What To Do About FSS?

Mac tells why the Flight Service we knew is finished and what will replace it.

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The FAA has conducted a study among pilots to determine how they use Flight Service Stations. The agency also hopes to determine what we like and don't like about the FSS. Bottom line: the FAA is looking for reasons, or even cover, to radically change the FSS, or even eliminate it.

The FAA's reason for examining the FSS operation is both sound and familiar. It's cost. Every telephone briefing by an FSS specialist costs taxpayers many dollars, perhaps as much as $25, according to some estimates. The FAA spokesman couldn't come up with a cost per briefing estimate. Every computer-delivered briefing over the direct user access terminal (DUAT) costs only about 50 cents. The difference is startling and certainly deserves examination in these times of tight budgets.

What makes the contrast in cost between the FSS telephone briefing and the DUAT computer briefing important to study is that both have the capability to deliver exactly the same information. The forecasts, hourly weather reports, sigmet and airmet alerts, notams and so on are all exactly the same whether they appear on the computer screen of an FSS briefer or on the computer screen of a pilot connected to DUAT.

Actually, the pilot using DUAT can receive more information than over the phone from FSS because key data can be displayed graphically on the computer screen. Instead of hearing a human describe the location and intensity of weather radar returns over the phone, the pilot can see the same information himself via DUAT. There are many other graphical weather products available, too, including chartered areas of severe weather, low IFR and even charted locations and boundaries of temporary flight restrictions (TFR) that are much easier to comprehend visually than when described orally.

But some pilots are not confident and comfortable reading weather reports and forecasts for themselves. These pilots depend on an FSS briefer to interpret the data, even though it is available on the computer in plain language. There is something comforting about another human telling you the weather looks good, or bad, too bad for you to fly. The survey of pilots hopes to determine how big the group is that depends on this human relay of available weather data.

Pilots who have been flying for more than 20 years or so can remember when FSS offered a different service than merely reading forecasts and reports. Instead of sitting at a computer terminal with headset plugged into an 800 number phone line, the FSS specialist in years past was often by himself in a small office on an airport. And the office had windows. The specialist could not only look out at the runway, he could look at the sky. At most stations the FSS specialist made the official weather observations, noting visibility, cloud cover, wind direction and speed, temperature and dew point. He could note cumulus clouds building on the horizon, listen for thunder, or notice fog forming in the distance. And because the same person tracked the weather day in and day out for many years at the same station, he became pretty good at predicting the local and regional weather, no matter what the official forecasts said.

When you stopped by in person or called on the phone to check the weather with one of the old-time FSS specialists, you benefited from local knowledge. The weather reports and forecasts were much older than they are now because they arrived over a low-speed teletype instead of computers. Weather charts and radar plots were sent on a thermal printer, and each image took many minutes to arrive. Radar reports less than an hour old were rare. But the old-fashioned specialist kept in frequent contact with comrades in adjacent FSS stations and could usually tell you what was headed your way with as much precision and dependability as today's current radar and other reports that are five minutes old, or less.

But costs finished off the old FSS system. To be effective, the station had to be staffed 24 hours a day, which required five people or more when you throw in weekends and holidays. The stand-alone FSS with its sage specialist was a luxury that could no longer be justified.

The replacement was the system we have today, the automated FSS. The first one was in Leesburg, Virginia, near the air route traffic control center there. In fact, the FSS looked a lot like the center because neither has windows into the working area. Sunlight makes it hard to see computer screens, and both the controllers' and FSS briefers' view of the world is via computer screens.

The automated FSS was conceived during the 1970s when computers were big, bulky and expensive. Only governments and big companies could afford them, so it made sense that the FAA have humans read what was on the computer to pilots calling on the phone. The FSS briefer, in a fashion, became a human modem, relaying computer delivered weather information into a pilot's ears.

What didn't make any economic or operational sense about the automated FSS is that the FAA made so many of them. A single big FSS with phone lines to the entire country would be much more efficient because the weather is never bad over the whole country. When the weather is bad it takes much longer for a specialist to brief each pilot, so the phone lines become overcrowded. That's one of the reasons you can be on hold for a long time on a bad day. If there was one central FSS, briefings for pilots flying in good weather would be short, leaving more time to talk to those planning to fly in poor conditions in some other part of the country.

Dick Collins advocated a centralized automated FSS in the pages of Flying magazine, and the FAA ordered 500 extra copies. But every state has two senators and at least one representative, and a consolidated FSS would have moved government jobs out of all states except the one that got the centralized station. You can guess what happened. It took forever to implement the automated FSS because that meant closing the hundreds of old-fashioned FSS offices on airports and moving or losing government jobs. And we have more than 50 automated FSS in the country instead of one.

Over the past several years I have found myself using FSS less and less. DUAT is my preferred weather provider and, more important, access to flight plan filing. Typically I will run the trip through the flight-planning program on DUAT the day before. Though the wind forecasts are not available that far in advance, I get the distances and can come very close on the time en route by guessing the winds. I then file the IFR flight plans on DUAT, which accepts them as much as 24 hours in advance.

As for obtaining weather information, I rely on many sources. The Weather Channel is always available and provides a decent look at the big picture across the country. Its forecasts and reports come from the same source as the FSS, which is the National Weather Service, so the accuracy is as good or bad as you can get from a briefer.

There are also many other television weather reports in addition to The Weather Channel. The news networks regularly show national weather, and our local cable system has a channel devoted to regional weather and highway traffic and plays national and local weather radar every couple of minutes.

If you have access to the internet there are almost endless sources of accurate and current weather reports in addition to DUAT. My favorite site is Aviation Digital Data Service, operated by NOAA. You can check it out at http://adds.aviationweather.noaa.gov.

The ADDS site offers the whole range of aviation weather products but presents them in a different, typically more user friendly, way than DUAT. For example, winds aloft are shown graphically with isobar type stream lines to show direction, and color bands for velocity. Even better, ADDS offers a winds aloft forecast out five days ahead, instead of the few hours available on DUAT.

ADDS also has some experimental forecasts that I have found useful, particularly its icing outlook. This forecast uses different colors to show icing probabilities at various altitudes across the country. The official icing airmets or sigmets forecast that icing is possible but don't go into the same detail of probabilities at different altitudes. So far I have found the ADDS experimental icing forecast to be very useful and haven't found ice where it wasn't predicted, and have found it where a high probability was shown.

Before I head for the airport I dial up DUAT and get the terminal forecasts, check notams and the other information needed to satisfy the FAA that I have properly performed a preflight. But if the weather is bad, I also look at the ADDS site because its access to Nexrad individual radar sites is convenient, the winds aloft forecast is easy to use, and the icing forecast is helpful. DUAT is necessary to put in the IFR flight plan and record a "legal" briefing of official weather. But ADDS, The Weather Channel and other sources are more useful in many ways.

The only time I call FSS is when I'm on the road and, often, then it's only to file a flight plan. Nearly all FBOs have terminals with WSI or Meteorlogix weather information, so I can see an excellent Nexrad image, plus all the text weather and notams that are available on DUAT or from the FSS. Why waste my time and the FSS briefer's time listening to a description of the same information I can see right in front of me? If there is a DUAT terminal there, or I plug in my laptop, I usually bypass FSS entirely by filing my flight plan over DUAT.

In flight I haven't called FSS in a long time because I have the Garmin GDL-49 weather receiver in my airplane. I can see a Nexrad radar picture superimposed over my flight plan route and can get current metars. When the controller announces that a sigmet has been posted on hazardous inflight weather advisory service (HIWAS), I tune in a VOR carrying the broadcast and listen, though at least half of the time the sigmet isn't really there when the controller said it would be.

The bottom line is that technology has moved me away from FSS. The continuous availability of weather information on television and the internet, and now real time weather in the cockpit, means I have better and more convenient access to the same information that is on an FSS briefer's computer screen. The automated FSS has come true, but not the way the FAA, or any of us, expected.

I know that I'm not alone in feeling independent from FSS, but how many pilots are behaving in the same way? Is it a majority, or only a small minority? That's what the FAA's survey of pilots will determine. Some people, particularly those working in the FSS, believe the decision is already made and the survey is merely a method to justify wide-scale consolidation of FSS and the elimination of many briefer positions. Another likely outcome is to contract out whatever remains of FSS in the same way that DUAT services are provided by private contractors.

It's important to understand that FSS is a general aviation service of the FAA. The airlines and military have their own meteorological and dispatch systems, as do many corporate flight departments. That means that the total cost of running the FSS is put in the general aviation column, and we must ask if that is the most effective use of the limited amount of tax money that is going to be spent on us. It would be nice to have it all and keep the human briefer system in place along with computerized information, but limited resources won't allow that.

My suspicion is that a majority of pilots still want a human interpreting the weather and advising them on whether or not to take off. That is not logical because the briefers are restricted in how much personal interpretation they can make of the weather reports and forecasts, and the advisory "VFR not recommended" is based on certain minimums, not an individual briefer's opinion of the weather or a pilot's capabilities. Computer software could easily offer the same cautionary note when conditions are marginal. I think the human element is most important to new pilots eager to find some weather expertise that isn't offered by the textual reports and graphical depictions of current weather and forecasts.

All the forces are in place to drastically reduce human participation in pilot weather briefing and to contract preflight briefing services outside the government. The FAA has closed its web-based survey, and the results have not been released. The survey was conducted by Mitre, an outfit that handles research for the FAA. It wasn't an easy survey to find, and I don't know how many pilots responded. The FAA is conducting a larger study of FSS and how pilots use it, and some aviation lobby groups such as the AOPA are participating. I told the FAA what I think about the FSS and how I use its services via the survey, but we'll have to wait and see what action the survey results justify.