Flying in at the Twisp airport. Photo by Sue Misao
BY LAURELLE WALSH
Generally speaking, a state agency announcing that it’s not changing something doesn’t qualify for much in the news department.
But a recent announcement by the Washington State Department of Transportation that the radio frequency used for the Methow Valley State Airport will remain at 122.8 compelled local pilot Fred Wert to question the potential outcome of that decision.
“It’s not news until we have a mid-air collision,” Wert told the News.
Feedback from a small number of Methow Valley area pilots prompted WSDOT to consider changing Methow Valley State’s Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) from 122.8 to 122.9, according to WSDOT Communications Officer Nisha Marvel. “A few pilots were vocal enough about it that it made us take a look at the issue,” Marvel said.
Neighboring Twisp Municipal Airport, about six miles south, uses the 122.9 CTAF, and pilots monitoring the other frequency might not be hearing important radio communications before entering its airspace, the concerned pilots said.
Twisp airport manager Bob Howson was one of those who spoke to WSDOT, expressing his safety concerns and inquiring whether a switch in frequencies at Methow State might be a solution. “I’m in agreement with Fred [Wert] on the safety issues,” Howson said.
Wert said he and other local pilots regularly broadcast their location and activity on both frequencies for safety, but that “switching frequencies is both impractical and dangerous for a pilot with a single radio.”
Wert said he monitors both frequencies all the time. “If I’m at Twisp” – where his hangar and airplane are based – “and hear somebody flying into Methow Valley State from the south, I have to inform that pilot they need to switch frequencies to hear Twisp traffic. They are about to fly right over our airspace and they don’t even know it.”
Forest Service issue
In its bulletin on the decision WSDOT wrote, “While changing the CTAF to 122.9 would enable pilots in the common airspace to hear more of the surrounding activity, it would also result in the USDA Forest Service losing its UNICOM [universal communications] station license, which requires a 122.8 frequency.”
CTAFs are used for pilot-to-pilot communications, notifying aircraft within listening range of an aircraft’s position and actions. The frequency may also be used to turn on runway lights and/or beacons at airports with pilot-activated lighting, such as at Twisp Municipal and Methow State.
The 122.8 megahertz frequency is one of eight available to FCC-licensed UNICOM stations. UNICOMs are private, licensed ground-based stations designed to provide air-ground communications. At non-towered airports the UNICOM frequency is also the designated CTAF.
The North Cascades Smokejumper Base, which operates for the U.S. Forest Service out of Methow Valley State Airport, uses its UNICOM station primarily for “getting intel about ground activity, weather conditions and wind information to incoming Forest Service aircraft during a busy fire season,” said North Cascades Smokejumper Base training supervisor Inaki Baraibar.
At the height of such activity there could be as many as four aircraft coming and going from the jump base, two air-attack ships, one or two aerial observers, plus potentially 10 helicopters all using the field and communicating via the UNICOM station, according to Baraibar. A mobile air traffic control tower will also be brought in under those conditions, he added.
The UNICOM station also provides information on weather, wind conditions and traffic advisories to private aircraft when requested, according to North Cascades Smokejumper Base jump pilot Kevin McBride. “The Forest Service has the base in their office and will answer specific questions right away,” McBride said.
When flying in and out of Methow State, McBride monitors three frequencies: 122.8 and 122.9 as well as a separate frequency used solely for Forest Service operations.
“It would be safer and more convenient if all air traffic in the area used the same frequency,” he said, but for an aircraft with multiple radios, “it’s not that difficult to monitor one frequency while transmitting and receiving on another.”
A safe system
WSDOT Aviation sent a survey out to the 1,000 members of the Washington Pilots Association for their input on the radio frequency issue. Of the seven responses received – most from Methow Valley pilots – the majority favored keeping Methow Valley State Airport’s CTAF at 122.8, according to WSDOT’s Marvel. And the pilot association’s board “recommended making a decision that best preserves Forest Service safety and efficiency,” according to WSDOT’s bulletin.
According to Howson at Twisp Municipal, around two years ago former airport manager Mike Port looked into switching Twisp’s equipment over to 122.8, only to find it “cost prohibitive” to change the equipment that runs its runway lights, beacon and glide slope indicator. “And there’s no money to replace our existing equipment, so we are stuck with 122.9,” Howson said.
“The bottom line is, operating in this environment you’ll find all the pilots very professional and conscientious,” said Howson. “The system, as it is, is a safe system.”
Of nearby regional airports, Omak, Okanogan and Brewster all use the 122.8 MHz frequency, while Lake Chelan, Tonasket, Stehekin and Oroville use 122.9 MHz.