Flight Plannings New Age

With the recent, ongoing upheaval at flight service, we cant count on a briefers local knowledge or interpretation. Instead, we have to do it ourselves.


Anyone whos picked up the phone to obtain a weather briefing from an FAA Flight Service Station (FSS) in recent weeks has discovered the ongoing consolidation by federal contractor Lockheed Martin (LockMart) isnt going so well. Lengthy hold times have been common, if the telephone is answered at all. Once a pilot gets to speak with a briefer, the service has been, shall we say, uneven. Recognizing this, the FAA recently announced a $3 million fine against LockMart for failing to live up to the terms of its contract.

FAA’s Flight Service Station


We editorialized about these changes last month and had some in-depth conversations about LockMarts plans-to the extent they either had plans or were able to talk about them-with company representatives in a May 2005 article. Putting aside the many questions arising from what we consider the FAAs and LockMarts substantial breach of general aviations trust and faith in this privatization and consolidation process, whats the average GA pilot to do? Sure, theres Duat and various other online weather and flight-planning services , and weve published several articles in recent months on what resources exist and how to use them. However, many of these alternatives are designed to supplement an FSS pre-flight briefing, not replace it.

Whats missing from an alternative briefing-and what weve lost in the process-is a professional on the other end of the phone able and willing to help us interpret all the raw weather data. Regardless of where and how we get a briefing, how we go about replacing that interpretive capability is critical to GA safety and to maintaining our aircrafts utility.

Need For Interpretation

In my mind, the ability to obtain an automated weather briefing is childs play-a well-fed monkey could do it. A few mouse clicks and reams of current and forecast data-not to mention too many Notams-pour forth. The textual information, along with images depicting everything from winds aloft to thunderstorm activity should give us a clear picture of the basic weather we can expect to encounter on a given day over a given route at a given altitude.

But what about the terrains effect on that weather? How will the airplane perform? What operational considerations will we encounter by, say, flying into a setting sun on a hazy day as we leave the flatlands in favor of less-forgiving hills? Or when landing at an oceanside airport at midday? Thats where interpretation comes in.

To some extent, the ability to interpret raw weather data only comes with experience. We can go fly on marginal days and-once back on terra firma and after our pulse rate drops back to normal-compare the weather we encountered to what was advertised, drawing conclusions for the future. But learning from our “mistakes”-while great for the little lessons life throws at us when were not in a cockpit-is a lousy way to aviate.

Unfortunately, there are few substitutes for experience when it comes to interpreting weather. The principal substitute-the friendly neighborhood FSS briefer-has gone the way of the dodo. But there are others, if you know where to look.

Local Knowledge

When you call Flight Service nowadays, the briefer with whom you end up speaking literally could be a thousand miles away. Since the consolidation of what were almost “hometown” FSS facilities into the 61 Automated Flight Service Stations a few decades ago-which were themselves consolidated only in the last few months-“local knowledge” of weather phenomena involving geographic features, as one example, as been all but lost. Over that time, weather observation and reporting technologies have gotten much more sophisticated, to be sure, but the days of the grizzled veteran meteorologist tutoring the peach-fuzz student pilot are long gone. More than ever, were on our own.

A very concerned reader based in the Houston, Texas, area contacted us a few weeks ago to relate a tale involving a fast-moving thunderstorm line and his need for more information on it. He phoned 800-WX-BRIEF and eventually was connected to someone who wasnt aware of the thunderstorms. The briefer basically suggested to our reader the conditions were fine for flying, which they probably were in the briefers location. After some prodding and pointing, the briefer pulled up the radar display for south Texas and was forced to admit our readers plans probably wouldnt work as well as hoped. While this tale speaks to a larger issue, its true on a smaller scale, also.

For example, what does a briefer based in the Washington, D.C., area know about effects the Great Lakes may have on, say, Muskegon, Mich? Or, how can someone in Denver brief a VFR pilot launching from Buffalo, N.Y., in the dead of winter? The punchline is you need to do it yourself, since no ones going to do it for you these days. That may not be a bad thing, actually, since we have more tools available and learning to be self-reliant helps us gain experience more quickly.

So, how does one gain this local knowledge? Two ways: Pay attention and talk to other pilots.

Talking with other pilots in your flying club, whom you meet at the FBO counter or from whom you take instruction, is by far the best way to quickly gain knowledge on how different weather patterns can affect your flying. They know, for example, of the burbles caused by a stiff breeze flowing over buildings, trees and hills close to the local runway. They also can provide some insights on what a cold front coming from a certain direction likely will do to ceilings and visibilities.

Paying attention means monitoring the big weather picture for fronts, air-mass thunderstorms, early-morning fog and other larger-scale changes. There are a variety of resources for this, not all of which are aviation-specific. In fact, weather data tailored for aviation can be much too specific when it comes to learning what the “big picture” means until whatever is coming arrives. Then its up to you to compare the weather systems type and characteristics to what you observe out your kitchen window, when youre driving to work and when you pull up the local METARs and TAFs.

Its not rocket science, but it does require a conscious effort to gather and understand data describing the large-scale weather affecting your region and the ability to correlate that “big picture” information to how it might affect your normal routes, the aircraft you regularly fly and the airports you frequently use. After a few months, area pilots will be coming to you to obtain the local-knowledge background they need.


Along with knowledge of how the big picture impacts your flying comes the need for interpretation. For example, what exactly does a 10-gusting-to-20 direct crosswind mean when youre trying to get back to home plate? This is when you cant depend on anyone to make the decision for you-you have to decide based on your local knowledge, the airplane you fly and how well you fly it. Unfortunately for low-time pilots, this is also where experience plays its largest role.

Hopefully during your primary training you were blessed with both a location and an instructor providing exposure to less-than-perfect flying weather. Many pilots, for example, who learned to fly in the Great Plains rarely have issues with stiff, strong crosswinds. Pilots based in coastal areas know, almost instinctively, when and where to expect a fog bank. If your initial training was at a turf field, you rarely have issues with short- and soft-field operations. And knowing what a 2000-foot overcast with five miles visibility looks and feels like is money in the bank when it comes to making the go/no-go decision.

Learning how to interpret the letters and numbers found in your weather briefing and relating them to what youll see through your airplanes windscreen is the key. As you monitor the local observations, correlate them to what it looks like at your local airport. Compare the visibility to whether you can identify local landmarks in the distance, if any. Is anyone in the pattern? Can you see them at all times? How breezy is it on the ramp? Do pilots landing and taking off seem to have some “issues” with the crosswinds or the burbles after a cold front blows through?

The 2000-and-five example I used earlier, while legal VFR, might not be the best choice for the new Private pilot. But the new Private pilot wont know that until he or she experiences those conditions first-hand, preferably with their instructor. Its the same basic understanding and realization the newly minted Instrument-rated pilot gains when launching in for-real IFR the first time. If he or she only flew under the hood before getting the rating, that first exposure to real weather can be an eye-opener. It also can be a statistic waiting for a Zip Code.

The only real way to correlate and interpret whats in the forecast and observations is to have flown it. And that only comes with experience.

A Brave New World?

Is our new lack of local knowledge, interpretation and-if you will-government-sponsored hand holding a good thing or a bad thing? Theres no clean, quick answer. The most frustrating thing I and many others have experienced in the wake of LockMarts consolidation is the excruciating hold times encountered when one actually needs to talk to a human to file, open or close a flight plan. For the rest of it, the data is readily available, sans interpretation, of course, presuming you have a solid Internet connection. On a cold, dark, windy ramp after the FBO closes, its a problem.

The two schools of thought basically come down to these: Anything that results in pilots being forced to become more self-sufficient with greater understanding of and responsibility for their weather briefings is, in the long run, a good thing. On the other hand, an inexperienced pilots need to gain that understanding and to learn weather interpretation is a safety issue, one possibly leading to more accidents and fatalities resulting from a reduction in service.

The presumed degradation in services and familiarity among Flight Service Stations means were on our own more than ever. How we go about ensuring the continued safety and reliability of our operations is up to us. But thats as it should be, and as it always was. We just need to spend more time and effort collecting and understanding the available information. If we cant, maybe we shouldnt be flying.


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