Author: Mark Zee (page 1 of 4)

How OpsGroup works – for questions

I love how the hive-mind works. We have 5000 members, and so it shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s still awesome to see it in action.

Yesterday, in slack, a member asked:

Now, I’ve never heard of Novolazarevskaya Station, but that’s not important. There are another 4,999 of us, and chances are that someone in the group has.

So, we blasted it out on the ATIS this morning:

The ATIS goes out to all group members in the OpsGroup Daily Brief.

And of course, someone got right to it, answering the question:

This is how OpsGroup works! Simple, and extremely effective. When one person knows, we all know.

Bonus: The first OpsGroup team member to see the question was @Jamie – Opsgroup Team, who has been on the ice on five separate missions for the US Antarctic program, and has spent a combined total of three years down there.

Why are we still flying airline passengers over war zones?

Here’s the level of inconsistency we’ve reached in international air transport: we take each passenger, scrutinize their booking, check the no-fly-list, watch them on CCTV, pull them apart at TSA, remove anything sharper than a pen, question them, x-ray the bags, run Explosive Trace Detection tests, screen the hold baggage, background check every member of the crew, and then, once they’ve all boarded, fly this ultra-secure airplane straight into a war zone.

Welcome to the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s an active conflict zone. The Russian naval build up there this month is the largest since Moscow’s intervention in Syria began in 2015. Over Syria, 9 aircraft have been shot down this year.

The most recent was on Monday night this week, when Syria came under attack from Israel fighter jets, and started firing indiscriminately at anything off the coast that looked like a threat. They wanted to shoot something down, and they did — except it was a friend, not foe. They took out a Russian Ilyushin IL-20M transport category airplane. Even on the worst radar, that doesn’t look anything like an Israeli F-16.

50 miles away from where the Russian aircraft plunged into the sea on Monday night is the international airway UL620, busy with all the big name airline traffic heading for Beirut and Tel Aviv. If Syria can mistakenly shoot down a Russian ally aircraft, they can also take out your A320 as you cruise past.

And yet, most airlines continue to operate. Are we really so comfortable with operating in conflict zones again?

The lessons of MH17 seem to be fading fast. It’s a little over four years since 298 people lost their lives over Ukraine one summer afternoon, thanks to an errant missile fired during a civil war at an aircraft that they thought was a military threat. “Why were they over a war zone”, everyone cried afterwards.

Well, we all were. Me too. I was a pilot for Austrian Airlines at the time. I recall one morning in Vienna, some months before MH17. Boarding the last of the passengers, my BBC news app flashed up a story about a helicopter being shot down in eastern Ukraine .

As we were headed east, with my colleague in the cockpit, we quickly plotted the position on our enroute chart, and noted that it was really close to our route. Maybe 30 miles north. “We might see something interesting!”, we said, and pushed back. We didn’t, nor did we think much more about it.

Do you see the thought process though? Before MH17, we didn’t consider the risks to our aircraft from war zones. Especially being so high. Helicopters might be getting shot down, but we’re at 35,000 feet. No problem.

This is why all of these airlines — mine, at the time, included — operated on the route.

Image: Der Spiegel

And then it happened, and none of us could quite believe it.

But we learned. “Conflict Zone” became a buzzword. We had task forces and committees, whitepapers and promises, and — myself included — talked at length about how this happened, why, and how to avoid it in the future.

And yet, here we are flying unsuspecting passengers along the Syrian border. If you’re unsuspecting enough, and buy a SkyTeam codeshare ticket — you’ll actually overfly Syria on the Honey Badger airline of the region, Middle East Airlines.

Here we are flying passengers in the Eastern Mediterranean war zone. Why is this happening?

My guess: because we don’t think anything bad is going to happen, because the airspace boundary lines on the charts make that little bit of sea near Cyprus feel different from that little bit of sea near Syria, but mainly because there is no clear guidance from Aviation Authorities.

Let’s start with Cyprus. The Nicosia FIR has a big chunk of unsafe airspace. The Russian aircraft on Monday was shot down on the Nicosia FIR boundary. What do the Notams say? Take a look. There are 97 of them. Mostly about fireworks at local hotels. Critical stuff indeed. Then there are 20 or 30 about “Russian naval exercises”. A clue, perhaps, but where is the black and white “An Aircraft was Shot Down on our Border on Monday?” . Or, since we are still using teletype to communicate Notams to crews, “AN AIRCRAFT WAS SHOT DOWN ON OUR BORDER ON MONDAY”. Wait, we have to abbreviate that, and use codes, for some reason. “ACFT SHOT DOWN ON FIR BDY 17SEP”. That’s better.

What about Turkey? Anything on the Eastern Mediterranean risk? Let’s have a look. Nope, just 132 Bullshit Notams, and something about an AWACS aircraft. See you back here in 30 minutes when you’ve read them all.

Remember, I’m being a pilot, an airline, a dispatcher, trying to find information on the Risk in the Eastern Mediterranean. And this is how hard it is.

EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency), how are you doing? Let’s start here, at the “Information on Conflict Zones”. Paragraph 2 tells us that ICAO have a Central Repository on Conflict Zones, launched in 2015.

No, they don’t. That died — quite a long time ago. This is where it used to live. So, there is no ICAO Central Repository on Conflict Zones. There is a new ICAO document with guidance on managing Conflict Zone risk (and it’s a bloody good one, too) — but where is the picture of current risk?

Let’s plough on through the EASA site. Aha! Seems we have a Conflict Zone alerting system, and Conflict Zone bulletins. Here they all are:

The last one on Syria was issued on April 17th. But it seems to be just a list of Notams issued by other states. And these are out of date. The German Notam has expired, the French AIC has been replaced.

And there’s no guidance. No Map. No routes to avoid. Nothing about Cyprus, or Beirut. No mention of the Russian shootdown. No mention of the 9 aircraft shot down this year.

How am I supposed to know, as an operator, or pilot, what the risks are and where to avoid. We’re getting closer to the point here. You’re not supposed to rely on the Aviation Authority. That is their message. You must conduct your own risk assessment. You must research and find out about the risks yourself.

You are on your own.

If you’re a big airline, that’s probably fine. You’ll make your own decisions about where to fly, anyhow. But what about everybody else?

While OpsGroup works hard to get information out to our members — and we spend a lot of time researching risk — I would greatly prefer that we didn’t have to.

Aviation Authorities must issue better guidance for the aircraft entering their areas.

Let me remind you. Airlines are operating 50 miles from a position where an airplane was shot down at night, by a missile type that’s already taken out a passenger airliner by mistake, fired by a beleaguered Syrian defence post, at a friendly aircraft that they did not take time to identify.

And the guidance to operators from Authorities: NIL.



Opsgroup has now published Note 31: Airspace Risk in the Eastern Mediterranean. There is a clear risk to civil aircraft operating on airways UL620, UW74, UR18, and UP62. In simple terms, if you find yourself planned overwater east of Cyprus, reconsider your route.

Further reading:

Ethiopia risking flight safety to cover up ATC strike

  • Ethiopian ATC on strike, no Notams, government hush up
  • OPSGROUP alert for the  Addis Ababa FIR
  • Airspace risk – unrated controllers, some foreign and unfamiliar

Air Traffic Controllers are on strike in Ethiopia
, and Ethiopia would prefer that you don’t know this. We, as OpsGroup, would prefer that you do.

Ethiopia would also prefer that it has no impact on the flight operations of its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. Therefore, they have drafted in foreign controllers to replace the strikers, issued no Notams, hushed any publicity, and proactively declared ‘operations normal’ (complete with bizarre, hand drawn airplanes).

European airlines – and frustrated passengers – will watch with great interest, thanks to their own ATC strike woes: regular stoppages by French, Italian, and Greek controllers have this summer, once again, been the source of massive cancellations, reroutes, and delays. Has Ethiopia found the golden elixir, the magic solution to a long-running problem? Is this how to handle a strike by your nations’ Air Traffic Controllers?

It absolutely is not. It is a catastrophic misjudgement, creating a safety risk in the Addis FIR and at Ethiopian Airports for pilots and passengers alike. Ethiopian airspace, this week, is most definitely not ‘operations normal’ – it is unpredictable and unsafe, staffed by unrated, inexperienced controllers, many from abroad – evidenced already by alarming reports of close calls from adjacent Area Control Centers – read on.

The facts are this: faced with an upcoming strike by ATC, Ethiopian Airlines – now Africa’s largest airline –  formed what in the boardroom might have seemed a workable plan: Recruit a bunch of controllers from other countries, fly them in to Addis, and have them do the work of the striking staff.

The first batch of foreign controllers came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a small group described by the local controllers, unsurprisingly, as mercenaries. When the strike started at 7am this past Monday morning, they were ready to go. Not content with stopping there, the requests from ECAA – the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority – for more external controllers went out thick and fast, like an Ambien fuelled shopping spree on Amazon. 30 requested from Sudan, 24 from Kenya. More from Zimbabwe, Malawi. Finding those requests rejected, and resistance from other ATC agencies, the biggest request yet: 120 controllers from ASECNA.

The plan, commercially, is understandable. The wish to keep their airplanes flying is not endemic to Ethiopian Airlines. British Airways, Ryanair and Easyjet, have all made very public their frustrations with ATC strikes. An association, A4E, was formed to fight the problem at European level.

But here’s why the Ethiopian solution doesn’t work.

And as a former Air Traffic Controller, and Airline Pilot, I can tell you why.

Air Traffic Control is complex. That’s not a secret. On average, it takes a controller three months to gain a ‘rating’, or qualification, for a specific piece of airspace; that’s how long it takes to become comfortable with the 4D picture in front of you to provide a flawless ATC service. More complex airspace could take six months.

You have to learn each corner of your bit of sky. Learn the rules of the sector, learn the agreements you have with other centres about how you will receive and present traffic at the boundary. But the most important thing you learn is how the traffic flows.

ATC is not an aerial traffic battle whose landscape changes each day. It is not a web of complex contrails that, seen from the ground, appear to merge and diverge at random. The traffic flow is a largely predictable set of events, where the same airlines are operating on the same routes – providing a basis for us, as controllers, to learn the patterns of the flow, and to learn a trick for every trajectory.

This is key. It’s been 15 years since I worked the North Atlantic flow in Shannon, but I remember the callsigns, the flows, and how to handle them, like an indelible challenge and response game in my mind.

Shamrock 37J, airborne Shannon” : “direct to Strumble, climb him to 270”.
“Belfast departure for Tenerife” : “stop him low, get him under the NAT traffic”.
“Two converging at LIFFY” : “Drop the Speedbird, he’s for Manchester”.

Humans learn patterns. This is how ATC works. We fill a bucket full of “stuff we’ve seen before”, leaving us free to concentrate on the few things we haven’t. This is the flow. If you watch 737’s fly up the Hudson on a hot summer morning, this is the La Guardia flow. Not an inch left or right. Heading into Amsterdam? “Direct to Pampus, down to FL70”.  One after another.

This is why we need three months to learn the airspace. For the flow. And this is why, when I found myself in New Zealand, learning to operate as an Air Traffic Controller far away from Shannon, I was floundering, like one of those dreams where you running but standing still. I am a controller, but I can’t control. I don’t know the airspace, and I don’t know the flow. Slowly, over the months, geography takes shape, traffic patterns show themselves, situations become seen. I start to get a sense of distance and time on my scope – or scopes, because New Zealand is long and thin I have to reorientate my thinking north-south, rather than east-west, as in Shannon. Out of the mist of training, I am a controller again, but it takes time. A lot of time.

Ultimately, I can reach the point where I can do my job – the real job of an Air Traffic Controller – to be familiar enough with the airspace and traffic that I have “the picture”. The full situational awareness, with most climbs, descents, speeds, and vectors being routine and familiar, means I can spot the something that’s off, wrong, going to develop into a conflict, and do so intuitively, like a sixth sense. Air Traffic Control is an art, it’s a dance. You don’t do it by complex calculations in your head, you don’t need a computer. It’s the visual in front of you – radar or tower – coming to life in your brain, you feel it, and the solution becomes instinctive.

And this is why you can’t bus in a set of replacement controllers, shuffle them down the corridor into the radar room, and up the stairs to the tower, and expect a safe, efficient, and orderly flow of traffic.

Controllers know the power of the strike. In most countries, it is used rarely, and fairly. They understand the impact on airlines and passengers. There are many other forms of industrial action a controller can take – like a training ban, an overtime ban – before reaching the point of actually stopping work.

Commerce will always find a way to continue. Safety is different, and delicate. It must be nurtured and protected. When the two collide head on – the commerce of keeping an airline flying, vs. the safety of an established, effective Air Traffic Control system – safety must take precedence. Here, safety means accepting the strike, as is – and working with the controllers, quickly, to find a solution. Let them be heard.


We’ll keep this page updated with the latest situation on the Ethiopian ATC strike. Reports that we have received so far are as follows:

  • Controllers in adjacent ACC’s are reporting lack of adherence to Letters of Agreement – seeing aircraft with 4 minutes instead of 10 minutes separation.
  • RA reported by Kenya ATC between two airlines on Wednesday.
  • Kenya and Sudan reported loss of separation and poor coordination and transfer of traffic at their FIR boundaries with Ethiopia.
  • Retired and Management controllers, who appear to have never rated or validated in position, are also being used, though unqualified for Addis.

We were first alerted to this issue by a Fox. Many of you know that we are Fixing Notams. The lack of Notams in this situation, is an exceptionally clear example of point 1 in the “Why” of the Notam Problem. Sometimes, we can’t trust the state to tell the truth. And this is a clear example.

Thankfully, our network of Foxes – undercover ATCO’s, pilots, and dispatchers –  is growing, and reporting on things just like this, so that we can tell you what’s really going on. Keep reporting.

Further reading

  • Tell us anything additional we should know –
  • Monitor #ops-alerts in your member Dashboard, and Slack.
  • Contact the author: Mark Zee.


FSB removes North Korea airspace warnings

Flight Service Bureau is today removing all airspace warnings regarding North Korea from our guidance to aircraft operators. Specifically:

  • We are removing the Level 1 – Do Not Flywarning for the Pyongyang FIR – both mainland and waters areas.
  • We are no longer concerned about splashdown missile risk in the Sea of Japan and withdraw Note 30 to OpsGroup.

We have monitored the North Korea situation as regards overflight risk since 2014, when the first signs of risk appeared. In August 2016, we identified the missile risk as being increased, applying a Level 2 warning, and in August 2017, we elevated North Korea to Level 1, adding a warning for the Sea of Japan.

With the complete turnaround in political stance of North Korea in the last few months, it is our opinion that further test launches of missiles through the Pyongyang FIR are most unlikely. Coupled with the assurances given to ICAO last week, even if one were launched, we can expect a notification.

This position is better than we have been in during the period from 2005-2014, the years during which North Korea tested missiles but notified ICAO.

Too soon?

Airspace risk evolves rapidly. In the same way that we report risk to aircraft operators as soon as we know about it, through OpsGroup and, we must also be prepared to stand down when the basis for those risks dissolves. We’re not assessing the likelihood of future political will of North Korea, or the chances of success for reunification. We’re simply saying, the basis for the warnings that exist – not just ours, but also the state warnings  from the US, UK, France and Germany – was unannounced missile launches, and that basis is now without merit.

As mentioned above, we are in at least as good a position as 2014, when nobody avoided North Korean airspace.

Guidance from FSB

We report on overflight and airspace risk to aircraft operators. Where we can, we give clear guidance. Our mission, in the wake of MH17, is to ensure that all operators have access to the information they need to make informed decisions about risky airspace.

It won’t always match guidance from States and Aviation Authorities: in this case, it won’t match any of the current state guidance.

The reason: we are an independent organisation, we form guidance based on the viewpoints of our analysts and more importantly, the 4000 airlines, operators, pilots, and dispatchers in OpsGroup. We are not bounded by political pressure, commercial pressure, or fear of getting it wrong. We’ll give you the best intended, most honest, clearest possible summary of opinion and guidance, so that you can make your own final decision about where to fly. Our first interest lies with the pilot, and the aircraft operator.

Current state warnings:

Further reading

  • Reuters: North Korea agrees to warn of activity hazardous to aviation: U.N. agency
  • FSB: Is North Korea safe to overfly again? – May 2018
  • FSB Archive: “Here’s why North Korean missiles are now a real threat to Civil Aviation” –
  • FSB Archive: “North Korea overflight getting riskier” – August 2016
  • FSB Archive: “North Korea missile threat” – August 2016


Is North Korea safe to overfly again?

Update: FSB removed North Korea warnings on May 14, 2018

A friend of mine is a grumpy flight dispatcher at a Large Canadian Airline. We have a standing agreement that when North Korea “opens up”, we are going to open the first Irish Pub in Pyongyang.

We made the agreement during an inspection tour of North Korean missile launch sites in 2016, though we didn’t know that’s what we were doing at the time. We were there to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the national airline, Air Koryo, and get a glimpse of aviation in North Korea.

Aviation is different here.

When we asked if we could have a look at airside operations at Pyongyang airport, the officials gladly drove us out onto the ramp, and then the runway, dropping us off at the edge for an hour or so of getting as close as we liked to the steady stream of Soviet era Tupolev and Ilyushin landing traffic. Not a yellow jacket in sight.

Yes, aviation is different here. When you first arrive in Pyongyang, the flight attendants dutifully come through the cabin before landing and lower the window shades, so that you land in darkness. They don’t want you to see their military aircraft; they don’t want you to see much of anything at all.

During our eight days there, we flew to 6 or 7 different North Korean airports, trekking out to Pyongyang International each morning to jump on whatever Tu-134 or Il-62 was designated for us that day. We got used to being filmed a lot of the time by the secret service, especially on board the aircraft.

But we had fun, too. For the evening that was the anniversary party, we were taken to a Bond-esque giant villa in the countryside, owned by the airline, for a 13-course dinner, topped off with a performance by the flight attendants that we saw each day on our domestic flights.

One of our destinations was Wonsan. The airport there is of the ‘giant international’ variety, a gleaming construct of huge terminals, pristine taxiways and runways, perfectly marked to ICAO standard, completed in 2015 at a cost of $130m. We were the first passenger flight to land at the new airport, as no international airlines were operating here yet. Unsurprisingly, there are still no international airlines operating here.

Just out of sight, to the right of the threshold that we landed on, is also the Wonsan missile launch facility. From here, a Hwasong-10 ICBM was launched in the direction of Japan, on June 22nd 2016.

The North Korean military holds drills here, so sometimes the beach beside the airport looks like this:

And so, to the question. What do all the recent developments mean? Is North Korea “opening up”? Is it going to be safe to operate through the Pyongyang FIR?

A quick history of developments in the last few years:

  • Until around 2014, North Korea notified ICAO of all missile launches, so that aircraft could avoid the launch and splashdown areas.
  • In 2015, they gradually stopped doing this, reaching a point where there could be no confidence in an alert being issued to airlines by North Korea.
  • In 2016, airlines and aircraft operators started avoiding the Pyongyang FIR entirely, by the end of 2016 almost nobody was entering the airspace.
  • In 2017, more and more of these missiles came down in the Sea of Japan, increasingly closer to the Japanese landmass. FSB researched the locations and produced a map of the risk area, together with the article: “Here’s why North Korean missiles are now a real threat to Civil Aviation

In the last few months, there has been incredible development away from the stalemate that has marked the relationship between North Korea and international aviation. Political change precedes aviation change, and that political change is very promising. Given that the primary risk to aircraft operators stems from missile launches, it already appears very unlikely that there will be any further launches, especially unannounced ones.

NHK world reports that ICAO is in North Korea this week, and that one of the main questions will be “to ask North Korea how it will ensure the safety of civilian aviation in international air space.”

The likely answer is rather simple. “We won’t be firing any more missiles, and if we do, we’ll notify”. That answer would be sufficient to remove the warnings about the Pyongyang FIR currently in force, together with the Fukuoka FIR warnings for the Sea of Japan.

So, it seems very likely that in the coming months, we will start to see international traffic start to use the Pyongyang FIR again, and may even see some new airways being established. In the interim, and before we issue specific guidance, we’ll wait to see the results of the talks between ICAO and North Korea this week.


Further reading:




Fixing Notams – we’re on it. Help us.

OK. We’re done writing articles about it, and making goat jokes – we’ve moved the “Fixing Notams” job to the top of our list..

OpsGroup is all about information – getting the essential risks and changes that flight ops personnel need to know about into their hands without delay. Our group agrees – plenty of colourful comments on Notams from members.

Now we want your ideas and opinions on the fix.

Here’s our ask:

1. Rate the current system – and then click the things you would like to see.

2. If you’re in charge of a group of people – whether you are the Chief Pilot at Lufthansa, the Tower Chief in Shannon, or manage an Ops team of two – Get this out to your people and ensure everyone has their say.

Forward this to your team of ATCO’s, Pilots, Dispatchers:

We especially want to hear from pilots, controllers, and dispatchers, and if you read on, you’ll see why.

Do it like this:

  • Send them the survey link:
  • OR, click here for a magic pre-written email
  • OR, send them a link to
  • OR, share this facebook post:

The survey direct link is:

The Solution

If you took the survey, you saw this:

That part is pretty easy – presenting the Output of the system is a straightforward enough task.

The Input part – that’s where the real work is.

First, we are working on an Artificial Intelligence answer to finding Critical Notams in the current legacy system. This will allow us to present the data flow in order of what matters, and leave those cranes, birds, and grass cutters right at the bottom.


If you read my article on MH17 – a darker truth, you’ll understand why it’s important to open up the system to allow a trusted group to shape the information flow.

That begins with Pilots, Air Traffic Controllers, and Dispatchers. I have the great fortune to be all three, and it’s very clear to me that just like Trip Advisor – and our own “Airport Spy” in OpsGroup – this idea will work. We’ve already seen in OpsGroup how much we trust the information from other users in our group.

It’s key to the future trust of the Notam system. Which we should rename, but that’s another days work.

If you got this far, thank you for being part of the solution! You can always write me a note at


Here’s what pilots and controllers REALLY think about Notams

We think Notams suck. No other way to say it. After a few articles we wrote (BS Notams, The Notam Goat Show, and more worryingly, the MH17 Notam problem), we got some feedback in the comments section. And thought we should share, because they really show the problem. So, here they are.

Caution, some strong language!

We’re working on a solution, so you can help and add your thoughts as a comment below. Also, send us the really bad ones and enter the 2018 Notam Goat Show contest.


Personally I think taxiway and apron closure NOTAMs are too readable, I think they should be distributed in RADIAL/DME format, or perhaps raw Lat-Lon. Additionally, time should be specified in seconds since the founding of the FAA.

TAXIWAY CLOSED BETWEEN ORL180/08.5DME ORL181/08.6DME ORL181/08.65DME ORL180/08.65DME FROM 1829088020S to 1829190200S

What could be more clear than that?

I wonder if a buried Notam ever did contribute to bent metal, injury, or death? I agree that the volume of nuisance notams is a real task to read through wether it be a long or short turn. However, nothing will be done till there is blood. That’s how the FAA works. Till then, its on us to be like aviation lawyers before every flight regardless of schedule.

Maybe we can get them in binary?

You have to go to binary first, then convert to Morse.

01010100 01000001 01011000 01001001 01010111 01000001 01011001 00100000 01000011 01001100 01001111 01010011 01000101 01000100 00100000 01000010

—– .—- —– .—- —– .—- —– —– —– .—- —– —– —– —– —– .—- —– .—- —– .—- .—- —– —– —– —– .—- —– —– .—- —– —– .—- —– .—- —– .—- —– .—- .—- .—- —–

For good measure they should be put through an Enigma machine, too. And the output formatted to wingdings

Yes. The NOTAM system is fucked. We have Notams about those solar arrays near Vegas in every flight plan. Yes, I see them. I want to know if the damn runway is closed. Why the weird coding? Is it to make pilots feel multi-lingual?

It’s funny, they seem to have every little f*ing detail about towers that are under 400 agl 20 miles either side of my route with one light bulb missing but I can’t get a god damn reliable source for f*ing TFRs. Even the piece of shit FAA website for TFRs is not a “complete and accurate source” but some guy in a FSS station is?????? Such complete and utter bullshit.

The reason nobody reads NOTAMs is because they are mostly garbage.
Why do I care that a crane that is 200 feet AGL ten miles from any airport is unlit? We can’t fly below 500AGL anyway.
Why do I have to decipher code that can easily be written as: From 20170608 1900Z to 20170610 0000Z CYYZ Taxiway L Closed
The system is broken and nobody cares to fix it.

I f*in’ love doing a flight from Newark to DC and getting notams about the North Atlantic Tracks. Motherf***r, if I end up on the tracks during that leg in a 145, the Notams are the least of my damn problems.

The biggest frustration for me is the NOTAMs don’t match reality. KAUS often NOTAMs a runway closed for several hours a couple days each week. Yet we get there and it’s open.
Or an airport will NOTAM an ILS out of service for the day. Show up at the airport and they’re using that ILS.
My home airport is KDAL. One of the PAPIs was out for three days before they NOTAM’d it out of service. Delta landing in front of me asked about it. Tower said they showed it on and asked me. I said, “Uh… It’s been out for several days. I thought y’all knew?”
Finally, my favorite: Surprise runway closures for routine runway inspections. NOTAM? Nah. BTW there’s a 150′ tower 15 miles away with a light out and there’s birds around the airport. Awesome.

I can honestly say that if it isn’t a runway closure or terminal closure then I don’t really care. The amount of closed taxiways at every airport is absurd. Not to mention many of them are closed year round with no intention of opening them again, just a permanent NOTAM.

Can only agree. It has been raised at the RAPACs, but no progress to date.

If I’m 5nm from the ARP at 150′ AGL, then I have more things to worry about than a crane without a red light…

Ass-covering gone mad. Really… a tree

FROM 01 310536 TO 03 300500 EST

My personal favourite is the “trigger notam” cross-referencing to yet another unfindable / unreadable pile of nonsense.
Just tell us what matters to an “Airman”; today and leave the grand plan, 12 month projection crap out of NOTAMS.

All of this so true, I imagine a world of technology and wonder (ozrunways/avplan/anything but airservices/casa))where we can quickly read a Notam and weather briefing without having to nut it out and do a slow-ass flight plan every time. 2017 and we still cant embrace all the tech.

I totally agree. The last thing any crew is going to be able to do when checking NOTAMs before departure is to magic up a way to access cross-referenced documents in various other publications. Especially when the departure point is not anywhere near base ops, or even any other operations centre.

B.S. NOTAMS….100% concur. Our whole world of aviation is being swamped by similar legal ass-covering paperwork. How can ANY pilot be expected to remember all the additional codicils that do NOTHING to improve safety of flight, but rather give an army of lawyers and providers more chances to fleece an already cash-strapped industry?…..Rant over!

Congratulations, its our industry, the users should be heard.
Start with a blank sheet of paper, what do we want to know in a “NOTAM” and how best to communicate it in a cockpit / in a flight briefing package. If the current format was frozen in 1924, the next system needs to be good for a couple of years.

This information ceased to be “NOTAMs” long ago. Today they are “NOTOLs”, Notice To Litigants. Thanks for making an effort to change this ancient system.

How many pilots out there actually read ever Head Office Notams or even daily Notams in meticulous detail? Few (if any). You sign on an hour before departure, there is simply not enough time to divulge all the ass covering crap that’s generated daily. Airline companies only want one thing, OTP; how a pilot goes about that they couldn’t care less as long as you don’t break any rules! NOTAMS = “None Other Than Aircraft Missing Slots”

You can bet your life, the one you needed to see at 3 in the morning was the one you missed! Any wonder…

So, If you don’t tell me that, I will land recklessly..

You are a mind reader.
You captured the issue perfectly and the historical context was excellent. While airspace and aircraft have all continued to develop our most basic system of communicating the status of an airport/airspace has not. I could take that further and say communication with ATC is still by AFTN for the most part.So now put yourself in the position of dispatcher/FOO working a series of long haul ETOPS Flight. You might have 20 or more departure /Take off alternate station notams, a whole galaxy of FIR/UIR Notams, not to mention all of the ETOP alternates and if you re-dispatch/re-analysis, you will get to do it inflight once again. Now do that 15-20 times depending on workload. Can you say human data saturation?
This article certainly illustrates the infrastructure issues we face, but it doesn’t come close explaining some of the processes and procedures we have had to put in place to ensure:
1. That we actually get NOTAMS.
2. That we get airport conditions as some countries don’t put them out as Series-S ICAO NOTAM versus Series-A (Yes, theses are the countries that haven’t fully adopted ICAO standards which were adopted in 1944 and ratified in 1947 by the Chicago convention).
Question: What is the current year?

I absolutely agree. My personal bugbear is those lists of co-ordinates …. do they think anyone actually plots them on a map? They might as well not be published at all.

What is clear is the professional approach to the information received: too many inputs, disorderly given, contextually irrelevant, redundant and unusable. A kind of “cry wolf” syndrome, making the pilot complacent about such a bullshit. The very day someone of us is caught in a legal battle for a system-induced mistake leading to a incident, overlooking the NOTAMs will not appear as an excuse. How to make these information valuable?

Yes… and why oh why are we still using the coded TAF language. We don’t have bandwidth issues anymore. We take plain English, code it, then decode it back to plain English. Surely a TAF written in plain English is not too hard a transition.

We train the pilots of tomorrow, they are inundated with everything the industry throws at them and the unintelligible Nonsense contained in some NOTAMS are just another accident waiting to happen. With all the technology at our disposal today, the filtering systems, electronics messages systems, integration tools and smart people to think about it, there is a solution out there. I suppose we just need to make enough noise in the right places to make a change. Oh well best we get started. hmmm, perhaps a NOTAM about change is needed.

And don’t forget about TFR’s that pop up. The one time I didn’t look at TFRs I got trapped having to divert from Chicago to an outlying airport even though we were part135 and even though we got an IFR clearance and the tower gave us takeoff permission. And center control for an hour just kept passing us on.

How about a change in the format of NOTAMS too, so we don’t have to wade through the whole lot in order to parse the relevant information. NOTAMS are removed when thy are no longer valid, so why cling to chronological order as an indexing system. How about putting them in order of critical relevance: Firstly, changes to airfield opening hours and services (fire, fuel etc). Secondly, changes to runway lengths/closures/etc. Thirdly, changes to approaches available. All the rest can be thrown into the mix at the end of the NOTAM.

Excellent analysis. My personal favorite is the NOTAM sort order which tells me that the REIL lights don’t work, the glideslope is out, the runway markings are non-standard, the localizer is out… ending with: runway closed. Tell me that first, all the other BS becomes irrelevant.

About two days before I saw this post, I’d sent a long email to my company telling them of the NOTAMs we don’t need to see. Then I saw this. Brilliant! I’ve just sent the link to this piece to the company to reinforce that opinion. I’m hoping our briefing pack will be several pages thinner the next time I go to dispatch.

I have come up with a name for this problem: “NOTAM Spam”. It’s a serious one, alright — ASRS Callback #426 brought it up in the context of the US NAS, and I’m sure it’s only worse for international operations. It sounds like ICAO needs to put out a recommendation or SARP about NOTAM spam control…

95% of Notam’s we read are not applicable, or nothing can be done about them. Oh great, I’ll pull out my chart and plot the 25 co-ordinates to see if this airspace will affect my flight -_- that’s one Notam example from plenty of the same type, in the same Notam briefing. Now add the other irrelevant Notam types as mentioned by others in the comments.

Thanks for the article. I shared it with my fellow dispatchers at AAL. We read pages and pages of BS notams on a daily basis and wondered if anyone else had similar feelings about the whole process.


Post your thoughts below! 

OpsGroup – the power of the group

The power of the group

In the last 30 years, there has been a massive change in how the world works: thank you, internet. We are witnessing a shift from the power of a central source – like government, and large corporations – to the power of the individual. Each of us is now connected to the entirety of human knowledge through a small, handheld device, and can connect with others to effect powerful and positive change.

OPSGROUP is founded on this premise.  International Flight Operations is an inherently tricky area, full of gotcha’s and unforeseen changes for even the most diligent airline or aircraft operator. One operator versus a myriad of often unreadable government-sourced regulations and information – Notams, AIC’s, FAR’s – is a battle with guaranteed casualties.

But by connecting with other people, just like you, with the same problems and challenges, you can solve and share solutions.

When we started this group last year, we had a small handful of pilots, dispatchers, and managers that figured coming together in this way was a winner. As of November 2017, we’re now heading for 4,000 OPSGROUP members, with a great variety in operations roles: Airline and Corporate pilots, Military operators, Federal agencies, Flight Dispatchers and Schedulers, ATC, and Civil Aviation Authorities – all working together.

It’s still early days, and we have a way to go. But with some basic core principles – plain language (we call a spade a spade), operator and passenger safety ahead of lawyer-speak, cooperation instead of competition  – and a huge appetite for development, there is much to gain.

So what’s good in the group? Read on …

1. Information

First on the plate for almost every operator is staying current. Rules and regulations are changing with increased voracity. Did I miss something? Yep, almost definitely. Each week we produce the International Operations Bulletin. We try to cover all the big changes in the last 7 days. If we miss something, we’ve found that someone in the group is pretty quick to tell us, and it appears in the next one.



2. Fun (including Goats)

We promise to keep it entertaining“. Without your attention, we’ve got nothing. Not only that, but we get as bored as you do with the standard aviation legal-language speak that permeates even the most important documents. Which is why sometimes we’ll run a Goat Show. Sometimes it’s just great to be “unprofessional“.

3. Members

Like we said, approaching 4,000. All working together with the same goal: making International Flight Operations better. Click on the links to read what they say.

Airlines like United, Fedex, and Etihad
Small Part 91 Flight Departments like CAT3, Fayair, Pula
Big 135 Charter Operators like Jet Aviation, TAG and Netjets
Companies like Visa, IBM, and AT&T
Manufacturers like Boeing, Airbus, and Lockheed
International Pilots like Matt Harty, Bill Stephenson, and Timothy Whalen
Organisations like IFALPA, the NBAA, and CAA Singapore


4. Airspace Risk

MH17 was a tragedy that must not be repeated. A small handful of operators were privy to information on the risk, and the Notam writers of Ukraine that were aware of previous shoot-downs released the information in a language almost designed to confuse. Through our project, we can now share risk information within OPSGROUP and make sure that every single member has access to a current picture of airspace risk.


5. Airport Spy

One of our group members came to us with a great idea last year – why don’t we share our knowledge of operations at airports around the world. So we made a TripAdvisor style section in the member Dashboard, and allowed members to add their own reports on Airports, ATC, and Handlers. We now have 3000 or so reports.


6. Member Dashboard

We don’t need to explain this one too much. Everything the group has, in one place.


7. Slack

Slack is cool. It’s a chat app, but it’s more than that. Internally, we don’t use email anymore, we use slack. There are different channels like #crewroom, #todays-ops, #usefuldocs, and #questions. When there are special events, like #FranceATCStrike or #NewYorkSnow we open a special group for that. About 1200 members use this regularly, and it’s the perfect way to connect with other crews, ATC, or the Feds.


8. George

George is a bot. He’ll fetch information for you on airports, get weather, the NAT Tracks, and a few other things. We’re working on making him a little smarter.


9. Ask Us Anything

Getting an answer to your question is what keeps us awake at night. There’s not much we can’t help with, but usually someone else in the group beats us to it. If not though, the FSB International Desk team will research that ops question that is threatening to make your life hell.


10. The future

The best part of OPSGROUP is that we’re really just getting started. The future of the group is unwritten, but placing the planning power in your hands as an operator rather than 3rd parties, and having the security of knowing that the group has your back, is a great way to start. There is much to build and develop, and we’d love you to be involved!


11. Joining

You can choose an Individual, Team, or Flight Department membership. All the information on that is on the OpsGroup website. We limit joining windows to certain months of the year, so that we can be all hands on deck with building new things for the group once membership is closed. If we’re not accepting new members at the moment, you can waitlist for the next opening.




Here’s why North Korean missiles are now a real threat to Civil Aviation

Update: FSB removed North Korea warnings on May 14, 2018

  • July 2017: First launches of ICBM’s from North Korea
  • Western portion of Japanese airspace is a new risk area
  • New OPSGROUP guidance to Members, Note 30: Japanese Missile risk

The North Korean game has changed. Even if aircraft operators stopped flying through the Pyongyang FIR last year, nobody really thought there was much of a tangible risk. The chances of a missile actually hitting an aircraft seemed slim, and any discussion on the subject didn’t last long.

Things look different now. In July, the DPRK tested two Hwasong-14 Intercontinental missiles (the July 4th one is above), the first ICBM’s successfully launched from North Korea. ICBM’s are larger, and fly further, than the other missiles we’ve previously seen. Both of these landed in the Sea of Japan, well inside the Fukuoka Flight Information Region (Japanese airspace), and significantly, at least one did not re-enter the atmosphere intact – meaning that a debris field of missile fragments passed through the airspace, not just one complete missile.

We drew a map, with our best estimates of the landing positions of all launches in the last year that ended in Japanese airspace. The results are quite clear:

View large image

Zooming in even further, we can see each of the estimated landing sites. It is important to note that the landing positions vary in the degree of accuracy with which it is possible to estimate them. The highest accuracy is for the 28JUL17 landing of the Hwasong-14 ICBM, thanks to tracking by the Japanese Defence Force and US STRATCOM, as well as visual confirmation from land in Japan. The remaining positions are less precise, but in an overall view, the area affected is quite well defined – south of AVGOK and north of KADBO. In 2017, there have been 6 distinct missile landings in this area. The primary airways affected are B451 and R211, as shown on the chart.

View large image

So, in a very specific portion of Japanese airspace, there have been regular splashdowns of North Korean missiles. As highlighted by the Air France 293 coverage, this area is crossed by several airways in regular use, predominantly by Japan-Europe flights using the Russia route.

Determining Risk

The critical question for any aircraft operator is whether there is a clear risk from these missiles returning to earth through the airspace in which we operate. Take these considerations into account:

The regularity and range of the launches are increasing. In 2015, there were 15 launches in total, of short-range ballistic and sub-launched missiles. In 2016, there were 24 launches, almost all being medium-range. In 2017, there have been 18 so far, with the first long-range missiles.

– In 2016, international aviation solved the problem by avoiding the Pyongyang FIR. This is no longer sufficient. The landing sites of these missiles have moved east, and there is a higher likelihood of a splashdown through Japanese airspace than into North Korea.

– Almost all launches are now in an easterly direction from North Korea. The launch sites are various, but the trajectory is programmed with a landing in the Sea of Japan. From North Korea’s perspective, this provides a sufficiently large area to avoid a missile coming down on land in foreign territory.

– The most recent ICBM failed on re-entry, breaking up into many fragmented pieces, creating a debris field. At about 1515Z on the 28th July, there was a large area around the R211 airway that would have presented a real risk to any aircraft there. Thankfully, there were none – although the  Air France B777 had passed through some minutes before.

– Until 2014, North Korea followed a predictable practice of notifying all missile launches to the international community. ICAO and state agencies had time to produce warnings and maps of the projected splashdown area. Now, none of the launches are notified.

– Not all launches are detected by surrounding countries or US STRATCOM. The missile flies for about 35 minutes before re-entry. Even with an immediate detection, it’s unlikely that the information would reach the Japanese radar controller in time to provide any alert to enroute traffic. Further, even with the knowledge of a launch, traffic already in the area has no avoiding option, given the large area that the missile may fall in.

Can a falling missile hit an aircraft?

What are the chances? Following the AFR293 report on July 28, the media has favoured the “billions to one” answer.

We don’t think it’s quite as low.

First of all, that “one” is actually “six” – the number of North Korean missiles landing in the AVGOK/KADBO area in 2017. Considering that at least one of them, and maybe more, broke up on re-entry, that six becomes a much higher number.

Any fragment of reasonable size hitting a tailplane, wing, or engine as the aircraft is in cruise at 450 knots creates a significant risk of loss of control of the aircraft. How many fragments were there across the six launches? Maybe as high as a hundred pieces, maybe even more.

The chances of a missile, or part of it, striking the aircraft are not as low as it may initially appear. Given that all these re-entries are occurring in quite a focused area, prudence dictates considering avoiding the airspace.

What did we learn from MH17?

Whenever we discuss missiles and overflying civil aircraft in the same paragraph,  the valuable lessons from MH17 must be remembered. In the weeks and months leading up to the shooting down of the 777 over Ukraine, there were multiple clues to the threat before the event happened.

Of greatest relevance was that State Authorities did not make clear the risk, and that even though five or six airlines decided to avoid Ukrainian airspace, most other operators did not become aware of the real risk level until after the event.

Our mission at Flight Service Bureau is to make sure all aircraft operators, crews, and dispatchers have the data they need to make a fully informed decision on whether to continue flying western Japan routes, or to avoid them.

Guidance for Aircraft Operators

Download OPSGROUP Note to Members #30: Japan Missile risk (public version here)

Review the map above to see the risk area as determined by the landing sites in 2017.

Consider rerouting to remain over the Japanese landmass or east of it. It is unlikely that North Korea would risk or target a landing of any test launch onto actual Japanese land.

Check routings carefully for arrivals/departures to Europe from Japan, especially if planning airways R211 or B451. Consider the previous missile landing sites in your planning.

– Monitor for the most recent launches, as well as and

OPSGROUP members will be updated with any significant additions or updates to this Note through member mail and/or weekly newsletter.


– Nuclear Threat Initiative –

– Opsgroup Note to members #30 – Public version

OPSGROUP – Membership available here.

– Weekly International Ops Bulletin published by FSB for OPSGROUP covering critical changes to Airports, Airspace, ATC, Weather, Safety, Threats, Procedures, Visas. Subscribe to the short free version here, or join thousands of Pilot/Dispatcher/ATC/CAA/Flight Ops colleagues in OPSGROUP for the full weekly bulletin, airspace warnings, Ops guides, tools, maps, group discussion, Ask-us-Anything, and a ton more. Curious? See what you get. Rated 5 stars by 125 reviews.

– Larger area map of Japan airspace risk 2017

– Contact with any comments or questions.

ATC Nightmare in the Hills

This article was originally published on

In any one of the plausible alternative endings to this event, a departing Boeing 777 impacts the San Gabriel mountains at about 5000 feet, just east of Los Angeles, at 1.25am.

Exactly how this didn’t happen is almost unexplainable. With 353 people on board, this was 22 seconds away from being the worst air disaster in the US.

For a solid 3 minutes in the early morning, the Boeing was being guided not by the pilots, not by the Air Traffic Controller, but by the precipitous balance between good fortune and tragic fate.

At 1.24 am, level at 5,000 feet, the flight is 40 seconds from impacting a ridge-line west of St Gabriel Peak. A minute later, a wide turn to the right points the aircraft instead at Mt Wilson — now 22 seconds away and above the aircraft. Only a slow climb, the result of fumbled instructions and a gradual realisation by the crew of the danger, released the flight from a certain and conclusive end in the dark hills.

So exactly what happened? On December 16th last year, at 1.19am, EVA 015, a Boeing 777–300ER with 353 occupants, got airborne from Runway 7R at Los Angeles. 2 minutes after departure, the aircraft starts to make a turn in a direction opposite to that expected by the controller. That left turn immediately sets up a conflict and potential loss of separation with Air Canada 788.

With that conflict resolved, more by the natural tendency of airplanes to diverge than by any positive control instruction, the overall scene becomes bleaker. Rattled by the unanticipated loss of separation, the controllers’ picture is lost; fumbled left-right-left instructions confuse the Boeing crew, and very soon, nobody is actually flying the airplane.

Time are in UTC(GMT) — showing the aircraft track for the three minutes starting at 1.23 am local time. 


The ATC recording and track replay is YouTube nirvana for the congregation of armchair experts (the writer included). “Terrible controlling” is the common cry. “The pilots were at fault” say the counter-parties.

There is no doubt that this is Air Traffic Control at its darkest. But in any incident where we smugly allocate blame to one individual, we are blind to a bigger story. There is always a systemic failure to look at. In this case, there are several.

Loss of Separation vs. Real collision risk

For an Air Traffic Controller, there is a subconscious difference between the fear of losing separation (the legal minimum distance), and the fear of an aircraft collision. The purpose of ATC is to prevent collisions, but the mindset of an Air Traffic Controller is focused on preventing loss of separation. This is an important distinction.

A loss of separation is a traumatic experience for any ATCO. It results in immediate suspension of the right to work, remedial training, a loss of confidence, and a few sleepless nights. Even if the required separation is 5 miles, and a controller allows aircraft to pass with 4.9, it’s game over.

And so, in any conflict on the radar scope that looks like it might become a loss of separation, the controller (being a human being) will encounter physiological symptoms — shock being the first, activating the autonomic nervous system — increasing heart and breathing rate, and releasing adrenaline. These are helpful for both of the Fight or Flight options, but not for thinking clearly. The psychological impact of the loss of separation blurs the importance of preventing a collision.

Training wins

I’ve worked as both pilot and controller. Faced with pressure, we revert to the level of our training. This is why pilots visit the flight simulator every couple of months. We’ve trained to the point that an engine exploding as we rotate the aircraft off the runway is no longer a shock that renders us useless. If this were to happen in reality, we still feel the adrenaline and shock — but we can plunge straight into the “Engine Failure subroutine”. We have training to revert to. Listen to Aer Lingus Flight 120 experiencing this. You can hear the training, and you can also hear the adrenaline. Training wins.

For Air Traffic Controllers, faced with an unexpected situation, we also revert to training —but we don’t train for our emergencies in the same way that pilots do. The training, in fact, isn’t there to revert to.

As a controller, I’ve held Tower, Approach, and Enroute ratings in different countries. ATC training in how to separate airplanes is excellent. Training in how to recover from the unexpected is not.

Ultimately, it’s the same deal. Both Pilots and Controllers spend 99.99% of their time operating in the routine. It’s not uncommon for a pilot to spend his entire career without encountering an engine shutdown. Similarly, many controllers retire without ever having lost separation.

But it would be unthinkable for an airline to have crews that don’t know what to do in an emergency. Why then, is it acceptable to not offer controllers the same degree of contingency training?

Emergencies and ATC

When we talk about ATC Emergency training, what we are really used to looking at is what to say and do when a pilot has an emergency. Mayday, Pan-Pan, Emergency descent, Hijack.

But what about when ATC has their own emergency. When you’ve missed a conflict, have a deep loss of separation, lost the picture — when you’ve completely screwed up. Somewhere in the manual, there’s probably a few lines about using standard phraseology, exercise best judgement, provide traffic information, don’t interfere with an RA.

As humans, this doesn’t help us. There is no patter to fall into. We need trigger phrases to kick off trained behaviour when the shock of the event wants to take us elsewhere. In the cockpit that I flew in, whatever happened, the trigger phrase was “Take action”. From here, whatever the situation, we knew where to go. Identify the problem, run the checklist, push buttons, talk to ATC.

In the Aer Lingus example above: Mayday, Shamrock 12G, Engine Failure, Climbing straight ahead, Standby.

Alert — Identification — Situation — Intentions — Request.

Clear as a bell.

On the EVA tape, it is clear that the controller has no such place to go to. It’s the equivalent of trying to exit an underwater shipwreck with no guide rope. You need something to hold onto as you find your way back to the surface.

She never did. After the shock of the loss of separation, she was now faced with a 777 heading into the 6500ft San Gabriel hills level at 5000 feet. She did not move on from preventing a loss of separation to preventing a collision with terrain. Even when apparently finally realising the aircraft was heading for high ground, there was little in the way of an urgent climb or turn instruction, and nothing that mentioned to the crew that they were in immediate danger.

Losing the picture


If we consider ourselves to blame for the situation, it will cloud our judgement, obscuring the true picture. If we allow that to develop further, we can lose the picture entirely. There is nothing in our training that gives us a clear path out of the loss of separation. No mnemonics, no patter, no phraseology.

This is the lesson to be learned from this event. ATC agencies should make available to their controllers the same degree of emergency and “unusual situation” training that airlines offer to pilots. And somewhere in there has to be an ingrained, trained-by-rote-reminder that when you lose separation, you immediately pick up the fallen cards and move on to preventing a collision, whether that is with another aircraft or terrain.

In the EVA 015 incident, we can be thankful that the sheer mercy of fate allowed all on board to thread their way through and out the other side of the San Gabriel mountains. If ATC training were more cognisant of the human factors aspect of the shock of losing separation, we may not have to rely on the mercy of fate next time.

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