FAA aims to improve safety in Alaska aviation

A prop engine plane taking off at Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska.
A prop engine plane taking off at Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska.(Staff)
Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With more pilots per capita than any other state, there’s always planes in the sky in Alaska. In a state unlike any other, the Federal Aviation Administration has been trying to improve safety in a place where flying is simply more crucial and more dangerous than elsewhere.

Right now, the FAA is investing in improvements to weather monitoring across the state, according to a recent FAA press release. There are already weather cameras, but they are improving upon them with a project called the Visual Weather Observation System.

Dealing with the weather in remote landing areas is a complicated matter, with many of those areas not having much in terms of weather monitoring, according to Warbelow’s Air Ventures Director of Operations Darren Young.

He said the lack of weather reporting and weather instruments in many remote locations makes landing in said areas more difficult. In order to have a good landing, good weather is extremely helpful. In many remote locations, Young said they have people on the ground literally look outside and tell the pilots and dispatchers what the weather is looking like.

“And the agents that we have out there aren’t meteorologists,” Young said. “They aren’t really trained in that kind of information. And it’s pretty hard to get good, true information from those, because they’re just looking out the window of their house.”

Warbelow’s is one of the few operators that is currently beta testing the weather observation system. Young said he loves it, and looks at it every day.

He explained that essentially, the system will be a website that compiles all the information from the existing weather cameras into one place. It has images from the cameras, wind speeds and direction, temporary flight restrictions, radar information, and everything pilots need to know for a safe flight.

Young clarified that the existing weather cameras do more than take pictures. They also have weather monitoring technology that allows them to collect important information for the weather. The Visual Weather Observation System puts them all into one streamlined place.

Also, before the system, Young said the cameras had a fixed image of runways and landing areas where they were available. Now he can look at a 360 degree angle of the camera. So if an approach looks good one way, he can check and see if it’s the same the other way.

He said pilots can check the system themselves before the flight, but if weather changes, the dispatcher can be aware of it and change the pilot’s route if necessary.

Young added that even though this system is not certified as a weather station, he said it gives pilots just as much if not more information than certified ones. And he said it costs a lot less.

“I mean I use it on a daily basis,” Young said, “and we’re only hoping that the FAA will continue funding this because this is what’s going to make the aviation community much safer up here.”

FAA Acting Regional Administrator in Alaska Shelly Larson said the hope is to make the system available to all aviators in the state this fall.

Larson said new technology isn’t the only thing they’re working on to improve safety. She said the FAA has been working on the FAA Alaska Aviation Initiative since it started in October.

She explained the initiative is a long window open for feedback from aviators across the state. They are discussing issues as well as possible solutions to safety concerns with pilots, airlines, dispatchers, and all other aviation community members to learn ways to be safer.

“We’re gathering good feedback from all of them which will come out in the final report,” Larson said. “We have had five meetings so far and by the end of July, we anticipate having 18 more. So we’re just at the beginning of gathering the feedback.”

Larson said they can’t release the findings of the feedback until the final report comes out.

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