The Notam Mess

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.

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

How else to explain the bizarre case of a pilot who evidentlytried to do the right thing but was still awarded a 45-day involuntaryvacation from flying. The case, which was decided by the NTSBlast January, concerned an ag pilot who got up early one morningto spray some fields before the wind kicked up. As would any conscientiouspilot, he checked with FSS before his 5 a.m. departure, to seeif the local airport had any notams.

He returned to fuel up later that morning, then took off againat 8:25 a.m. Unbeknownst to him, shortly after his first takeoff,the local Flight Service Station had added a new notam announcingthat the runway was closed, with men and equipment doing maintenance.The FAA claimed that on takeoff, the ag pilot had flown within500 feet of equipment and personnel doing repairs on the runway.

In our opinion, this enforcement action fails the "reasonableman" test but it’s evidently the FAA’s view that a pilotshould check notams before each flight on a given day. Does itthen follow that you should also ask about notams several timesduring the course of a flight? Following the logic used in thiscase, we would say that’s exactly what the FAA expects, evenif doing so seems like overkill.

Not Easy

Not that it’s particularly easy to find these things. Unearthingimportant notams is like playing high stakes hide-and-seek. Thenotams circuit is usually choked with dozens, sometimes hundredsof essentially trivial items that obscure what may be important.Some of these are D notams that turn up on Flight Service’s ServiceA network and DUAT and some are obscure FDC notams that don’tapply to the airports or facilities on your route. Whether youbrief with FSS or DUAT, the sheer volume of this stuff tends tomake the eyes glaze over; it takes heroic discipline to ignorethe urge to just chuck the notam review entirely.

Frankly, you can get away with that most of the time, althoughwe don’t recommend it as a standing policy. Typically, the screensfull of notams that scroll by during a briefing apply to otherairports or off-route facilities or they describe details thatmay seem important but really aren’t in a practical operationalsense.

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

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

Speaking of the White House, here’s a recent example: PresidentClinton flew into Bridgeport, Connecticut in October for a daylongcampaign trip. As an illustration of the kind of excessive airspacegrab that’s become commonplace, an FDC notam announced that allflight operations below 3000 feet within 3 miles of the airportwould be prohibited for two hours.

When we briefed with FSS for a flight out of Bridgeport duringthat time period, the briefer didn’t mention the airport closure.We heard about it on a radio news report, then called FSS backto get the details from a surprised briefer. The notam was availableon DUAT, but it took some work to find it. You don’t need to bePresident to rate a flight restriction, either. We’ve seen thesethings 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 toFSS carries notam Ds for all airports listed in the Airport/FacilityDirectory. That’s new; until recently, only airports identifiedwith a § symbol had Ds. Notam Ds describe relatively importantchanges on public use airports, such as runway lighting, runwayclosures and navigation and weather facilities. When an FSS briefer"checks notams" for an airport, he or she is usuallylooking at notam Ds, so you can be confident of getting them reliably.

Notam Ls are less critical and have to do with things like minortaxiway changes, airport construction, bird activity and so forth.Ls are disseminated within a group or "family" of FSSstations 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 haveto get it by radio when you get within range of the destinationor, if you’re really obsessive, call the FSS near your destination.DUAT doesn’t have notam Ls at all. Does it matter? Not much, sincethese notams qualify as "nice to have" but aren’t usually critical.

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

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

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

A Strategy

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

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

The notam file note will give the identifier of the closest FSSthat keeps track of notams for that airport. So, if you’re checkingnotam Ds yourself on DUAT, type the identifer of the notam filelocation, followed by NO. Read the listing carefully for yourdestination airport. If you ask for a DUAT route briefing, thesystem will call up the correct notam file automatically.

FSS briefers are less consistent with FDC notams. This usuallydoesn’t matter but that missed temporary flight restriction wementioned is one example of how you could get nicked. Even ifit 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’llhave to be even more patient. To check FDC notams on DUAT, thepreferred method is to select the route briefing function. Ifyou’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 restrictionsor special procedures in the FDC notams, that doesn’t necessarilymean there aren’t any. Some flight restrictions are announcedwell ahead of time and are published in the bi-weekly booklet.

In our experience, some briefers know about the biweekly and don’tmind 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 lookat the booklet yourself, insisting that briefer look is the onlyway to cover the waterfront. (Unless you want to spring for thesubscription.)

Jeppesen users get a break here. In exchange for all that tediousfiling of revisions, Jeppesen does an excellent job of distillingthe important information that would otherwise appear in the biweeklynotams, and that includes flight restrictions and special proceduresthat may apply to IFR operations.

Jeppesen sends this information along to subscribers in the formof bulletins or announcements that go into the notams sectionin the front of the Airway Manual. Furthermore, Jeppesen actuallycharts and sends to subscribers the important FDC notams thatappear in the bi-weekly booklet so we think that Jepp userscan get by without subscribing to it. After all, part of whatyou’re paying for in a Jepp subscription is notams service.