Question: Am I required to call flight service to get a briefing before I depart?
Answer: The short answer is no. The regulations do not specifically state that you must call Lockheed Martin Flight Service (LMFS) (e.g., 800-WX-BRIEF) to get a briefing. FAR 91.103 (a) simply states, in part:
91.103 Preflight action.
Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. This information must include—
(a) For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport, weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC.
Certainly, a phone call on a recorded line to Flight Service (now known as Leidos) will fulfill most of these requirements. Briefers can provide the adverse weather along your proposed route of flight and assist you with identifying important NOTAMs and TFRs that may be relevant. You still must check many other aspects of the flight, such as takeoff and landing distances as well as weight and balance. But from a weather perspective, can you skip the call to Leidos and roll your own “weather” briefing and be perfectly legal?
Yes, you can, but here are the caveats. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and advisory circulars such as Aviation Weather Services, AC 00-45H, Change 2, provide you with guidance on how to get a good preflight briefing. These documents mention making the call to 800-WX-BRIEF as a legitimate source. While these documents are not regulatory, if you decide to roll your own briefing and something bad happens during your flight, you will likely need to show the FAA how you briefed yourself for the flight. If you can’t or your explanation isn’t satisfactory, the FAA will likely cite this as being “careless or reckless” under FAR 91.13 since it handed you the proper recipe for a briefing in these nonregulatory documents that clearly state it is wise to make that phone call.
Nevertheless, the FAA is making a reasonable attempt to recognize that more and more pilots are briefing on their own and not making that phone call. In the revision memorandum in AC 00-45H, Change 2 (November 2016) it states:
The experience of listening to a weather briefing over a phone while trying to write down pertinent weather information becomes less tolerable when the reports are easily obtainable on a home computer, tablet computer, or even a smartphone. To see weather along your route using a graphic of plotted weather reports combined with radar and satellite is preferable to trying to mentally visualize a picture from verbalized reports. Although most of the traditional weather products, which rolled off the teletype and facsimile machines decades ago, are still available, some are being phased out by the National Weather Service (NWS) in favor of new, Web-based weather information.
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Moreover, a letter dated June 28, 2017, from the assistant chief counsel of the FAA stated in a legal interpretation that, “The PIC’s failure to contact LMFS prior to a flight would not be a violation of 91.103.”
How about using one of the heavyweight electronic flight bag (EFB) apps to get your briefing? Yes, some of the heavyweight apps also provide a way to get a briefing that is logged and recorded that will fulfill the regulatory requirements in part. In fact, the FAA stated in the same 2017 opinion letter that “similarly, a PIC’s reliance on only an EFB would not be a per se violation of 91.103.” The letter also cautioned that “we note, however, that there may be limitations and quality assurance issues in connection with the information available through certain EFB products that may affect compliance with 91.103 and necessitate further information gathering regarding the flight.”
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