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Getting to YES with NOTAMS

Why They Matter and What’s In Store

By Jennifer Caron

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, May/June 2020

Unlimited visibility, clear skies — the perfect excuse for our $100 hamburger flight — clouded by an unexpected CTAF advisory — “Do Not Land! Airport is NOTAM’d closed today.” Well, so much for that hamburger. Our disappointment quickly turned to dread as we realized we might not have enough fuel to make it to the next airport. With just 30 minutes of flying time left, we got lucky: we spotted an airfield west of us and landed safely.

I’m embarrassed that it took such an incident to teach two important lessons. First, always give yourself plenty of wiggle room with fuel in case you need to divert. Second — the fundamental lesson — always check NOTAMs before every flight.

A NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen, is the primary means to communicate time-sensitive information about the abnormal status of some element in the National Airspace System (NAS). NOTAMs address potential flight hazards such as drone (UAS) operations, air shows, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs), and information not yet published on aeronautical charts, construction activity, and runway or airport closures. These are critical details for flight planning.

Yes, NOTAMs Need Help

So why do NOTAMs get such a bad rap? Let me count the ways, starting with sheer volume. The standard briefing for a domestic flight plan might produce hundreds of NOTAMs, and the regulations say that pilots must be familiar with “all available information” prior to departure. The problem is that NOTAMs are targeted to everyone, not individual pilots and their specific flight plans. The system generates around 1.3 million NOTAMs each year and, with the vast amount of information designed to inform all, it’s TMI — too much information.

Then there’s the outdated, time-consuming format. NOTAMs are written in all caps using abbreviations and shorthand, rather than plain language sentences or graphical depictions. In an electronic world that interprets all caps as SHOUTING, just the appearance is off-putting. Combine the TMI problem with the SHOUTING format, and it’s painfully easy for even a conscientious pilot to miss the critical needle in the haystack of irrelevant data.

Less conscientious pilots don’t even try. I know pilots who skip flight planning altogether, especially if they’re just looking to bore holes in the sky on a clear day. Even for longer jaunts, and even though they know it’s the PIC’s responsibility to check NOTAMs, they balk at this painful and time-consuming task.

Taking the No Out of NOTAMs

Both the FAA and aviation community providers are on the case. We’ll talk about future state in a moment, but we’ll start with currently available tools that take the pain out of NOTAMs.

The FAA has created a new NOTAM search site at notams.aim.faa.gov/notamSearch. A fully optimized, inter-face search tool with digital NOTAMs, this site provides a one-stop shop that lets you customize your NOTAM search. You can use criteria such as time and date, location, flight path, geographic area, latitude/longitude, keywords, and more. You can filter and sort results by location, class, start and end date, condition, and (again) more. You’ll also find Letters to Airmen and a link to Airport Construction Notices in pdf format.

Since TFRs are the subject of many NOTAMs, another FAA website resource is tfr.faa.gov. TFRs can pop up quickly and violating one because you didn’t feel like checking NOTAMs isn’t a winning excuse. The website gets updated in real time, so it provides the most current information on published TFRs nationwide. Please do note that the site includes a disclaimer that when planning a flight, always call 1-800-WX-BRIEF for a more complete listing. Select the state where you’re operating or expect to fly. Click the hyperlink under the NOTAM column for details and graphical representation on the time, date, and altitude of effectiveness. The “other information” section names the controlling agency and provides contact details.

The Flight Service Pilot Web portal at www.1800wxbrief.com is another online tool for quick and easy NOTAM searches. A free account enables you to get online preflight briefings, file flight plans, and get automatic notifications and alerts that include flight plan closure reminders, NOTAMs and TFRs, notices of new or adverse weather conditions, or pertinent airport closures. If you want someone to verbally translate NOTAMs, you can call Flight Service at 1-800-WX-BRIEF.

You can also find NOTAMs and TFRs on-the-go with FAA Mobile. FAA Mobile is an easy-to-use website you can use online or on your mobile device for quick access to N-numbers, NOTAMs, Advisory Circulars, airport updates, and more. You can find FAA Mobile at www.faa.gov/mobile.

Last but certainly not least, third-party providers in the aviation community have done a lot to take the pain out of finding and reading NOTAMs. Most of the popular flight planning and flight management apps fish out the NOTAMs relevant to your specific flight plan. They also make it easier to read the information by lowering the shrill volume of ALL CAPS to sentence case.

NOTAM search

Knowing the NOTAMs of the Future

These steps help, but users still need NOTAMs that are easier to read, understand, and find. The good news is that this goal is part of the FAA’s phased NOTAM modernization initiative. Here are some of the recent and upcoming milestones:

In the future, more airports will use the Federal NOTAM System (FNS) NOTAM Manager website for streamlined NOTAM processing. Plus, with over 1400 airports currently having the ability to issue NOTAMs using NOTAM Manager, more airport managers will have this ability.

In March 2019, the FAA began removing duplicative information in the Chart Supplement (previously known as the Airport/Facility Directory). Permanent (PERM) NOTAMs have also been targeted for reduction in an effort to quell the amount of redundant data by publishing information more quickly on charts and publications.

In November 2019, the FAA established a single governing office for NOTAMs and aeronautical information. In a phased approach, the agency is working to improve the presentation of NOTAM information, prioritize or highlight the most important safety details, and optimize data, technology, and processes to help pilots find and retain the most relevant information.

In February 2020, the FAA retired PilotWeb, the former public interface for searching NOTAMs. Users are now redirected to the friendlier, digital FAA FNS NOTAM Search website.

In June 2020, users with “screen scraper” applications that pull content from PilotWeb will be transitioned to the FAA’s System Wide Information Management (SWIM) interface. SWIM is a single technology gateway that developers can use to enter, process, and retrieve all NOTAM data for distribution to the aviation community.

Also in June 2020 — June 18, to be precise — the FAA will discontinue its Notices to Airmen Publication (NTAP) to streamline the repository of NOTAMs published every 28 days. The last NTAP will be published on May 21, 2020. Information from the International and Graphic Notices sections of the NTAP will be transferred to new websites, accessible via the FAA NOTAM Search website. Visit bit.ly/NotamPub for more details.

In the near future, domestic NOTAMs will transition to the ICAO format and become more machine-sortable, in human-readable formats. We will have a single NOTAM repository with searching, sorting, archiving, and filtering capabilities, thus improving NOTAM search flexibility.

FAA mobile

Say Yes to NOTAMs

As with weather, checking NOTAMs is a critical part of flight planning. A case in point:

During a night cross country flight to an unfamiliar area, a pilot attempted to land his Cessna 170 at an airport in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Construction had changed the airport elevation and, though reported by NOTAM, the new data hadn’t yet made its way to the aeronautical chart. The pilot survived a collision with terrain on the base-to-final turn, but his airplane wasn’t so lucky.

As noted above, things are getting better with the best still to come. Take advantage of all available tools to get the benefit of all available information in NOTAMs, so you won’t be that pilot or (worse) jeopardize safety of flight for yourself or others.

Learn More

FAA NOTAM Search User Guide - bit.ly/NOTAMUser

Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in aviation safety and flight standards.

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