Snow on the runway? Here’s how to interpret runway condition codes

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An important consideration when planning a flight to an airport at below freezing temperatures is the possibility of snow or ice on the runway and whether the conditions are suitable for your particular airplane and operation.

I recommend a two-phase approach to this task – first check the NOTAMs for runway condition codes, and second call someone at the destination airport for a first-person account of the conditions, either at the FBO or airport management office.

Unfortunately, it took a runway overrun accident by a Boeing 737 at Chicago Midway airport in 2005 for the FAA to take a look at ways to improve what was a once a subjective assessment of runway conditions and find better ways to report the status to pilots via NOTAMs. The system now uses a matrix with clearly defined condition criteria and Runway Condition Codes (RwyCC) that range in value from 6 (dry pavement) to 0 (hang on for a wild ride).

Airport operators will use the matrix to assess paved runway surfaces, report contaminants present, and through the assistance of the Federal NOTAM System, determine the numerical Runway Condition Codes (RwyCC) based on the runway condition. Pilots can then use the code to assess the effects of a given contaminant(s) as indicated by the associated condition code prior to landing or departing.

runwaybraking

This type of NOTAM is classified as FICON, short for Field Conditions. Each third of the identified runway will have a unique condition code assigned to it in the NOTAM. For example, you might see “RWY 22 FICON 5/5/3”, which means the first and second thirds of the runway have a RwyCC value of 5 (good braking reported), and the final third has a value of 3 (medium braking).

I’d suggest downloading the PDF version of this Matrix and storing it on your iPad for quick reference on the ground and in the airplane: Runway Condition Assessment Matrix. And remember these codes are only assigned to runways, so if the NOTAM doesn’t include additional information on the condition of taxiways or ramps, it’s even more important that you follow up with a phone call to the airport to get a first-hand account of all the surface areas.

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Bret is vice president and senior flight instructor for Sporty's Academy. In addition to Bret's teaching responsibilities, Bret leads Sporty's video production and app development team and serves as editor of the popular iPad Pilot News online journal. As an airline transport pilot, Bret is a senior captain in Sporty's corporate flight department.