This screenshot illustrates some of the information available to pilots, or anyone else interested in weather conditions, on the FAA’s Weather Camera Program site. Image/Courtesy/FAA
What started as a small program to help Alaska pilots that fly some of the most dangerous routes in the state is ready for the big time, and your smartphone.
“We help reduce CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents,” said Walter Combs, who is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Weather Camera Program manager. “We give pilots enough information that they look before they launch. They used to fly out to see if they could go and turn around and come back if they couldn’t. Now, they take a look and see if they can go and if they can’t they sit on the ground and wait until they can.”
Despite being based in Anchorage, his title mentions nothing about Alaska. That’s because there is nothing regional about his program, other than it started quietly in Alaska nearly 10 years ago.
Combs and his 10-person team design, install, maintain and repair nearly 900 cameras at 228 sites across Alaska. Those cameras are often in locations specifically chosen for their isolation, difficulty of access and virtually perpetual inclement weather.
“We serve anybody flying,” Combs said simply.
And the idea is simple enough, too. Give small aircraft pilots an eye to look beyond the mountain peaks visible from the runway and push back against the temptation to take unnecessary risks because one is already in the air.
Combs said the high rate of avoidable flight accidents and deaths in the state meant something had to be done.
“We got started because there were so many CFIT accidents,” he said.
Combs noted one of Alaska’s most popular, and notorious, mountain passes, Merrill Pass, as a prime example of the need for the weather cameras.
Named after Russel Merrill, the pilot who first traversed the route from Anchorage and over the Alaska Range to the Kuskokwim Valley in 1927, Merrill Pass is home to two of Combs’ camera sites.
Anchorage’s Merrill Field is named after him as well.
“If you fly through Merrill Pass in the summer you can just see this (plane) wreckage scattered all over,” Combs said.
The program has worked.
The FAA required hard data to justify funding the program when the first cameras were installed in 2007. At that time, Alaska had an average of 0.28 weather-related flight accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
A third-party consultant developed an algorithm that set targets to reduce the frequency of weather-related crashes by about 10 percent per year in the early years of the program.
By 2011, the actual number of weather-induced accidents had been cut by more than half, to 0.13 per 100,000 flight hours. In 2014, the rate was down to 0.04 per 100,000 hours, or an 86 percent reduction in crashes caused at least partially by weather, according to the FAA.
But the cameras do more than improve safety; they also improve operational efficiency. As Combs said, pilots no longer have to be in the air to see an impenetrable cloudbank for themselves. They can check the trouble spots of their route from the terminal, or the hangar or their office — wherever the nearest computer screen happens to be.
Combs said he has received testimonials from pilots who would regularly fly into Lynn Canal north of Juneau up to six or seven times per day only to be turned back before cameras were installed at two sites along the route.
Again back in 2007, when the first 80 sites were installed, the FAA estimated Alaska pilots unnecessarily flew for more than 15,300 hours on flights that would ultimately be cut short by inclement weather.
Unnecessary flight time logged was down to about 5,000 hours by 2014, based on FAA data. Combs contends the actual number is still less than that.
“What (pilots) are not doing is taking chances in those passes, what we call pinch-points, or hazard areas where weather is known to sock in,” he said.
User-friendly upgrades to the program’s website have encouraged more use, meaning the safety and efficiency metrics should keep getting better, although it will likely be hard continue the impressive year-over-year improvements.
The website avcams.faa.gov averaged 27 million hits per year in the program’s first eight years. The reformatted website, with added information, quicker and easier navigation and always more cameras, pushed the number of views to nearly 200 million in 2015 alone.
Combs said several small flight service operators have added the weather cameras to their “ops specs.” In other words, the pilots are now required to check the cameras along their route as part of their pre-flight routine.
Alaska Air Carriers Association Director Jane Dale confirmed that and said Combs gets nothing but “high marks” from her members.
“The carriers don’t do anything until they look at the cameras,” Dale said.
It’s more than just one photo of the horizon, however. Most sites, except those with partially obstructed views, have four cameras to show incoming our outgoing weather in any direction.
Weather conditions not viewable in a still photo, such as temperature, wind, barometric pressure and cloud ceiling are also provided. Additionally, camera shots taken in 10-minute intervals are stored for six hours, allowing pilots the opportunity to review how the weather is changing — is it getting better or worse?
Combs said National Weather Service officials in Juneau are also taking advantage of his program to make their forecasts. After a recent tour of the NWS Alaska office he said, “The forecasters will have all the cameras on that are in their section that they’re doing the forecast on.”
He has also taken requests from commercial fisherman in Southeast Alaska for cameras near their favorite fishing grounds, Combs said.
To date, the FAA has invested about $25 million in the program over nearly a decade, according to Combs, a relatively small amount of money when one considers the locations of some of the equipment.
One of the newest sites, per a Parks Service request, is situated on Kahiltna Glacier at the foot of Denali.
When word gets around that Combs’ team is looking to establish a camera site somewhere in the state, locals often do their best to make his job as easy as possible, exemplifying the understood value of the program, he said.
“Wherever we can get commercial power, we do. And that’s interesting because most people that we approach are willing to give us free power and free (Internet) communication if they have it,” Combs said.
“So we’ve got a lot of sites out here where I’m not paying for any power, I’m not paying for any communication.”
In those places without power, the program team has developed solar and wind power modules to energize the cameras that must operate with only one maintenance trip per year.
FAA Alaska Region Administrator Kerry Long said much of the Weather Camera Program’s success is due to the direct connections Combs has made with the industry. He’s managed to cut through the bureaucracy the FAA is known for.
“There aren’t six levels of getting things done. It’s Walter that makes these decisions,” Long said. “There’s no largesse to it. If you can convince Walter that there’s a need and you’re a user, assuming we can afford it, he’ll do it.”
Now, the program is on the verge of expanding to the Lower 48, Combs said, at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board, which has requests for future sites in many mountainous regions of the West. That expansion will largely depend on funding.
But in the more immediate future, more website improvements and Android and IOS mobile apps are currently in the works and should be ready for the public early this fall, Combs said.
The new website and the mobile apps will allow pilots, or the countless other camera users, for that matter, to save and recall their favorite routes. Efforts are also being made to add more local flight information, such as NOTAMs (notices to airmen), according to Combs.
He has 40 pilots actively testing the apps this summer.
“They’re using the app every day. In fact, we’re using Survey Monkey for their feedback,” Combs said. “We’re on track. We’re giving pilots what they’re after. It’s really cool. It’s really neat to do.”
Original article can be found here: http://www.alaskajournal.com