The Big Sky
How They Coexist in Alaskan Airspace
Alaska's commercial and general aviation pilots share a vast amount of airspace above the state with some of the world's most advanced military aircraft and their pilots. The area between the cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, and east to the Canadian border contains a large amount of military Special Use Airspace (SUA), utilized for realistic combat training by hundreds of American and foreign flyers each year. The short but busy summer tourist season, with its bevy of on-demand charters and expanded schedule of daily flights, happens to coincide with some of the larger military flying exercises that take place within these SUAs. There are some special procedures and programs administered by the FAA and Air Force that help to mitigate the risk of incidents and accidents when the two very different styles of flying cross paths in the airspace above our 49th state.
There are large safety programs, such as the 11th Air Force's Alaska Civil/Military Aviation Council that meets regularly, and includes military personnel, FAA representatives, and members of key airlines, organized aviation groups, and local airport officials. Information is exchanged monthly on upcoming exercises and changes to normal flying patterns (such as "lights out" flying for military jets). Their minutes are published on the Internet.
Military bases usually have local programs that reach out to civilian pilots, explaining their routine operations and possible hazards to airmen. Eielson AFB lies 22 miles east of busy Fairbanks Alaska, and is home to dozens of high perfor
mance military aircraft, including the F-16s of the Air Force’s 18th Aggressor Squadron. The base swells with an additional sixty to seventy aircraft on its ramps two or three times a year as Red Flag-Alaska and other large scale flying exercises convene to train domestic and international pilots and crews in the state’s extensive SUA complexes, otherwise known as the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC). JPARC encompasses 65,000 square miles of airspace, almost 2,500 square miles of land, plus 42,000 square miles of surface, subsurface and air space in the Gulf of Alaska.
According to an Eielson AFB informational pamphlet, the “Big Sky” theory of air traffic control is based upon two conditions: first is that there’s “lots of airspace”, and second is that there are “very few airplanes”. It continues to state that “the Big Sky method of mid-air collision avoidance is risky at best, and unreasonable in the Fairbanks area”.
A presentation identifying potential mid-air collision risks around Anchorage Alaska’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (also known by its’ acronym “JBER”) begins with this: “A superior pilot uses superior judgment to avoid situations which might require the use of superior skills!”. JBER is home to dozens of advanced F-22 Raptor fighters, E-3 AWACS jets, tankers, transports and helicopters, and utilizes a pair of intersecting runways whose traffic patterns dovetail precisely with the surrounding civilian traffic patterns from busy Ted Stevens/Anchorage International Airport, Merrill Field, and the Lake Hood seaplane base. Published transition altitudes and VFR arrival and departure routes offer avoidance of the wake turbulence produced by heavy C-17 and E-3 AWACS jets operating at JBER in the Anchorage terminal airspace
Sounds like a dangerous and even grim place for a VFR pilot who just wants to fly from point A to point B, right? Not so, if one takes the time to look at the wide range of safety systems that are in place to present near real time information to pilots. One such system that has been in existence for many years, and improved upon in the mid-1990s, is the Special Use Airspace Information System (SUAIS). Operated by the Air Force under an agreement with the FAA, one part of the SUIAS is a recorded, up-to-the-minute status report of active Military Operating Areas, Air Traffic Control Assigned Airspace, Military Training Routes, Army firing ranges and helicopter operations in central Alaska. Information can be retrieved while on the ground by calling a toll free telephone number or via a web site. This SUAIS is not just for pilots either, as it is used by non-aviators for information to augment noise complaints and sonic boom reports too.
The other part of the SUAIS is an airborne advisory service via a VHF radio frequency with multiple repeater sites, from Eielson AFB Range Control. This live 10-hour advisory service is offered over a wide geographic area when the SUAs are active. Operations are not intended to be an ATC separation program, but is an advisory service for both the military users and VFR pilots. The repeater sites offer radio coverage down to hundreds of feet above the ground in many areas, which is key for many bush pilots flying from rivers, lakes and unimproved landing strips. The normal restriction to VHF communication is due to line-of-site reception from a transmitter or receiver; these repeaters are placed on hilltops to extend the usable distance of the advisory services. Range Control officers at Eielson AFB can advise pilots, or pilots can communicate position reports, especially if they choose to transit a MOA while operating VFR.
VFR corridors have been designed to follow the major highways in central Alaska to avoid the Restricted Areas where live ordinance is dropped or fired. This allows VFR flight with defined boundaries (many times identified as 2 miles each side of the roadways) that protect VFR pilots from SUAs and the activities within them.
Up to the minute situational awareness of SUA activity is a key safety item in Alaska for VFR pilots. There's a huge amount of flying done at low altitudes away from populated areas, especially during the summer months. Two-way communication at these altitudes is aided by the SUAIS's remote repeater sites that connect pilots with Eielson Range Control. VFR corridors and terminal routes with suggested VFR altitudes avoid heavy military airport traffic areas, sorting different types of traffic apart in busy airspace. These are a couple of the programs that help Alaska's military and civilian flyers to coexist safely.
Story and Photos by Ken Kula