The Importance of Reading Notams

Mike and I get a surprise on a day trip to Boulder City, NV.

Mike, my significant other, flies airplanes. I don’t hold it against him. Someone has to do it.

He owns a 1974 Grumman Tiger with a partner, Jeff, who also lives in Wickenburg. The plane is in excellent condition, well cared-for and hangared. Mike’s previous partner, Ray, flew it even less than Mike does, so it didn’t get out much. Jeff flies it more often. Mike knows he needs to fly it more often.

That’s what yesterday’s trip was all about. He knows he needs to fly more often and I know I need to go with him once in a while. One of the reasons he bought the plane was so that we could take longer trips than we could by helicopter. Back then, I owned a Robinson R22, which cruised at 80 knots with 2 on board (if we were lucky) and couldn’t fully tank up with fuel so any flight longer than 90 minutes required a fuel stop. It seemed to make sense to have an aircraft that could get us places farther away in less time. The Tiger, I was told, cruises at 130 knots. (I have yet to see it cruise any faster than 120, but I think it’s because Mike doesn’t like to push it.) Of course, in January I took delivery of a Robinson R44, which cruises at 115 knots and can fly more than 3 hours without refueling, so the speed/long trip point isn’t very valid any more.

Anyway, Mike knew he had to fly more and I knew I had to fly more with him.

For the record, I do not know how to fly airplanes. I have a total of 1.5 hours in single engine airplanes and .9 hours in gliders. All of my other flight time is in helicopters, with a tiny .4 in gyros. I have no interest in piloting an airplane. I admit that I’m a helicopter snob.

So yesterday morning, we poured over books, looking for a destination for a day trip. I should probably say that he poured over books; I was busy trying to see whether my Web server had come back to the world after an IP address change. He used the old iBook to log into various Web sites for more information, including weather. I had suggested the runway at Monument Valley, which I visited by car on my long road trip in August. I was pretty sure it was paved. (His insurance prohibits him from landing on unpaved runways.) But his sources of information — primarily AirNav, I think — said it was dirt and showed a picture with reddish dirt to prove it. Of course, AOPA’s Airport Directory, which appears to include more errors than reliable information, didn’t mention the runway there at all, despite the fact that is widely used by tour aircraft and is walking distance from the Gouldings Lodge complex.

After a while, he declared his conclusion. Boulder City, NV.

For those of you who are not familiar with the southwest, Boulder City was built to house the workers who built the Hoover Dam, the first big dam on the Colorado River, back in the 1930s. It’s the only city in Nevada that does not have gambling. It’s a small but growing city, uncomfortably close to Las Vegas and comfortably close to Lake Mead, the Colorado River, and of course, Hoover Dam. It has a nice airport with three runways (although I think the short parallel runway is closed), fuel, and other amenities I’ll get to shortly.

The plan was to land in Boulder City, tie down — that’s what you do to an airplane so a gust of wind doesn’t take it away while you’re not around — and go into town for lunch.

Our plan set, we went to the airport. While Mike pulled out the plane and did his preflight, I made a quick trip to my helicopter, which I’d left parked out on the ramp overnight. I’d been experimenting with video from the helicopter and wanted to see if a cable adapter I had would fit the headset jack so I could run audio right from the intercom system into my camcorder. It did. Along the way I ran into one of Quantum’s flight instructors, who was fueling up on a cross-country flight with a student from Scottsdale. We chatted a long time. Heck, it’s hard not to chat for a long time with a fellow pilot. His student asked me about Glendale. He said he’d seen me taking off and landing all day long last weekend. I told him about the 131 passengers and both of them were suitably impressed.

Back at the airplane, Mike was just about ready to go. I climbed on board — literally — and buckled up. He started up and taxied out to the runway. A while later, we were airborne, heading toward Needles, NV. His plan was to fly to the Colorado River around Needles, then follow that up through Bullhead City and over Lake Mohave before heading in to Boulder City. The flight should take just over an hour. It was probably the same route I would have taken in the helicopter. A direct flight straight across the desert is incredibly boring. Flying along the river is a lot more interesting.

Everything went as planned with the exception of timing. We had a headwind of about 20 knots around Bullhead City. Bullhead City is notoriously windy and I think that’s one of the reasons so few people fly in there. The airport is right across the river from Laughlin, NV, with its semi-cheesy casinos, cheap hotels, and even cheaper buffets, but because 20 knot winds are relatively common, the casual pilots avoid the place like the plague. It’s silly, really. The wind just about always comes right down the runway, from up the river or down, so it’s not like there’s a challenging crosswind. That day it was coming down the river, steady enough to drop our ground speed down to 105 knots.

Past Bullhead City, I switched the radio frequency to Boulder City’s. It was still 40 or so miles away. But as we climbed to cross the mountains west of Lake Mohave, I got my first inkling that Boulder City wouldn’t be as easy as it should be.

“Young Eagle 12, left downwind runway 27,” came the voice.

Young Eagles is an EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) program that gives free rides to kids aged 8 to 18. The idea is to introduce them to aviation in a fun, safe, and affordable way. Sometimes an EAA member just takes a few kid for rides. Other times, the local EAA chapter will hold a rally where they fly a bunch of kids. Hearing someone say Young Eagle 12 made me wonder if there were Young Eagle flights 1 through 11 out there, too. That would make 12 (or more) pilots out there, flying around the skies of Boulder City, without an air traffic controller to keep them organized.

My fears were confirmed when I heard a call from Young Eagle 3.

I say “fears” and I do mean this literally. I am intimately familiar with the local Wickenburg chapter of the EAA. These folks will meet religiously every month for an EAA meeting, refreshments, and a “program” — which could be something as stimulating as watching a VHS tape of the Reno Air Races on a television — but most members rarely actually fly. It frustrated the hell out of me. I love to fly and I like to fly with others. You know — a bunch of folks start one place and fly out to another for lunch or something. But these people seldom went anywhere. I used to go to meetings just to see if anything was planned, stay through the refreshments, leave a few bucks for the kitty, and head out before they started up the VCR and dimmed the lights. They did arrange a Young Eagles Rally once back in 2000, right after I got my R22 and I took 5 kids for rides. I think they tried again a few years ago, but only one or two pilots showed up. Not a very active group. I dropped my EAA membership and stopped going to meetings. I’m not the only one who wasn’t impressed. Every once in a while, a young, fresh person — usually a guy — would show up for a meeting. I’d never see him again.

So in my mind, an EAA chapter has a membership consisting primarily of people aged 65 or older who rarely — if ever — fly. Understand my fear when I thought 12 or more of them might be circling the skies of our destination airport?

We came over the hills and the airport came into view, still 15 miles away. That’s when the radio got really active. One call after another — pilots taking off, pilots landing, pilots climbing out, pilots flying downwind. And just to really confuse things, there were helicopters flying in and out, too. Papillon and Silver State were both doing tours. But I wasn’t worried about them. I was worried about those darn airplanes.

Mike flew out to the dry lake bed south of the airport, then turned for a 45¬? approach to a left downwind for Runway 27L, which was the one all the other pilots seemed to be using. Three airplanes took off in quick succession and made left downwind departures right before he got into downwind. I kept pointing them out for him. I also watched the helicopters make their approaches under the downwind traffic pattern. When we were on downwind, I caught sight of an airplane flying below us. I realized with a start that he was landing on Runway 33, which would have him crossing runway 27 while others were taking off and landing. I pointed him out to Mike just when the pilot said he was going around. Going around (to him) meant making a sharp right turn that put him under Mike’s wing somewhere. Mike saw him go there but never saw him come out. I didn’t see anything and I started getting panicky. In a helicopter, I could just stop where I was, turn around, and look for the bugger. Then Mike saw the guy, confirmed he was no factor, and turned base. I closed my eyes for landing — I always do — and felt relief when the wheels touched pavement.

We taxied back to fuel and found the ramp crammed with airplanes and helicopters on display and tons of people. It was a Young Eagle Rally coupled with the Boulder City Airport Open House. And those people at Boulder City really know how to put on a show.

After fueling up — at only $3.39/gallon — we tied down the Tiger on one of the last open spaces on the ramp. Lots of people had already parked their planes in a gravel parking lot. Then we walked over to the FBO to see whether we could arrange for ground transportation into town. Mike still wanted to go with Plan A.

The FBO at Boulder City is run by Silver State Helicopters, which does tours out of that location. The woman at the desk was just handing us the keys for the Courtesy Car when Brent A, who I knew from Papillon, walked up to the counter. He’d left Papillon to work for Silver State. We chatted for a while before he went back to work. I asked the woman at the counter if there was a Notam for the airport event and she told me there was. Mike and I left the airport feeling very silly.

Notam, for those who aren’t pilots, is short for NOTice to AirMen. (Sexist, I know, but I don’t really care.) It’s issued by an airport or the FAA and published by the FAA to inform pilots of things they should be notified about. Like the fact that the airport will be hosting an Open House that day or the fact that the airport will be closed to traffic from noon until 1:30 PM for aerobatics.

Pilots are supposed to read the notams for an airport as part of their flight planning. I usually read them with the weather info I get from when I prepare for a cross-country flight. The problem is, there can be dozens of notams in a typical Duats report and it’s all too easy for your eyes to glaze over while you’re trying to figure out which ones actually apply to you. (Most don’t.) I would use that as an excuse for Mike on this particular trip, but it doesn’t apply. He admitted that he didn’t even look at the notams. Bad Mike!

I don’t want to give you the idea that I always look at notams when I fly to another airport. Although I usually do, I don’t always. For example, if I’m just going to fly up to Prescott and hop in my Toyota to go to the pet store or Home Depot, I’m a little light on flight planning. I usually peek at the weather, especially if it looks questionable, but I all-to-often completely skip the notams. Prescott has a tower and if there’s something going on, it’ll be on the ATIS (a recording of airport conditions) that I listen to on the way in.

I guess the reason we’re so lax about notams is because there’s seldom anything in them that affects us. Okay, so the PAPI lights for runway 21R are out of service. I don’t use PAPI lights. There’s going to be a laser light show at 0400 zulu 5 NM west of the such-and-such radial of the so-and-so VOR. I’m not flying that night. Taxiway Echo is closed from 1500 zulu through 2000 zulu. That’s on the other side of the airport from where I land. Get the idea?

We’re definitely not the only pilots who don’t read notams when we should. Last week, when I flew down to Glendale for my first Thunderbird meeting, I couldn’t get the ATIS. I just included the words “negative ATIS” when I called into the controller and he gave me the airport condition information. But when another pilot specifically asked the tower for the ATIS frequency, assuming that what he had was wrong, the tower told him the ATIS had been notamed out since Sunday. Four days. Oops. And I can’t tell you the number of airplanes that tried to land at Glendale when the airport was closed that weekend for the Thunderbird event. Airport closures are always in notams.

But Boulder City taught Mike and me a good lesson: Always read the notams.

While we walked around Boulder City, taking in the sights, I asked Mike whether he would still have come to Boulder City if he knew about the event. He admitted that he might not have. He’s a relatively new pilot and sharing the sky around an airport with dozens of other pilots in an uncontrolled environment was not something he enjoyed. (It isn’t something I enjoy, either.)

We had lunch at the local golf club, then went back to the airport. By that time, it was just after noon and the aerobatics were starting up. A lot of formation flying and loops and rolls. We wandered around the ramp, looking at the helicopters and airplanes on display. There was a lot to see. We passed the EAA hangar and realized that not all EAA chapters are like Wickenburg’s. The Boulder City Chapter is young and active, full of pilots who fly more often than just enough to keep current with the FAA. I ran into a few more helicopter pilots I knew and made some inquiries about getting stick time in a Brantly.

When the airplane aerobatics were over, the RC aircraft aerobatics started. One excellent RC aircraft pilot did tricks I’d never seen before. Excellent demonstration.

(You know, Wickenburg could learn a lot about putting on an airport event if it got advice from folks who know how to do it. Or maybe if they talked to a few real pilots about it and get them involved. But that’s just a thought. I’m sure Wickenburg will continue to do the same old airport car show and advertise with its tired old flyer every year.)

The airport reopened for traffic and Mike and I headed out. It was an uneventful flight back, mostly along route 93. For some reason, we still had a little headwind. We landed at Wickenburg at 4:30 PM local time. We’d spent more time out than we’d originally planned, but we’d had a great time.

Yes, I did say we. Even I had a good time on an airplane trip.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Reading Notams

  1. Do you support your local chapter of EAA by becoming a member? Did you contact the EAA for support for your resolution? Did you volunteer to rep the Wickenburg airport to the AOPA? Sometimes it is necessary to give to get. I wish you well with your project….ron

  2. To answer your questions in order: Yes (although I dropped out when I realized that the local chapter’s primarily goal was to gather socially once a week to watch airplane videos), resolution for what?, and yes. Don’t tell ME about giving. Look at my efforts at trying to prevent developers from building 34 homes at the end of the airport runway here in Wickenburg to see how much I’m giving — just this year alone. Countless letters and phone calls to the FAA and AOPA, two petitions, and a legal battle. Ask any of the local pilots here in Wickenburg whether I know how to give. And then ask them what I get in return. They’ll set you straight.

What do you think?