Airport Maintenance From A Pilot’s Perspective

by Chris Meyer
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2021
Online Issue

As pilots, we have a lot to think about when preparing for a flight. In fact, we’re legally obligated. The Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) regarding Preflight Action (91.103), says, “Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” Further, 14 CFR Part 91.3 states: “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” If you stop and really think about it, these two basic regulations serve quite a tall order.  

Thankfully, with advances in technology, much, if not all of the required information, is available right at our fingertips. Many aviation applications provide weather reports, forecasts, NOTAMs, and runway information that can be retrieved right from your cell phone or tablet. Some offer the ability to calculate weight and balance for aircraft. Some now even allow the user to calculate takeoff and landing distances for aircraft by applying real-time weather. This is some neat stuff! However, there is a catch; this information is only as good as what’s provided by the source.

As an example, let’s look at a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you are planning on flying your family to a resort for a weekend getaway. After everybody packs for the trip, you realize you are going to have to reduce your fuel load to account for the extra baggage. You will need to make a fuel stop. In looking at the route of flight, there is an airport situated along your route of flight that offers self-service fuel which is available 24 hours a day with a credit card.

Next, you land at the fuel stop, taxi to the self-service pump, and shut down. It’s time to gas up. As you approach the credit card reader, you see that dreaded little sign “credit card reader inoperative.” You think to yourself, “I know I checked the NOTAMs for this airport, and nothing was published!” You look for help from an FBO only to hear the sound of wind accompanied by a roque tumbleweed. NO!!

Chances are this scenario has happened to you. It has happened to me. Fortunately, I had a college professor that taught the importance of always having a contingency plan. If I don’t see a fuel related NOTAM, I will still call the airport/FBO to verify that fuel is available. If I am unable to reach someone, then I will carry enough fuel to ferry to another airport where I know fuel can be purchased. 

Notices To Airmen

This scenario brings up a larger, more important concept, and that is the importance of reporting changes to airport infrastructure in the event of outages and/or maintenance projects. The means airports use to do so is the Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM system. Thinking back to the two regulations introduced earlier, it is challenging for pilots to become familiar with “all” available information if it is not being properly reported.

Disruption to fuel availability is only a tiny example. There are many other situations that affect airport capability. For example, are there any lighting outages? Sometimes outages can increase Instrument Approach Procedure minima.

One lighting-related challenge Minnesota airports are particularly faced with is frost heave of the footings that support PAPIs/VASIs. The calibration of these units is very sensitive. A footing that moves from frost heave will disrupt the calibration of the lighting system. MnDOT recommends airports inspect these systems for proper calibration every 30 days.

Notices of Work in Progress due to mowing or snowplow operations are also important. 

And speaking of snowplowing – any snowplow operation at an airport also suggests the need for reporting field conditions through a FICON NOTAM. Surface contamination by means of rain, snow, slush, or ice has a significant effect on takeoff and landing performance in a negative way. Referring back to 14 CFR Part 91.103, “takeoff and landing distance data” is a specific requirement. If pilots don’t have proper information about current runway conditions, they cannot make effective decisions as to whether or not it’s safe to operate into or out of an airport.

As for pilots, we owe it to airports to actually take the time to read the NOTAMs they publish. Further, if you are out flying and you notice something is not right, let airport personnel know. The Airport Directory and Travel Guide published by MnDOT Aeronautics contains contact information for the airport stakeholders in Minnesota. Most states have a similar publication. If that publication is not available, the phone number for the airport manager is published in the FAA’s Chart Supplement (formerly known as the Airport/Facility Directory or A/FD). Lastly, if an FBO is open, let them know, and they will know how to pass the information along to the airport manager.

These simple procedures go a long way in promoting aviation safety. In the end, it comes down to one simple but very important concept: applying effective communication. Let’s all do our part to ensure our families can enjoy that weekend getaway as safely as possible.


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