By JEB BURNSIDE.
Even though little remains of the FAA’s Flight Service function, some of us still remember the old-fashioned ways.
Up front, I’ll admit I’m old school, but only to an extent. I prefer steam to glass, and a stick to an automatic transmission, for example, but I’d rather use metric than SAE. Go figure.
One of the things I have fond memories for is the network of FAA Flight Service Stations (FSS) throughout the U.S. I took my private written at one and, on numerous occasions “back in the day,” obtained an in-person pre-flight briefing at an FSS. (I also remember the rhythmic clacking of teletype machines, and a briefing-room wall lined by clipboards filled with uppercase type on cheap yellow paper, but don’t tell anyone.)
An exact peak number of FSS is elusive, but one FAA document notes, “By the early 1960s, the agency operated 297 flight service stations.” It also says the “FAA commissioned its first automated flight service station (AFSS) at Denver in November 1982. By the end of fiscal year 1995, FAA had consolidated its flight service stations into 61 AFSSs, 31 auxiliary stations (primarily in Alaska), and one remaining conventional station.”
Gone were the days of in-person briefings for most of us.
And today, the idea of one is ludicrous. The flight service function — for the most part — has been contracted-out to Lockheed Martin, and is accessible via voice telephone and the Internet. The closest one can come these days to getting an old-fashioned in-person briefing is in Alaska.
Gone with the in-person briefing is any local knowledge a grizzled Flight Service specialist might have and would willingly share with a pilot trying to go somewhere. In fact, local knowledge — along with the network of direction-finding (DF) facilities used to help orient lost pilots — was an oft-cited factor in resisting FSS consolidation.
Once everything became automated and there was no one left to impart any of that local knowledge, it’s debatable whether accidents resulted. Some probably did, but we’ll never know. Certainly, DF capabilities disappeared.
After some teething pains, meanwhile, LockMart appears to be doing its job. And the DUATS online service, now provided solely by Computer Science Corporation, also seems to be working well. Improved communication technologies and greater productivity demands over the years enabled these consolidations, and no one wants to go back to the old ways.
Even as the number of FSS was whittled down over the years, the in-flight services available actually got better. Remote communications outlets proliferated, along with automated observing equipment. Depending on altitude, there often is a discrete FSS frequency within range, or even 122.2 MHz, making the kludgy “listen on the VOR and transmit on 121.1” a relic.
If all else fails, we can still call the 800 number to get a clearance, sometimes from the run-up pad with the engine running. (And if there’s no cell service, and we can’t maintain VFR from the runway to an altitude high enough to call FSS on a radio, maybe we shouldn’t be trying to fly today, anyway.)
Farewell, Flight Watch
Flight Watch, also known as the En Route Flight Advisory Service or EFAS, always struck me as a solution to a problem that really didn’t exist. Yes, 122.2 could get very busy at times, and setting aside 122.0 for weather alone — no flight plans or clearances — made some sense. Maybe other solutions weren’t available. So I’m not sure how I feel about the FAA shutting down Flight Watch.
As of Sept. 24, dedicated Flight Watch positions are decommissioned, and we’ll need to use the other published frequencies to contact Flight Service via radio. (For six months beyond the cut-off date, Flight Service will monitor the 122.0 EFAS frequency and provide pilots a different one to use for en route weather and advisories.)
Also being eliminated is the Hazardous Area Reporting Service (HARS), which includes the Lake Reporting Service east-coasters like me might use when crossing Lake Michigan to reach Oshkosh.
The FAA says the changes are designed “to eliminate unnecessary duplication of service and provide greater convenience for pilots.” I suppose they were inevitable once the FAA’s Flight Information System-Broadcast (FIS-B, a component of ADS-B In) became operational. The free FIS-B service and proliferation of tablet computers running EFB software capable of displaying its data probably accelerated its demise, just as it seems to shorten what life remains in the idea of actually being able to speak with a human to obtain a pre-flight briefing or file a flight plan.
Most of the time while airborne, the typical GA pilot can do just fine with only the incoming text and imagery available via FIS-B. But it’s a one-way technology: Pilots can’t use it to file flight plans, request or obtain a clearance, or submit a pilot report.
Two-way data capabilities exist for airborne aircraft, but generally require an arrangement with an FAA-approved Data Link Service Provider. LockMart has advertised an electronic PIREP-submission service, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten off the ground.
Delivery methods have changed greatly — from the teletype machines and clipboards of the 1960s to today’s EFB apps. Flight Service’s evolution may well mean it ceases to exist as a separate function, but once in-person briefings and DF facilities were abandoned, along with the local knowledge available from those staffing the old-style FSS, the days of Flight Service “as we knew it” were numbered anyway.
Today’s FSS is more virtual than physical. Since there was little concern or opposition to shutting down EFAS and HARS expressed among the usual suspects, most pilots apparently have accepted its evolution into something accessed via their favorite EFB app or 1-800-WX-BRIEF. That includes me, but I still miss the ability to chat in-person with a briefer, or fill out a flight-plan form and hand it to somebody.
Flight Service’s history tracks the ongoing telecommunications revolution quite closely, and covers a lot of territory. This old-school pilot got to see much of it, and I’m glad.