Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.
On the fifth anniversary of contractor-operated FAA Flight Service, many commented on either program success or loss of “local knowledge” at the three super-centers covering the continent. For me, it turns out Flight Service is still close by — right next to my local Home Depot.
No, I can’t walk in for a briefing, local knowledge on weather and terrain, or a little hand-holding on a dark night. You can’t get near the new Eastern FSS. But it seems FAA and Lockheed-Martin made a good, economical choice for it — a once-vacant “data warehouse.” Perfect: A “blockhouse” with all the connectivity, power back-up and security of the commercial data complex it’s in. Beyond the appropriate gated security, any terrorist wouldn’t immediately know FSS was there or which of the many buildings is Flight Service.
That said, what about local knowledge? I would often check the chart and land at an FSS airport for a “go-go no further” decision. Yes, we pilots often rejected the “Mother-May-I” aspects of overly conservative flight specialists. But they had seen countless bad (often fatal) pilot decisions decades-and-decades before the latest neophyte strutted in.
Local knowledge around here was once most graphically represented by a 10-foot-long hand-drawn cross-section of Virginia/West Virginia mountainous routes. Framed over the briefing counter, it told VFR transients that a reassuring 4,000-foot ceiling at Washington was no ticket to continue west across those “little East Coast mountains.” A dotted line at 4,000 nearly intersected terrain tops arranged by their distance from IAD. I personally believe even this one little bit of local briefer insight saved lives.
There was classic appeal to an old FSS, its clacking teletypes and “old salts,” but nostalgia was never the point. Telephone, even face-to-face, briefings are not as efficient or handy as weather graphics and data by computer and Internet.
Past AOPA President Phil Boyer knew the power of graphics to communicate. He knew pilots were migrating to other weather providers. The spoken word was clearly NOT best for communicating or comprehending weather patterns. Where I might go to an FSS to see WX maps, Phil knew charts and radar images would be coming to me – even in the cockpit. Aside from new technology, he also knew that GA’s strategic retreat on 365 costlier local FSSs would yield credibility and rewards in other areas – and even in Flight Service itself.
I relished talking to FSS people across the counter. Their local knowledge and institutional memory was a treasure. No doubt, the new way is efficient and affordable. And I know I tied up government assets chatting while FSS supervisors glared. Some briefers didn’t care, knowing their time at FAA was short.
Yes, FSS is right down from Home Depot. It makes my head spin. Pilots used to speak with local experts at key airports who knew area “gotchas” and the accidents they caused. When things were tough, they’d tell you — even to your face — that you weren’t smart enough to beat the odds.
As in many other things, we’re increasingly on our own. That’s the new reality and the new politics. Fair enough. Data is data. Today you can get more of it (in more comprehensible form) on a computer. Get it yourself if you like, but know how to interpret the output or face the consequences.
You can still call. But despite geographic specialization in the super-FSS, you may not get a long-time local expert for your area. Ask.
Me? I guess I’ll just have to “man up”… or at least be sure to talk to the right briefer down at the call center by Home Depot.
Drew Steketee (c) 2010 All Rights Reserved