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Every year at this time it seems that I write about weather and the related problems that are associated with weather. It goes without saying that weather this year has been less than great. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of rain this summer, which continues to fall as I write. Though this is an important subject for pilots another equally important issue is raising it's ugly head.
What does the pilot who is caught away from their home airport do in the event of a national emergency?
I had an experience some time ago that verged on this issue. I was flying a corporate flight with three passengers out of the Los Angeles area and had just arrived over Palmdale enroute to northern California. There was an announcement through the Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), that there had been an earthquake of major magnitude in the Los Angeles basin. All major airports in the area had been closed due to damage. When ARTCC realized the damage to their facility, they had to reduce their workload. Only major air carriers and those aircraft on an instrument flight plan (IFR) were handled by center during the emergent situation. Pilots that were flying visually (VFR), in contact with Flight Service, and on a flight plan, were also informed of the situation when they made position reports enroute. Pilots were told which alternate airports were still usable and closest to their route of flight.
In a national emergency, similar circumstances would no doubt occur. Traffic that was on an IFR flight plan, and were being handled by center, would be in pretty good shape. The pilot flying visually, and not on a flight plan, could find themselves in a predicament.
Most flights in Alaska are conducted outside of the controlled environment and in VFR conditions. During the 9/11 attack many pilots were left unaware of the terrorist activity. Pilots suddenly were suspect and had to be escorted to a destination some for questioning.
Assistance can be found through Flight Service (FSS). FSS gets their information through notices to airmen (NOTAMs) and can provide much needed information to and for pilots during a crisis as well as on a regular basis. When a pilot files a flight plan, that pilot is ensured that help will be available, should it be needed. There was concern, during the 9/11attack and in the days following, regarding provisions needed by hunters and fishers in outlying areas. They relied on the aircraft that transported them to those remote areas to bring them supplies. Efforts were made to ensure that those on a flight plan or reported stranded in an outlying area were contacted and picked up if necessary.
The most important thing to do is to remain in contact with Flight Service. FSS will be one of the first agencies to discover if a national emergency is declared and will inform pilots on a flight plan as soon as possible.
In addition a simple call might reduce the need for military intervention. When a pilot is outside of an area where radio contact to FSS is not available, and a phone or cell phone is nearby, the pilot should call 1-800-wxbrief to get information to and from FSS.
Patricia Mattison is the safety program manager for Juneau Flight Standards
Juneau Flight Standards
I sincerely hope that this information is never needed in a time of national emergency. Heaven forbid that we should experience another 9/11. The fact is that filing a flight plan and keeping in contact with FSS, whenever you fly, can make your flight safer all the way around.