The Notam Mess

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The FAA expects you to familiarize yourself with all relevant Notices to Airmen before you launch, but that's a whole lot easier said than done. Keeping your ticket may depend on your understanding of how notams are classified and disseminated. Here are some hints about how to play the game.

Depending on your vantage point, there are lots of ways to view the FAA. From the inside looking out, we imagine the agency itself favors the beehive view, which would have legions of workers shuffling important paperwork, all in the efficient advancement of air commerce. We're kind of partial to the rock crusher analogy: The thing is just one big, amoral machine with billions of meshing gears. It pulverizes whatever luckless person or thing that happens to fall into its maw.

How else to explain the bizarre case of a pilot who evidently tried to do the right thing but was still awarded a 45-day involuntary vacation from flying. The case, which was decided by the NTSB last January, concerned an ag pilot who got up early one morning to spray some fields before the wind kicked up. As would any conscientious pilot, he checked with FSS before his 5 a.m. departure, to see if the local airport had any notams.

He returned to fuel up later that morning, then took off again at 8:25 a.m. Unbeknownst to him, shortly after his first takeoff, the local Flight Service Station had added a new notam announcing that the runway was closed, with men and equipment doing maintenance. The FAA claimed that on takeoff, the ag pilot had flown within 500 feet of equipment and personnel doing repairs on the runway.

In our opinion, this enforcement action fails the "reasonable man" test but it's evidently the FAA's view that a pilot should check notams before each flight on a given day. Does it then follow that you should also ask about notams several times during the course of a flight? Following the logic used in this case, we would say that's exactly what the FAA expects, even if doing so seems like overkill.

Not Easy

Not that it's particularly easy to find these things. Unearthing important notams is like playing high stakes hide-and-seek. The notams circuit is usually choked with dozens, sometimes hundreds of essentially trivial items that obscure what may be important. Some of these are D notams that turn up on Flight Service's Service A network and DUAT and some are obscure FDC notams that don't apply to the airports or facilities on your route. Whether you brief with FSS or DUAT, the sheer volume of this stuff tends to make the eyes glaze over; it takes heroic discipline to ignore the urge to just chuck the notam review entirely.

Frankly, you can get away with that most of the time, although we don't recommend it as a standing policy. Typically, the screens full of notams that scroll by during a briefing apply to other airports or off-route facilities or they describe details that may seem important but really aren't in a practical operational sense.

Notes about a revised missed approach or deletion of a procedure turn and so on are only important if you actually have to fly the missed or do the procedure turn, both of which don't happen often in the real world. And to be perfectly cynical about it, these FDC notams are supposed to be part of a standard FSS briefing but are frequently omitted or glossed over anyway, again, because of volume and lack of time.

Unfortunately, as the ag pilot described above found out, you can't operate under the assumption that most notams aren't important. Tedious though it may be, you have to check them all before every flight. What we find most worrisome are the increasing number of temporary flight restrictions that seem to be popping up like weeds in the FDC notams. In effect, these are short-lived restricted areas; blundering into one and getting caught is just like wandering into P-56 over the White House.

Speaking of the White House, here's a recent example: President Clinton flew into Bridgeport, Connecticut in October for a daylong campaign trip. As an illustration of the kind of excessive airspace grab that's become commonplace, an FDC notam announced that all flight operations below 3000 feet within 3 miles of the airport would be prohibited for two hours.

When we briefed with FSS for a flight out of Bridgeport during that time period, the briefer didn't mention the airport closure. We heard about it on a radio news report, then called FSS back to get the details from a surprised briefer. The notam was available on DUAT, but it took some work to find it. You don't need to be President to rate a flight restriction, either. We've seen these things issued for everything from flower shows to farm expositions.

The Background

To avoid getting burned, it helps to understand the Zen of notams, such that this is possible for mortal men (and women). First, notams classification: The Service A wire that delivers data to FSS carries notam Ds for all airports listed in the Airport/Facility Directory. That's new; until recently, only airports identified with a § symbol had Ds. Notam Ds describe relatively important changes on public use airports, such as runway lighting, runway closures and navigation and weather facilities. When an FSS briefer "checks notams" for an airport, he or she is usually looking at notam Ds, so you can be confident of getting them reliably.

Notam Ls are less critical and have to do with things like minor taxiway changes, airport construction, bird activity and so forth. Ls are disseminated within a group or "family" of FSS stations but those outside the specified group won't get it.

That means if you're planning a trip to an airport 600 miles away, your local FSS won't have notam Ls for that airport; you'll have to get it by radio when you get within range of the destination or, if you're really obsessive, call the FSS near your destination. DUAT doesn't have notam Ls at all. Does it matter? Not much, since these notams qualify as "nice to have" but aren't usually critical.

FDC or flight data center notams describe so-called regulatory changes having to do with charts, airspace and IFR procedures. Some are critical; some are trivial. The only way to know is to read them for what's relevant to your destination and compare them to charts and plates. We think it's worth the effort to review the FDCs carefully.

All notams appear first on FSS's Service A (and DUAT). If Ds and FDCs hang around long enough, they'll eventually be published, first in the bi-weekly Notices to Airman publication (what the old heads still call Class II notams), then then in your charts and plates and, if appropropriate, the A/FD.

As we've said before, the biweekly notams booklet and A/FD are the most unsung publications in all of aviation. They contain occasionally critical information but the notams are expensive ($208 per year, by subscription) and both make for sawdust-dry reading. We can't, in good faith, advise you to ignore the biweekly but we know for a fact that the vast majority of pilots do.

A Strategy

Despite the AIM's exhortations to obtain a complete briefing before every flight, some briefings are more complete than others. If you're in a hurry, or the weather's not that bad or you got a briefing last night, it's tempting to skate by without checking notams. But at the very least, we recommend checking notam Ds before every flight. In view of the ag pilot's experience, does that really mean before every flight of the day? Well, it's your certificate...On a long IFR flight, when you may be checking weather en route anyway, just ask about notam Ds and Ls for the destination, when you're in range of the FSS that handles your destination airport.

FSS briefers are very good about retrieving notam Ds; we've rarely, if ever seen them miss one. FSS briefers also know something that you might not: Notam Ds for airports that don't report weather are found not under their individual identifiers but under the "notam file" section for that airport listed in the A/FD.

The notam file note will give the identifier of the closest FSS that keeps track of notams for that airport. So, if you're checking notam Ds yourself on DUAT, type the identifer of the notam file location, followed by NO. Read the listing carefully for your destination airport. If you ask for a DUAT route briefing, the system will call up the correct notam file automatically.

FSS briefers are less consistent with FDC notams. This usually doesn't matter but that missed temporary flight restriction we mentioned is one example of how you could get nicked. Even if it takes a few extra minutes and even if the FSS briefer is cranky, insist that he or she review the FDCs for flight restrictions, at the very least. If you want the procedural boilerplate, you'll have to be even more patient. To check FDC notams on DUAT, the preferred method is to select the route briefing function. If you're scrolling selected weather products for a local briefing, type FDC for the identifier you're interested in.

If the FSS briefer or DUAT doesn't turn up any flight restrictions or special procedures in the FDC notams, that doesn't necessarily mean there aren't any. Some flight restrictions are announced well ahead of time and are published in the bi-weekly booklet.

In our experience, some briefers know about the biweekly and don't mind at all rounding up the booklet while we wait on the phone. Occasionally, we run into a briefer who would rather not bother. But short of an over-the-counter briefing where you can look at the booklet yourself, insisting that briefer look is the only way to cover the waterfront. (Unless you want to spring for the subscription.)

Jeppesen users get a break here. In exchange for all that tedious filing of revisions, Jeppesen does an excellent job of distilling the important information that would otherwise appear in the biweekly notams, and that includes flight restrictions and special procedures that may apply to IFR operations.

Jeppesen sends this information along to subscribers in the form of bulletins or announcements that go into the notams section in the front of the Airway Manual. Furthermore, Jeppesen actually charts and sends to subscribers the important FDC notams that appear in the bi-weekly booklet so we think that Jepp users can get by without subscribing to it. After all, part of what you're paying for in a Jepp subscription is notams service.