Flight Service? It’s right there, next to Home Depot

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.

Drew Steketee photo (c) 2010 All Rights Reserved

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.

Drew Steketee photo (c) 2010 All Rights Reserved

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


  1. says

    We appreciate Mr. Steketee’s comments on Flight Services. As a point of information only, FAA maintains 17 FSS’s in Alaska. Pilot ability to directly interpret weather data is increasingly important, and our Alaska FSS briefers can help facilitate the efficient acquisition of weather data, interpretation and weather trend analysis for go/no go decision making. We continue to maintain Local Area Knowledge as a distinct safety asset for our pilot briefers and invite pilots flying to Alaska to contact Alaska Flight Service Stations for local specifics and to review our Alaska Local Area Knowledge Video at http://www.faa.gov/tv
    Marshall Severson, FAA, Alaska Flight Services

  2. says

    Yes, Drew, I know exactly the nostalgia you’re talking about. In fact, in my personal slide collection, I have great shots of almost all the New Mexico FSS’s before they were shut down. Two room, white-painted shacks on the prairie with WWII equipment still in use.

    But is there a way to replace that local knowledge of the old time briefers?

    How about an online ‘local knowledge’ program, that has drawn on the wisdom of the old FSS salts, local pilots, local meterologists and NTSB records? I’m envisioning such a program in an e-learning type format, with choices of local areas: Northeast congested areas, Northeast mountainous areas, the Appalachians, mid-Atlantic, etc., etc. Local pilots and local meterologists can explain in their own words (with mug shots of them, maybe) what to watch out for under certain conditions.

    Kevin D Murphy

  3. says

    Drew, Good to see your name in print. I attended a funeral just last week for the last station manager of the old ORL FSS that closed now many years ago at Orlando Executive. It was right down the hall from my FBO. On those Florida thunderstorm afternoons or during some cold front action in the Winter, there could be a dozen pilots in there. They could learn about our “Seabreeze fronts” and other local knowledge gems that, were they visiting from another area of the country, were things that they had never learned about. Each section of the country has its own peculiar nuances that young pilots can benefit from. I know it was a lot of expense, employed a lot of people- and yes, not all of the briefers loved their jobs, but it was a valuable service hard to replicate, short of having an old salt next to you in the front of the airplane to tell you the stories.

    Thanks for the reminders and good memories! Bob Showalter

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