NOTAMs: A Broken 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.

As if on cue, shortly before publishing this entry, issue #426 of NASA’s Callback newsletter hit my inbox. Callback is a publication of the Aviation Safety Reporting System, the so-called “get-out-of-jail-free” program that provides certain benefits in exchange for submitting safety reports.

Anyway, if you think the NOTAM system isn’t broken, read through this issue and tell me I’m wrong. You’ll find feedback from professionals and non-professionals alike. The one thing they have in common: trouble with NOTAMs. It’s clear that the system is confusing, cumbersome, and desperately in need of improvement.

The third item in this issue is the one that really gets me. It reads like a three-guys-walk-into-a-bar joke. But in this case, it’s a pilot, controller, supervisor, and airport manager who, even working together, can’t seem to figure out whether an airport is open or closed. Not all NOTAM snafus are that bad, but the fact that something like this is even possible speaks of the need for reform.

While I was serving as the Supervisor in the…TRACON, my Sector Controller asked me if I knew anything about ZZZ being closed. I stated that I did not. The Sector Controller said that he had Aircraft X inbound, but the pilot was questioning the status of the airport because according to him, there was a NOTAM showing it closed…and the current AWOS broadcast also said the airport was closed. I quickly checked the current FAA NOTAMs on the website, but there were none indicating the airport was closed. I then called the…Airport Manager and…asked the person who answered the phone if the airport was open and they said, “Yes.” I told my Sector Controller that there were no NOTAMs showing the airport closure and the person at the airport said the airport was open. So, the Controller cleared the aircraft for the approach and approved the frequency change. Shortly thereafter, Aircraft X went around claiming that there were men and equipment on the runway and diverted to [a nearby airport]. I called the secondary number listed [for ZZZ]. I asked [this person] about the status of the airport. He said that there were men working on the lights, but assured me they were clear of the safety area and the airport was therefore open. But, he said he was at [a different airport] so he asked me to stand by while he called out there. He returned to say that the men and equipment were now clearing the runway, turning the lights on, and the airport should be open in about 20 minutes. I said that I had just talked to someone over there who said the airport was open. He said that number transfers to [a nearby airport] after hours so that person must have thought I was inquiring about that airport.

I asked Aircraft X to call the TRACON so I could explain what had happened. He was very polite and did not seem concerned about the whole thing. After researching a little more, I discovered that the morning FLM (Front Line Manager), whom I had relieved earlier, had printed out the Satellite NOTAMs and stapled them to the daily staffing sheet. It included a NOTAM about ZZZ being closed, but there was no mention of it in the position relief briefing nor on our IDS (Information Display System).

There is clearly a flaw in our tracking/dissemination of NOTAMs. The NOTAMs for a 40-mile radius of [local international airport] created 19 pages. Some supervisors review these at the beginning of the shift and enter them into the IDS. Others simply print them out and staple them to the daily staffing sheet. Most of the NOTAMs we receive are unimportant, but obviously some are critical. However, deciphering 19 pages of ridiculously hard-to-read NOTAMs is cumbersome at best.

Our Position Relief Checklist includes NOTAMs, but they aren’t briefed unless it’s something significant. Additionally, we get NOTAMs sometimes via fax, sometimes via Flight Service Station, and via the internet. It’s a system that is filled with flaws and risks.

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.

This is how you do NOTAMs!

This is how you do 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.

That’s not to say there haven’t been attempts. Section 3 of the Pilot’s Bill of Rights required the FAA to institute a NOTAM Improvement Program within 180 days of the bill’s passage and complete the improvements within one year of enactment. Sounds great, but the bill was signed into law on August 3, 2012 — that’s was three years ago.

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.

  15 comments for “NOTAMs: A Broken System

  1. Andrew Immerman
    July 20, 2015 at 1:58 am

    All one needs to understand are NOTAM effective periods. Then, all NOTAMs read: “Don’t fly during the period beginning at X and concluding at Y.” 🙂

    • July 20, 2015 at 11:43 am

      Well that would certainly keep you clear of any conflict! It would also keep you on the ground most of the time. The effective times are one of the big problems with NOTAMS: a string of 20 digits separated in the middle by a single dash.

      As a general rule, any time important data is made to look like transmission of the launch codes for a ballistic nuclear missile, we’re probably doing it wrong.

      • Andrew Immerman
        July 20, 2015 at 2:58 pm

        So, what’s the process for creating and disseminating textual weather and NOTAM products? Are they transmitted and/or disseminated through systems having length and/or character restrictions? Are regulated intermediate systems autonomously validating, manipulating, and/or taking action based on these products? In other words, is this “format” simply a bureaucratic hold-over from restrictive technologies of the past?

        • July 20, 2015 at 3:44 pm

          Theoretically, every ICAO signatory state (which is most of the world) should abide by ICAO Annex 15, which defines the NOTAM format. If current trends continue, eventually the U.S. will adopt all ICAO rules (that’s what international IFR flight plans, “line up and wait”, and many other changes were: the U.S. adopting ICAO rules).

          ICAO was formed in the mid 1940s, so I can only assume the format is indeed a hold-over from the days of teletypes and monochrome screens. Having said that, the U.S. doesn’t fully follow that NOTAM format at the present time. The technological restrictions of the era were the same, though.

  2. July 20, 2015 at 6:03 am

    Ron, you’re so right. Some aspects of flight preparation (especially VFR) are a geeky paradise – poring over charts, platting tracks, calculating wind drifts – time that’s almost as enjoyable as the flying itself. But deciphering the nonsensical alphabet train wreck of weather briefs and NOTAMs isn’t in that bag. As you point out, a simple software fix isn’t just do-able, it’s available. Not adopting it right now seems as arcane as insisting that pilots wear goggles for every flight.

    ‘Mythbusters’ once uncovered a theory that the tipping point for commercial flight was a 400 mile trip – then proved it by driving from Oakland to L.A in the same time as a team that headed for the airport. I wonder what that ‘magic number’ would be for GA?

    • July 20, 2015 at 11:59 am

      Good point! Not everyone loves plotting courses and calculating wind correction angles, but the passion some folks have for that kind of thing is understandable. So it’s not just a general aversion to putting in effort or dedicating time to a technical enterprise. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who admits to a fondness for interpreting NOTAMS.

      Regarding the Mythbusters thing, that’s a great question. As I recall, Flying magazine did an article on that back in the day. They had a Porsche 911 and a Porsche PFM-powered Mooney. They both started in Los Angeles at the same time and headed to Las Vegas. I believe the aircraft won, but not by much. I could be wrong on some of the particulars. The article may be online somewhere.

      I’d imagine the number for GA would vary depending on several factors: the speed of the airplane (there’s a big difference between a 110 knot Skyhawk and a 165 knot Cirrus), the pilot’s drive time to get to the airport, and the traffic situation on the freeways. One benefit to living in Southern California: the highways are often jammed. Most people wouldn’t see that as an “advantage”, but it does tilt the equation in favor of flying GA. I’ve been known to fly across town just to save time.

      • Tim Whaling
        December 4, 2015 at 9:53 am

        In my anecdotal experience, the tipping point for a Columbia 350 is about 70-90 NM. I often fly from Austin Bergstrom to College station TX (about 70 miles) and the time breakdown is as follows:
        The drive is right at 1 hour 45 minutes using the airport as our baseline starting point (to make things fair) solo preflight and taxi takes about 30-45 minutes, and the flight takes 35-40 minutes, coming out to a very similar time. Once you factor in getting a cab or a rental car at your destination, they get even fast! Another experience was a flight home from a high school football game. The flight was Waco airport to Austin Bergstrom (90NM) and my neighbor was also attending the game. We both left the game at nearly the same time, and we both pulled into our driveways at, I kid you not, the exact same time! The equation is so complex, it’s hard to say! even after owning a plane for 10 years, I’m not sure where the cutoff is. But I know one thing for sure, flying is ALWAYS more fun.

  3. July 20, 2015 at 9:25 am

    One of your best stories yet. And Weathermeister can’t be beat.
    Glenn Brasch, Owner
    Airport Courtesy Cars phone app

    • July 20, 2015 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks, Glenn. Glad to know so many people are using and enjoying WM. I think it’s one of the hidden gems of the online aviation weather ecosystem.

      • July 20, 2015 at 2:03 pm

        Ron, I learned about WM years ago as an RV builder and had met Dan. We actually exchange ad’s on my RV site, Rvairspace.com In addition, I am retired from the largest helicopter company in the US, loaded on every pilots computer at every base is WM. I have to puff my chest a little as years ago when we first started using it, I was asked by a high level manager my opinion. It was an easy good opinion to give.

        Glenn

        • July 20, 2015 at 2:11 pm

          I’ve been asked about it as well by people who see me using it. Sometimes it’s an FBO computer, other times it’s on an iPhone or iPad. I’ve yet to find anyone who wasn’t both interested and impressed with the color coding, presentation, quick load times, and other options (email briefings, TFR notifications, etc).

  4. July 20, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Dead on. I love Weathermeister (and wish Dan still had up his RV site, because I loved those stories, too). I just wrote to Foreflight and suggested they translate the NOTAMS in a similar fashion. I read them, but I am not positive I always *understand* them.

    • July 20, 2015 at 12:05 pm

      I miss RVproject.com as well. It’s still remembered and loved by many in (and out of) the Van’s community. I know what you mean about understanding NOTAMs. Every now and then even Weathermeister picks up a NOTAM it is unable to translate. Obviously understanding the notice is vital. You’re a well-educated, experienced pilot. If you can’t understand the NOTAM, I believe the fault lies with the system. I suspect you’re far from alone on that score, by the way! I’ve seen more than a few NOTAMs over the years that really left me scratching my head.

  5. July 20, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    It is ridiculous how often we have looked at NOTAMS during our crew brief and simply decided one didn’t apply to what we were doing so why keep trying to figure out what it means. When it comes to something that drives safety it shouldn’t be harder to decipher than a teenager’s text message.

    • July 20, 2015 at 3:45 pm

      That’s a great way of stating the problem. It’s sad that even a team of military aviation professionals can’t figure some of this stuff out. On the other hand, I’m glad to know it’s not just me. Imagine trying to decipher this stuff in the days before smartphones and the internet!

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