Before Jon Percy loads his plane with passengers and luggage, the pilot for Wings of Alaska checks one more thing in addition to weather and pilot reports.
He clicks on a Web site created by the Federal Aviation Administration and looks at real-time weather camera images along his pass and at his destination.
"The weather looks pretty good over there," said Percy, who was checking a picture of Hoonah. A picture of a clear-day image is next to the most updated picture for comparison.
The Web site Percy checks almost religiously transmits weather images recorded every 10 minutes by cameras at 54 sites around Alaska. Because the Web site stores images from the previous six hours, pilots can determine the weather pattern. Some sites provide pictures from several different angles.
"It's like looking out of your window instead of studying data," said Mike Stedman, director of operations at Wings. "We don't need to go out and burn the fuel and find out that you cannot land."
Private pilots are not the only people who use the service.
Agencies such as the National Weather Service, Alaska Volcano Observatory, Alaska State Troopers and the U.S. Coast Guard all use the weather images to determine whether to cancel or delay a flight.
Last year, the Web site received 2.3 million hits, said Susan Gardner, manager of the Alaska Weather Camera program.
Because the FAA plans to install cameras at 165 sites by 2010, Gardner and her staff have been traveling all over Alaska to meet pilots and have them help the agency prioritize proposed sites. They visited Juneau last week.
"What pilots most appreciate is a holistic view of the weather that is not offered by automated weather systems and is otherwise only available at those sites manned by weather observers," Gardner said.
The first camera use in Alaska started during the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline when the city of Valdez, the FAA and the Coast Guard cooperated to install a camera in 1969 at the pipeline's future terminus.
"They put that camera in because of all the air traffic coming in to bring the supplies and equipment to begin the pipeline," Gardner said.
"The visibility was so poor or the weather was deteriorating. The camera provided them with valuable information on whether to come in or not," she said.
Since 1997, the FAA's Alaska Region has been developing a network of video cameras at remote airports and in mountain passes. The first batch of cameras was installed at the roof of Juneau's Federal Building, at a summit near Mount McKinley and in Dillingham.
Despite the program's long history, the agency wasn't able to maintain existing cameras and install new ones until the program received $5 million from Congress in 2004.
With the money, the FAA is able to replace some video cameras with digital cameras, which provide higher resolution.
Stedman said the weather images have been helpful but he wishes that images could be updated even more frequently.
"The weather can change dramatically within 10 minutes," he said.
Click here to see the Alaskan Region's Weather Cameras website.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.