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FAA to cut weather observers in favor of computerization

The Federal Aviation Administration is cutting funding for weather observers in favor of a computerized weather system.

FAA cuts will save $84,000 a year at the Lake Tahoe Airport, but local officials are more concerned with saving lives.

The system, known as an Automated Surface Observation System, will inform pilots on such weather conditions as cloud height, visibility, density altitude, wind speed and direction. The system records conditions at 53 minutes past the hour every hour and pilots can hear a voice reading of these conditions over a radio transmitter.



The system has been in place at the Tahoe Airport for the last three years, but due to a glitch in its ability to detect certain weather conditions, the device has required the help of human observers, said Jerry Snyder, Public Affairs Officer for the FAA Western Pacific Region.

The FAA will install upgraded software Oct. 18 which will detect thunderstorms. However, questions still linger about the system’s ability to detect visibility, wind speed and direction, said Janice Brand, airport administrative assistant.




“One of the problems with the software was it was not detecting thunderstorm clouds, but that problem has been corrected,” said Al Cox, data acquisition program manager for the National Weather Service.

But lightning is not the only concern for Airport Manager Rick Jenkins. Accurate information on wind direction and speed are critical information for pilots, and Jenkins is not certain the ASOS can provide that, because it is located near a hill and trees that block the wind.

“I am concerned with the nearness of obstacles, which I think could potentially affect the wind readings,” Jenkins said.

Charles Horner, air traffic control tower manager, said he has his doubts as well.

“It can do the job up until a point , but it does have its limitations,” he said.

At 6,264 feet above sea level, Lake Tahoe Airport presents a unique situation to pilots.

Thin air, tricky winds and dramatic weather changes make flying into Lake Tahoe more challenging than most airports.

“Those winds are very important when you’re taking off and landing,” Jenkins said. “Airplanes have their limitations.”

Since 1994, 12 people have died in small planes that have crashed within a six-mile radius of the airport.

The National Weather Service has compared weather readings made by human weather observers with those from ASOS.

“I have to agree, I myself was a bit concerned with the winds,” Cox said. “But after the testing we found that the human readings were comparable to the ASOS readings.”

There are 569 airports across the country that have this system, but most of them have air traffic controllers as well, Snyder said.

The Arcata/Eureka Airport, in Humboldt County, is facing a similar situation. It is a small airport that has unique weather conditions.

According to Teresa Kekry, weather supervisor for the Arcata/Eureka Airport, weather conditions are so foggy 75 percent of the time that pilots can’t see the runway lights from 100 feet above the ground.

“It is an issue of safety, and it just can’t do what a person can do,” she said.

During one test done by the National Weather Service at the Eureka/Arcata Airport, the ASOS read that the airport had clear skies when in reality visibility was down to a quarter-mile, she added.

“There has been a lot of industry controversy on the effectiveness of ASOS at certain airports,” said David Ravetti a board member on the airport advisory committee for Humboldt County.

His committee has recommended the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors find a way to also fund human weather observers.


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