After brief delays, The Federal Aviation Association plans to activate a remote aviation weather camera in Lake Clark Pass by the end of the month. The camera, to be added to the 25 already in operation across the state, will give pilots a window to 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 RF (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 September 10. With the September 11 (disaster), 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 sight at a 4,000-toot 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 initially started in 1999 as part of a doctoral thesis project at the University of Alaska Anchorage by James Buckingham. Buckingham was not able to be reached for comment.
Cameras were placed at Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaltag and Rugby 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 site -- http://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 briefs 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.
"Initially, this program came out as an augmentation of existing sites like AWOS (automated weather observation system)," Lovett said.
She said the AWOS and the National Weather Service's automated surface observation system (ASOS) currently serve as official early warning tools for pilots and air traffic controllers. AWOS and ASOS measure air density or precipitation between two sensors placed at the airport. The weather cameras are being added to the FAA's official tools for predicting weather, but will be considered optional resources.
"There are eight that have been commissioned," Lovett said. "They're considered as an advisory tool."
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 briefing, gave users the ability to identify distant weather phenomenon, provided sound terminal information to pilots and helped pilots to make "go" or "no go" decisions. The report also showed that 84 percent of the pilots surveyed believed the weather cameras were useful in assessing runway conditions, and 82 percent preferred the camera system to ASOS.
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."
Felix Maguire, former president of the Alaska Airmen Association, said the cameras are the best thing to happen to flying in Alaska.
"They are perhaps one of the best innovation they've had in the state for a long, long time," he said. "I've been an advocate for the cameras for over 10 years."
Villar said finishing the project in Lake Clark Pass will open up a lot of opportunities for pilots.
"That's the only pass people can get through as they are headed westbound," he said. "It at least gives them a picture of what it looks like going into and coming out of the pass."
Maguire said he is happy just to see the idea coming to fruition to add some light to flying through the pass.
"For years I've been wandering up and down Lake Clark Pass," he said. "Just wondering what was around the other corner, or whether the pass was opened or closed."
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