By Walter Combs, Manager of the FAA Weather Camera Program
Controlled Flight into Terrain, or CFIT, occurs when a pilot unintentionally flies into the ground, mountainsides, or bodies of water. This type of accident results in the highest fatality rate of all general aviation (GA) accidents. The FAA’s Weather Camera Program successfully targets and reduces the most common cause of these accidents: loss of visual contact with terrain due to weather. What began as a small trial in Alaska 20 years ago, the Weather Camera Program has grown into a robust system that recently expanded into Colorado and soon will expand to Hawaii. The FAA is also providing support to other countries that are looking to install similar systems.
For private pilots in single-engine aircraft, helicopter pilots, and crews with major airlines, the benefit of weather camera programs is hard to miss.
Before the program began, weather-related CFIT accidents in Alaska were, sadly, very common. It seems like almost everyone I know in the state knew someone who perished in an aviation accident. As a resident of Alaska for 35 years, I personally know eight, one of whom was a family member. Before the camera program’s initial start in 1999, there simply wasn’t enough weather information along flight routes to adequately support safe flight decisions.
A clever old aviation quip comes to mind when I think about my budding passion for aviation: “There’s old pilots, and there’s bold pilots, but there ain’t no old-bold pilots.”
That aside, I still remember a brief and sobering conversation with my first instructor who said, “Flying VFR is very safe.” Then, pointing to a cloud bank that encompassed the surrounding mountains to the west, he continued, “but you and your friends are going to die if you fly into those clouds. Stay out of the clouds if you want to live.”
Even at that age, I knew folks that had died on the side of a mountain that was hiding itself in the clouds. And over the short two years that I was able to afford to fly, I realized how challenging it was to make safe flight decisions. Sometimes, it was very difficult to avoid being caught unexpectedly, especially in changing weather patterns, due to the unknown conditions that existed beyond the line of sight from the airport.
Sure, I followed flight-planning procedures. I obtained a weather briefing from Flight Service and I tried to call someone at the destination airport, but the only way to really know if I could make it through was to launch the plane and go take a look. I had my own horrifying experiences of losing visual contact with the ground and struggling to maintain a straight and level flight.
The most harrowing of my experiences was as a passenger in the cockpit of a helicopter. It was getting late and the thought of spending the night on the floor of an unheated equipment shelter, or worse yet, inside the helicopter was as unappealing as it sounds. I remember looking toward Juneau as we tried to determine if we should try to go home. It looked rough. We knew we’d have to fly along the shoreline because the storm clouds were halfway down the mountain sides on each side of the waterway, but the ceiling was plenty high from our vantage point.
Since this was before weather cameras, we had no way to see beyond our limited line of sight. We, like all other pilots in our situation, left the ground with full intentions to return if the weather reduced beyond safe passage. I will never forget the uneasy feeling in my stomach as we suddenly lost sight of the rocky shoreline below us. Nor will I forget the horror I experienced when the pilot began to repeatedly yell, “Look for the water! Look for the water!” Oh, you can bet I looked for that water. As the pilot pulled back and worked to reduce our altitude, my eyes bugged as I scanned the space below looking for water.
The pilot and I saw it at the same time, less than 100 feet below us was the water’s surface. We maintained a 200-foot altitude; using the shoreline as our guide back to Juneau, the trip was low and slow — so long that fuel levels became our main concern. While we made it back safely, I still remember hoping beyond all hope that we would avoid disaster.
This wasn’t my only scare due to weather, and there’s nothing more comforting at that time than hearing a calm, reassuring Flight Service specialist’s voice respond to you on the radio. Thank God for Flight Service in times of need.
I am not alone in this experience. Pilots everywhere frequently go out to check the weather with full intentions to turn around as it gets bad. After all, when they’ve flown in tough weather conditions before they always arrived alive, even when they were forced to land short of the destination because conditions deteriorated below the bare minimums for safe flight. In Alaska, they have a term for this type of operation: Scud Running.
Fast forward to today: During my 25-year tenure with the FAA, I have worked on many different construction projects. I helped establish high-mountain radio facilities that led to the installation of the original Automatic Dependent Service — Broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations for the development of the Alaska Capstone ADS-B program. This program aimed to improve aviation safety in Alaska by satellite tracking aircraft equipped with ADS-B. My professional life changed in 2007, when I was hired to lead the design and implementation of the Weather Camera Program. I knew I had found my niche. And while I’ve had the honor of leading the Weather Camera Program, I am far from alone in this project. I do not personally own the great success of this program and its service; that honor is left solely to the greatest technical and administrative support team in the entire agency: The Weather Camera Team. This team — consisting of fewer than 20 people — is responsible for nurturing an idea into a robust, low-cost and highly available service.
The possibilities are endless with a low-cost, high-availability, weather-information source that can provide visual confirmation of weather conditions along a pilot’s flight route and at the intended destination. Having access to camera images gives pilots one of the most powerful flight-decision information tools in the industry.
The cameras themselves are small, lightweight and portable. They take around two days to install, and after that, control systems tell us if there is an outage. The flexibility, affordability and reliability of these camera facilities save precious time and resources.
Combined with meteorological aerodrome reports (METARs), which provide ceiling, winds, temps, pressure and more information, the service becomes one of the most powerful flight-decision tools in the aviation industry. The only exception is an actual human observer, a pilot.
The benefits of the FAA’s weather camera services are now being recognized internationally. NAV Canada has followed suit with the installation of more than 215 camera facilities across Canada. The FAA hosts their images on our weather camera website, making them available to U.S. aviators who transit Canada on their way to and from Alaska. Additionally, a number of other countries are inquiring to learn how cameras might be beneficial to aviation operations in their own air spaces. As global leaders in aviation safety and efficiency, we freely share our technology and expertise.
In a partnership with the Colorado DOT Aeronautical Division, we recently finished installing 13 new camera systems in Colorado and we are planning to install another 10 sites there in the summer of 2021. We are looking forward to expanding this same partnership with other state DOTs.
As of November 2020, the program has started the engineering surveys to install the first 10 of 23 planned camera systems in the Hawaiian Islands. As another geographic region with mountainous terrain and quickly shifting weather dynamics, the aviation communities in Hawaii are enthusiastic to see weather cameras reduce weather-related aviation accidents and fatalities, and to improve pilot flight decision making throughout the islands.
While the weather camera program is most extensive in Alaska, it’s important to understand that Alaska is still not trouble free. The FAA is working to expand camera services in as many as 140 additional locations in Alaska where METARs and other weather reporting systems do not exist.
We’re proud to continue our work to expand camera services throughout the country, wherever needed, working daily to improve safety and efficiency for the users of our National Airspace System.