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.