FAA Webcams Aim to Help Pilots
By MAUREEN CLARK Associated Press Writer
published 09:46 PM - AUGUST 02, 2002 Eastern Time
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Vast distances, rugged terrain and sudden changes in weather have long made flying challenging in Alaska. Now pilots have a system of Web cameras to help them see beyond the horizon.
The Federal Aviation Administration has installed two dozen webcams in mountain passes, on rocky coasts and at remote villages to supplement the agency's aviation weather reports. Real-time images can be viewed by anyone on an FAA Web site.
While weather charts, radar images and tersely worded forecasts provide important data on flying conditions, the cameras can erase any doubts.
"From our standpoint, they're hard to beat," said Bob Hajdukovich, director of operations at Fairbanks-based Frontier Flying Service, which serves many Yukon River villages far from the state's road system. "To us, it's all about reliability and getting into a destination for daily passenger service."
Flying into bad weather is the leading cause of fatal accidents among Alaska's commuter airlines and air taxis. Alaska averages an aviation accident a day and a fatal crash every 10 days.
The FAA wants to reduce aviation accidents in Alaska by 50 percent over the next 10 years, Regional Administrator Pat Poe said. "We've reached the point where we've determined that if we want a different result we need to do different things," Poe said.
The cameras help pilots decide whether to fly.
"There are some summers when we have more foul weather than fair," said Lisa Bern, who operates JimAir with her husband Jim. "It's always a challenge. The weather is constantly changing."
The FAA began initial testing for the $2 million webcam system in 1997 and started posting the images on a Web site in 1999. It has been gradually adding cameras and now has 24, with another dozen to come later this year.
Alaska pilots are clamoring for more.
The Berns, for one, would like to see one at Portage Pass, a gateway to western Prince William Sound. Without a camera, the only way to know for sure if the pass is clear is to fly up and take a look _ a move that's costly and time consuming.
The FAA says a camera is planned for Portage Pass.
The agency is cautious in promoting the system because of the need to ensure reliability, said Joette Storm, an FAA spokeswoman in Alaska.
It hasn't always been easy keeping cameras up and running in places that regularly see fierce winds, subzero temperatures and heavy snow.
Cameras installed in remote locations without electricity must have their own power source. So FAA technicians have used solar and wind generator systems to power the cameras.
Transmitting the images to the Web site from mountain passes and coastal areas also poses technical challenges.
The agency relays the images with the use of radio frequencies.
Alaska is the only state with the webcam system, but Storm said it may eventually be used elsewhere.
In addition to providing real-time images, the Web site also shows clear-day pictures, some marked with the elevation of nearby mountains and distances to local landmarks to help pilots estimate cloud cover and visibility.
The Web site also has images from the past six hours, so pilots can see how the weather has changed at a particular site.
"You can see if the clouds have been moving east to west," said Kimo Villar, an airspace specialist with the FAA who handles inquiries from pilots and others who visit the webcam site.
Villar has received e-mails from Europe, Australia and the Far East from pilots and non-pilots alike: "The usual comment is that it's nice to be able to see Alaska."