A Requiem for Oakland


The building that houses the Oakland Flight Service Station is nothing remarkable -- just a square concrete structure at the northern end of Oakland Airport's North Field. But it's surrounded by history. Old, clapboard buildings from World War II line the airport frontage road that leads to the station. And side streets still carry names like Sikorsky, Ryan and Grumman -- giants in an industry that has long since left some of those legendary manufacturers behind.

Well, at least the station will be in good company.

Much has already changed from the good old days. The door to the facility is securely locked. I press a buzzer by the door, and tell a disembodied voice that I'm here to get a pilot weather briefing. There's a loud click as the door unlocks. I smile. At least pilots are still welcome here.

I walk into a darkened, quiet room where the brightest spots are the computer monitors at various work stations. It looks like many other Flight Service Stations I've visited over the years -- although I'm old enough to also remember ones that had windows.

My arrival generates a bit of excitement among the briefers. Not too many pilots stop by the station for face-to-face briefings anymore. "I remember getting all of my briefings by walking in the door, in Hawaii," says a briefer named John, as we walk over to his station. "I loved having that face to face contact."

Unfortunately, this will very likely be the very last personal briefing I receive in my flying career, as well as the last personal briefing John ever gets to give. The Oakland Flight Service Station -- the fourth oldest station in the country, dating back to the air mail days of 1928 -- has been slated for closure at the beginning of February 2009 by Lockheed Martin, which won the contract to manage the nation's Flight Service Stations in 2005. Most of the staff is being reassigned to one of Lockheed's "hub" facilities in Prescott AZ; Ft. Worth TX; and Ashburn VA -- none of which is located near an airport or runway.

John takes me to his station where four high-resolution monitors are already organized and indexed to instantly call up, correlate and synthesize a wide variety of source material. We go over my flight route and weather systems approaching over the next few days. He looks at infrared and upper level wind charts to see how strong or weak the approaching systems promise to be. We look at military and civilian sites to assess fog and cloud cover. The system file-sorts TFRs and notams and highlights in red the ones along my flight route and time. We trade a couple of flying weather stories and discuss how phone weather briefings might be improved, from a pilot's point of view.

I file my flight plan with a more thorough understanding and confidence about what I'm about to face in my plane than usual. And I find myself wishing I could get every weather briefing this way. But time stops for no one. So I thank John and say good-bye -- not only to him, but to the Oakland FSS, and an era and element in aviation that I, for one, am sorely going to miss.

My first introduction to flight service briefers came right after my first introduction to an airplane. As part of one of my earliest flying lessons, my flight instructor took me in to the local Flight Service Station and very somberly introduced me to the people who worked there.

"These are very important people," he intoned. "You need to learn how to talk to them, ask them the right questions, and interpret and understand the information they give you. Because their job is to help keep you alive."

I nodded seriously, feeling like a young child being entrusted with the care of a new puppy, or an acolyte being initiated into an age-old brotherhood. I listened intently as the briefers explained the various charts and screens they used to give pilots information on the weather. Isobars, millibars, occluded fronts, high pressure, low- pressure systems, wind arrows, prog charts for 12 and 24 hours ... just learning the symbology was a challenge.

It was the mid-1980s, and my early flights were all to small-town airports around Indiana and Kentucky. And I soon learned that any airport that had a Flight Service Station on the field was a bonanza stop for a student pilot. One of the scariest parts of cross-country flying was not knowing what the conditions -- especially the wind conditions -- were going to be at my destination. And unicom frequencies at the small airports where I was flying weren't always monitored or answered.

But if there was a Flight Service Station on the field, I knew my calls would be answered -- and by someone who knew a lot about local conditions. Upon landing, I could walk into the FSS facility and get the briefing for my next flight leg in person. Not only did that give me a knowledgeable person go over the charts with me, but it also made me feel a little less alone in my efforts to find the best and safest route home.

Over the years, my appreciation of the community that helps us find our way home, or the assistance offered by a good flight service briefer, has never wavered. That's not to say every briefer is or has been helpful. All of us have run into individuals who didn't seem to have much vocabulary or flexibility of advice beyond "VFR flight is not recommended." I quickly learned to deal with these well-meaning folks by saying "thank you," hanging up, and immediately dialing again to get a more helpful briefer.

Perhaps because of encounters like that, or a particularly fierce independent streak, or just a love of self-controlled technology, a number of pilots I know disdainfully eschewed flight service briefings -- even before high-quality aviation weather information was available on the internet. But even after my skill at reading charts and interpreting raw data improved greatly, and internet sources grew sophisticated enough to duplicate much of the same information Flight Service briefers received, I still held firm to my belief in the value of a really good, local briefer. For there are some things that you can't learn from a book, or even discern from sterile forecast data -- especially on long, VFR cross-country flights into unfamiliar areas.

The best of all worlds, of course, is an old-hand briefer who's also a pilot. "Yeah, I've flown that route a number of times," I remember one telling me. "And the forecast may say 25 knots or more through 8 p.m., but those winds always tend to die down toward the end of the afternoon. If you wait until 3 to depart, I think you'll be fine."

Are they always right? No. But that extra piece of wisdom, gleaned from years of chart-interpretation, weather tracking and flying experience, gives me another valuable piece of information to put into my decision-making equation. I haven't always heeded the advice of these old pros. But in 22 years of flying, I have also regretted that decision far more often than not.

In October of 2001, I was flying my Cheetah from New York to California with a flight instructor friend. We got as far as Louisville KY with fairly good weather. But the next morning, the TV was forecasting not only thunderstorms, but tornadoes in the vicinity of Kansas City MO, which was our next stop. I called Flight Service, and lucked upon one of those "old hand" briefers.

"Hmmmm .... Well, yes, the forecast is saying tornadoes in the Kansas City area," she started out saying. "Hold on, let me check a few things." A couple of minutes later, she came back on the line and said, "Well, you know, here's what I think. I've looked at how this system has been progressing ... " she then gave me a bunch of specifics, " ... and I don't think that forecast is going to be right. I think this system is going to move and stretch south. So if you head south to try to get around it, I think you're going to get stuck. But if you just head west this morning, I think you'll get to Kansas City just fine and be on the back side of that system tomorrow." There was a pause while I digested that information. "It's your call, of course," she said. "But I've been doing this a long time, and that's just how it looks to me."

I thanked her, hung up, and went to confer with my instructor friend, who got all his weather information off the internet. He argued that the forecast didn't support going west. I said I knew that, but the briefer had said ...

It was a tough call. That printed data on the internet sites looked so authoritative and rational. Against that, I had the gut call of a woman who was claiming to know better than the very precise numbers and predictions of gloom staring back at us in print. And if she was wrong, I might be flying headlong into a line of tornadoes.

In the end, I caved to my fears and the numbers. We headed south -- straight into a line of tornadoes, as the system proceeded to do exactly what the flight briefer in Louisville had predicted. If we'd followed her advice, by mid-afternoon we would have landed without incident or trouble in Kansas City -- on the west side of a stalled front that trapped us in Jackson MS for three days.

That's far from the only time I could have gained tremendously from heeding the wisdom of an experienced flight briefer ... or, conversely, did gain from the added knowledge and perspective they had to offer.

Unfortunately, the powers that be, and which control the flight service world, do not seem to share my priorities or opinion. In 1982, there were 331 Flight Service Stations in the continental United States. That's when pilots could call a small airport and get weather from briefers who could not only look at their charts, but also look out the window and see what was actually going on.

Between 1982 and 1991, the FAA closed the vast majority of those stations, reducing the number of active Flight Service Stations from 331 to 61. But there were still any number of airports where a pilot could still walk in and interact face-to-face with the FSS staff. I spent a wonderful and memorable afternoon at the Huron SD FSS back in 2001 while I waited for weather in Minnesota to improve, and left not only well informed, but cheered by a reminder of the caring, human community I was linked to, even in the sky.

The Huron station is now gone, along with many others. By the time Lockheed Martin took over management of the system, there were only 20 facilities left. That number is now 18 and, "due to the efficiencies of the technology and a decline in general aviation traffic," as Lockheed Martin's official statement on the topic puts it, that number is about to shrink to 13. Along with Oakland, Seattle and San Diego are also being closed, which means there will no longer be any Flight Service Stations located anywhere along the West Coast. While many of the briefers will be relocated, Lockheed is also reducing its FSS staff. So a number of those "old hand" briefers are likely to retire.

The first argument for consolidation goes that technology has gotten good enough that we don't need those briefers, or that local knowledge. We can look at our computer screens and see cloud patterns, satellite, infrared and radar imagery, and all the data that once only resided in National Weather Service or Flight Service Station terminals.

It is true that access to raw data has improved dramatically -- even in the cockpits of our airplanes, for those with the right equipment. Which is unquestionably a great thing, and which also means we are no longer solely dependent on flight briefers for that information, the way we once were -- although few of us have the integrated monitor and computer set-ups I saw at Oakland.

The second argument is that we can get the same information from briefers in Prescott AZ who are trained in the weather patterns of the Bay Area as we can from people who actually live here. But that's where I really beg to differ. No matter how much I may have read about a distant location, I will not know or understand its irrational quirks or weather patterns anywhere near as well as if I see those behaviors unfold in my daily life, month after month, and year after year.

Consolidation is undoubtedly more efficient. But the cost of that consolidation is a loss of local knowledge and wisdom available to pilots. And that wisdom, while hard to quantify in a cost-benefit analysis, is what has made the input of experienced flight service personnel so invaluable to pilots -- especially those flying VFR in small, light planes. And every briefer I've ever spoken to on the subject agrees with me on that point. They just can't do anything about it.

In aviation, as in society, we seem to be moving more and more toward a culture of self-sufficient insularity. Technology has already replaced humans in any number of areas, leading to a self-serve economy in everything from grocery-store checkouts and airline reservations to inflight weather. And sometimes, that can be handy -- either by saving us money, or saving us time. (And let me be clear: Real-time weather in the cockpit is one of the absolute greatest innovations aviation has seen.)

All that technology can also allow us the temporary illusion of independent self-sufficiency. I say temporary and illusional because all it takes is a personal or natural disaster to remind us how truly fragile we are without the help of others. But even without disaster, there is also something lost in the illusion and culture of self-sufficiency. We lose a richness of tapestry and experience that comes with human contact; a feeling of being a tangible part of a community that works together to make sure all of its members are okay and find their way through the night without harm.

I can't do anything about the closing of Oakland, even though I feel its loss. But I hope John, and briefers like him, know that we'll miss their presence, and the local wisdom they conferred, as much as they'll miss having us drop by occasionally to figure the puzzle out together.


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