Pilots and air traffic controllers think that they’re so different from each other, but they’re not. They’re really two branches of the same aviation family.
And judging from the research I did for this month’s column, they all agree that they hate the NOTAM system in its present state.
Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) are the FAA’s way of providing time-critical information or information not known sufficiently in advance to get on the normal aeronautical chart publication or other operational publications print cycle.
Every pilot before every flight is required to check for pertinent NOTAMs. All Flight Service Station personnel are required to know which NOTAMs are pertinent for their sector during their shift. Depending upon where you fly, that can be a tall order, especially since NOTAMs and their associated Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) are disseminated in a variety of ways.
One pilot relied too heavily on electronic technology for NOTAM and TFR notification — and paid a high price, a violation warning from ATC.
He filed a report with NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) to explain:
“The purpose of the flight was to photograph [an area] that had recently been the site of an accident. Prior to departing, I obtained a preflight briefing using the computer service at my home FBO. The service displays a list of NOTAMs for a route of flight.”
The pilot reviewed the list without seeing any TFR notifications. He also used an XM service to bring immediate TFR notification capability into his cockpit. It was supposed to provide real-time TFR information via satellite directly to his GPS moving map display.
“I thought I had the TFR base covered,” he wrote. “Upon return to my home base, ATC told me to call. They said I had violated a TFR that was described in a NOTAM and centered on the exact spot we were photographing. It was a one-mile radius around that area up to 3,000 feet.”
If he’d seen the TFR, the pilot would have canceled his flight.
What’s a pilot to do? The FAA encourages us to use technology more and more to meet the demands of flying in the National Air Space. This pilot had done that, using two of the most popular and current forms of technology.
And yet it’s possible that the same technology he was encouraged to rely on may have been what got him into trouble with the FAA.
According to the pilot, neither the FAA, the website, nor XM had properly disseminated the TFR information. After all, it hadn’t shown up on his GPS display. Nor had he seen it in the long list of NOTAMs on his Web service. For him the solution is now to rely less on technology and more on human contact through calls to Flight Service.
But calling Flight Service and speaking to a human doesn’t necessarily guarantee better success. As one pilot wrote in a NASA report:
“I was on an IFR flight plan, in the clouds, nearing the airport. The controller asked which approach I wanted. Given that the ceiling was 2,500 broken, but variable and just below the 3,300 foot transition altitude, I told him I wanted the VOR approach. He cleared me direct to the VOR at 3,300 feet.”
Approaching the VOR, the pilot switched from navigating via his IFR-certified GPS to his VOR radios. He tried to tune in a signal. No joy.
“I told ATC I was not receiving the VOR. He told me he did not have any NOTAMs showing the VOR out of service, so I continued to use the GPS to navigate to the VOR, thinking that since the VOR was low powered, I was just not yet getting a good signal.”
“Another plane behind me asked for the VOR approach, then reported that he was not receiving the VOR either. That pilot asked for a different approach.”
That action raised concern in the reporting pilot’s mind. He knew he could not legally continue the VOR approach using GPS equipment past the Final Approach Fix, which was coming up fast.
“I broke out of the clouds into VFR conditions just before reaching the VOR. I canceled IFR before having to navigate the final approach course from the VOR.”
Two pilots and one controller all missed a NOTAM announcing that this particular VOR was out of service. The reporting pilot believed he had reviewed all necessary NOTAM information for his route. The controller probably thought he’d thoroughly briefed that airport before starting his shift. And yet…
In another case of missed NOTAMs, you know it’s bad when a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility supervisor has to file a NASA because he, too, overlooked a critical NOTAM. According to his NASA report:
“While I was serving as the supervisor, my sector controller asked me if I knew anything about Airport ZZZ being closed. I stated that I did not.”
The sector controller had raised that concern because he had an inbound aircraft to Airport ZZZ reporting having seen a NOTAM to that effect. The Automated Weather Observation System was also reporting the same.
“I quickly checked the current FAA NOTAMs on the website, but there were none indicating that the airport was closed. I then called the airport manager and asked the person who answered the phone if the airport was open and was told ‘yes.’”
The supervisor notified his sector controller of the absence of NOTAMs showing the airport closure. He also told him he’d gotten a verbal confirmation that the airport was, indeed, open. The sector controller, therefore, cleared the pilot for an approach to Airport ZZZ.
“Shortly thereafter, Aircraft X went around, claiming there were men and equipment on the runway. I called the secondary number listed for Airport ZZZ. I asked about the status of the airport. He said there were men and equipment working on the lights, but assured me they were clear of the safety area and that the airport was therefore open. But he also told me he was at a different airport so he asked me to stand by while he called out there. He returned to say that men and equipment were now clearing the runway and that the airport should be open in about 20 minutes.”
Later on, it came to light that the first person the TRACON supervisor had spoken to over the phone was also not at Airport ZZZ. The phone had been forwarded to a second airport, as is the custom, when Airport ZZZ is closed. That person thought the supervisor had actually been asking about the status of the second airport.
In the ATC world, there is a morning frontline manager. That person may be responsible for the daily staffing sheet. The frontline manager had printed out the satellite NOTAMs, which included the Airport ZZZ closure. Those NOTAMs are stapled to the daily staffing sheet. They might also be posted on the ATC Information Display System (IDS).
When one controller relieves another, there is a position relief briefing. The frontline manager failed to brief his relief, the TRACON supervisor, about Airport ZZZ’s closure. That information had also failed to show up on the ATC IDS.
In the case of ATC, it turns out there is no standard procedure for NOTAM dissemination. According to the report, some supervisors review the NOTAMs and enter them into the IDS. Others simply staple them to the daily staffing sheet. NOTAMs also can come in from at least three sources — fax, the Flight Service Stations or the Internet. A position relief briefing is required, and it’s supported by a checklist. That checklist includes NOTAMs, but a NOTAM is only noted if it is considered significant.
Why aren’t all NOTAMs briefed? On that day, at that time, the NOTAMs for a 40-mile radius surrounding Airport ZZZ totaled 19 pages. What’s a controller to do?
Why wouldn’t an airport closure be considered significant? To a pilot heading there, a NOTAM reporting the destination airport closed is of the utmost significance. To a controller who sees only a small percentage of aircraft landing or departing from a particular airport, not so much. I’m kidding.
It is undeniable that a controller would place just as much importance on a closed airport NOTAM as a pilot would. The frustration the controller described in his NASA report reveals pilots and controllers to be more alike than we think we are. The current NOTAM distribution system is perplexing, confusing, broken.
Thanks to the Pilot’s Bill of Rights (Public Law 112-153), the FAA established a NOTAM Improvement Panel to assist in a long overdue overhaul of the NOTAM system. The goals are to reduce the sheer volume of NOTAMs to be digested before a flight and to make it easier for both pilots and controllers to filter and prioritize incoming NOTAMs.
Let’s all support the NOTAM Improvement Panel. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with what we’ve got.
Right now, finding every NOTAM relevant to a pilot’s flight path is like trying to find a needle in a mountain of needles.