Let's Be Fair About Sharing The Air

Low-Level Aviators Face Challenges with Towers

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), in spite of the economic recession the wind energy industry experienced a growth of 15 percent in 2010, but the North American wind energy industry is lagging in key areas compared to Europe and Asia. Currently, wind energy only accounts for approximately 4 percent of the country’s energy production capacity; however, AWEA is seeking a national standard of 25 percent renewable energy by the year 2025 and 20 percent wind energy by 2030. As wind energy turbines and other towers continue to go up across the country in exponential numbers to meet this growing energy demand, the safety and accessibility problems they cause ag aviators are rapidly increasing as well. The market for installed turbines surpassed $59 billion in 2010 and is forecast to reach $152 billion by 2017 (Pike Research, Research Report, 3Q, 2011). The number of Meteorological Evaluation Towers (METs) erected to support the rapid growth in these turbines will markedly increase as well, contributing greater risk to low-level aviation operations, particularly if these towers are unmarked. 

Safety is NAAA’s and the aerial application industry’s primary concern with wind energy turbines, METs, Real Time Kinematic (RTK) towers, “flying” wind turbines, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and other obstructions because in many cases they are not properly marked, lighted or displaying other cautionary devices in or near agricultural areas where aerial applicators are spraying. Sadly, in the last 10 years, 7.2 percent of aerial application fatalities were the result of collisions with towers and 13 percent were the result of collisions with wires. Wire accidents are included in these statistics since the wind developments must install wires to connect the output of the turbines to the electrical power grid. These collisions are almost always fatal. Wind energy towers pose the greatest safety and accessibility threats to agricultural aviators not only because of their size, but also because they are expected to become more widespread in the coming years. These towers are often clustered closely together, creating ominous obstacles for pilots.

A more recent potential hazard in some parts of the country is the erection of RTK towers for use with farm and construction equipment auto-steering that can likewise be deployed at any location in a matter of hours. The RTK towers are similar to METs in their difficulty to see, but usually measure only 105 feet in height and are supported with guy wires. Recent communication with one of the primary owners of these towers in the Upper Midwest told a representative of NAAA they did not intend to mark or light their towers because regulations did not require it. In some areas, ag operators have been reluctant to openly oppose these towers because they are desired by their farmer customers. Regardless, safety dictates the towers should be marked for maximum visibility to low level aviation.

Without sensible placement and proper marking of all types of towers and other obstacles occurring in low-level airspace in agricultural areas, farmers may be at risk of losing important aerial application services performed on their cropland. Towers erected directly in the flight path of aerial applicators’ landing strips and/or hampering the accessibility of treatable cropland could literally shut down aerial application operations. This would detrimentally affect, in some instances, the only method farmers have available to them when the time comes to apply seeds, fertilizers and crop protection chemicals, necessary to foster crop growth, let alone other services low-level aviators contribute to the benefit the public.

NAAA is concerned that as the demand for communication, wind energy and other towers increases– as projected – farmers will enter into leasing agreements with tower construction companies to erect these obstacles on their land without taking into account the safety and agricultural production issues of the aerial applicator. In 2010, NAAA launched a special towers section of its website, www.agaviation.org/towers.htm, which provides tools to educate the public on the dangers of unmarked testing towers to pilots of low-flying aircraft; and address the safety and accessibility concerns associated with wind turbines. The tools illustrate how poor tower marking and improper wind turbine siting put pilots’ lives and farmers’ livelihood at risk.

NAAA has urged federal agencies that help to subsidize and promote wind energy, such as the USDA and DOE, to help in its campaign to inform the public that improper placement of wind towers may pose significant dangers to low-level aviation operations and may negatively affect agricultural production. NAAA was instrumental in efforts that led to the inclusion of language in the FAA Reauthorization Bill directing the Administrator of the FAA to conduct a feasibility study on the development of an online public resource that would list the location and height of potential low-altitude aviation obstructions, such as guy-wire and free-standing towers. The FAA was given one year to complete the study. The study was contracted to MITRE Corp, and while it was due February 2013, as of February 2014 the study remains in “final executive review.” While the Association realizes this would likely substantiate strictly a voluntary database and would not be combined with the already existing required FAA database delineating towers more than 200 feet in height, simply having a voluntary database to begin recording tower locations would be the first step in the right direction in protecting low-level pilots from the many unknown dangers they confront on a daily basis.

For over half a decade, NAAA and a number of state and regional agricultural aviation associations have attempted to work with the wind energy industry to better mark METs. NAAA has met with AWEA on several occasions, and while receptive to meeting, the organization has failed to address NAAA’s concerns and stated that marking METs is a proprietary concern for their members and thus becomes an issue of market competitiveness.
            In addition to NAAA’s efforts there were developments in several states regarding the dangers low-level obstacles pose to ag pilots, as well as several national safety alerts issued in 2011 and 2012 and this year. In March 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a Safety Alert urging low-flying aircraft to be watchful for Meteorological Evaluation Towers, and in May 2011 the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior issued an Interagency Aviation Safety Alert calling for vigilance on the part of pilots in order to see and avoid all towers and other obstructions. The interagency alert advocated for pilots to mark any obstacles on their local hazards map and to notify others of the obstacles’ existence. Additionally, it requested pilots contact their state or regional aviation manager should they feel an obstacle needed to be lighted. Also in 2011, Kansas Senate Bill 227 was signed into law and requires marking of all anemometer towers 50 feet and higher. North Dakota passed similar legislation (Senate Bill 2206) in 2011 and the law includes a provision for the Department of Aeronautics to establish and maintain a database of METs in the state (http://www.ndac.aero/hazards/Map.aspx). Adding to the states with tower-marking guidelines, a bill was enacted in Idaho that would mandate any temporary or permanent guyed tower 50 feet or more in height be lighted and marked beginning in July 2012. Additionally, a tower-marking bill was passed in Missouri (SB 769) in 2012 that requires safety marking of anemometer towers located outside of city limits and 50 feet or more in height. Owners of anemometer towers in existence as of Aug. 28, 2012, are given until Jan. 1, 2014, to comply with the act's requirements or face a Class B misdemeanor. A tower-marking bill (AB 511) in California (prompted by the tragic death of aerial applicator Steve Allen in 2011 after colliding with an unmarked tower) was passed last August that requires markings for the entire structure, as well as marker balls and sleeves for METs constructed from January 2013 through December 2017 on ag lands or within one mile from ag lands. The new tower laws in Kansas, North Dakota, Idaho, Missouri, California and also Montana this year join the already provisioned states of Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, which already have some form of tower marking laws or ordinances in place. Colorado, Texas, Washington, and North Carolina are also looking into the state legislation in their states.

             In addition to many states enacting tower-marking laws, some wind energy companies are beginning to place safety as a priority as well. Harness Energy, a Denver-based wind measurement services company that specializes in tilt-up MET installation, has adopted the slogan “Safety is a priority that should always be shared.” In response to concern from aviation groups, Harness Energy developed MET tower marking resources to help its clients maintain compliance and promote safety. Among the free resources available at http://www.harnessre.com/met-tower-marking are: an interactive U.S. map highlighting states that have enacted or proposed tower marking laws for METS under 200 feet AGL; an overview of marking equipment available to increase tower visibility; and links to MET tower marking documents and organizations involved in wind tower safety efforts.

            The FAA has partially addressed NAAA’s constant requests to assist on marking and released its updated guidance in 2011 for marking MET towers less than 200 feet above ground level (AGL) in remote and rural areas. The Agency recommends the following: (1) METs should be painted in accordance to criteria contained in Chapter 3, paragraphs 30–33 of AC No. 70/7460–1, specifically, with alternate bands of aviation orange and white paint. In addition, all markings should be replaced when faded or otherwise deteriorated; (2) METs should have high visibility sleeves installed on the outer guy wires of METs as described in AC No. 70/7460–1; and (3) METs should have high visibility spherical marker (or cable) balls of aviation orange color attached to the guy wires. The FAA, however, recognizes various weather conditions and manufacturing placement standards may affect the placement and use of high visibility sleeves and/or spherical markers. Thus, flexibility is needed when determining sleeve length and marker placement on METs. Most of NAAA’s recommendations were accepted by the FAA except for those requesting lighting on the tower and the creation of a national database. The FAA stated it was not practical for the Agency to recommend lights for METs, as pre-existing power sources were not present in many remote locations and the use of solar lighting had not been studied. Additionally, while the FAA did not feel it was feasible for the Agency to maintain a national database, they did not object to state or local jurisdiction maintaining or providing a source. The FAA indicated the Advisory Circular referenced, AC No. 70/7460-1, would be revised within six months following its release, but as of February 2014 has not released the revised circular.

To ensure safe coexistence of METs and low-level pilots, NAAA has urged the FAA to follow through on the safety recommendations sent by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) May 15, 2013 regarding Meteorological Evaluation Towers (METs). These recommendations to the FAA include: (1) creating and maintaining a publicly accessible national database for the required registration or all meteorological evaluation towers; and (2) amending 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 77 to require all meteorological evaluation towers be registered, marked, and—where feasible—lighted.

Because the aforementioned FAA AC only provides guidance for marking MET towers, NAAA had been seeking to expand the AC and pursue guidance and official laws or ordinances applicable to all types of obstacles and towers—guy wired and free-standing alike. However, the Agency recently responded to this request by stating that to expand marking guidance for structures other than METs is not based on safety of flight issues. The FAA considers the guidance used for METs to not be feasible or warranted for other structures under 200 feet, as other structures do not carry the same visibility concerns of skeletal METs, and additional marking guidance may cause an undue burden on the public. NAAA is extremely disappointed by this narrow sighted perspective of low-level safety and will continue to work with the FAA or outside of the FAA to ensure safety remains a top priority. The agency’s lack of further investigation of these issues and glacial pace in addressing others has prompted NAAA to investigate the possibility of taking alternative measures including legal action to protect low-level pilots from this growing threat. First, a follow-up with the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization that has jurisdiction over these issues to ensure no headway can be made at the regulatory level to address these marking issues must be made before taking a legal approach. We will keep NAAA members aware of this important issue. Regardless of not being able to expand the AC, still having MET marking guidelines, even though not specifically mandatory, they would, according to FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel, very likely result in liability for a tower company whose tower was struck as a result of not marking the tower. This is also confirmed in established case law that shows that FAA Advisory Circulars indicate a standard of care that should be followed and not meeting that standard has resulted in judgments of negligence resulting in financial liability.  In January 2014 NAAA sent letters to the American Wind Energy Association and U.S. MET tower manufacturers nationwide indicating this fact, and we are awaiting their response. NAAA also made this information available to its members to use in sending letters to parties responsible for erecting unmarked towers in their local area.

Updated March 2014