How to Read NOTAMs – Easy to Follow Guide

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The rise in the number of drones and drone pilots have prompted the government to recognize drones as significant elements of national airspace. In this context, drone pilots can also be considered “airmen” subject to the same set of responsibilities and accountabilities as licensed pilots. One such responsibility of drone pilots is to check for NOTAMs before conducting a planned drone flight. Unfortunately, NOTAMs are typically expressed in a highly abbreviated form that is difficult for laypersons to interpret. In this article, we break down the process of interpreting a NOTAM in small and easy to understand steps.

What are NOTAMs and why are they important?

NOTAM stands for “Notice to Airmen,” which are information advisories distributed mainly for safety. The practice became an industry standard in 1947, providing a reliable way for pilots to get information on events that can compromise the safety of their planned flight activities. These events can include military flight exercises, temporary military outposts, VIP movement, airshows, or the flight activity of other drone pilots. Although NOTAMs are distributed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they are typically filed by airports, flight data centers, or other licensed pilots.

For commercial and private pilots, checking for NOTAMs in their immediate area or along their flight path is an essential part of their preparation process. Whether a NOTAM serves as a warning of airspace activity or a temporary restriction of particular airspace, relevant NOTAMs can have significant effects on a pilot’s flight plan. Obviously, NOTAMs are more relevant for pilots of manned aircraft than drone pilots. However, there is no reason that drone pilots cannot also comply with this standard.

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Why should I check for NOTAMs?

The issue of whether drone pilots (professional or otherwise) need to check for DROTAMs prior to taking off has been a perennial subject of arguments throughout the past few years. While there are some who take the stand that the activities of drone pilots do not warrant the same level of concern as that of manned aircraft, there are also those who deem it their responsibility to stay informed.

We believe that there is still value in checking for NOTAMs before a drone flight. In an era where information can be easily accessed online, there is very little effort involved in checking for NOTAMs. Mobile apps such as ForeFlight and FltPlan have even made compliance much easier. The following are just some of the benefits of checking for NOTAMs:

1. Avoiding temporarily restricted areas

One of the more important things to watch out for when checking for NOTAMs is the implementation of new temporary flight restrictions (TFR). These TFRs can be due to the construction of a temporary military facility, VIP movement, or something as simple as an airshow. In any case, a TFR will typically declare an area as temporarily restricted for any type of flight, including your drone. Without checking for NOTAMs, the airspace right above your house may have become restricted without you knowing it.

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2. Some airspace activity can take place below 400 feet

An argument we’ve heard a lot against checking for NOTAMs is the fact the drones are restricted from flying above 400 feet. Since this is below the cruising altitude of manned aircraft, then there should be no reason for a drone-related accident to occur.

There are a couple of flaws in this argument. First, is the fact that drone pilots are still notorious for not abiding with the 400 feet restriction as evidenced by numerous drone-related near-misses that have been documented in the past few years. The second counter-argument is that some airspace activity, particularly those that are associated with NOTAMs, can take place at 400 feet and below. Some examples include military exercises and the flight activities of other drone pilots. Even if only for the situational awareness that you are sharing common airspace with other drones or manned aircraft, it is still worth the effort to check for NOTAMs.

3. Gaining additional knowledge

Increased awareness can never be a bad thing. As in many other aspects of life, this piece of wisdom also applies to drone flight. The value of being informed has been drilled into drone pilots, more so for commercial pilots who have to pass the Part 107 knowledge test to get a drone license. Knowing the airspace activity near or inside the area of your planned drone flight will only enhance the safety for everyone involved. Checking for NOTAMs also builds up proficiency in understanding and interpreting them, which can be a very valuable skill for all airmen.

4. Added awareness and accountability is good for the industry as a whole

The worst thing that a drone pilot can do is to get into an accident because of a lack of awareness. Public concerns about safety and privacy when it comes to drone use continue to persist despite the efforts of the government to regulate and standardize drone use. Reports of close calls with manned aircraft, drones going into private property, and drone crashes only serve to help promote stricter drone regulations.

How to read NOTAMs

Although we promote the practice of checking NOTAMs every time you take your drone out for a flight, we also recognize that interpreting NOTAMs can be difficult. Much like METARs, NOTAMs are in a heavily abbreviated format that was designed to transmit a large amount of information in a short string of text and numbers.

A NOTAM is made of several parts, and each one is meant to relay a critical piece of information. To understand NOTAMs, we need to break them down into individual components. An example of a NOTAM, as shown below, will aid in this discussion.

Sample NOTAM:

!IKK 02/098 ZAU OBST WIND TURBINE FARM WITHIN AREA DEFINED AS 2.5NM RADIUS OF 414105N0890743W (9.8NM NE C82) 1424FT (264FT AGL) NOT LGTD 1502051656-1512312359EST

1. Location

Most NOTAMs begin with an exclamation point and an airport location, which can be referred to as the location accountable for the NOTAM. In our example, the accountable location is IKK or the Kankakee Flight Service in Illinois. Take note that some NOTAMs can be given for areas that are not under the direct accountability of any Flight Service area. In these cases, the nearest Flight Service area is designated as the accountable location of the NOTAM.

Flight Data Centers (FDC) can also be designated as accountable locations. Such NOTAMs are identifiable with an !FDC prefix, followed by the specific location affected. FDC NOTAMs are typically regulatory in nature, often citing changes in airport or runway procedures. They are rarely a concern for drone pilots, as they normally do not pertain to airspace traffic. However, it is still worth checking them out.

2. NOTAM Number

The next part of a NOTAM is a series of numbers separated by a slash. This is the official NOTAM number which denotes the date of issuance of the NOTAM, as well as the sequential position of the NOTAM with regards to its accountable location. In our example, the NOTAM was released in February and is the 98th NOTAM issued under the IKK accountability.

However, there is some confusion on interpreting this part as some NOTAMs come with two NOTAM numbers. Although this does not apply to our example, NOTAMs with two numbers are easy to spot. In such cases, the second NOTAM number will be enclosed in a parenthesis. These can refer to old NOTAMs that have stayed in the docket for several months or can be a pointer to other NOTAMs. Searching for the relevant NOTAM on the FAA website should result in the same NOTAM, regardless of which number you use.

3. Affected Location

The third part of a NOTAM indicates the affected location of the activity which the NOTAM will describe. This can be identical to the accountable location or be an entirely different location is just nearby. In our example, ZAU refers to the Chicago Center. Both the Kankakee Flight Service and Chicago Center are in Illinois, which gives us a rough idea of where the activity is taking place. The exact location may not be so clear at this point, but the NOTAM provides additional details on a later part.

4. NOTAM Keyword

This keyword indicates the type of activity or concern for the NOTAM. Twelve different keywords refer to different types of events, as follows:

NAVNavigation Aids
OPDObstacle Departure Procedure
SIDStandard Instrument Departure
STARStandard Terminal Arrival

These keywords only apply for distant NOTAMs or D-NOTAMs, which are those that start with a location (such as our example). FDC NOTAMs use a different set of keywords. Although this is less relevant for drone pilots, we have nonetheless included below a summary of keywords for FDC NOTAMs.

IAPInstrument Approach Procedure
VFPVisual Flight Procedure
UUnverified Aeronautical Information
OOther Aeronautical Information

A NOTAM keyword will always be preceded by the affected location. In our example, the NOTAM was issued to inform about an obstruction (OBST).

5. Detailed description

This part contains the main narrative for why the NOTAM was issued. Despite the need to provide a detailed description, this part is rarely free of abbreviations and acronyms that regular people can immediately understand. There is also a lot of variety in how this part is written, depending on the authority that issued it.

In our example, the description is fairly straightforward. The NOTAM was issued to warn pilots of a wind turbine farm which covers a circular area defined by the latitude-longitude location of the center (414105N 890743W) and a distance radius of 2.5 nautical miles (2.5NM). The NOTAM also provides an alternative means of finding the location of the wind farm by stating that it lies 9.8 nautical miles north-east of C82 (9.8NM NE of C82), where C82 is the airport designator for Compton Bressler, Illinois.

6. Remarks

This section can include further details on the activity if needed. In our example, the information added was the inclusive altitude of the wind farm. In our example, the 1424 feet are measured from the mean sea level (MSL). The NOTAM also helpfully provides a measure of the turbines from above ground level (AGL), which is only 264 feet. We can deduce that the wind farm is located in an elevated valley, which accounts for the large discrepancy between MSL and AGL values.

Our sample NOTAM also indicates “NOT LGTD” which stands for “not lighted.” This means that the turbines have no lights, making them prone to causing crashes if pilots are not warned of their presence beforehand.

7. Period affected

This is optional information and is typically only provided for activities that only take place on certain parts of the day. This part can indicate if the NOTAM only takes on effect from sunrise to sunset (SR-SS), on particular days of the week, or daily (DLY). Our sample NOTAM does not indicate a period affected.

8. Beginning and end times

Finally, this part indicates the beginning and ending date and time of effectivity of the NOTAM. The periods are reported in a standard YEAR/MONTH/DAY/HOUR/MINUTE format, which each period represented only by two digits. NOTAMs that are issued for permanent changes end with a PERM indicator.

In our example, the NOTAM takes effect from 1656H of February 5, 2015, to 2359H of December 31, 2015. It also has an EST suffix, indicating that the end time is only an estimate of when the activity will be completed. If the NOTAM is not amended, it will be canceled automatically at the declared end date and time.

The NOTAM does not say exactly what activity is being done and why it will no longer be valid after December 31. Perhaps lights are being installed in the turbines, making them visible enough in the night sky so that pilots will not need NOTAMs to know of their presence.

The sample NOTAM we considered in this discussion is one of the less complex ones we have encountered. If you decide to check on NOTAMs regularly, you would probably find yourself checking up on this guide or on other reference materials to make sure that you understand them correctly. It will take a lot of practice before you can interpret NOTAMs quickly.

Final thoughts

The practice of issuing and checking NOTAMs has been firmly established in the air traffic industry and has greatly helped in avoiding airspace accidents in the last couple of decades. With the recognition that drones are now a significant presence in the national airspace, drone pilots also have an increased responsibility as “airmen”. This includes checking for NOTAMs prior to drone flight, on top of all the other tasks and restrictions defined by different legislation on drone activity.

Checking for NOTAMs is not hard. NOTAMs in your area can be easily searched in the official FAA website. Mobile apps, such as ForeFlight, can also be used to search and interpret NOTAMs. In their raw form, NOTAMs can seem a little complex due to their highly abbreviated nature. The guide we have prepared above can greatly help you practice your NOTAM interpretation skills. However, time and practice are equally important factors.