By Jim Tise, FAA Office of Communications
The Federal Aviation Administration’s weather camera program installed 13 weather camera systems in the mountain ranges of Colorado in the span of a week — ahead of time and under budget. The live images from the new cameras are available on the FAA’s weather camera site.
“It’s gone so well,” said Walter Combs, the weather camera program’s manager, praising the working relationship with officials from the Colorado Division of Aeronautics. “It’s great when you have a tailwind instead of a headwind; Colorado pulled us down there. They worked hard to make sure we were taken care of and supported,” he said.
Honed through years of work in the mountain ranges of Alaska, the weather camera program is changing the very nature of flying in mountainous terrain. With the weather cameras in place, pilots can “take a look before they fly,” explained Combs. “In the old days they used to fly out and take a look. Normally, they made it back, but sometimes they didn’t.” Currently, the Alaska weather camera program has a network of more than 200 cameras.
Now, pilots can wait out bad weather to determine if flying conditions are good enough to take off. The cameras, along with weather data attached to the equipment, allow pilots to look at weather trends, see from which direction bad weather is coming, and identify where their routes will be clear based on the wind direction.
“You get what I like to call the whole picture,” said Combs about the systems.
David Ulane, Director of Aeronautics with Colorado’s Division of Aeronautics, recently demonstrated the weather cameras’ capabilities to the members of the Colorado Pilots Association. “Pilots have been clamoring for this kind of functionality,” he said. “They were ecstatic.”
Under the program, Colorado’s Division of Aeronautics paid the FAA for the cameras’ procurement and installation. In return, the FAA captures and disseminates the images on its website and provides technical support of the systems.
Buzz surrounding the project amongst the general aviation community has generated increased interest from aviation groups in other states of the continental United States (CONUS). That’s been Combs’ mission all along: establish one successful test case for his weather cameras as an example so that other CONUS states will want to follow suit.
“If it hadn’t caught people’s attention before, now it will,” he said. “It’s the start of an entirely new service in the National Airspace System.” So far, aviation groups from Utah, Washington, Montana, and California have approached the FAA.
Combs points out that weather cameras are effective in all types of flying environments, not just in mountainous regions. Outside of CONUS, the FAA will begin installing weather cameras in Hawaii in September.
In addition to the safety benefits of the program, Combs anticipates general aviation pilots will also see huge cost savings. “There’s no more two or three attempts to fly,” said Combs, all of which consume fuel.
Because of the COVID-19-related travel concerns, the FAA team didn’t travel to Colorado to conduct pre-engineering surveys, opting instead for a virtual alternative. Members of Colorado’s Division of Aeronautics sent technical details, drone footage, and photos of each site to the FAA, which were used to develop engineering and installation plans. The agency shipped the equipment and supplies to Colorado, and on July 14, two of Combs’ team members traveled to Colorado to begin installations.
“When we hit the ground we already knew everything we needed to know about those sites,” he said. All 13 site installations were completed by July 27, 2020, ahead of the August 15th deadline.
“Everything clicked. Everybody wanted to make it happen,” said Ulane. “I give them all the credit. They were flexible, committed, and cohesive. They know their stuff,” he added.
Ulane noted that the weather camera project is just the latest of several projects that have cemented cooperation between his department and the FAA over the past decade.
In 2010, Colorado was among the first states to deploy wide-area multi-lateration equipment in the state’s high country. The equipment provides Denver Center controllers with much better air traffic radar coverage and assists pilots when landing at mountain airports where air traffic radar coverage is not available. Three years later, Colorado funded a program with the FAA to test a concept involving remote air traffic control services at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland. Now comes the weather camera program.
“It’s a great model of collaboration,” said Ulane. “We have the funding and the FAA has the expertise and ability to do projects like this.”
“It’s like rolling the ball up the hill, and now it’s rolling down the hill on its own,” said Combs. “The program now is going to expand on its own.”
Colorado and the FAA are now in discussions to potentially install additional cameras at airports around the state.
Migrating the weather camera program to the CONUS is not just a professional accomplishment for Combs, it’s a personal one as well, his own “Rocky Mountain High.”
“It’s euphoric in the sense that I’m at the doorstep of achieving a goal I set 13 years ago. I think the cameras will be as valuable to safety in the CONUS as they are in Alaska. They’re going to see a huge benefit to efficiency and safety that we’ve been trying to provide for 40 years,” he added.
August 20th marks the 100 year anniversary of Flight Service and the creation of what has become the modern FAA. To learn more about their history and impact on aviation throughout the national airspace, check out more articles about Alaskan aviation below or go to https://www.faa.gov/about/history/fs100/.