Each week, we run a sampling of the letters received to our editorial inbox here in AVmail. One letter that's particularly relevant, informative, or otherwise compelling will headline this section as our "Letter of the Week," and we'll send the author an official AVweb baseball cap as a "thank you" for interacting with us (and the rest of our readership). Send us your comments and questions using this form. Please include your mailing address in your e-mail (just in case your letter is our "Letter of the Week"); by the same token, please let us know if your message is not intended for publication.
Letter of the Week: Flight Service Closures Will Hurt
I'm a flight service specialist at St. Petersburg, Florida and am directly involved in day-to-day operations. In your article, [Lockheed Martin spokeswoman] Jan Gottfredsen claims that because of a "13% reduction in call volume, combined with efficiencies gained with a new communications network," there will be a seamless transition. I must question this contention.
Currently, Kankakee, Lansing, Nashville, and St. Petersburg answer collectively up to 2,500 calls per day. The traffic of the Eastern Service Area flight service stations exceeds that of the other two service areas. These four facilities are dedicated entirely to briefing pilots. The 3 "hub" facilities conduct all of the inflight (radio) functions, flight data and NoTAM functions. Typically, in the Eastern Service Area Hub, only a half dozen or so people are briefing; the rest are required to perform inflight, flight data and NoTAMs for the eastern United States. Admittedly, Lockheed is massaging the staffing schedule to compensate for the loss of briefers, but where are the additional people coming from?
Under the current system, Miami and St. Petersburg do all of the international flight planning and briefing in the Eastern U.S. During a normal day, it is not unusual for my facility to brief not only our designated area of responsibility (SE U.S.) but also overflow international calls, domestic calls from Miami; Washington, D.C.; North Carolina; Nashville; and all of the Midwest states. Notice I said "overflow" calls. Under our current system, demand exceeds capacity in several areas, and work is being transferred to other facilities, potentially losing the advantage of local area knowledge so necessary to the flying public.
The people working in the closing facilities are the specialists with the greatest amount of experience. The AFSS contract called for 1,000 briefers. On October 10, 2007, FAA and Lockheed were called to the Hill to explain why the flight service system was failing. Witness after witness testified that part of the problem was lack of people. All promised to try and get the contract up to the magic number of 1,000. The number was never reached. As of June 23, 2009, there were 773 people classified as Flight Service Station II or III briefers. Since then, there have been losses due to medical and retirements. After the closures, we will be down to less than 600 qualified briefers.
The data not provided to the aviation community are the safety-related statistics. Since 2005, flight service staffing levels have continuously dropped. The specialists losing their jobs are the most experienced in the system. While statistically, traffic levels have dropped since 2005, operational deviations (errors that result in violation of airspace, loss of separation, etc.) have increased from six per year in 2005 to 25 per year in 2008.
It is difficult to believe that the same level of service will be provided with 25% fewer people. The people they are removing from the system are dedicated to the sole function of flight planning and pilot weather briefing and nothing else. How are they going to absorb the large number of extra calls per day? No matter how much automation, no matter what percentage traffic has dropped, the fact is that the current system is operating near full capacity.
Gottfredsen has been touting the current successful performance levels as proof of their capability to continue seamlessly in various aviation publications and the media. AOPA is in agreement with Lockheed on this issue. This proof comes on the backs of my peers. We are successful because my co-workers at St. Petersburg daily brief pilots in New England; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Nashville; and the Midwest. We are successful because the closing facilities are devoted entirely to pilot weather briefings. The proof being provided to the media is based on the existing system and statistics.
Before I came to Flight Service, I spent 13 years in the terminal environment. When I warn of potential problems in the ATC system as a result of the impending closures, the warnings come from a position of experience. The lack of flight service briefers is going to place an additional workload on the controllers. There will be fewer people operating inflight positions [and] flight data positions and far fewer briefers. This will require tower and center controllers to manually put in the flight plans, find lost flight plans, and coordinate other daily tasks. When the tower, approach, and center controllers are distracted by performing Flight Service duties the next time the Center computer stops accepting flight plans from the airlines our facility manually put over 400 into the system last time and they put two together, resulting in loss of life, remember this discussion.
I see a trend of sorts, and it does not look good. It seems every time some service that was a federal entity becomes the responsibility of a contractor, it gets diminished or closed. It's not a very good sign, really.
Now FSSs, a safety service, are getting the treatment. I don't like the way this automation stuff seems to be replacing the human brain. The brain does not suffer from power surges/outages, EMPs, or backhoe buckets.
There are times when money and profits should be secondary to safety. This point always becomes distorted and overly apparent to the news media when something "goes wrong." It now seems flight safety is always a number one priority except where money enters the equation. Let contractors fix stuff, and let the FAA take care of the safety, before this becomes a problem.
Nice segment on the Cirrus stall/crash.
Here are a couple of inputs:
Keep up the good work,
DER Flight Test Pilot
The recent interview with John King and Rich Stowell on AVweb was great and informative. As with most interviews concerning stall spin accidents, they talked about angle of attack, wing loading, and stall speed but never talked about the specific relationship between stall speed and wing loading. That is, the relationship we all learned in primary training: The stall speed at any G is equal to the stall speed at 1g (the bottom of the green arc in a clean configuration) times the square root of G. Although there are influences that vary this equation slightly, the bottom line, as stated, is true. Discussions need to talk about this relationship with real numbers to emphasize how the stall speed of the wing moves around the airspeed indicator. A great inexpensive anti-stall device in any airplane would be a placard, which gives some specific examples showing G loading vs. stall speed. In addition, to increase the pilot's awareness of this relationship, the primary airplanes should have a G-meter in the panel, and [that] should be part of the pilot's scan while doing maneuvering close to the ground.
Reading about stalls, I am very surprised that so few aircraft are equipped with angle of attack indicators. Since I've had one, I've known exactly how much lift reserve I have, even in a steep turn.
The accident appears to be a classic case of an instructor allowing a situation to get too far before taking over the controls. No one was looking out of the window. The student was under the hood attempting to use his $100,000 avionics suite to do a GPS approach to Runway 19. He overshot once, then twice on short final. In my opinion, the instructor should have taken over the controls after the first overshoot.
I read the article on stalls and watched the recreation of the Cirrus stall/crash and was again amazed by how perplexed everyone seems to be about solving this problem. The answer is to ban all conventional designs and build only canard aircraft. I have owned a Rutan VariEze for the last 15 years. It will not depart controlled flight in any position, and, like all modern canards, it will climb while in a stall! Any Cirrus owner could buy a used four-passenger Velocity XL with an IO-540 that will cruise at 240 kts at 12.5 gph for about a quarter the price of the Cirrus.
I would like to urge AOPA to be more active in helping bring common sense to the through-the-fence agreement issue. This is a typical illogical power move by the FAA.
I have no vested interest except to help bring some common sense to this issue. If we continue to allow the federal government to take our freedoms for no reason other than power, we are going to have no freedoms.
Your message about expiring certificates is well timed. A way to save the two-dollar fee is to request that your SSN be taken off if you haven't done that already.
In your article "Got a Paper Certificate? Replace It Now," you mention that the replacement is $2 per certificate. However, when I went to the site, they offered to send me a new certificate at no charge since mine still used my Social Security Number. I won't know until I receive the new certificate, but I assume it will be the new style, not another paper one. If so, that means that anyone that hadn't had their SSN removed from their certificate may be able to accomplish both tasks at one time and at no charge. I'll know in two weeks when the new certificates arrive.
Obviously this new mandate for all pilots to have the new updated license by the published cut-off date is vital information to all pilots. So I think it wise you warn your readers that when trying to complete this procedure online, the FAA's site (apparently) automatically picks your name as it appears on your license and injects it into the credit card processing process.
Obviously, many pilots don't use the exact or full name on their credit cards as it may appear on the license. For example, most of us probably use a middle initial instead of our full middle name on credit cards, but, like me, use our whole names on our FAA licenses. This goofy glitch makes it impossible to use the online services to update our licenses online and thus renders this otherwise simple process to snail mail. Can you believe it?
In your article on National Aviation Hall of Fame inductees, your reporter wrote, "Warren Grimes, the 'father of aircraft lighting,' produced his first airplane lights in his garage in 1933 and created the familiar red, green and white nav lights still found on aircraft today."
The "familiar" nav light pattern has actually been used on boats for many, many years, so I suspect Grimes simply copied the nautical convention for lighting: green to starboard; red to port; and white, fore and aft.