In addition to death and taxes, pilots have added another certainty to their lives: Notices to airmen, or Notams. Since 2001, the number, complexity and importance of Notams has never been greater. Yet, the FAA and users remain bogged down with a system designed to be read from yellow paper pumped out by a teletype machine at the local Flight Service Station or weather office, something that was dated technology in the 1950s. The results are predictable: Not a day goes by that someone doesnt miss a flight safety-critical Notam. The reasons they get missed are fairly simple: There are too many of them, theyre poorly organized and, until recently, there were few approved graphical interpretations.
Anyone searching for a smoking gun to demonstrate that the Notam system is broken need look no further than the March 29, 2001, crash of a chartered Gulfstream III on approach to Aspen, Colo. All 18 aboard the bizjet died when it crashed short of the runway. While other factors were present, the NTSBs probable cause finding included reference to the FAAs unclear wording of a Notam regarding the nighttime restriction for the VOR/DME-C approach to the airport and the FAAs failure to communicate this restriction to Aspens control tower.
And thats just for starters. The explosion of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) throughout the U.S. and during the recent Presidential election cycle brought with it a shower of Notams. That the information in those Notams never made it into many cockpits should be a national scandal.Worse, if you were a pilot who ran afoul of this archaic system, you probably have the demerits to prove it. How did we get here? Does the FAA recognize it has a problem? What can you do to avoid becoming an airspace violator? Or a statistic?
The Notam System
The FAA generates three basic kinds of Notams: Notams (L), Notams (D) and National Flight Data Center (FDC) Notams. Additionally, there are Class I and Class II Notams, international Notams that must conform to an ICAO format, as well as Notams about snow (Snowtams) and volcanic activity (Ashtams). The table on the opposite page details these different types of Notams and a few of their characteristics.
Before it is created, a Notam must be requested. A good example is the operator of an airport undergoing construction or maintenance of a taxiway may request that a Notam be published showing the closure. In such an instance, the airport manager would contact the local AFSS and request the Notam. The AFSS specialist then writes it up and adds it to the facilitys Notam file. In this case, the Notam would be a local one, and not transmitted to the FAAs Weather Message Switching Center, a database available to all AFSS facilities through the Service A telecommunications capability.
Of course, once this Notam is created, that doesnt mean itll be distributed to you during a pre-flight briefing.
You might think that using a Duat session or obtaining a full briefing from the local AFSS would give you all the Notams you need. Youd be wrong.
Local Notams for a distant destination would not be included in your briefing-the best way to get a local Notam is to call the AFSS responsible for that destination. And some distant Notams may not make it into your briefing, either, since they are dumped from the database after they are published, for example, in the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) or Notices To Airmen publications. While few pilots subscribe to the A/FD, even fewer carry a copy of the biweekly Notams publication.
Additionally, many software packages used to access Duat do not automatically retrieve related FDC Notams. Some of them require the user to change the default selections of information to be retrieved before including them in your briefing.
Using an AFSS is also no guarantee of receiving a Notam. A recent study by the University of Central Florida (UCF) found that two pilots planning flights-one VFR and the other IFR-over the same route received different sets of Notams. In this instance, the IFR pilot did not receive information about higher approach minimums due to a crane near the destination airport, but the VFR pilot did. Of course, Class II Notams-those which have been published-are not included in a standard AFSS briefing unless the pilot requests them.
Even presuming a pilot receives a Notam, he or she still has to read and understand it. The FAA doesnt make that task an easy one, either.
For example, the agency publishes a list of contractions and abbreviations used in Notams; it runs to four pages when printed in a two-column format.Included in that list are such gems as E for East, CESA for Class E Surface Area (not Cessna) and MUD for, well, mud. And, as noted earlier, all of this information is in hard-to-read UPPER CASE TEXT.
When considering FDC Notams, and TFRs especially, many of them are published in an annoying multi-part format. For example, a recent FDC Notam alerting operators to the expansion of the protected airspace over the Camp David presidential retreat in Thurmont, Md., was spread over three separate parts and was organized in three sections, with different numbered subsections within them.
While Duat has been a major improvement in the ways operators obtain and distill pre-flight weather and other data, the system itself can be part of the overall Notam problem. For example, a recent Duat session designed for a proposed flight from northern Virginia direct to the Wichita, Kan., area pulled up a slew of Notams for things like a laser show near New York City, changes in minimum altitudes along airways not even remotely close to the planned route of flight and listings of cancelled Notams.
Fixing The Problems
The extent to which, if any, the FAA is either aware of or working on these and other problems with its Notam system is uncertain. We contacted the agency with a set of specific questions about Notams and what, if any, studies or plans were underway to revise it. Unfortunately, the FAA was not able to respond to those questions by our deadline.
According to AOPA, however, the agency has at least lent some lip service to this concept. According to the association, FAAs recently released update to its strategic plan includes a brief mention of its plans to Develop a strategy to streamline and improve the Notice to Airmen process. Thats the good news. The bad is two-fold: One, apparently, no such strategy now exists.Two, the agencys strategic plan runs through 2009, so no fundamental changes are likely to occur for a while.
What those changes, if any, might entail are anyones guess. The UCF study, however, has some worthwhile recommendations. They include helping to train pilots to use the existing Notam system efficiently, where to find Notams and how to understand them. This is especially critical considering the various skill levels present in todays pilot population.
Other areas for improvement include allowing the pilot to select the format (e.g., graphical, textual, or both) and organization (e.g., geographic, chronological, security-related) of Notams they retrieve. Writing Notams in plain language-including fewer abbreviations and minimizing upper-case text throughout would help a lot, too.
At the end of the day, ongoing problems with the Notam system are a human factors issue for the entire industry. Pilots, weather information vendors, airport operators, AFSS personnel, controllers and the FAA all have a role to play in making the existing system work better and improving it for the future. Heres hoping we can all get on with it before too much longer.
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