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ANCHORAGE - In a state where vast distances, rugged terrain and sudden changes in weather make flying a constant challenge, Alaska pilots are enthused about a new tool to help them see beyond the horizon.
The Federal Aviation Administration has rolled out a system of Web cameras perched in mountain passes, on rocky coasts and at remote villages. The webcam system is meant to supplement the FAA's aviation weather reports with real-time images from around the state. The pictures can be seen on an FAA Web site.
The system has proved hugely popular among pilots. While the FAA's 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. The company serves many Yukon River villages far from the state's road system.
In Southeast, cameras are positioned in Haines, Hoonah, Lena Point and Pederson Hill in Juneau, Sisters Island, Sitka, Level Island, and Cape Yakataga. One will be in Gustavus soon.
John Edwards, office manager of Air Excursions in Juneau, said his business uses the cameras a few times a day.
"It helps you save a lot of fuel from people going out to do weather checks," Edwards said. "I think just about every (flying service) in town uses them."
Flying into bad weather has been identified as the leading cause of fatal accidents among Alaska's commuter airlines and air taxis. Alaska averages roughly one aviation accident every day and a fatal crash every 10 days.
The cameras are part of the FAA's push to reduce aviation accidents in Alaska by 50 percent over the next 10 years, said Regional Administrator Pat Poe.
"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 they should fly. The skies may be clear and visibility unlimited at a pilot's home base, but weather en route or at the destination can be altogether different.
"There are some summers when we have more foul weather than fair. It's always a challenge. The weather is constantly changing," said Lisa Bern who, with her husband Jim, operates JimAir from the Lake Hood float plane base in Anchorage.
JimAir specializes in serving Prince William Sound. A quick check of the webcam image transmitted from Potato Point near Valdez in eastern Prince William Sound gives the Berns a good idea of what type of flying conditions they can expect.
"That camera really helps us," said Lisa Bern.
The FAA began initial testing for the webcam system in 1997 and began posting the images on a Web site in 1999. The agency has been gradually adding cameras and now has 24 operating from Southeast Alaska to the Brooks Range to the Bering Sea coast, with 12 more expected to come on line later this year.
Alaska pilots are clamoring for more cameras, and the Berns are no exception. They would like to see one installed at Portage Pass, a gateway to western Prince William Sound. Without a camera there, the only way they 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 Portage Pass is among the sites slated for installation of a camera this year.
The agency has tried to move cautiously in promoting the system, because of the need to ensure reliability, said Joette Storm, an FAA spokeswoman in Alaska.
"It truly is a research and development project," Storm said. "The testing process is long and it's meant to make sure that if we put something out there it's going to work."
It hasn't always been easy to keep the 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. 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 where there are no communication lines also poses technical challenges. The agency relays the images with the use of VHF digital radio frequencies.
Alaska is the only state with the webcam system, but Storm said it eventually may be used in other parts of the country. The agency has spent about $2 million on the system.
"If somebody looks at an image and they make a good decision about not flying or changing their route and they don't have an accident, it will be worth the money," Storm said.
In addition to the real-time images provided on the FAA's Web site, each webcam picture is juxtaposed with a clear-day image. Some of the clear-day pictures give the elevation of nearby mountains and distances to local landmarks. The notations help pilots estimate cloud cover and visibility.
The Web site also features a loop of camera images over a six-hour period, so pilots can see how the weather has changed at a particular site.
"It kind of gives you an indication of how things are going. 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. He's received e-mails from around the world from pilots and nonpilots.
"We hear from a lot of places in Europe, Australia and the Far East. The usual comment is that it's nice to be able to see Alaska."
The webcam site is http://akweathercams.faa.gov/.