1-800-DON’T-FLY

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.

Comments

  1. Professional Pilot says

    This is a horrendous article. Mr Huvard sounds like he is one of the OLD flight service guys I used to talk to…very disgruntled and narrow-minded. I have used the, may I remind you FREE, flight service for years now. Both before it was privatized and after. It seemed like a very bumpy transition stage for Lockheed. But I must admit…the service now, is BETTER than it was before. When I talk to one of the younger professionals they seem much more eager to help me out than one of the crusty older ones…very similar to the one that wrote this article. Just like anything else..if you don’t like it, don’t do it!

  2. says

    the people that walked into my station were my family… i gave the breifing to the first mission after challenger and i did not care what call sign was “assinged to them” they wanted to honor the previous mission i gave the callsign they as a crew wanted i talked with astronauts and with celebrities and i was responisibile for the information i gave to them one time i left the station and went to the base operatier’s building prepaired to punch out the pilot because the bozo was about to depart into known iceing flying a c-172 and i did not want their deaths on my soul and there was the student calling mayday over the gulf of mexico his course was 180 and all he could only see water all quadrantes low on fuel i changed his course to 360 and how about the student pilot doing her cross country and departing three times into a serious thunderstorm along her route of flight three maydays later i called her instructor and had him ground her and fly to her location for a little more ground school each and every one of you pilots that i talked to became part of my family for a brief period i only lost one plane during my career i am quietly very proud of that i keep my family in my thoughts every day god keep you all in the palm of his hand

  3. Mike Timmons says

    I saw this comming. I retired after 27 years of FAA FSS/AFSS time. I retired in 2003 before LM took over and never looked back. I always took great pride in briefing pilots and inflight services. It is typical federal Goverment. Contract it out and they could care less about the system. I have friends still working for LM and they tell me the working conditions are really bad. I always felt the pilot deserved outstanding service and hate to see the safety and service go to hell in a hand basket. I feel this just reflects what type of goverment we have in this country and in Washington DC now. Stand up to the way you feel and what is right. Stay safe guys.

  4. Kevin says

    Here is the problem. Pilots have given up and stopped complaining -officially- to the FAA. The reasons I’m sure are many, but I cannot emphasize enough to you how important it is to keep up the pressure. Especially now that the contract is about to mature. If what Todd reports is true, then call the FAA with a date,time, and N-number.

    Writing into cyberspace is not bringing it to the FAA’s attention!!!!

    You need to keep up the complaints or nothing will change. A quick internet search yielded the following:

    FAA Administrators Hotline: 202-267-9532
    FAA Safety Hotline: 202-255-1111
    OIG Hotline: 800-424-9071

    FSS Web Based Complaints: 9-AWA-ATO-SYSOPS-FS@faa.gov

    LM Complaints: 888-FLT-SRVC (358-7782) Looks like it goes to LM though..

    Director of Flight Service Program: (and 110% delusional as to the real state of affairs) Dennis.Roberts@faa.gov 202-385-7645

    His boss: Nancy.Kalinowsky@faa.gov (also apparently clueless) 202-267-3666

    Her Boss: (and -not- clueless, just a victim of the political BS that outsourced them in the first place) Hank.Krakowski@faa.gov 202-493-5602

    His Boss: Another politician… Randy.Babbit@faa.gov 202-267-3111

    Bottom line… YOU HAVE TO KEEP THE COMPLAINTS UP! And that also goes for the Air Traffic facilities that are picking up the slack, taking flight plans over the frequency, not getting NOTAM information, not getting anything. LM is in it for the money. PERIOD. Of course they want to reduce demand, because their profit goes up!

  5. says

    This last summer I was at Aztec Muni (near Farmington, NM)flying to Cortez, Co. to overnight, I got the notams from the Lockheed person and took off. Overhead Cortez I say that the runway was X’ed closed and being resurfaced, don’t you think that should have been in the notams? The next day the briefer tried to tell me that Gooding, Idaho airport was open even though the runways (a single runway airport) were closed, I didn’t say I was a helecopter, and I think they would be a little upset if I landed on there ramp. Don’t trust anything they say, they don’t understand that notams are important.

  6. says

    This is one persons opinion only. 99.9% of all L.M’s folks are total professionals and do an exemplary job. Handling a bone head is tough no matter your job title. If you don’t like them…….. don’t use them! This is AMERICA!!!!!

  7. says

    My view is not so negative. I no longer get unavailable because everyone is calling the same FSS. I don’t ask for weather – there are far better ways to get a weather briefing. I do get current NOTAMS. I file flight plans. I check TFRs. Using the system that way seems to work fine. My briefers have been consistently friendly and efficient. The system needs to get more efficient to handle fewer pilots. Eventually it needs to go away – because it costs too much.

  8. The Doc says

    Thank you Mr. Huvard for your “accurate and insightful” article. I enjoyed hearing the truth once again, as to why such services are no longer available to the flying public. Yes, I too remember watching in horror, as the necessary and many time life-saving services were “stolen” from the flying public. I am quite certain that those services saved many a pilot and made the trip enjoyable and safe for all of us. Gone is the “Specialist” who could give you an “old sage” briefing and take your flight plan, with frequent advice as to some anomaly we weren’t aware of. Our government cut these services in the 90’s to save “our precious tax dollars” for better purposes (welfare).

    When this “rape” of services from the FAA was upon us, I was reassured by Administrator David Hinson (Clinton appointee), that we would see no change in the level of service provided to the users. I knew he was lying, but that Administration had already “cast the die”. It was a “done deal”, (take the funding from a well established source [Airway Users Trust Fund] for a specific service and spend it to “buy votes”). The aviation industry has been paying, for something it’s not getting, ever since.

    It has always been in the back of my mind, since that time, just how many pilots and passengers have lost their lives because of the complete and total lack of “this valuable and necessary service” to those, who pay a huge tax for the privilege, that are no longer available. In addition, your statement of the “antagonistic approach” to pilot briefing, was not lost on me as well. Good article…keep ‘em coming.

  9. Jerry says

    I whole heartedly agree. It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve called them for a briefing. It’s so much easier and much more complete to download everything I need, (CSC Duats) reiiew it, and take it with me for reference in the cockpit on a tablet computer.

    I have a suggestion for the FAA. Cancel the Lockheed contract and use the savings to equip GA aircraft with ADS-B (in & out) transceivers. In the long term, this would save a ton of money, as well as improve flight safety.

  10. Will says

    I only call them per requirement. Then I get my information from several other sources. Really miss walking into the old Flight Service…

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