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FAA Using Webcams to Aid Alaskan Pilots 101

Isthistakenyet? writes "CNN is running a story about a series of FAA webcams designed to give fliers in Alaska pictures of current weather conditions around the state. I can even get current conditions near where I used to live - check out the 'Clear Day Image' :)" Hopefully the slashdotting won't keep a legit pilot from checking conditions.
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FAA Using Webcams to Aid Alaskan Pilots

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  • ironic editors... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by YellowSubRoutine ( 230089 ) on Wednesday August 07, 2002 @03:42AM (#4023717)
    Hopefully the slashdotting won't keep a legit pilot from checking conditions.
    Just guess what happened right now? The editor knew that would happen, and yet he posted the article...
  • But then.. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Lord Bitman ( 95493 )
    this is slashdot, so who cares if an innocent server is forced to shut down? Stop being "Hopeful" and start being responsible.
  • damn (Score:2, Funny)

    by lingqi ( 577227 )
    the next time i go with gf in to the wild to have a romantic weekend when noone is looking... it may not be so simple anymore. damn your FAA! i want my freedom of ... ... back!
    • the next time i go with gf in to the wild to have a romantic weekend when noone is looking...

      I thought there are no Slashdotters with girlfriends?

  • Statistics (Score:3, Funny)

    by af_robot ( 553885 ) on Wednesday August 07, 2002 @03:47AM (#4023728)
    Alaska averages an aviation accident a day and a fatal crash every 10 days.

    So how many Alaska pilots * still * alive?
    • you have to remember that Alaska (once you get north of Anchorage) is as close as it comes to the old west, their license plates don't say "last frontier" for nothing.

      i remember working up there one summer and wanting to fly to a non-dry town for the weekend so i could get liquored up... the guy who flew me literally pulled his plane out of a barn for the flight. they don't even have real roads between many towns up there, bush planes are very common.

      this ain't American Airlines they are reffering to with those stats, but it is pretty cool getting to sit up in the cockpit next to the pilot and learn a bit about flying (assuming you survive) ;)
    • So how many Alaska pilots * still * alive?

      In Alaska I would say its about as common to have a pilot's license as a motorcycle license in the rest of the country. If not more so. I ahve seen statisitcs that at one time 50% of the population had pilot licenses though I found that hard to believe. A more reliable source says "Aviation is a more common source of transportation here than anywhere in United States, with six times the average private pilot's licenses and 14 times as many private planes per capita." Another site says the figure is one out of 58 residents. And a file [] on the state's Dept. of Transportation website says the following:
      It is estimated that Alaska has about six times as many private pilots per capita than the
      rest of the United States. Approximately 1 in 50 Alaskans has an airplane pilot's license.
      Currently 8,752 pilots reside in Alaska, and 3,776 of these have a private pilot certifi-
      cate. Based on its population, the average Alaskan is sixteen times more likely to own an
      aircraft than the average American citizen.

      Bush planes that can be quipped with pontoons, wheels, or skis, can land on any horizontal surface - and so are a necessary mean to access remots areas such as native villages.

      • and that's only the licensed pilots.
        I don't have a license, and I flew a little when I lived there. It's like farm-kids hopping in the farm pickup and going to school when they're 14; they do it because they have to (no busses) and the cops don't care because they are responsible enough to do it.
        I never ever flew in major air space; heck, I mainly just kept wings level while the pilot napped. But you know the law of human averages: if you go an inch one direction, someone else has already gone six. And like an earlier post'r said-- it truly is the last frontier. Gotta love that frontier spirit.
    • The dead ones aren't pilots any more...
  • They could add some logic in there, which would automatically calculate whether the sun has already risen or not. There's not much point in sending gigabytes of data to just show and convince people that: 'Yes, it's black'. Or atleast they could optimize the image and save some bandwidth, a black-only image does not take many bytes, now it takes 7 kB. Well, I could mail this to them as well.
  • by Chairboy ( 88841 ) on Wednesday August 07, 2002 @03:48AM (#4023731) Homepage
    When reading about the latest Mars in Antarctica mission at the Flashline Station, Robert Zubrin wrote that at one point a cargo plane scheduled to come and pick up the staff was told to reschedule by one of the scientists at the campsite. He asks why, and they point at their computer monitor and say that according to the webcams outside, it's very overcast.

    He pokes his head out of the shelter and sees that the skies are clear, but the scientists INSIST that the webcam shows that they are very overcast.

    The funniest part was that no matter what he did, he could not convince them to just look out a window or come outside because they were so certain about what the webcam was showing them that they saw no need.

    Todays technology seems most effective when it supplements or enhances something, not when it absolutely replaces it.
    • Welcome to the other side of GIGO: Garbage in, gospel out. I guess with the advent of mass computing as we now know it, people come to rely more and more on the data that is contained therein. What surprises me here, however, is that rather it being some droid (IE, a clerk at Fry's explaining why the computer is correct, despite the higher price than is tagged), I realize it's a scientist - presumably one with enough of a brain to be admitted to the Antarctica bases.

      Ah, life.

  • by puto ( 533470 ) on Wednesday August 07, 2002 @03:48AM (#4023733) Homepage
    Does the responsibility lie with the poster who submitted the story?

    With the editor who let it pass?

    Or the readers who know they will kill the box?

    So I am saying we are all responsible for killing some box that is out there to help pilots. Not a Kewl view of the Alaskan landscape.

    A little social responsibility is needed. You CAN be your brothers keeper by proxy.

    • The editors waited until the dead of the night (in the US) to post this story. They did this because it will mitigate the slashdot effect to some degree.

      They're not complete morons, you know.
      • And more importantly, nobody would expect to get anything from that camera at the darkness of night. The current images gives a single color: black. Wouldn't matter (as much) if it was slashdotted now.
      • The editors waited until the dead of the night (in the US) to post this story. They did this because it will mitigate the slashdot effect to some degree.

        Frankly, unless you have some mind-reading skill that the rest of us don't, it's just as likely that the story was posted at that time by pure chance. It's also worth noting that as it is summer, there is a midnight sun effect which leaves some portions of the state without a sunset for months on end. Click on a webcam for a place like Barrow (no, don't click on it and /. it now, folks), and you'll likely see full blown daylight, which would make that cam useful to a pilot.
        • I remember reading the editors mentioning it some time ago on another article. They said that they posted it early in the morning, so that the site wouldn't be /.ed. But I can't seem to find a reference for that now.

          For some weird reason, it's rather difficult to get any meaningful results on a search for "slashdot effect" on slashdot.
    • by commodoresloat ( 172735 ) on Wednesday August 07, 2002 @05:21AM (#4023886)
      It's just a webserver. It's not the control tower at the airport. And as I pointed out below [], it's only arrogance that makes us think a slashdotting is different from a link appearing on the New York Times website or And there is no information on the webserver that a pilot wouldn't be able to learn by looking out the window or making a phone call. Don't act like planes are going to start blowing to pieces and careening out of control all over Alaska if the server goes down for a couple hours.
    • Well said. I did my part by not visiting the site. Maybe someone will post a few sample images on a robust mirror site.
    • Moderators should be able to moderate story submissions, in this case:

      (-3) Irresponsible

    • If this was an essential part of flight operations then the fault would be the FAA's for hooking it up to the Internet. I can't believe it is an essential part of operations so go ahead and look. I mean the FAA may be reliant on vacuum tubes but they aren't stupid.
  • ...We need online cockpit cams to see how buzzed the pilots are before takeoff.

    And please, if its alright with everyone I think we should abstain from using any puns involving "crashing" and airline websites...oops, too late.

  • If your slashdoted this is what I see: Image Capture []

    Does anyone else see this :-D?

    I'm whore.. So Kill me...
  • ...for the latest conditions.

  • My guess is that the 'webcam' method is an attempt to limit government liability.

    Typically, automated weather comes from a series of ASOS and AWOS sensor stations typically located at airports. These probably cost in the area of a few tens of thousands of dollars each to install. Even many pilots dont know this, but it is even possible to phone many AWOSs/ASOSs directly, and hear their automated robot guy tell you about current conditions.

    AWOSs/ASOSs are industrial-strength weather sensing. They occasionally get confused (especially when there are multiple cloud layers), but in general they're good to get a good picture of what is going on.

    So, the question is: why doesn't the government just put ASOSs/AWOSs wherever in alaska they're setting up webcams?

    Ok, the answer to that one is probably cost and intrusiveness. A webcam uses next to zero space.

    But is there an inbetween alternative? Why not put together a thousand dollar sensor station that does things like compute windspeed and take a good guess at ceilings?

    Ah--because even though that data would likely be better than the meager stuff that a webcam provides. What does a webcam do for weather? Possibly less than a weather rock.

    If it takes pictures of the ground, I can't tell how deep the snow is. If it takespictures of teh air, I can't tell how high the clouds are. I dont know what the windspeed is. I dont know if the visibility is terrestrial radiation crud or something more substantial.

    So why not a mini weather station? becuse the quantified, interpreted data provided by them is not reliable. webcams force the pilot to do the interpretation him/herself. Less liability.

    Also, perhaps, less safety.

    - FAA Certified Gold Seal Flight Instructor

    • They should just point the webcam at a rock.

      If the ROCK is WET - It's RAINING
      If the ROCK is MOVING - It's WINDY
      If the ROCK is HOT - It's SUNNY
      If the ROCK is COOL - It's OVERCAST
      If the ROCK is WHITE - It's SNOWING
      If the ROCK is BLUE - It's COLD
      If the ROCK is GONE - TORNADO

    • Mr. FAA Certified Gold Seal Flight Instructor, have you NEVER encountered a malfunctioning AWOS or ASOS? When you get an AWOS reporting 3000 scattered, did it ever tell you WHAT that 3000 scattered was?

      I've never met a pilot I was willing to fly with who thought those things were reliable. A web cam may not tell you much, but it can provide a valuable cross check to verify that the ASOS or AWOS are giving realistic readings.

      If that's not worthwhile then I don't suppose you think cross checking instruments is worthwhile, either.

      Don't expect me to let you act as Pilot In Command of anything I fly.
  • As a pilot (well, a pilot in training) I'd just like to say how fucking irresponsible putting this on /. has been.
    The article says:-
    The agency is cautious in promoting the system because of the need to ensure reliability, said Joette Storm, an FAA spokeswoman in Alaska.
    So please - DO NOT go to the FAA site looking for this because you think it's cool to look at the pictures or something. Leave the FAA site to the people who actually need it, OK?
    At least CNN had more sense than to give a link through...
    • Well, I can give you about 10 different ways to restrict access to a site, and hell, if I had to present really important information on limited bandwidth, I'd be sure to allow only access to those people I could confirm really needed the info. So who's responsible here?
    • Well screw you. If you dont want people visiting a website, dont put it on the internet, or at least shield it by having a seperate authentication server.
    • Check HTTP referrers and block anything from then?
    • At least CNN had more sense than to give a link through...

      Um... If you had actually read the CNN story, you would see right there at the bottom this little snippet of text:


      FAA Alaska weather webcams []

      Open mouth
      Insert foot

      And one final note: How is posting this story on /. any different than posting this story on CNN?

    • If there was a concern about having to restrict this to pilots only for bandwidth or any other reason, it probably would have been integraded into duats [] or something like that. Oh, wait, I'm assuming common sense from the FAA or any other part of the government. Nevermind, continue with discussion.
  • current time is 1:45am PST
    Number of views of the Level Island Test Site (the one linked to): 1032, and growing by about 10 hits every few seconds.
  • .. nice cams around. But no good pictures today. In the midst of summer the only thing is for sure that this week is, that it's is raining (?!?!): Vienna Cams [] (German)

    Some time ago there's was radio cam installiert in the Donauturm (sp?) which you were able to control via a java applet. Unfortunately I can't find the link again (maybe it doesn't exist anymoer), but if someone knows.
  • Pull this story. (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by Perdo ( 151843 )
    This is the first slashdotting that could cost lives.

    Someday, a pilot that should have checked the cam will not because he belives the service is unreliable because it was down today.
  • Sure, if some pilot actually relied on a webcam to be his/her eyes, then having this site /.ed would pose a problem. So would covering the windshield, etc. and using a CCTV to do visual navigation with. Go figger. The alarmist posts here are typical geek FUD.

    But check this out from the article: Flying into bad weather is the leading cause of fatal accidents among Alaska's commuter airlines and air taxis. Alaska averages an aviation accident a day and a fatal crash every 10 days.

    I can't be the only one who has a problem with this statistic; whatever happened to "seat of the pants" decisions - where the pilot (or driver or captain, depending on the craft they have control of) has to make the call to turn back and return to safety instead of flying (or driving or sailing) into bad weather?

    IMHO, this is a good use of now-common technology to provide extra knowledge, but not meant to be a navigational aid.

    • I was actually just reading an article in an aviation magazine about turning back to safety. Many pilots don't because they think "I've done this route before, I'll do it again."
    • Occasionally pilots find that they cannot turn back. I remember hearing about a helicopter crash about 50 miles south of our house. The helicopter was heading south from Wrangell in good, clear flying weather when the came upon a bank of clouds that cut visability to nil. They turned around to head back, but the route back had also closed off. In a matter of a few minutes they were completely blind and the pilot flew right into a mountain.

      Finally, I'd have to agree that most of the alarmist posts are pure FUD. The webcams only cover a tiny portion of the state, so they are only useful to pilots flying in a few areas. And even then they are not the primary source for weather information. They are only intended to suppliment existing, offical weather and flight information.
      • That's a good point. I had forgotten about the effect the sheer presence of the mountains as well as the arctic climate can have on seat-of-the pants navigation. Probably it could make an altimeter nearly useless, depending on the average elevation of the surrounding peaks.

        I did a google for images of Wrangell, and I'm not surprised now to hear your account of the helicopter. I would guess that the sheer size of your state could also make turning back a no-win decision with a fixed-wing aircraft, as well.

    • You forgot to mention that we use small planes here like many places use taxis or bicycles. And we have a saying: "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there aren't any old, bold pilots." Most of the crashes are due to pilot stupidity, and there are some people here who don't feel the need for a license. Webcam or no webcam, most people just call someone near the strip and ask "Whats the weather like?"
      • I remember the saying you baby bottle was warmed by the fins of a Stinson's engine on a trip to Beaver Island (in Lake Michigan), and I'd often make trips to Detroit with my Dad in his Cessna 180 for him to appear weekly on a TV show called "Michigan Outdoors".

        He was a Certified Flight Instructor who taught many to fly at the local airport under the G.I. Bill during the late 40s and through the 50s. He would roll over in his grave to think of the un-licensed pilots you mention.

        He almost worshipped his weather radios, and was known to not fly if he'd had as much as a Bromo-Seltzer.

        Thanks for the info, though. If I'm ever lucky enough to vacation in your fair state, I'll be sure to validate the pilot's credentials :)

  • How would clicking on this link be bringing on some terrible consequences? If you'll notice in the URL, theres a public in there. Slashdot=Public. I don't think this is going to bring down any planes.
  • Last time I checked, gets more traffic than Slashdot. And the article first appeared on CNN. Having survived both a partial Slashdotting (link off a +5 comment), and a CNNing (main link off a sub-section) I can tell you that a CNNing hurts more. So, even though getting "DoS"d by interested parties sucks, Slashdot does nothing worse in this case than CNN.
  • Sometimes I feel like they get headline ideas out of that random Slashdot headline generator I found once..
  • ...because any pilot who has ever used AWOS or ASOS knows the ceiling and visibility estimates are often wrong.

    Alaska used to have flight service stations all over. Budget cuts forced many to close. Keep in mind how vast the state of Alaska is (yes, it's bigger than Texas!). They can easily have entire weather systems contained in one corner of the state. And as sparsely populated as this state is, it's not hard for those weather systems to go almost unnoticed.

    Further, in mountains, you have weather that can go from CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited) to 0/0 in just an hour or two. Current and reliable weather information is not just a convenince, it's survival.

    For those of you who are wondering why the readings are often misleading, an AWOS reports from a ceiliometer that tells you what's directly above the station. When it says 3000 scattered, it may be seeing the edge of a thunderstorm or it may be a few harmless stratus clouds.

    Sometimes these stations read gloom and doom when everything is fine. Insects frequently make their homes in the ceiliometer and visibility instruments and often make the station indicate readings which are much worse than they really are.

    How can you tell what's what? Until now, we had no cross check. That's what the web cam is for. Some day maybe someone will find a way to get that data directly to the aircraft in an economical fashion.

    Anyhow, I think this is a very good idea. And for you who doubt this, keep in mind that even pilots like me who fly the lower 48 states take the AWOS and ASOS readings with a healthy dose of doubt. Thankfully, its unusual when those are the only sources of weather information at the destination. In Alaska, they often don't have that luxury.

  • I live in Alaska, and I think that these webcams are helpful, but the pilots know the limitations. If they can't get to the site for a few hours, they are not going to hop in the plane and take-off, just hoping that the weather is good. The weather is too fickle here for that.
    I am not surprised that AK was the first to utilize the webcam for this purpose. We have a 1/2 hour daily weather program on the Alaska channel (that's right our one channel if you don't live in one of the bigger cities or have a sat. dish) and a large portion of this show is aviation weather. But as always, a good pilot always double-checks and files a flight plan before they take-off.

    I am waiting for the Aleutian Islands to be covered, that's where the really bad weather is. Most of the pilots I know go to the school websites there, they have been using webcams for about 2 years now.

Today is a good day for information-gathering. Read someone else's mail file.