January 17, 2014 // Facility Spotlight: Nome Flight Service Station
If you think you have a rough commute, try working at Nome, Alaska, Flight Service Station (OME). The seven NATCA members who comprise this 100 percent NATCA facility not only rotate shifts, they also rotate their durations in the city.
NATCA President of Local FS-4 Alan Baker says he lives approximately 500 miles from Nome. To get to work, he drives an hour south from his hometown of Nenana to Fairbanks, then takes a 50-minute flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage and then takes a flight from Anchorage to Nome, which is about an hour and 20 minutes. Baker says this is a typical commute, if not shorter than most, for many who work at Flight Service Stations in Alaska. Baker says there is a person who works at the Kotzebue Flight Service Station who commutes from Las Vegas, and another who works at the Flight Service Station in Barrow – the farthest North American City, located just above the Arctic Circle – who rotates out of Miami, Fla.
Baker says the FAA issues OME NATCA members a travel day to Nome, where they work for six days at the facility while staying at government issued apartments in the city, and then are issued a travel day for getting home.
At OME, there are three flight service positions: pre-flight, in-flight one and in-flight two. In-flight one handles traffic, issues transponder codes for Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flight plans, relays Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) clearance to aircraft from Anchorage Center (ZAN), and reports off times of IFR aircraft to ZAN and sometimes to aircraft company operations. The person in this position also obtains airspace from ZAN and issues special VFR clearances, often with several aircraft maintaining visual separation from each other. This position is also responsible for broadcasting special weather observations when transmitted, for canceling IFR flight plans with ZAN upon arrival of IFR aircraft and for canceling VFR flight plans upon arrival of VFR aircraft. In addition, the person in this position keeps track of information transmitted and received on flight progress strips and handles in-flight emergencies, backed up by the people working the preflight and in-flight two positions.
“Everybody at Nome at one time or another has saved an aircraft from landing gear up, found lost aircraft, and aided and performed in life saving emergencies,” says Baker.
The person working the in-flight two position handles pilot briefings, over the counter and on the phones, as well as files flight plans on flight progress strips and passes those to the in-flight one position for activation and departure. The in-flight two responsibilities also include handling IFR and VFR arrivals, departures, cancellations, and clearances for roughly 15 outlying airports, as well as issuing Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) for these airports, and for Nome Airport.
The duties of the preflight position include supporting the other two positions. This requires two people to work the preflight position during the day and one during the evening.
OME runs operations from 7:15 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. local time with flight service specialists rotating shifts from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. When OME closes, its frequencies and one briefings phone line are transferred to Fairbanks Flight Service Station. ZAN then runs IFR operations.
Traffic count for OME averages over 500 operations a day, with a slow day putting the traffic count at 250 and a busy day putting it at around 810. Traffic often includes three to four air taxis, and aircraft with numerous special Visual Flights Rules (VFR) and multiple aircraft maintaining visual separation from one another.
“It can get kind of interesting,” he adds. “We get a lot of flights through OME’s airspace, especially celebs like Warren Buffet.”
OME’s night air traffic includes medevacs and freighters. Baker says most of the aircraft heading to Russia and Asia pass through Nome’s airspace.
“We average 20 to 30 aircraft to Russia a month,” he says. “From Russia, a lot of people fly to Beijing, Mongolia, and the Philippines.”
Unique to working at this particular Alaskan Flight Service Station is the high number of special VFR traffic. Baker says because OME has this unique quality to its traffic and they do not have 360-degree visibility of the airport from their position in the station, it has been and remains to be a goal of his to make OME a combined tower and station.
“I feel Nome would better serve the flying public as a combined tower/station with 360 degree visibility,” says Baker. “That would greatly increase the safety and expeditious flow of air traffic, resulting in less aircraft accidents and deaths in Alaska.”
He adds that other combined tower/stations, such as Kotzebue and Ketchikan, would increase aviation safety and expedite air traffic.
Also unique to working at OME are the seasons, including what Baker says is “unforgiveable winter weather.”
“Lots of time I’ve had a lot of pilots say ‘thanks for being there,’” he says. “There’s ten days of summer and then there’s winter. You get a little spring-winter, a little summer, a little fall and fall-winter, and then winter.”
Baker says the “freeze” affects air traffic for OME, as everything that is imported in or exported out of Nome must be transported by barge, boat or plane before the ice freezes. He noted that 90 percent of the roads are within Nome; there are only a couple that lead to villages and camps in the greater Nome area. Typically the ice freezes by the end of November and stays frozen until April, though Baker notes the freeze has not been consistent with the weather.
“This year the ice has been there a little bit, and then there’s been no ice,” he says. “This is a strange year.”
Baker says Nome is the location of “Flying Wild Alaska,” as well as being a location for gold mining since the city borders the Bering Sea; both cause increase in air traffic at OME.
OME also sees an influx in traffic when the Iditarod begins, typically in March. Baker says originally the race ended in Nome, but it is now based out of Anchorage due to money.
“The Iditarod creates a lot of publicity and air traffic; all kinds of planes come in,” he says. “The Iditarod Air Force has a base in Nome; it gets interesting. Iditarod planes land on the ice.”
With the 10-hour days OME NATCA members work, in addition to the commutes they make to and from Nome, they don’t have a lot of free time to host local NATCA events or get together outside of work. However, Baker says they are naturally a close group because they spend so much time together while on the job.
“If someone needs something – one guy’s wife had an operation, so he needed to leave early – we’ll cover for him or her,” he says. “We help each other out.”
Baker says the local does go to larger NATCA events, though.
He says, “We have a member that’s on the AirVenture Oshkosh Committee and a Legislative Rep. who goes to the event in D.C. We also try to send folks to arbitration training and rep training.”
Baker says that for fun when they have some rare free time, OME NATCA members like to fish and some try to find gold in the Bering Sea.
For Baker, the best part about representing the FS-4 Local is that he gets to help people and enforce the contract with management. He says they have a “pretty good relationship” with management.
“For instance, we need places to put our vehicles to thaw,” says Baker. “Tech Ops is in control of that and it’s a power play – there are empty bays and they like to play power.
“Management respects us and respects NATCA,” he says. “When we were NATS, they wouldn’t always answer the phone. But now they do.”