Camera to give Lake Clark Pass pilots a peek at weather

PHOTO/FAA Web site
KENAI -- The Federal Aviation Administration plans to activate a remote aviation weather camera in Lake Clark Pass. The camera, to be added to the 25 in operation across the state, will give pilots an idea of the weather they can expect going through the pass on the west side of Cook Inlet.

But FAA officials say pilots may have to wait awhile longer to use it. Program manager Vered Lovett said the goal is to have the camera operational by the end of November.

"Installation is complete," she said. "The way we’re connecting is through an (radio frequency) shot out of the pass over to a repeater site right at the mouth of pass, then over to the Kenai flight service station."

Project manager Steve Houser said delays put the project behind by almost a month.

"We actually started Sept. 10. With the Sept. 11 (attacks), the FAA came with a stand-down policy of about two to three weeks. With the weather, the wind and, basically, the daylight, now getting up to the repeater site at a 4,000-foot elevation is difficult because clouds are hanging around it."

Once the project is completed, Lovett said, the project will go under a review period and, if all is well, more sites will go up.

"We’re gonna look at it over the winter months as a test," she said. "After Lake Clark, we will begin to look at putting cameras in other passes. It just depends on funding."

The camera project was started in 1999 as part of a doctoral thesis project at the University of Alaska Anchorage by James Buckingham. Buckingham could not be reached for comment.

Cameras were placed at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag and Ruby and were connected to a Web site to transmit weather images every 30 minutes.

The project was only intended to last for six months, but was so successful, the FAA took over the idea.

The current Web site, (akweathercams.faa.gov), offers links to the 23 FAA-supported cameras, including the one in Anaktuvuk, and the two non-FAA sites started by Buckingham. Each link shows a choice of real-time images from multiple directions and a map that shows the areas covered by the cameras. The FAA modified the video function to update images every 10 minutes.

Also on each page is an example view showing how the chosen scene would look on a clear day. Some of these example views also offer annotations identifying reference points and landmarks pilots could recognize when weather doesn’t allow for clear viewing.

Houser said the annotations were added to all of the views seen by air traffic controllers so that, when they brief pilots over the radio, they have a point of reference.

There are concerns, however, that the project may not live up to all expectations.

"It’s a research and development project," said Joette Storm, FAA community relations officer. "We want it to be reliable. We don’t want to create expectations and can’t fulfill them."

The FAA has sought to expand upon the original concept and improve its own weather spotting capabilities.

Houser said data will be collected for flight service stations and relayed to pilots, "so pilots can use their own judgment."

Storm said because of the precarious nature of using new technology, the FAA was reluctant to completely rely on the cameras.

"There are issues of liability and legality," she said.

Houser, who works with the engineers installing and connecting the Lake Clark camera, said he had considerable faith in the reliability of the weather camera.

"Basically, it’s 99.9 percent reliable because of the solar- and wind-charged batteries," Houser said. "And it doesn’t work at night."

Kimo Villar, an air traffic controller in Anchorage, is the liaison between the weather camera project and the Alaska aviation community. He said he generally hears feedback on the cameras from pilots and other users, who also report when a camera isn’t working.

"Usually when a camera does go down, the image is replaced by a message to let them know that (the cameras) are encountering some technical difficulty," Villar said. "But a lot of the comments are, How long do you expect the cameras to be out?’ "

Villar said he hears many positive reports on the cameras, as well.

A pilot survey conducted by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said the weather cameras added accuracy and completeness to briefings, gave users the ability to identify distant weather phenomenon, provided sound terminal information to pilots and helped pilots decide whether to fly or not. The report also showed that 84 percent of the pilots surveyed believed the weather cameras were useful in assessing runway conditions.

Villar said aviators are not the only benefactors of the system.

"The National Weather Service finds it valuable," he said. "Looking at real-time images is better for them. They have all these models based on equations, but actually having the image is a plus."

Updated: 
11/25/2001 - 8:00pm