The Untimely Demise Of DUATs
Change and I have an uneasy relationship, the former claiming I’m slow to embrace technology, unwilling to “try something new.” Sheesh ... Change can be so … you know … and so in your face, too. I submit that ADFs and VORs were working just fine—when you could receive them—and I saw no value to GPS replacing the Narco Omnigator in my 1951 Bonanza’s instrument panel. That is, until I actually used a GPS and allowed that the future might include some limited use of SATNAV … as a backup. By then, the future had zipped past me before I realized that my Garmin 196 had functions other than Direct-To. Other losses I’ve yet to embrace are the deconstruction of Flight Service Stations (FSS) — the Jerry Van Dyke (JVD) of the National Airspace System (NAS) — and the end of online briefing service, DUATS (Direct User Access System).
FSS has always been conflicted. It’s not quite NWS and not really ATC but is a fetching acronym in its own right, constructed of stalwart angles softened by elegant swirls that are far more welcoming than its parent acronym, FAA, all sharp elbows and pointed attitude. Full disclosure: I spent 17 years in the frustratingly angled agency, and even though I was in the Federal Aviation Administration, many still referred to it as an agency, a holdover from the Federal Aviation Agency days. “Administration” doesn’t project the ultimate authority the FAA badge should convey. Actually, there was no FAA badge that we could flash like Zimbalistian FBI agents kicking in hangar doors, snub-nose .38’s at hip level while hauling TFR perps to Leavenworth in unmarked Ford sedans. Instead, we carried the standard federal employee ID card, often confused with a Costco membership card. Announcing your FAAness away from the aviation world usually elicited a vague, “Oh, yes, my niece is in FFA (Future Farmers of America) … something with sheep, I think.” Explaining the difference between FFA and FAA to outsiders is nearly as pointless as telling pilots the difference between a hanger and a hangar. Still, good fights are fought despite inevitable failure, or what good is irony?
The demise of FSS has never set well with me. Learning to fly in a military flying club in Hawaii meant learning the military way, which meant making a simple trip around the pattern as administratively complicated as possible. Any flight began at the dispatcher’s counter to be assigned a Cessna 150. I was 20, an Army Spec 5, and understood that everything began and ended with paperwork. The club’s HQ was in a long wooden building that had survived the 1941 Japanese visit. Had the Imperial Navy notified the U.S. military that attack was imminent, filed the proper paperwork and been assigned an attack area, chances are war would’ve been averted. But sneaking in—on a Sunday, yet—without proper clearance, unleashed unforeseen consequences. You know the story.
Back to the 1974 flying club. Once the club’s dispatcher assigned an airplane, the student would visit the Air Force briefer inside a separate wooden shack, lending the experience that Junior G-Men Of The Air feeling I’d envisioned flying should be, because my view of flight was based entirely on old Grade-B films. I was mildly disappointed flying Cessnas instead of Stearmans or Wacos but submitted to Change.
The Air Force briefer looked as though he was only exposed to tropical sunlight when stepping outside to estimate the cloud bases, which in Hawaii, were usually in the same place, except during rainy season, when they were a bit lower and wetter. Still, we danced the mandatory briefing gavotte and always filed a flight plan, even when staying in the pattern. If venturing away, you’d specify exactly which practice area over Oahu you would utilize. No cheating. Can’t say you’ll fly in Area 1 and, later, slip into Areas 2 or 3. Should you file for the traffic pattern and, then, get a wild hair to head to North Shore Dillingham Airfield, you’d contact the briefer to amend your flight plan. Oddly, I didn’t mind the hassles and thought that was just how flight was. Paperwork and reward.
Civilian flight was emancipating. The first time I rented a civilian airplane the FBO said, “The key’s under the floormat, write the Hobbs time in the notebook when you’re done. Have fun.” Fun. The military hadn’t emphasized that. Mind you, I had lots of fun learning to fly, but, as with Catholic school, fun invited guilt.
“Bless me, Air Force Father, for I had fun …”
“Of what nature?”
“Um, I, um … had unauthorized aerial enjoyment.”
“Yes, father …”
The FAA anticipates our weaknesses and assigns preemptive penance for even thinking about guilt-ridden fantasies. “Before beginning a flight, (the PIC shall) become familiar with all available information concerning that flight …” FAR 91.103’s “all available information” is daunting but, time was, consulting a FSS briefer in the privacy of an on-airport FSS mitigated most venial intentions. A phone call did much the same thing. Provided—in the days before cellphone ubiquity—there was a phone available. Skip a briefing and subsequently die in a crash? Straight to FAA administrative hell.
Flight Service Stations weren’t found at every airport but enough to allow slow-movers like me to plan fuel stops where you’d meet some of the loneliest FAA employees in the system. Most were super eager to brief, input a flight plan, show off their DF Net (Direction Finding) or just offer free coffee and out-of-date sectional charts. There was the briefer in Morgantown, West Virginia, who, when I asked how quickly he could enter my IFR flight plan into the teletype, glanced at me with the confidence of a riverboat gambler and replied in a Clint Eastwood hiss, “How fast can you make it to your airplane, punk?” He beat me … and didn’t call me a punk.
And there was the FSS specialist in Paso Robles, California, alone on one of the most beautiful airports in the world, who kept a fishing pole leaning against the wall beneath the prog charts. Or the briefer in the Western Mojave Desert airport at Lancaster, California, who, when I arrived from the Monterey Bay area in my Stitts Skycoupe and said I was heading to Phoenix one clear but windy day, didn’t stay behind the counter. Instead, he took me outside, pointed to a distant peak and said, “See that mountain?” I nodded. It was hard not to see with 50 miles visibility. "You fly on the upwind side,” he pointed, “and you’ll get a rough ride.” Then swiveled his arm like a gun barrel and said, “Fly on that downwind side," pausing for effect, "and you die.” Man, that’s a briefing. He was right. It was rough on the upwind—scary rough for a flat-lander, but we didn’t die.
Those stations were long-ago replaced by AFSS with long-distance automated briefers, who mean well, but … well, can’t see the mountains for the computer screens. And they, too, have succumbed to soulless automation, that may be more efficient but can’t forefend doom with quite the same immediacy, as a briefer on the phone in Topeka, Kansas, did when I said I planned to launch ahead of a line of thunderstorms in my Marquart biplane. “Honey,” she said, “you hang up, go find a weather radar picture, and then call me back and tell me what your Plan B is!” I did, saw the purple threat of a Dorothy-Going-To-Oz squall line and called FSS back to ask for a motel recommendation. She suggested one with a good storm shelter.
As much as I’ve accepted DUATS into my daily flight life, and will miss the familiar service, it’s never called me “Honey.” I don’t think the online briefing site, www.1800wxbrief.com, will either. But, then, again, I don’t expect avgas to drop to sixty cents per gallon or the FAA to admit that ADS-B was really a cruel April Fool’s hoax. Like the bumper sticker says, “Change Happens,” and you either embrace it or whine about how much you hate it. Your choice; I’ve already made mine.