Accident investigators sometimes discover that pilots don’t have information contained in NOTAMs relevant to their flights. On rare occasions, even though a pilot asked for NOTAM information in a preflight briefing, the briefer accidentally omitted an item. More often, however, pilots don’t bother doing the research.
NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) are supposed to ensure that a pilot is aware of every bit of new information that could affect a flight. They report runway closures, runway conditions, malfunctioning navigational aids, airport arrival and departure changes, missile launches, outdoor laser light shows, temporary airspace restrictions and myriad other categories of information. The FAA distributes NOTAMs through printed publications issued every 28 days; it provides updates through FAA facilities between publication dates. But pilots aren’t always able to get all NOTAMs for all locations from all FAA facilities. It’s up to the individual pilot to dig through the sources of national, regional and local NOTAMs to mine the worthwhile nuggets.
The NOTAM format was designed for the constraints of the old FAA teletype network that tied together far-flung Flight Service Stations. The data-transmission rate was at a mule’s pace compared to what we’re used to on today’s computer networks, and open time on the wire was at a premium. Almost as an homage to those technologically challenged days of yore, today’s NOTAMs still consist of a bare minimum of characters that sometimes require the patience of a saint to decipher. Would a casual NOTAM reader really know that LAWRS refers to a “limited aviation weather reporting station”; FRH means you should “fly runway heading”; CBAS refers to “Class B airspace”; LSR means that there’s “loose snow on the runway”; or that PAEW refers to “personnel and equipment at work”?
Change is on the way. The FAA, in conjunction with foreign aviation organizations, is at work on a global project to move NOTAM compilation and distribution into the digital age, with all countries using the same format and standards. The bottom line is to make all up-to-date NOTAM information available through any computer. Eventually, there will be a single source for all U.S. NOTAM information, so everyone will be reading from the same NOTAM page, and pilots, briefers and airline flight dispatchers won’t have to go hunting all over the place. The potential reduction in required effort alone should be a major encouragement for pilots to check NOTAMs before each flight. Full implementation is expected to begin sometime after 2011. A trial program will be underway in Europe sometime this year.
In the interim, the FAA’s PilotWeb (https://pilotweb.nas.faa.gov) now offers temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), flight data center (FDC) NOTAMs, and Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) NOTAMs and Special Notices. You can even download the 28-day NOTAM publications for free, instead of having to buy a $115 annual subscription for the printed version. But you still should check with a Flight Service Station before a flight so as to be “legal.”
At the heart of the digital program is the concept of formatting basic NOTAM information so that it can be interpreted by computer software to provide better flight planning, assisted situational awareness and assisted navigation. If you’re planning to go from airport A to airport B, the computer will filter out the reams of irrelevant NOTAMs that are of no value to you. You’d be shown only the information you need to know. The information would be understandable, without mind-numbing contractions. There would also be dynamic use of the NOTAM information to produce visuals on a cockpit display. For example, a NOTAM about a closed runway could produce an airport map with red “X” markings along the closed runway. It might be possible for the computer to warn you if, for example, you attempt to contact ATC on a radio frequency that has been NOTAMed out of service.
In the meantime, we can only speculate whether a modern system for compiling and distributing NOTAMs might have prevented the following accidents.
A Cessna 172M was landing at the Clark County Airport in Jeffersonville, Ind., at the end of a day/VFR flight from Louisville, Ky. The airplane landed on runway 32, which is 3,899 feet long by 75 feet wide. The runway was covered with snow, and a NOTAM reported that it was closed. The pilot hadn’t obtained NOTAM information. An intersecting runway had been plowed, leaving ridges of snow and ice at the intersection. When the airplane ran into a snow and ice ridge, the nosegear collapsed and the airplane received substantial damage. The commercial pilot, who was the only person on board, was uninjured.
The owner of a Cessna 172S was the only person on board for a night flight in visual meteorological conditions from Watsonville, Calif., to Willits Municipal Airport in Willits, Calif., where the airplane was based. The private pilot wasn’t instrument rated. The pilot told investigators that he was trying to find the Willits Airport when the airplane descended into trees about one-eighth mile west of it. Upon arriving in the vicinity of the airport, he keyed the radio to turn on the runway lights, which didn’t come on. After unsuccessfully trying again, he maneuvered to where he thought the airport was located with the intention of making a low pass over runway 16/34 to see if the runway lights were at least partially operating. He said his intention was to level off at 500 feet AGL, but the airplane hit the trees. The pilot also reported that he didn’t use the airplane’s landing light, even though it was operational. A NOTAM had been issuedstating that the runway lights were out of service. The pilot told the NTSB he was unaware of the light situation. The airplane was destroyed, and the pilot received minor injuries.
A Piper PA23-250 was being used for mosquito-control spraying in the Lake Wales, Fla., area. The Part 137 aerial application flight was operating overnight, in visual meteorological conditions, under a contract with the state of Florida. No record could be found that the pilot had obtained a preflight briefing from an FAA facility or via computer. The flight originated at Lake Wales Municipal Airport at about 4:15 a.m. At about 5:28 a.m., the airplane struck a 520-foot-tall television tower about 20 feet below its top. Parts of the airplane fell almost straight down, and the main wreckage came to rest about one-quarter mile away. The pilot and passenger were killed. A NOTAM had been issued about a month before the accident when the tower owner notified the FAA that the power for the tower and the tower’s obstruction lights had failed.
A Cessna T206H was being used by a private pilot for a day/VFR flight during which he intended to practice landings and takeoffs at a number of airports in New Jersey. The pilot took off from Atlantic City Municipal Airport, flew to Ocean City Municipal Airport (where he did two landings and takeoffs) and then flew to Millville Airport for another landing and takeoff. He then started to fly toward the Flying W Airport in Lumberton, N. J.; five minutes into that leg, he decided to switch destinations and used the “nearest” function on his GPS receiver to find the nearest airport. What came up was Rudy’s Airport at Vineland, N. J. The pilot said he checked his sectional chart and determined that the airport was for public use and that it had a turf runway. He entered left downwind for runway 08 at Rudy’s, and proceeded to fly the traffic pattern and prepare for landing. At touchdown, the ride became very bumpy. As the airplane slowed, the nosegear dug into soft sand and the airplane nosed over. Although the airplane was substantially damaged, the pilot escaped injury. An investigator went to the scene and discovered that the pilot’s sectional chart had expired more than two years ago. Also, the airport’s windsock had been removed and large orange “X” marks had been placed at both ends of the runway. Further investigation revealed that the airport had been closed about three months prior and a NOTAM had been issued.
An ATP-rated pilot with 27,500 flight hours was at the controls of a Cessna 182E for a day/VFR flight from McKinney, Texas, to the McGehee Catfish Restaurant Airport at Marietta, Okla. There were three passengers on board. While landing on runway 35, the airplane nosed over. There was substantial damage to the nosegear, fuselage and wings. Two of the passengers received minor injuries. The turf runway was 2,450 feet by 55 feet. While on the approach, the pilot noticed that part of the runway appeared to have been graded. When the airplane rolled onto the graded portion of the runway, it bounced, slowed and flipped over. Investigators learned that a large white “X” was in place at the runway’s approach end. The pilot reported that he checked the weather before the flight by using a commercial Internet site rather than a Website operated under contract to the FAA or contacting a Flight Service Station. He said that after looking at the weather information, he tried to open the NOTAM section of the commercial Website. When it failed to open, he ended the briefing and didn’t check any other sources for NOTAM information. A NOTAM had been issued reporting that the airport was closed.
Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.