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.
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.