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Technology needed to navigate a changing Arctic

General aviation provides vital service to the isolated communities of the Arctic within Alaska, transporting passengers and delivering mail, supplies, fuel, and medical items in a challenging flight environment, with minimal supporting infrastructure.

How important is general aviation to life in Arctic Alaska? A single all-season 414 mile highway connects Alaska’s vast Arctic region with the rest of the state, and "only seasonal ship traffic provides heavy lift and resupply missions due to the short summer navigation season."

With such limited facilities available, it is essential that government agencies "make a coordinated effort to implement creative and cost-effective solutions" to fill the gaps, AOPA said in comments submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Department of Commerce.

AOPA Alaska Regional Manager Tom George submitted comments on behalf of AOPA’s 3,500 members who live in Alaska in response to a notice of inquiry from the NTIA, which has been designated a lead organization for several tasks within the implementation plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. The strategy document was issued by President Barack Obama in May 2013, with a goal of enabling the nation "to respond effectively to challenges and emerging opportunities" arising in a changing Arctic environment.

In formal comments submitted Dec. 3, George pointed out a significant lack of weather stations for pilots of aircraft that conduct missions under VFR in the Arctic, noting, for example, that "an aircraft making the 436 nautical mile flight from Fairbanks to Point Barrow has only two reporting stations to evaluate conditions along this route that crosses a major mountain range and transects several weather patterns."

Re-establishing an aviation weather station at Umiat, in the middle of the North Slope, would benefit pilots and forecasters, and enhance Umiat’s usefulness as an alternate airport for aircraft in distress, he wrote.

Shortages of remote communications outlets that give aircraft a communications link to flight service, and Nexrad weather radar, further limit pilots’ ability to gather weather information, he wrote.

George noted that Alaska’s aviation community has requested stations be added to Alaska’s planned Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) network to provide "a minimum operational network" to support Arctic operations.

Modular automated weather stations could provide a low-cost alternative to standard FAA-certified automated weather stations "for mountain passes, VFR-only airports, or other 'choke points' along VFR routes."

Offshore weather stations also could be developed in a government/industry partnership similar to arrangements made with the oil industry and helicopter operators in the Gulf of Mexico. "The government should maintain the flexibility to implement creative partnership solutions to expand weather reporting, ADS-B and possibly other infrastructure," George wrote.

AOPA’s comments called for increased search-and-rescue support as resource development in the Arctic increases. George submitted documentation of general aviation’s weather needs from AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association to help the NTIA further define the challenges of Arctic operations.

According to the implementation plan for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, development of a framework to prioritize opportunities for investment in telecommunications capabilities—with emphasis on "innovate technologies"—is to be accomplished by the end of 2015.

Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, Technology, Avionics

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