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AVmail: May 21, 2007

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AFSS Consolidation

Just got back from flying this afternoon and I'm convinced that Lockheed-Martin (LM) has screwed up the FSS consolidation (Question of the Week, May 3).

My [airplane] just got out of annual so I left work a little early to do my own test flight out of Manassas, Va., (in the ADIZ). I called FSS and got disconnected twice and then put on hold for 18 minutes, then disconnected. Then after my fourth attempt, I connected to a briefer and asked to file my stored ADIZ flight plan. Guess what? He could not access it. Then I asked to file an ADIZ flight plan. He was not sure how to do it and I had to talk him through it.

Hello, FAA? LM may be moving, but they still are supposed to be meeting Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Who is watching the store? How in the world could I get connected to an agent who was not sure how to file an ADIZ flight plan? Who is doing QA?

Hello, AOPA? You guys thought it was an OK idea. Well, if it is like this on a slow VFR Monday afternoon, what will it be like on a CAVU Saturday or on a Friday before a long holiday with fronts bumping around?

When I call FSS, I'm not returning a hat or pair of socks ... I'm looking for survival info and I expect to be connected expeditiously and talk to someone who knows what they are doing.

How many folks will now not get a weather brief because they got put on hold for 20 minutes? How many folks will die or get violated because LM is making it harder?

Anyone know who to call in the FAA to make my point known and determine when this supposed to get better? They may use the excuse they are moving. Hey, guys: I'm a federal contractor with big time SLA's and I didn't get any slack when I had to consolidate data centers. That is what the Feds pay me for. Why is LM different?

Gene Cartier


When Lockheed-Martin took over the weather briefings, at first I saw little or no change to the service level that I received. But since then I have seen the service go from acceptable to dangerous. I know that this may sound strong, but my experiences in the last week point to a situation that will cause accidents if not fixed soon. As pilots we must come together and try to voice our displeasure with the new consolidated system.

At this point I laugh when someone tells me they had to wait five minutes to talk to a briefer. The real wait times for me on my last three flights were 30 minutes, 50 minutes, and never. Yes, never: I had my son (a student pilot) stay on the phone for an hour and no one ever picked up. Good thing for me it was a good VFR day. He spent more time on the phone then I did flying the plane home. This is going to lead to pilots forgoing weather briefings. I know it did for me and this can lead to a dangerous situation.

It does not stop there, however, as I have been experiencing dropped calls a full 25 percent of the time. I was half way through a briefing when it dropped the last time and that was after waiting 30 minutes to talk to someone. Then it took 50 minutes to get someone back on the line. When I commented about the situation to the briefer, he apologized and said that they are having a lot of equipment problems, training problems, computer problems, etc. I made the comment that he can barely understand what the computer is telling him since the latest update.

That lead me to my most disturbing situation. During the briefing I was given incorrect information. I was informed that at the airport I was going to there was going to be parachute jumping all day. Then he said that the information was old, he put me on hold and talked to a supervisor and I was told to disregard because there was not going to be jumping. You guessed it: I monitored the uncontrolled field as I approached (and was talking to ATC) and found that there was a lot of jumping occurring and a drop from 14,000 was occurring over the airport as I approached to land.

During one of the last briefings I was told of a VOR that was going to be out of service that was supposed to be on my route (a local flight less than 100 miles). When I questioned the briefer about it (since I had not ever heard of it before), I was informed it was just a few miles from my home base. Only problem is, it does not exist around my home base.

The loss of people that know the local area that they give briefings for is a major problem. I am to the point that I don't trust the information that they are giving me; therefore, I am using other non-aviation sources. The safety of general aviation is at stake with this situation and the pilot population needs to pull together and get the word out about this problem.

Robert Arend Jr.


This letter refers to Mr. Fisher's letter about the new AFSS (AVmail, May 7). You said you're a supporter of AFSS privatization. Anything that deals with safety should not be privatized because safety will always take a back seat to profit, which is happening with LM's Flight Service.

To reply to your "having to fly somewhere else," most of the pilots we brief are staying within a few states of their departure point. Longer briefs are usually multi-leg (except high altitude) and pilots have opportunities to get weather updates from briefers who are more familiar with their destination. It's hard now to get familiar with our supposed "area of responsibility" (LM term) because instead of briefing in an area of a few states, and getting to know if the forecasts are off or right on, etc., we brief haphazardly around the country. The promised "local knowledge will not suffer" was one of the first casualties of privatization and consolidation.

LM, with their new equipment, is trying to meet a deadline (profit motive in this) instead of making sure the equipment works. The briefers have no confidence in this equipment.

So, in closing, to you Mr. Fisher, Phil Boyer (as I wrote to him before we were privatized), and everyone else who pushed for or supported AFSS privatization, I'll repeat the old proverb: "Beware of what you ask for, you just might get it!"

Name withheld by request


As an Internet junkie, about the only time I am called upon to use FSS is to file a flight plan into the Washington, D.C., FRZ, and I not infrequently fly into College Park, Md., (KCGS).

In the past, I have never had a problem with the simple procedure of calling Leesburg FSS and waiting no more than a minute or two regardless of the time of day. (I usually file 30 minutes ahead early morning and late afternoon or early evening.) Every briefer knew instantly what to do, how to do it with minimal information exchanged and frequently would offer specific advice.

After the recent consolidation, I happened to need to fly into KCGS on Tuesday and out on Wednesday. A 1000Z call to the usual number gave a message that claimed the number was the right and special number for this purpose, and after 30 minutes or so failed to get an answer. Gave up, flew down to just outside the ADIZ, landed and tried again at around 1130Z. Got through after about 15 minutes to someone who was authorized to do this, though admitted he was inexperienced with it. Worked, though.

Next day I was not so lucky. Now trapped inside the FRZ, I tried calling the usual number, which still claimed to be special but wasn't, around 1730Z. Held for 15 minutes, got someone who started the process then said, "Oops, can't do this, not authorized and trained by the secret service, try calling a different number instead," which I did and it said, "No such mailbox," and hung up on me. Called back the usual number, and after another 10 or 15 minute wait got the same briefer, who transferred me to a supervisor (by waving his hands to attract his attention from 50 feet away, I was told), who said sorry, the line was supposed to be fixed, and transferred me to someone authorized to do the filing, who, though not very confident about it and unable to use the pilot and aircraft information I already had "on file," got the job done. Again, no problem later with Clearance Delivery, so it worked.

Anyway, these guys were all incredibly nice and tried to be as helpful as they could. But as far as systems, processes, training, testing and deployment are concerned, Lockheed-Martin has done a woefully poor job.

I am sure it will get better over time, but aren't they supposed to work out the kinks before they put it into service?

David Clunie


It seems that Lockheed-Martin has been taking a lot of flack for the AFSS performance during its consolidation. Unfortunately for them, most of the problems are a result of malfeasance and misfeasance on the part of the FAA. As a former FSS briefer (25+ years), it is apparent that the present FAA had no idea what the FSS job entailed when they put it out for bid. Since Lockheed was making decisions on information from the FAA, it was not a surprise that they would have some stumbling blocks thrown right in their way. Moreover, the FAA, suddenly realizing they could be next to be out-sourced, decided to increase their evaluations of briefings by over 1000%, and generate failures based on the most obscure reasons: Telling a briefer they were flying at 4500 and failing the briefer when they were given winds at 3000 and 6000; failing a briefer because during a brief down the coast the briefer mentioned IFR weather in western portions of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and used "too much info"; and a briefer suggesting that icing could exist even though there was no Airmet for icing.

What does this have to do with "wait times"? A briefing that could be accomplished in two and a half minutes was now taking four minutes following a script that had no relevance to most briefings, but briefers, fearing their jobs, were parroting a format that would sustain an evaluation. Lockheed must take some blame because, while being fined for these failures, they did not question these Draconian failures and question the motives of the evaluators. I never did put much stock in having to brief outside my area and can only guess that is another evaluation fear. I'm sure the problems with the equipment will be rectified and staffing will stabilize, but if the FAA is allowed to follow briefers around word for word, they might as well follow Dell and out-source the calls to New Delhi.

Raymond D. Dunn, Jr.


I am a controller at Los Angeles Center (ZLA). One busy Sunday afternoon on a marginal VFR day I was the acting supervisor for the sectors surrounding Grand Canyon, Ariz., (GCN). The overloaded controller at the GCN sector told me that he had an aircraft that had tried repeatedly to file an IFR flight plan with FSS. The Lockheed employee at PRC [Prescott] FSS told the pilot to get his flight plan from Center. When told that Center had instructed that he contact Flight Service, he was foisted off on Las Vegas Approach, then back to PRC, who sent him back yet again to our frequency. The understandably frustrated pilot stated that he was nearing an area of IFR and needed to get a clearance or he would have to return to Las Vegas.

When I spoke with the manager of PRC FSS, his only response was to repeat, "You guys usually take care of that," over and over. I informed him that, with increased traffic and reduced staffing, he could no longer plan that the Center would be able to perform one of his facility's primary functions. I only got his undivided attention when I asked how to spell his last name for my report on the incident.

During last year's fire season, Nevada was ablaze with multiple wildfires and their accompanying TFRs. Controller workloads do not allow time to advise and vector every VFR pilot through the dozens of TFRs. I was very uncomfortable with the number of pilots who claimed not to have received information from FSS about the existence of TFRs. I was told that unless a pilot specifically requests this information, FSS is not required to provide it. I don't know what the FSS briefing requirements are, but I have worked 16 fire seasons at ZLA and never had this problem prior to 2006.

Many of my colleagues have shared similar experiences with our new Flight Service. All I can suggest to pilots is, "Flyer Beware."

Jennifer Carr


Helicopter Tree-Trimming Video

Whether the helicopter tree-trimming video chosen by you is proved to be a well-devised hoax or true footage, I am saddened that you have deemed this worthy of the AVweb readership (Video of the Week, May 13). This appears to be "cowboy" piloting at its worst. I can't even begin to imagine everything that could have gone wrong in that scenario.

Pilot numbers are dwindling, airports are disappearing and stories in the media about flying seem only to focus on those with negativity and shock value. Is this video truly how you believe aviation should be depicted?

Rick Pannemann

AVweb Replies:

Thanks for your comments, but I must politely disagree with them. I don't think this is "cowboy" piloting at all -- this work is very necessary and, apparently, thankless. Powerline tree trimming is something that must be done to maintain steady electric service to many parts of the U.S. It just so happens that they use helicopters and a sling-loaded saw as a cost-effective way to keep some trees from interfering with high-voltage power lines.

Helicopters are also used as aerial platforms to perform maintenance work on these high-voltage power lines -- I've only seen still photos of this work and it sure looks pretty scary to me, with one worker sitting on the skid to work on the power line while a very steady pilot keeps the helicopter hovering dead still. Our hats should be tipped off to these skilled helicopter pilots who put their lives on the line every day to ensure that we have an uninterrupted power supply, as well as helping to keep our home energy prices affordable. I hope this prompts people to think about these pilots every time they turn on a light or use a computer, among many other things that we take for granted every day.

I personally think the video is a fine example of showing how aviation affects our daily lives. Aviation has many facets beyond just the airlines, airborne shipping and typical general aviation activities (flight training, business aviation, recreational flying, etc.). It's good for everyone to be educated about how aviation affects them, even if they never set foot aboard an airplane once. (Yes, these people still exist -- in fact, my wife's grandmother and aunt have never flown aboard an airplane, and I doubt they ever will).

Chad Trautvetter
Editor In Chief

QOTW Oshkosh

None of your answers about Oshkosh convey what I feel about the show (Question of the Week, May 10). With current fuel prices what they are, I'll have to see how much money is in the bank at the end of July. As for the airshow, I get tired of watching airshow acts -- I've seen them all. I like watching warbirds fly and unusual aircraft.

Richard Jones


Warning System Might Curb Obstacle Collisions

Sorry, but this is a massively overdone solution for a much simpler problem (AVwebFlash, May 13) -- assuming, that is, that the FAA and other nations ever manage to get around to finally implementing the ADS-B technology we designed back in the '80s. The rest of the ADS-B solution, which was proposed back then, was permanently mounted "squirters" on significant obstacles (antennas, mountain tops, tall buildings, etc.).

This squirter is no more than a fixed-message, ADS-B broadcaster that periodically transmits the same package as any ADS-B equipped aircraft. Since the message never changes, no GPS receiver is required, no display is required, nor is any of the rest of the ADS-B system needed. ADS-B equipped aircraft see the obstacle as a fixed-position object and get the same collision alert as they would with any other aircraft.

Total equipment (parts only) cost should be under $200 per installation. The power requirements are low enough that such a system could be solar powered if necessary.

James M. Knox


Transponders

As usual, you forgot a few options on the Question of the Week (QOTW, May 16).

All aircraft should have a working Mode C transponder. Then whoever wants to spend the extra money for TCAS can know that they'll see the other aircraft.

I wouldn't allow exceptions for much of anything. Gliders, old Cubs, ultralights flying more than 1000 feet AGL ... battery-powered transponders are available. Everyone should have a transponder.

Doug Bosworth


Lakefront Airport

I am a pilot flying a New Orleans-based corporate jet. I feel that no public money should be spent on Lakefront Airport (KNEW) (AVwebFlash, May 16). Especially now that the airline flights have been cut back into New Orleans International (KMSY), there is more than adequate capacity for all general aviation at KMSY. The ATC capability there is under-utilized and the two very nice FBOs have a lot of remaining ramp space and capacity for service. New Orleans will never return to its original population and folks there should decide to spend public money in the best way to serve the current needs. I say make KNEW a destination for those small GA planes who prefer uncontrolled-field operations and spend the available dollars on improving KMSY. No control tower is needed at KNEW.

Bill Pearson


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