When the Northeast’s winter took a brief break from bluster and cold in early January, many pilots found their airports hemmed in by poor visibility and fog as arriving warm, moist air flowed in over the snow pack.
Icy runways, ramps, and taxiways saw considerable melting of their surface contamination, and flight planning sessions produced many runway field condition notices to airmen (FICONs) reported in the new format that took effect last fall—a change introduced to improve the quality of runway condition information.
As noted in this runway condition assessment matrix with braking action codes, the runway condition 5/5/5, reported by the airport operator, divides the runway into thirds, all of which met the definitions assigned to condition code 5.
If less than 25 percent of a runway or its cleared width is contaminated, the notam drops the reporting by thirds. Compare these two notams for Runway 21 and Runway 26 at Wyoming’s Casper/Natrona County International Airport.
!CPR 01/161 CPR RWY 21 FICON 10 PRCT COMPACTED SN SWEPT 150FT WID REMAINDER 1/8IN DRY SN OBSERVED AT 1701121130. 1701121130-1701131130
!CPR 01/163 CPR RWY 26 FICON 5/5/5 60 PRCT 1/8IN DRY SN OBSERVED AT 1701121310. 1701121311-1701131311
As explained in this FAA TV video, some contaminants, such as dry or wet snow, appear in more than one runway condition description because the contaminant’s depth affects aircraft braking differently: !VUO 01/008 VUO RWY 26 FICON 3/3/3 100 PRCT 9IN WET SN OBSERVED AT 1701121622. 1701121622-1701131622.
What condition code would appear if the wet snow were only one-eighth inch deep?
Some contaminants exert different effects on aircraft at different temperatures; see how the matrix differentiates compacted snow’s effects at temperatures warmer than -15 degrees Celsius.
Back in the Northeast, outlook briefings made it clear that cold was returning, with any wet runways that did not dry out in time sure to freeze over, with a variety of slippery conditions forming.
With the new reporting system taking subjectivity out of runway condition reporting, pilots haven’t been excluded from the process. It’s still important to file pilot reports on braking action, so review the descriptions in the “pilot reported braking action” column at the right side of the assessment matrix, and keep filing those pireps!