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Mountain pass charting changes coming

Two newly charted mountain passes will appear on Alaskan flight charts this March to help pilots plan and navigate routes across the Brooks Range while another pass in the area is being considered for removal.

Naqsralugiaq Pass provides a lower and less “terrain challenged” alternative to Atigun Pass for pilots crossing the central Brooks Range.

These changes are the result of a joint effort between industry and the FAA to improve the information available to pilots flying in mountainous regions. While this effort is currently focused on locations in Alaska, future changes are in the works for mountainous regions across the country.

Background

Flying through mountain passes can be a challenge, especially in unfamiliar terrain. Studying flight charts to select a route is an essential element of preflight planning for any flight, but when navigating through confined mountainous terrain, it is particularly important. One critical aspect is knowing the location of any relevant passes, which represent the highest points pilots have to cross before anticipating lowering terrain ahead. Knowing the elevation of these points is also valuable information. When clouds and ceilings are a factor, determining the minimum altitude needed to comfortably fly a route through a pass is an important parameter. The inability to maintain that altitude long before approaching the pass is a good indicator that you should consider an alternate route—or retreat while you still are able to turn around.

Newly charted passes

Carter Pass, in the circle in the lower left corner of this segment of the Point Barrow sectional, is lower and provides a more direct route across the eastern Brooks Range, connecting the Chandalar River drainage to the south with the Marsh Fork of the Canning River to the north.  The only other charted pass in this area is Guilbeau Pass, some 40 miles further to the east.

On the March 24, 2022, chart cycle, pilots will find Naqsralugiaq Pass in the central Brooks Range. This pass is well known by locals as it offers a much safer route across the central Brooks Range than Atigun Pass. Only 22 nautical miles west of Atigun, it is more than 1,000 feet lower in elevation and located in much less confined terrain. While Atigun Pass has a road and pipeline leading to it that make it easy to find, due to its higher elevation and precipitous terrain, it has been the scene of numerous fatal accidents over the years. Adding Naqsralugiaq Pass to the Fairbanks and Point Barrow sectional charts will hopefully encourage pilots to consider another alternative when crossing the central Brooks Range.

The other pass added during this chart cycle is Carter Pass, in the eastern Brooks Range. This pass is also well known to pilots who routinely fly in this area. It supports a route between the Marsh Fork of the Canning River to the north, with the Chandalar River drainage to the south. Carter Pass provides a much more direct route than Guilbeau Pass, which is more than 40 miles further east and almost 1,000 feet higher.

Removing a mountain pass

Holmes Pass, also in the central Brooks Range, is proposed for removal from the charts.  Consultation with pilots familiar with this area and inspection of ADS-B data suggest that this pass is not used by pilots, and that those who do fly through the area below mountain top levels follow the river valley to the west.

The working group addressing these issues was also tasked with considering removal of unsafe mountain passes. While examining this area, the group identified Holmes Pass. This pass is also in the central Brooks Range, is relatively high, and has a much lower terrain route around it. Based on the experience of the working group, it is not used by local pilots. It was originally identified as a pass in 1930 by Robert Marshall, who traveled the area by dogsled. A request was submitted to remove this pass from aeronautical charts. The FAA is currently circulating a public notice inviting comments on this proposed change. If you use this pass and think it should remain on the charts, please review this notice, and advise the FAA of your use of this chart feature.

More change is ahead

Adding or removing mountain passes is one step toward improving the information available on flight charts for pilots flying in mountainous areas. The working group addressing these issues is pursuing other changes to enhance aviation safety. These changes are expected to include additional features to help maintain situational awareness and reduce the potential for midair collisions when navigating in confined terrain. Stay tuned for more progress on ways to improve safety and make it easier to plan and navigate when flying in the mountains.

Tom George

Tom George

AOPA Alaska Regional Manager
AOPA Alaska Regional Manager Tom George has covered Alaska issues for AOPA since 2001. He is a commercial multiengine rated pilot who flies a Cessna 185 for fun and to acquire vertical aerial photography.
Topics: Advocacy, FAA publications

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