AOPA is urging the FAA to restore canceled weather-augmentation services at Alaska’s Gulkana Airport, a strategically located, instrument-approach-equipped airport near routes linking Anchorage with Fairbanks and other communities, and a safe haven for flights transiting the Copper River Basin.
In 2013, the FAA suspended weather observer services that augmented Gulkana’s automated observations, citing environmental problems with an aging agency building at the airport.
In requesting restoration of the service, AOPA reminded the FAA that it has maintained a weather observer at Gulkana to mitigate the airport’s loss of a flight service station during the consolidation of those facilities in the 1990s. After consolidation, Gulkana’s flight service functions were provided remotely from an automated flight service station in Kenai.
With its paved 5,000-foot-long runway, four RNAV (GPS) and VOR/DME instrument approaches, and fuel available, Gulkana "is a key location for flights that transit the area, connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks with Valdez, Cordova, McCarthy, Big Delta, Tok and other communities," wrote Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of government affairs, in a letter to Edith V. Parish, acting director of the FAA’s Western Service Center.
In addition to serving Glennallen, a community of about 500 residents, the mountain-ringed airport "is also a stop-over or alternate for traffic from Canada and the lower 48 states flying the Alaska Highway route headed to and from the population centers in Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley and beyond," Rudinger wrote.
"Since the closure of weather reporting stations at Paxson, Slana, and Nabesna, pilots attempting to transit the Alaska Range mountain passes have an increased risk of being caught by lowering conditions, and need to be assured that the Gulkana weather reports are accurate and complete," Rudinger added.
She also noted AOPA’s understanding that other facilities were available locally to replace the FAA building formerly used for the weather services.
The contract’s cancellation is not the first instance of weather services at Gulkana facing curtailment: In 2001 AOPA, the Alaska Airmen’s Association, and Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation prevailed against an attempt to eliminate service at Gulkana and Big Delta.
Since then, the area’s weather network has been further reduced with the loss of part-time Aviation Paid weather stations at Paxson, Slana, and Nabesna—making pilots more reliant on the remaining stations.
"While the presence of weather cameras helps, they only provide information during daylight hours, which are very limited in the winter," Rudinger said.
For more information on Alaska’s weather observation system, see the AOPA’s blog, "Alaska is a weather poor state," by Tom George, AOPA’s Alaska regional manager.
In an Oct. 13 blog post, George invited pilots to submit comments on other recent station closings in Alaska.