FSS Under Lockmart: Stop Whining and Lobby For Some Better Tools

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It's been three years since Lockheed-Martin took over the management of the Flight Service system and we've finally reached an important milestone: Flight briefings are almost as good now as they were before the FAA stepped down from the helm.

This is after the precipitous drop in service that left pilots to figure out useful weather information from their favorite website, or to wait 30 minutes for a briefer who couldn't remember the right keystrokes to call up a list of local NOTAMs on the new computer system he'd learned in a few days of hurried training.

The aviation press was pining away for the loss of quality briefings and local knowledge, but, frankly, that was on its way out anyway as the FAA had been consolidating flight service stations for years. There was a value in the local briefings that, perhaps, we can get back with a bit of clever technology. Take a little stroll with me down memory lane.

I remember getting a weather briefing in 1998 for a flight trying to get home from Yakima in eastern Washington State (KYKM) to Seattle (KBFI) in western Washington State. For those of you not familiar with Washington geography, there's a little mountain range called the Cascades running north-south cutting right across that route. The air was clear and a zillion around Yakima, but Boeing Field in Seattle was reporting 1800 overcast. The aircraft was a VFR-only Citabria.

After the obligatory "VFR not recommended" and a run-down of conditions I already knew about from DUATS, the briefer -- who was sitting at the local FSS at the north side of Boeing Field and knew the area and its weather -- said, "Yeah, it's forecast to clear by noon, but I'm not seeing it lifting at all. The Gorge is probably the only way through until at least tomorrow."

There were two critical pieces of information there that only a locally aware briefer could have given me. The latter was to try "The gorge," which meant the Columbia River Gorge. It's been used for years by local pilots as a VFR tunnel through the Cascades, and it was my ticket home that day. I don't expect someone in Leesburg, Va., to ever have that particular bit of knowledge. Even if they did, they'd never share it on tape. Fine. I'll look to local pilots to better understand the tips and tricks for each area I fly.

But that first part, about the weather not improving as expected, only comes when a briefer has been giving the same briefing for the same area all morning. I can't count the number of times the perspective of that experience seeped into my briefings when I spoke to a local briefer. That simply can't happen the way things are done today. When the weather is down, call volume and duration go up and you get shunted off to an available -- but less locally-knowledgeable briefer -- in the interest of speed.

While I'm not advocating longer wait times, perhaps we can put this fancy computer system LockMart has built to better use here. Even basic websites like WeatherMiester can highlight NOTAMs and METARs that have key information that might be worthy of a second look. Let's help out these briefers by having a more sophisticated analysis read TAFs and recent METARs and look for logical discrepancies, call out PIREPS that don't match Area Forecasts, and so on. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would help.

This wouldn't be a small project or a quick fix, but it could offer a service lost and still needed: Perspective on what's actually playing out rather than a script of what's predicted that anyone can read. Then the usefulness of a briefing might actually jump ahead of what internet-savvy pilots can do on their own -- and I might be more motivated make that phone call again.

Comments (11)

Nice try. The knowledge level of most of the new folks I talk to is not where it should be for a job like this. Enjoy the few knowledgable staff before they retire. The new folks arent being paid like those of yesteryear and that means the quality will likely go elsewhere. Weather is going to be a do it yourself proposition for the talented, savvy pilot, and another reason not to fly for the entry level once a month breakfast pilot calling for advice on an iffy day.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | September 23, 2008 7:38 AM    Report this comment

Mr West, Good point. Even something as (theoretically) simple as a product that compares/scores forecast wx to actual wx over a 6 or 12 hour time frame, would be a great help....(rather than having to save it manually to compare later). Does anybody know of if this exists somewhere?

Posted by: Thomas A Kubishta | September 24, 2008 10:44 AM    Report this comment

Thank you Phil Boyer, you got what you deserve. Whatever it takes to avoid user fees, right? Do you realize how many lives that you disrupted when the FAA dumped Flight Service? Do you even care? You have to be very careful what you wish for...you just might get it! An appropriate bumper sticker for your automobile or aircraft would state the following: "Federal Aviation Administration...The agency reponsible for taking the service out of Flight Service". Wal-Mart weather briefing anyone?

Posted by: Any Mouse | September 25, 2008 3:05 PM    Report this comment

Tools that help briefers and pilots identify changes in the weather or discrepancies between current conditions and forecasts would certainly be helpful. On the other hand, resourceful pilots have more weather information at their disposal today than ever before. I can read the same information a briefer reads, I can interpret it just about as well, and I can get either the broader picture or drill down. These days, I rarely even talk to FSS other than to make pilot reports.

But then again, I guess I'm too old to be flying through the Columbia Gorge. Or running scud through Sunol Pass.

Posted by: Jack Ellis | September 28, 2008 11:18 AM    Report this comment

Almost all pilots have a story about WX and how it affected them. I accept personal responsibility for each flight and therefore keep digging for information until I feel I'm ready for each flight. In general this takes about 20 minutes to do. I use DUAT, 800-WXBRIEF, the Weather Channel, ASOS phone numbers, and any other thing I can get. Does this sound like a 75 hour private pilot? No, I'm an 8,000 Commercial Pilot that flies 2-3 times a week.

A good briefing does not consist of just listening to the briefer. We've got to ask questions, insist on understanding what we are being told, and sometimes telling the Briefer exactly what we want to know and to stop reading some other stuff they are required to read to us.

I agree that the current performance of FSS is adequate.

Posted by: John Roberts | September 29, 2008 7:25 AM    Report this comment

I'm just waiting for Lockheed-Martin to farm out the briefing job to Bangalore: "Gud ivining, tank you fa calling Technical Supp...ah, excuse me (flipping pages in binder) tank you fa calling Flight Sahviss, mah nem ess "Richard", how may ah halp you?"

Posted by: Beach Comer | September 29, 2008 10:57 AM    Report this comment

FAA customer service motto:

"We're not happy, 'til you're not happy!"

Posted by: Steve Schroeder | October 1, 2008 6:25 AM    Report this comment

I just can't bring myself to even try them on the phone again. My experience with Lockheed Martin has been so poor and such a waste of my time that I just don't consider them a useful source of information. FSS was such a useful thing in the past and a real safety net for the student or sometimes pilot. For good or bad they were a usful part of the decision chain for many pilots, an appropriate part of cockpit resource managment in the pre flight phase. I have still found them useful and helpful for real time weather info when airborn but calling for a briefing is just too painful any more. Jeffrey Kyff, ATP, CFI

Posted by: Jeffrey Kyff | October 1, 2008 9:23 AM    Report this comment

Better-Yes!

Perfect-never, come on its a Government program.

I will say it is much easier to close a VFR flight plan now.

Posted by: Joe Oram | October 1, 2008 1:19 PM    Report this comment

At the flying club where I teach we are required to file and open/close flight plans. Some of now use and encourage our students to use DUAT or FlightPlan.com. We have had lost plans when calling into LM briefer s and can get a briefing from DUAT and our own research. Open can be a problem because our local FSS repeater (RCO) does not always work even though a neighboring RCO does. Megasigh!!

Posted by: Dan Malcolm | October 2, 2008 8:42 AM    Report this comment

Actually, they are getting paid the same. They start at the same rate that most the people are working the floor now. They didnt a year or so ago, but a wage determination upped it.

Posted by: Mark White | October 15, 2008 11:04 AM    Report this comment

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