Staying Ahead of Alaska's Winter Weather Controllers and pilots complete the weather picture in The Last Frontier.

In Alaska, a vast, wild landscape translates to airspace of the same kind. Varying weather conditions span the state at any given time – from major snowstorms to rain and low clouds to crystal clear skies. In a dynamic environment where roads are few and far between, air travel is not a luxury but a necessity, and communication between air traffic controllers and pilots is essential to flight safety.

Through various initiatives, procedures and workgroups, pilots and controllers are working together in a concerted effort to improve the way weather information is collected and shared – across the expanse of Alaska, which has experienced a particularly cold and snowy winter so far this year. The FAA-NATCA Take a Stand for Safety campaign encourages controllers to proactively issue weather and solicit pilot weather reports, information that is critical to flight safety.

A Cessna 207 flies over mountains in Alaska.

Out of the hundreds of airports in Alaska, only four have FAA control towers, while another four have contract towers.

The private pilots and air taxi pilots who operate to or from the large number of non-towered airports rely heavily on FAA Flight Service, and vice versa.

Lance Foster working at Kotzebue FSS (left) and an exterior view of McGrath FSS. (Photos: FAA)

Alaska is the only U.S. state with a robust Flight Service Station (FSS) infrastructure. The FAA decommissioned the vast majority of Flight Service Stations across the lower 49 states. However, the Last Frontier has 17 operational FSS, staffed with dedicated personnel who collect firsthand weather information, which they relay to Anchorage Center for further dissemination. This process ultimately helps pilots navigate safely at low and high altitudes. FSS are often located in geographical areas that experience high levels of air traffic but which do not have an operating control tower.

“Take a place like Ketchikan, for example. With a harbor full of cruise ships, killer whales, and skiffs, there’s no way you can clear an aircraft to land or to take off there; it simply can’t be done,” said Andrew McClure, staff support specialist with Alaska Flight Services.

Snow on a Beaver N5595M in Ketchikan, Alaska.

McClure said FSS receive the majority of pilot weather reports, or PIREPS. These reports are based on what pilots are seeing and experiencing from the cockpit, such as snow, turbulence, and wind shear. The reports allow both controllers and pilots to have better information about the flight conditions in the airspace where they are operating. Pilot reports can also include valuable information about airport conditions, where icing and slick runways are common during the winter.

The process for issuance, collection, and dissemination of PIREPs continues to be refined in Alaska. FSS and Anchorage Center receive more and more of them from pilots, and the National Weather Service (NWS) taps the database to validate or invalidate the weather forecasts they produce.

“Flight Service Stations do 1.5 million operations a year, and we’re the warehouse or clearing house for these PIREPs,” said Larry Trottini, NATCA national FSS representative. “Here in Alaska, you may not have a Terminal Area Forecast for 150 miles because Alaska is spread out. Our 17 facilities provide services that cover every inch of Alaska. PIREPs are more important here than anywhere in America.”

For the past 3 ½ years, Flight Service has hosted the Alaska PIREP Improvement Workgroup in Anchorage. Participating user groups, including the NWS, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Alaska Airmen Association, and Air Carrier Association collaborate to improve weather reporting and dissemination of reports. And the FAA’s recent launch of the Takeoff and Landing Performance Assessment initiative served as a catalyst to report runway conditions.

To further improve pilot weather reporting, Flight Service is planning to partner with the Alaska Weather Camera Program to launch the Visual PIREP program, creating an avenue for pilots to send photos of weather from the cockpit. These “mobile weather cameras” will complement Alaska’s 230 stationary weather camera sites, which are linked to the FAA Aviation Weather Cameras website. PIREPs are now being plotted on the interactive map featured on the site.

An FAA weather camera site on the Harris River in Alaska.

In addition to Flight Service, Anchorage Center handles air traffic at low altitudes across Alaska – mainly general aviation and air taxi flights – and also manages the high-altitude commercial flights across airspace more than three times the size of most Center airspaces in the lower 49 states.

Stephen Thornton, a supervisor at Anchorage Center, said teamwork is the key to ensuring pilots receive important weather information. Thornton said supervisors analyze NWS data to get a picture of weather each day and then pass the information along to controllers for safer air traffic control services for flights in the en route environment.

“Supervisors boil it down to a 30-second weather briefing for controllers, nothing super complex, but we take into account everything we can expect, such as turbulence, icing, volcanic activity and wind,” Thornton said. “They share this information with every controller working. If the NWS puts out a CWA [Center Weather Advisory] or SIGMET [Significant Meteorological Information], our controllers make sure the pilots get that information immediately. We also familiarize ourselves with the adjacent facility’s weather. We look at weather for Oakland Center, Russia and Japan.”

An Alaska Airlines jet in flight. (Photo: Alaska Airlines)

Thornton and other supervisors ask controllers to solicit PIREPs from certain areas with dynamic or adverse weather. At times, there are wide areas of turbulence over the mountains, for example. He has seen higher engagement among controllers at the Center and FSS, and from the pilots as well. At the Center, they have an effective process for immediately disseminating urgent weather information, and hand-deliver it to the right people on sector.

“The controllers at the Center are taking the initiative to offer the pilot that destination weather,” said commercial pilot Chris Matthews, chair of the Alaska Air Carriers Association safety committee. “They can frequently see us but they can’t talk to us. Rather than drawing us blind in that direction, they’re trying to help us see what the circumstances would be before we get there.”

As Anchorage Center provides more comprehensive weather information to pilots, pilots are returning the favor to the center and FSS.

“Pilot weather reports are huge for us in Alaska because we just don’t have the density of weather reporting systems the rest of the states enjoy,” said GA pilot Adam White, former president of the Alaska Airmen Association, who has been flying in Alaska for more than 20 years. “Without automated weather, there are some pretty big gaps in understanding the weather.”

A Cessna in a snowy valley in Alaska.

White is participating in the Alaska PIREP Improvement Workgroup, where they have identified areas of concerns, such as that many pilots in Alaska do not feel comfortable filing PIREPs because they are unsure of the phraseology and format to use as described in the Pilot’s Handbook. But controllers would be quick to point out that any accurate firsthand weather data is better than no data at all.

“We’re encouraging folks that if there is something out there, let the controllers know,” he said. “Even if it’s in the wrong format, Flight Service is good at understanding and passing that information along. It’s made me feel a whole lot better when a FSS or Center says, hey, can you tell me more about what you saw?”

Jennie Sandland, an Anchorage Center controller, has worked flights throughout much of Alaska, many of those below 28,000 feet. As a controller of lower altitude traffic, Sandland developed a strong working relationship with both Flight Service and the pilots of Alaska. She was a member of a collaborative workgroup that regularly communicated with pilots at ground schools, air shows, and other aviation events to discuss hot topics in Alaskan aviation, including weather reporting.

Sandland has seen better teamwork among pilots and controllers than ever before when it comes to weather reporting.

“The collaboration is phenomenal; it’s very tight and it’s codependent,” she said, emphasizing the important role pilots play in relaying information – due to the severity of weather, how quickly it changes, the geography and the vastness of the airspace.

“These pilots are hundreds of miles away from where we are sitting in our chairs,” Sandland added. “We rely on them as our eyes and ears. They are painting the picture for us in areas where we don’t have equipment.”

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