Blithering NOTAMS

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Last week, I attended a briefing at the local town hall where airport officials briefed a new arrival at the airport, a skydiving operation. As I figured it would, that ignited a minor freakout among the local pilot community, but they listened politely and asked good questions of the operator, who intends to start selling tandems later this month or early next.

At one point, someone asked how transient pilots running along the beach on the way to Key West will know they’re flying through an active drop zone. “Well,” said the airport representative, “there will be a NOTAM on it.” This elicited a dark laugh from several attendees and this take-it-to-bank constant truth: Nobody reads NOTAMs.

I beg to differ. I always read NOTAMs because I don’t want to be the derp who shows up at an airport to find the runway closed or that I’ve just barged into a TFR. I find that kind of thing simply indefensible. But pilots do it all the time. And truthfully, it’s hard to blame them much because despite the FAA’s tweaking of the NOTAMs system, it’s easier to grasp the tax code than it is some of these NOTAMs, so it’s no wonder pilots blow them off.

Early Saturday I was headed out to fly the Cub and as I always do, I checked NOTAMs, had a look at the METARs and TAF and clicked on the graphical TFR page expecting to see nothing in Florida other than that maddening permanent TFR over Disney’s Magic Kingdom. But whoa, what’s this? A TFR over Venice? Not quite, but it was close enough to send me into the weeds to find out exactly what the TFR was about.

Here’s an excerpt of the text:

…MANAGEMENT OF ACFT OPS IN THE VICINITY OF AERIAL DEMONSTRATIONS AND MAJOR SPORTING EVENTS, ACFT OPS ARE PROHIBITED WI AN AREA DEFINED AS 5NM RADIUS OF265510N0815934W (RSW335026.1)SFC-13000FT UNLESS AUTHORIZED BY ATC EFFECTIVE
1610211600 UTC UNTIL 1610212000 UTC,
1610212100 UTC UNTIL 1610220130 UTC,   
1610221600 UTC UNTIL 1610222100 UTC,
AND 1610231600 UTC UNTIL 1610232100 UTC.

Try to make sense of that at 6:30 a.m. before your first latte has kicked in. It took a few minutes of probing to figure out exactly where it was. The FAA actually has a pretty good graphical site for this that plots the TFR on a sectional and gives the active period in plain language. But you have to work to find it. If the notice was up Saturday morning, I couldn’t find the details. By Saturday evening, it was up.

I’m sure there’s some spec somewhere that explains why they describe this thing with lat/long or a radial/distance when in fact the stupid thing is centered on the Charlotte County Airport. Why not just say that? Too simple, I guess. Participating in aviation requires learning certain things, to be sure, including the arcane language of coded weather reports and diktats from the FAA. We’re long past due to revise the thinking that requires pilots to learn and retain these silly codes. Yeah, I know; they’re the stuff of international treaties. To be fair, websites like CSC DUATS do offer a plain language tab and that’s good. They just need to be a little easier to find. And when the revolution gets here, I'm going to personally remove that pull-down tab that offers a sort option to include "VIP TFRs." 

I am absolutely sure that when the snowbirds start arriving next month, I will hear this on the CTAF: “Hey, there’s skydiving here? When did that happen? Why don’t they announce this stuff?” The sad thing is that pilots who express such surprise probably won’t learn from it. Once a blunderer, always a blunderer. And I say that as a recovering blunderer.

Comments (25)

I always check the notams as well. I have them displayed on my weather app so I don't miss them. The other day I checked the app and woa! One of the shoot down TFRs shows up 5 miles south of my airport. I could easily wanderer into it. With the Presidential candidates wandering around the country, you never know.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | October 16, 2016 8:57 AM    Report this comment

Just put a parachute symbol on the map, announce on frequency, and then see&avoid. If that does not ensure the safety of the jumpers then MOVE jump operations somewhere less crowded. Simple.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 16, 2016 9:12 AM    Report this comment

NOTAM penetration (as in penetrating to the pilot's brain) is getting somewhat better with the increasing use of programs like ForeFlight.

Still,when we do file the occasional NOTAM for temporary runway closure at our little uncontrolled field we automatically assume (and always correctly) that few if any of our transient users will read it. If at all possible we try to have someone on Multicom to back up the NOTAM, and they always catch a few.

Posted by: John Wilson | October 16, 2016 1:51 PM    Report this comment

"I'm sure there's some spec somewhere that explains why they describe this thing with lat/long or a radial/distance when in fact the stupid thing is centered on the Charlotte County Airport. Why not just say that?"

I'm sure you already know the reason, but it's done this way because airports are not navaids.

VORs, NDBs, etc., are, by definition, used for navigation. So anything that tells a pilot how to navigate must reference a navaid.

Posted by: KIRK WENNERSTROM | October 16, 2016 10:49 PM    Report this comment

When I get a DUATS briefing for even a fairly short x-country flight I get page after page of NOTAMS, many of then for places in the opposite direction from where I'm going. The filtering for relevance could be a whole lot better.

Posted by: JOHN KALLEND | October 17, 2016 3:56 AM    Report this comment

"VORs, NDBs, etc., are, by definition, used for navigation. So anything that tells a pilot how to navigate must reference a navaid."

True. Except in the modern world, everyone has GPS so airports are the center of the known universe. If the NOTAM simply gave both, it would be far more readable and more likely to be read and understood.

The FAA's graphic TFR page does this, but it's not easy to find. Too many step throughs to get to it. Just for the hell of it, I did a Google search and got the FAA graphic index page. Dozens listed, but you can scroll down and find the NOTAM or do a filtered search. This is the page for that NOTAM.

www.tfr.faa.gov/save_pages/detail_6_9323.html

As you can see, the description is in plain language and the graphic tells you all you need to know at a glance. This is just another example of a government agency used antiquated rules because they've always done it that way and ICAO encourages them to keep doing it that way.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 17, 2016 4:53 AM    Report this comment

FYI Paul, there shouldn't be a 'www' at the start of the tfr.faa.gov link.

I, too, read the NOTAMS along the way, along with the even more impossible-to-decipher ARTCC notams about airspace reservations. That they need another separate SUA website just to show these is a bit arcane.

Posted by: Owen Catherwood | October 17, 2016 9:03 AM    Report this comment

Why am I seeing NOTAM's for ORD when I am VFR? If I wind up at O'Hare it will be under a mayday and the heck with NOTAM's. Why am I seeing a gazillion new obstalce NOTAM's under 1,000' AGL? If a pilot hits one is it because he read the obstacle NOTAM and forgot? Why can't I select airports enroute that would be possible emergency or convenient alternates to shorten the NOTAM list. Is information overload a safety hazard in itself? The NOTAM system is wretched.

Posted by: Michael Mahoney | October 17, 2016 10:14 AM    Report this comment

"The FAA's graphic TFR page does this, but it's not easy to find."

It's not easy to find if you start from faa.gov, but it's really easy to find from fltplan.com.

However, the annoying thing about the tfr.faa.gov website is this disclaimer: "Depicted TFR data may not be a complete listing. Pilots should not use the information on this website for flight planning purposes. For the latest information, call your local Flight Service Station at 1-800-WX-BRIEF. "

So, the FAA is all too willing to violate a pilot who inadvertently busts a TFR (which might even have popped up well after a proper briefing and departure), but they can't even give us a straight answer as to where the TFRs may be. It's all well and good to call the FSS, but sometimes I don't want to spend several minutes on the phone when a few seconds on a webpage is all I would need. Though I will add that I haven't gone to the LM FSS website in a while, so maybe that has a "complete" listing of TFRs?


Also, I second the comments about getting NOTAMs for airports and navaids that aren't even in the same timezone as my planned flight as being a problem. I do read the airport-specific NOTAMs and do my best at reading the others, but I'll admit that my eyes tend to glaze over when I'm presented with 10+ pages of NOTAMs, most of which are either boilerplate warnings or completely (I would almost say "hazardously") irrelevant.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 17, 2016 10:52 AM    Report this comment

When I do any VFR flights or am flying skydivers, I always do an abbreviated briefing with Flight Service and ask them only for any pertinant TFR info. That way it is recorded in the event of any enforcement action, and minumizes time dealing with FSS's. Any weather or NOTAM info I can get myself via approved online provider. I have had my share of trips that had to change airports due to checking notams. As far as doing notams per ICAO, the FAA needs to take the lead back from ICAO and drop those changes just because of ICAO. Wait until pilots who never fly international have to file domestic IFR flight plans with the ICAO form manually without a computer! The rest of the world could not care less about GA flying and a lot of ICAO rules easily reflect that. The FAA is not willing to make notams easier because you have a career bureaucrat/s running the agency!

Posted by: matthew wagner | October 17, 2016 11:24 AM    Report this comment

A graphical display on the maps and a plain English description of THR, etc. come with an XM subscription for my GPS devices.

I always thought it amusing that the White House tries to keep the movements of the POTUS undefined, the TFRs would show up on my 496 three days before he was due in SoCal, along with a slew of smaller tfrs showing his location and times he would be at events. Also amusing was when he transfers to the chopper, other identical choppers fly off in different directions, but we knew which one he was on because his destination TFR was activated.

Cheers,

Posted by: Edd Weninger | October 17, 2016 12:00 PM    Report this comment

Tonight a friend and I plan to watch the launch of the Antares rocket at the Wallops Island facility, flying just outside of closed airspace a safe distance from the launch.

But figuring this out is ridiculously hard. There's no TFR, just NOTAMs. There are no launch NOTAMs for the NASA Wallops Island airport. Instead, I found a NOTAM for 3 quadrilateral boxes adjacent to the Wallops island Restricted areas, given described entirely using latitude/longitude coordinates for each "corner" of each box -- a pain to have to graph.

Finally I accidentally stumbled on a 20 mile radius NOTAM centered on a radius and distance from a nearby VOR -- which I determined to be centered on the launch site. Why isn't this a TFR so it will show up on XM satellite weather displays in the plane?

This is crazy...

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | October 17, 2016 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Oh, and I forgot to mention: the NOTAM for the 20 mile radius around the rocket launch refers you to yet another NOTAM that was apparently filed earlier, so you have to find that to determine the radius and center of the prohibited area.

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | October 17, 2016 1:03 PM    Report this comment

During summer, I'm close enough to the jump zone at C89 near Racine, WI to hear the jump airplane pilot call outs. MOST of the time, it sounds like a fresh Echo Romeo type getting flying time in a King Air practicing his shower stall singing at Mach 1 speed waiting for one of those high speed radio announcement jobs to open up. More than once, I've gotten on 'em about that. An unsuspecting transient traveling by would have the same problem you described even with such worthless call outs. I'm pretty sure they ain't speakin' in English?

On TFR's, I loaded an FAA App called 'B4UFLY' on my iPad. It's for drone pilots (which I hope I never turn into). I just verified that FAA keeps this up to date from their TFR database, it's a pretty painless and nifty way to see the TFR's graphically.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | October 17, 2016 1:11 PM    Report this comment

Skyvector has excellent graphic coverage coverage while DUATS explain all quite well in both coded and plain language. By the way, I think that "jumpers" are like bicyclists on the road or drones "below 400" - a dangerous nuisance. Oh well, anyone for lunch at Big Bear today?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 18, 2016 12:12 PM    Report this comment

"By the way, I think that "jumpers" are like bicyclists on the road or drones "below 400" - a dangerous nuisance"

Funny, I think the exact same thing about the cars on the road when I'm biking! ;-)

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 18, 2016 1:46 PM    Report this comment

Gary, you must remember, cars and trucks are a whole lot bigger that bicycles. It doesn't matter that you have the right of way if you're dead. A good rule of thumb, "the bigger the other entity, the more right of way they have." You can argue the point all you want. At some point reality trumps (: everything.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | October 19, 2016 6:56 AM    Report this comment

"cars and trucks are a whole lot bigger that bicycles.", "the bigger the other entity, the more right of way they have."

Exactly the reason for my tongue-in-cheek comment! :-) Unfortunately, too many drivers feel that because they are bigger, they have the right to try running me off the road even when I'm doing everything I can to obey the traffic rules and not get run over.

So getting back on topic, the same should apply to general aviation. There's no reason we can't all share the sky with jumpers and low-altitude UAVs. One (of several) reasons I bought a UAV is to try and understand "their" world so I can better avoid hitting them.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 19, 2016 7:33 AM    Report this comment

Yars had a term for this: aeronautical bigotry. For the road, call it automotive bigotry. If it's not a car like mine, I don't understand it and it shouldn't be allowed. And since I don't understand parachutes, they shouldn't be allowed either. Drones? Ditto.

Since a cycle, motorcycle, fly airplanes and drones and skydive, I am a repository of understanding and wisdom.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 19, 2016 1:13 PM    Report this comment

Bigotry is the expression of hatred or aggression towards those who are different. Examples of bigotry include racism and religious intolerance. Bigotry is common among atheists, elitists, racists, liberals, Muslims, homosexuals, religious extremists, aereolists, motorists, biciclists, and skydiverlists.

Nuisance is a lot less intense that hatred or aggression.

jus' sayin'

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 19, 2016 7:28 PM    Report this comment

Just a few words about my cited use of the B-word...

Although it may not always look that way, I do choose my words carefully. I'm not prone to hyperbole. "Bigotry" can be a charged word; in contemporary usage, it's often associated with the examples cited by Raf. But that doesn't properly restrict its uses to those cases. If you take the time to consult a half-dozen or so on-line dictionaries, you'll find a larger variety of generally accepted meanings of "bigotry." That panoply includes the meaning that I carefully and purposefully ascribed to the attitudes of some narrow-minded aviators.

Preference. Bias. Prejudice. Bigotry. It's a spectrum out there. But each of those words has a non-pejorative meaning (among others), which is easy to forget in our contemporary PC world where, as Lewis Caroll said, " 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.' "

When we re-define words - purposefully, neglectfully, or through simple common misuse - we defile the language. Thus, there's more - or less - to being a bigot than some would compel others to believe.

It's a big sky, my friends. Please find it in your hearts to share it with as many as possible. And please check NOTAMS. ;-)

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 19, 2016 11:40 PM    Report this comment

Amen

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 20, 2016 3:19 AM    Report this comment

Amen brother YARS.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 20, 2016 3:21 AM    Report this comment

Nuisance?

Let me pose this question. At the local airport here, the neighbors wanted to sharply curtail flight operations and would like to shut down the airport because, you guessed it, airplanes and the noise they make are a nuisance.

So how is it that we, as pilots, can make the same claim against our fellow aeronautical users including skydivers, glider pilots, ultralight flyers and drone operators?

The logic escapes me but it appears to be based on the prejudice that underlies all bigotry, benign or not.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 20, 2016 9:34 AM    Report this comment

Paul is right; GA is way too small of a community to have inter-party feuds.

Just look what is happening to Santa Monica; there are much bigger issues threatening all of us.

"We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."
- Benjamin Franklin

Posted by: A Richie | October 20, 2016 1:06 PM    Report this comment

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