paid” stations, where a resident in a remote location is trained, certified and paid to make a limited number of weather observations per day. Unfortunately, five of the few remaining A-Paid stations were shut down earlier this fall. FAA operates a network of weather cameras, which is another source of invaluable weather information, but only during daylight hours. There are more challenges with Alaska’s weather reporting network than can be addressed here. Details are available online at http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=1773.
Weather observations also feed the computer models used by the National Weather Service to generate forecasts that pilots use to predict conditions during flight. The limited number of observations covering immense areas often results in pilots encountering un-forecast conditions, which may lead to controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) crashes. Although CFIT accidents don’t occur all that often, a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that a majority of CFIT crashes occurred after pilots flew from areas of good visibility into areas of reduced visibility.
In addition, the study found that these types of crashes were about 10 times more likely to result in a fatality than other accident types.
No one doubts that maps are an important tool that benefits many needs. Alaska’s topographic maps are at a lower resolution than the rest of the country and don’t meet National Map Accuracy Standards, but do provide the basic information needed for aviation. The accident featured in the Post story was not operating under instrument flight rules. The pilot was flying under visual rules which require staying out of clouds and having the ability to see the terrain.
The FAA designs airways, literally highways in the sky, with minimum altitudes to avoid terrain, with a minimum flight altitude of least a 1,000 feet above the highest terrain in lowlands and 2,000 feet over mountains, with additional altitude added based on the quality of the maps.
A GPS device may serve as a visual aid to navigation, but it’s not intended to help pilots fly through the mountains with little or no reference to the ground. The Mystic Pass accident involved a Garmin 496 portable GPS unit.
Garmin obtains terrain data for their products that has 1 arc-second (about 30 meters) resolution for the 48 conterminous states, and 2 arc-second (approximately 60 meters) for Alaska. However, Garmin then degrades the source in either case to 9 arc-seconds (about 270 meters) in the Garmin 496 and similar units, due to hardware and processor limitations.
While high-resolution data as described in the Post article may have provided additional detail, it is unlikely that it would have made a difference in the outcome of this accident. Better maps would be useful, but having better weather information to make informed decisions is absolutely life-and-death critical.
Aviation is an essential form of transportation in Alaska. With 82 percent of the communities in the state not connected to the road system, airplanes haul people, groceries, mail and other commodities on a year-round basis. Pilots need all the weather information available to make informed, educated and conscientious decisions about initiating and continuing flights. When it comes to the expenditure of public funds, priority should be placed on additional weather reporting to provide meteorologists and pilots with better information to prevent aviation accidents and fatalities.
Tom George is the Alaska regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Adam White is the director of legislative and government affairs for the Alaska Airmen’s Association. And Harry Kieling is chairman of the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation. All three are involved in aviation safety programs across the state and are active pilots
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.