Todd Huvard, president of AircraftMerchants, a North Carolina-based aircraft brokerage, is a commercial pilot with multi-engine, instrument and seaplane ratings and is typed in Cessna 500 and Falcon 20 jets. He founding editor and publisher of The Southern Aviator.
I tried again. I dialed 1-800-WX-BRIEF because of a TFR — I wanted to make sure my flight wouldn’t conflict with the edges of the VIP barricade. The Lockheed Martin associate (we used to call them briefers and we loved them) spent the first several minutes telling me all the reasons he and his company would not be liable for anyone so stupid as to fly an airplane or for any mistakes, transgressions or blunders such an idiot might make. He finished off by advising me with the standard “VFR NOT RECOMMENDED” and threw in an exclamation about turbulence for good measure.
Having been insufficiently frightened by his windowless world view, I turned to my laptop to divine my own aerial prognostications. It wasn’t always like this.
When I learned to fly, I revered Flight Service Station briefers. They were friendly and wise — they would talk to you about your route and help you see a path ahead. They knew when you didn’t know and taught you. And they knew when you did know and treated you with collegial respect.
On my first cross-county solo, I got damned near my goal — Danville, Va. — but the last few miles were tough. The visibility was poor and I had not yet mastered that tricky VOR needle, which danced from side to side as I flew nearer to the station. As I wandered about, chasing the needle, I remembered my instructor telling me to call on 122.1, and a reassuring voice from the Danville FSS provided me with on-the-job training about how to fly a DF Steer. (You old codgers know I am talking about a Direction Finder Steer – getting vectors provided by a station using triangulation of the ship’s radio transmissions. They have you fly a heading and transmit, then give you a few turns for positive identification.)
Lo and behold, I was only a mile or so away from the field when the station manager figured out my location and gave me the heading to the airport. I landed and the FSS guy lauded me for my effort, restoring my confidence for the return flight.
Of course, these days, the equipment and the stations that housed it have all been consigned to the scrapbook of aviation technology.
It has been 20 years since the first Automated Flight Service Stations became the PacMan of the FAA, gobbling up the familiar Flight Service Stations manned by equally familiar faces and voices — places like Danville and Macon and Jacksonville. At the time, in the early 1990s, the advent of the Internet had not foretold the direction of our online, plugged-in approach to getting briefings. The pilot community then warned of the consequences of losing the local knowledge that skilled briefers could relay to them. The FAA claimed that no matter where the briefing came from, the quality would be the same.
This never played out and pilots turned away from calling in person because of the poor and uneven experiences they were having with the AFSS system. First, by using dial-up modems and DUATS and, today, by using an array of online presentations of weather information, pilots depend on their own knowledge, experience and insight to judge the weather. In flight, we rely on NEXRAD and METARS piped into the cockpit from the satellites looking down on us like guardian angels.
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin won the contract to privatize flight service and ensure its ultimate demise. They might as well send the jobs to India, because at least then the customer service component would not be so surly.
I suppose the old guard Flight Service Specialists have long since retired or simply quit in disgust. The new breed seems intent only in warning off pilots that are naturally looking to them for fraternal guidance. The GPS-bred Generation Z pilots aren’t going to find any empathy, sympathy or solace from Lockheed Martin — they’ll get more warmth from their iPads.
Lockheed Martin may as well just change the phone number to 1-800-DON’T-FLY.