Los Angeles Flight Watch
3 min read

A relatively new instrument pilot asked me recently how to open a flight plan via Flight Service. After stammering for a moment, it hit me: I haven’t called Flight Service in over 5 years.

Los Angeles Flight Watch

Back when Flight Watch was the only option.

Initially, I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. After all, what does it say about me as a reasonably-experienced pilot that I never call Flight Service? Surely, this pilot will never ask me another question about IFR flying.

But after about two minutes of reflection, that guilt quickly faded. I don’t call Flight Service because I don’t need Flight Service. In fact, I think I’m getting more pre-flight weather information without calling 1.800.WXBRIEF than ever before. A recent trip is a perfect example. Before the flight, I looked  at the following: numerous radar pictures (local/national, base/composite reflectivity, with/without echo tops), plain English METARs and TAFs, minutes-old PIREPs, graphical icing forecasts and a whole lot more. And this was all using free websites!

The U.S. government is Flight Service’s worst enemy, as a quick visit to the comprehensive AviationWeather.gov website makes clear. Beyond this site, there are dozens of great resources for pilots, from basic and free to sophisticated and expensive. Prefer to look at weather on your fancy new iPad or iPhone? There is a vibrant community of developers who are creating some truly great apps for pre-flight weather briefing (see ForeFlight, WingX, Garmin Pilot My-Cast, etc.). Many of these are also free, and none are more than $100/year–including full IFR charts.

When it’s time to file a flight plan, a few keystrokes on FltPlan.com shows me not just my time en route (with frightening accuracy, I might add), but also the exact clearance ATC gave to the last 5 airplanes who flew this route. No more guessing and no wasted time with IFR En Route charts. Then I simply click a button and it’s filed. In over 4 years of using the site, I’ve never had a flight plan not get filed.

Of course you need internet access to do all this, but that’s hardly a limitation in 2011–it’s cheaper and easier than ever. From the ever-present mobile phone in every pocket to WiFi in every Starbucks, getting dependable internet access just isn’t hard anymore. I plan many of my FBO stops based on WiFi availability, not fancy buildings. Picking up the phone just seems so… old fashioned.

I can hear some pilots saying, “But what about using Flight Service for in-flight briefings?” When it comes to in-flight weather, the widespread adoption of datalink weather has made Flight Watch a last resort for most pilots. I firmly believe that if you can afford to fly IFR, you can afford datalink weather (at least a portable XM Weather receiver). It’s a smart investment for a renter or an owner, and I would give up my headset before I would give up my Garmin. In any case, the imminent availability of free datalink weather via ADS-B (it’s already available in many places right now) will really make Flight Watch redundant.

Given this new reality, I vote to eliminate Fight Service, or at least in its current form. Maybe we need some skeleton infrastructure for international flights where all you have is a pay phone in an airport shack. But other than that, let’s admit what most of us already know–Flight Service is a leftover from the 70s that deserves to go the way of brown shag carpets and the Pinto.

Some will protest that Flight Service is free. For this crowd, I respectfully direct your attention to your tax return next April. It is not and never has been free. Our return on investment for FSS is terrible. Indeed, for me, it’s absolutely zero.

So let’s take all that money we spend on FSS (nearly $2 billion over 10 years) and just buy every pilot a Garmin GPS with XM Weather. I think it would do more for safety, and for less money.

What do you think?

John Zimmerman
56 replies
  1. Gary
    Gary says:

    I disagree….for a couple reasons. First while datalink weather may be “widespread” – I don’t have it nor do many of the pilots that I know. We have round gauges and no ipads.

    Secondly – I suck at ‘interpreting’ the weather. Yes I can read the hourly reports and the area forecasts and the pilot reports. I can pour over weather depiction charts and satellite imagery all day. But personally – I really like knowing that some professional on the other end of the phone can explain it all to me. I’ve had nothing but excellent experiences with Flight Service professionals.

    And finally – remember – after you pour over all those free weather sources – you should somehow record (officially) that you actually got a complete weather briefing should you ever have a problem and the FAA go digging around.


      CAPT.FOREST says:

      I agree with you Gary, although we do have all this fancy equipment it is nice to get a second opinion from a professional about the safety of your planned flight. I use resources like ForeFlight, AOPA Flight Planner, Aviationweather.gov, and many others in addition to Flight Service. It is an extra measure to ensure my safety as well as that of my passengers. I also have datalink weather on my Garmin Aera 510, and I still call FSS on 95% of my flights. A good pilot can never be too safe! :)

      • Peter Temesvary
        Peter Temesvary says:

        Funny, I never even pondered this question until John posed it, because, unless it’s CAVU and I’m just going for a local sight seeing or to shoot a few landings, I always call Flight Service. Call me lazy, but for me it’s a heck of a lot easier to ask the briefer if there are any TFR’s on my route of flight, if the MOAs are active, and what the PIREPs are than to try and hunt for them on the net. That being said, there is no question that what John predicts will come to pass in the next 5 years. So the analog kids like me better suck it up and get used to digging for weather and info electronically.

  2. Neely Coble
    Neely Coble says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with John Zimmerman. I have rarely used Flight Service and they didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know from using my trusty iPad and Foreflight.

    I would rather see Flight Service cut before we venture down the path of user fees, etc.

  3. Brian Knoblauch
    Brian Knoblauch says:

    I have to disagree. I don’t use Flight Service often, but when I do, it’s because that’s my only remaining option. It happens a couple times a year when I end up somewhere without Internet access, or the FBO is closed and doesn’t have access outside the building, etc. Sometimes my only link to information while on the ground is my cellphone!

    • John Townsley
      John Townsley says:

      +1. It’s pretty clear that some pilots (including John Z) only fly out of airports with lots of concrete, all the amenities, and at least a couple well equipped FBOs. Of the 136 public use airports in the State where I am based I’d guess less than 20%even have an FBO or pilot lounge. Quite a few don’t even have good cell coverage. XM weather, data links, etc. are vrey uncommon in most of the 7,000 aircraft the FAA reports as based here. Until the subscription cost comes within reach of all pilots (not just those who fly the latest and greatest) FSS will continue to provide an essential service for all pilots… whether or not some high rollers choose to use it.

  4. Kyle Stueve
    Kyle Stueve says:

    I disagree to some extent, while XM weather and data link may be useful in some situations I can say with confidence that the majority of pilots I fly with do without those services. Flight service has its place in the system. I believe that if you are on the edge about going on a trip based on all of your preflight information, your last concerning effort to call flight service and have a conversation with a professional can make a large difference. Keeping in mind that these people are indeed professionals, the information and opinions that they give should be taken to heart. It is great single pilot resource management, isn’t that what we all preach about today? This is just another link in the chain for safety to me. While flight service may not be used for every flight, it does however deserve its place in the system.

  5. Steve K.
    Steve K. says:

    I disagree too. .. Being a fairly new pilot, I too do my best to interpret the weather from the huge amount of weather information available. Also, the briefings are recorded so should anything happens you at least have proof of the briefing covering weather, TFRs and NOTAMs, etc. I call for a briefing prior to all flights to be sure I dont miss anything and also have used them to close my flight plan if I forget to do it before I land.

    I also dont think the author would give up his headset instead of his garmin since you are requird to have 2 way communications when ifr but you certainly dont need the garmin.

  6. John Zimmerman
    John Zimmerman says:

    Brian, I agree that some form of Flight Service needs to stay around, but we should take a hard look at what that should look like.

    Kyle/Steve, you bring up a good point–interpreting weather is a crucial step in making go/no-go decisions. I would like to see more effort put toward weather products like the FIP/CIP for icing, which take a lot of the guesswork out of reading text reports.

    As for calling FSS to get a “legal briefing,” I think that’s an example of how dysfunctional the system is. Let’s find a way to validate and “legalize” more online weather sources.

    • Dick Collins
      Dick Collins says:

      There is actually no such thing as a legal briefing. All the FARs say is that you have to look at all the appropriate stuff.

      • Abe
        Abe says:

        You’re right. But if they come after you, it’s nice to have the CYA protection of having your briefing logged by somebody official.

      • William M.
        William M. says:

        What about TFRs? Most of the internet sites that depict TFRs (including the FAA) have a disclaimer at the bottom that states the information may not be up to date and that pilots must call Flight Service prior to flight to get the latest information. In my experience, the internet is always correct, but the disclaimer is there. Are pilots at risk by not calling?

      • Ken
        Ken says:

        According to the FAA a briefing from a FSS or DUATS is the only appropriate stuff.

        If you check all of the sources for weather info you would spend all your time checking the weather and never flying.

  7. Frank Strahan
    Frank Strahan says:

    I’m not a pilot but I keep up with as much training and safety material as I can get my hands, eyes and ears on, for that day when I hope to be.
    From what I’ve heard, the stuff like XM is great but the information can be pretty old by the time it reaches your cockpit.
    That may not be of much importance if you’re flying in nice weather but it could easily get you into worse trouble if you need reliable information in a hurry.

  8. Frank Dohl
    Frank Dohl says:

    I think what the comments boil down to is that Flight Service remains useful for (i) interpreting the weather, and (ii) as a last resort, in particular when no internet access is available (on the ground). With regard to legality/”CYA”, there are enough CISP sites out there now, and for in-flight weather, there is always Flight Watch (even though they don’t take flight plans, which can be a problem when you fly in an area where you can’t get a pop-up clearance from approach without declaring an emergency, such as New York).

    OK, kill me for this but: if you want someone to interpret the weather for you, speak to a meteorologist, not flight service. In the European world of user fees — which, yes, I know, is a big no-no — you pay $150 a year or so for access to the aviation meteorological service which does interpret the weather for you, professionally. If you have ever used them, you won’t want to talk to Flight Service again — now, WHY is VFR flight not recommended? Flight Service, legally, just reads the forecasts to you. That is a big difference.They will tell you and you make up your own mind. I would be happy to pay $150 a year to have access to such a service (which is both via internet and phone in most countries) because of those two or three flights a year where it will make a difference.

    As with regard to internet access, I believe it is a question of time until we all will be carrying that around with us whereever we go. If you don’t have an iPad yet, get one, and you’ll be amazed what it will do for you. I think this discussion is similar to the one about glass vs. steam gauges here on these pages: if you fly serious IFR, you simply cannot do without it, period.

    It’s time for Flight Service to be phased out.

    • Gary Moore
      Gary Moore says:

      @Frank – “if you fly serious IFR, you simply cannot do without it, period”

      Really? Did you actually mean to type that?

      I have flown serious IFR for decades without an iPad and guess what – I’ve been safe, capable and enjoyed every flight. I have many friends who fly without an iPad and get along quite fine.

      If you want to use the gadget – that’s totally up to you – but please don’t tell me that I can’t do without it……..

        CAPT.FOREST says:

        I agree with you Gary, I have several friends who fly “serious IFR” without iPads. They print out their plates, put them in a binder in the cockpit, and use that when they need it. It may be old fashioned, but it is certainly safe(r). What if an iPad dies, or you didn’t download the correct approach plates, and you have no service at 10,000 feet to download the one you need. iPads are not necessary for safe reliable aviation. I do have one, but i always ALWAYS print out a hard copy of the approach plates, and Hi-Lo IFR enroute charts I need. Just to be safe.

      • Frank Dohl
        Frank Dohl says:

        I was referring to internet access in general, not the iPad in particular. And yes, I would not fly in serious weather without some form of access to weather. Sure, it has been done, and there are pros out there who definitely have, and continue to, do it safely and competently. I’m just not one of them and most others aren’t either.

        • Gary
          Gary says:

          I don’t now Frank – I still take issue with this notion that “most others aren’t either” when it comes to iPads. I admittedly don’t have any data (and I’m guessing you don’t either) – but I just don’t believe that ‘most’ pilots have one. It may be a great device – but to imply that it’s a safety requirement is just too far fetched for me…

          • Larryo
            Larryo says:

            Agree, the gadgets may or may not dictate the safety level of one’s flying. And we’ve flown safely for YEARS before IPad, XM, GPS and a lot of other gadgets.

            No, ya don’t need an IPad or internet to fly safe.

  9. Pete Mast
    Pete Mast says:

    I am a young(ish), tech savvy(ish), pilot who flies with my iPad, uses multiple websites, iPhone apps, etc. If I’m going on a cross-country, that a particular evening, I spend all day periodically checking the weather, and know more about what’s going on in the air than any singular small-town TV metrologist by the the time I get in the plane.

    AND… I use flight service. Anything more than a 50nm radius and I talk to someone live before I go. Why? Because they are expert, they’ve been giving reports all day, they have spent a career interpreting the charts, and most importantly, give me someone to check my decisions against. I know that I’m PIC and the go/no-go is my call, but I feel much more confident making that call when an expert has examined the evidence and reviewed my assumptions. They never suffer from “get-there-itis” like I may.

    Maybe I’ll get past that need as I log more hours, but for now, I find the service irreplacable.

  10. David Reinhart
    David Reinhart says:

    I always call FSS on the way to the airport for a final check on TFRs. I also call them when I don’t have a computer connection available, which is the case at many of the airports I frequent. Smartphone data plans can be horendously expensive and I’d rather spend the money flying.

  11. John Zimmerman
    John Zimmerman says:

    Part of the problem (evident from many of the comments here) is the mess that TFRs are. It sounds to me like one of FSS’s most useful functions is as a last-minute CYA check on TFRs. There has to be a better way for getting comprehensive, reliable and “legal” TFR data out there in more places.

    • John Townsley
      John Townsley says:

      John: If you think that satellite updates to your panel GPS and iPad are “reliable” with regard to TFR’s you are greatly mistaken. I’ve seen numerous notices about software errors on GPS updates. I am also aware of data errors used by some vendors that resulted in aircraft penetrating active TFRs when pilots mistakenly relied exclusively on their gadget for critical naviation information. While I’ve had at least one briefing from a FSS specialist where TFR information was incorrect (I checked the DINS website then called back to confirm what FSS gave me… and received correct information second time around), it remains true that a pilot is briefed by FSS with incorrect or inaccurate information that results in a TFR penetration there’s a pretty good alibi. What’s your alibi if your cockpit gadget has a bad data set and you have not bothered to cross check it?

  12. Ep
    Ep says:

    I am glad you started this discussion. I almost always use Vfr flight following and am preparing for the ifr test. Input about 100 hours on this and like 70 of that is 2 to 6 hour cross country; including Canada. I do the ground web brief and 90 percent of the time I am explaining more to the briefer than getting meaningful guidance because inam flying well past their normal area. The real issue is figuring out how to work them into a conversation while talking to ATC. FSS is chatty and you can not just quickly activate your filled plan. So you are trying to monitor ATC while FSS assumes you did not get a briefing before or when you filed. What this is causing is me going just to ATC for flight following. Does it seem to anyone else that FSS and ATC might be more tightly linked?

    Is there a reason that you can not file with FSS and then activate with ATC at the same time you request flight following or that you do not just close with ATC on final?

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Ep, that’s a great point–a lot of what Flight Service does might better be completed as a part of ATC. It would mean some changes in the staffing or organization, but it might be an idea.

  13. Bockett Hunter
    Bockett Hunter says:

    Flight Service is essential for not blundering into pop-up and fresh TFRs.
    It is also an excellent resource for asking questions that you are
    not sure about while wandering the Web. It’s a one-stop source
    of information, as opposed to grinding through DUATS or DUAT reams of output.
    There is a real difference between sloshing through reams of information
    and being able to ask the pointed questions you care about.
    You can stop the brief and ask the question that are bugging you.

    That said, I really wish that the FSS folk were plugged into their local
    weather the way they were before everything was consolidated.

  14. Kenneth Nolde
    Kenneth Nolde says:

    I have not used FSS for a weather briefing for years. I quit after concluding that I got just as much from wx on line and that the briefers could/would not answer enroute questions any better than I could. However, I do occasionally use them to ask about TRFs, MOAs, Restricted Areas, and NOTAMS.

  15. Tony
    Tony says:

    Another “I disagree”
    While Internet based raw data is widely available, a meaningful interpretation of such data depends upon:
    1. The accuracy of the data ( “garbage in, garbage out”)
    2. The time the data were obtained rekative to the flight ( either proposed or in progress)
    3. The ability of the interpreter to analyse said data

    Further,time spent obtaining a preflight briefing is a golden opportunity to review and consider alternative options with another live person rather than virtual reality of an iPad etc etc.
    IMHO, electronic real time data flow is of primary value as part of one’s INFLIGHT monitoring system, but should not be assumed to be capable of replacing/substituting live discussion and analysis PREFLIGHT!

  16. Dan
    Dan says:

    A year or two ago I would have agreed with you but lately (the last three trips specifically) were so bad (conservative) that I no longer have any confidence in their forecasts. I would not have made any of those trips based on their advice but by using alternative resources all three trips were made VFR with no problems and no compromises with safety. I am in the Midwest and the last briefer was in Southern California!!

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Dan, this is one of the most common complaints I hear–the Lockheed Martin consolidation has really eroded local knowledge. I don’t have any personal experience with it, but I can believe it.

      To me, there’s a wealth of local experience out there, and a huge amount of weather data. The problem I see is that this information and these experts never make it to pilots. I’d like to see us reconsider how we deliver pre-flight information, including using more resources outside the FSS network.

  17. Jean-Francois
    Jean-Francois says:

    I agree with John Z. and Kenneth Nolde. I use DUATS and aviationweather.gov for my briefings; I only use Flight Service as a last-minute check for TFR’s or if for some reason I don’t have internet access. I have Foreflight on my iPad but that is mainly as a substitute for paper charts. The lack of local knowledge, as others have cited, is my primary reason for avoiding AFSS. I have contacted local approach control facilities for advice on what route to file because AFSS couldn’t help me. Fltplan is great for that on frequently traveled routes.

  18. Jake Harris
    Jake Harris says:

    Until Weather services in-cockpit are more widely affordable/used, Flight Service will continue to be an integral part of aviation that we pilots need. I do believe it will eventually no longer be required, but not enough us have the capabilities to check the weather right as we are about to leave.

  19. tom
    tom says:

    I too had been one of the pilots who don’t talk to FSS or flight watch, but maybe I need to change my ways.
    Twice I’ve recently self briefed on Duats only to find that in flight XM weather showed TFRs that Duats did not show. Specifically, last week Duats showed zero TFRs in Montana, but XM showed five for fire fighting. I did not call FSS to deconflict the info in the air to find out who was right, I just stayed clear of them.

    Back on the ground five hours later Duats still showed zero TFRs for MT but had added text to the tabular list for MT stating the list “might be incomplete, call FSS.”

    Checking AOPA’s flight planner showed the five TFRs.

    I then put a flight plan into duats with a route thru a tfr just to see what the system would show in the route briefing. Nothing about TFRs came up, which raises the question: What if I had blundered thru one of them with the supposed ‘official’ Duats briefing under my belt? Fortunately the redundancy of XM alerted me to the discrepancy.

    While on a flight to Michigan last January both Duats and ADDS showed prog charts that were exactly one week old according to the date on the chart, but listed under that day’s charts. I started looking at the fine print when the view out the window and on TV wasn’t even close to what the chart predicted.

    I might add that sending the Duats and ADDS webmasters a message about the specific problems were unanswered.

    I make frequent trips between Montana and Michigan in a single engine Cessna. On Westbound legs I fly low and late hours to minimize winds. That tactic also puts me in huge areas with no FSS or FW coverage. Add that FW closes at 10pm and it’s usefulness goes to zero. ATC isn’t really happy providing flight following below their MVA, which appears to be above my altitude. Then I rely on overhead traffic to provide position reports to ATC while XM keeps me aware of weather changes and entertained. Add a Spot locator, a 406/GPS ELT and the plan to dial in 7700 if it hits the fan and I’m quite comfortable that the grieving lawyers will find the body.

    Perhaps network TV, XM and Duats/Adds provide the necessary weather/notam data redundancy to stay out of trouble. Without XM then FSS seems like the only low cost alternative.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      The common theme throughout all these comments is how bad the current TFR system is. Unfortunately, they are here to stay. But if that’s the case, the FAA needs to do a much better job at making consistent data available. That could be half of Flight Service’s calls.

  20. Larryo
    Larryo says:

    FSS still provides a useful function. I could make an argument to call before every flight.

    I like the “second opinion” and perhaps get some info that I missed. As for legality, it does provide a solution for that. And the airline, corp and military guys have their dispatch and weather people, we GA guys should take advantage of ours.

    Now, there’s no real reason that one couldn’t get all their info from the web, capture it on the IPad, file and launch. I do a lot of that now, but still make the call. And there’s a LOT of times, there is no web.

    Now, with all this info, the decision making process has become easier. I could argue that we could go from a “go/no go” decision to a “go, delay, reroute or divert” decision…. and continually up date it as conditions dictate.

    I could also argue that having satellite weather is far better than FSS, especially with TFRs.

    Eliminate FSS…. no. Change it…. sure. And I could accept at some point to eliminate it would be fine, but we’re not there.

    How one could go five years without calling FSS seems like you’d never fly out to a podunk airport.

    Now one more point about those that fly “serious” IFR….. is there a such thing as “non serious IFR?”

  21. tom
    tom says:

    According to the AIM, 4−1−3. Flight Service Stations
    Flight Service Stations (FSSs) are air traffic
    facilities which provide pilot briefings, flight plan
    processing, en route radio communications, search
    and rescue services, and assistance to lost aircraft
    and aircraft in emergency situations. FSSs also
    relay ATC clearances, process Notices to Airmen,
    broadcast aviation weather and aeronautical
    information, and notify Customs and Border
    Protection of transborder flights. In addition, at
    selected locations FSSs provide En Route Flight
    Advisory Service (Flight Watch) and Airport
    Advisory Service (AAS). In Alaska, designated FSSs
    also provide TWEB recordings and take weather

    I used FSS religiously for years but found it difficult to turn text and words into a mental picture, which leads to letting the briefer make the go/nogo decision IMHO. As I gained experience I learned that the weather channel and other TV sources were great for getting that mental picture, and when they built the Great Falls consolidated AFSS at my airport, dropping by for a look at the radar and other products was helpful. That facility was staffed by people brought in from closed FSS stations across the state and they had cheat sheets of mountain pass min altitudes and areas of ‘interesting weather’ they learned from years of working their area. We also discussed the boiler plate about ‘VFR flight not recommended.’

    As a side but important note: I joined CAP and learned to search for missing people of all sorts of weather in both prairie and mountains, ran a squadron and learned to teach mountain SAR from some of the finest pilots in the region. More on that later.

    I also got to experience the CAP flight release system. I found it annoying to have unqualified people try to make go/nogo decisions.

    At one time CAP had the goal of replacing all of their 550 aircraft with new aircraft, mostly Cessna 172 and 182s with G1000 systems. If anyone wants data on dispatch reliability, high failure components, cost of ownership of new planes, CAP should share it with those who pay the bills.

    After 9/11 I was no longer welcome at the FSS but by then Duats was getting it’s act together and the various weather terminals at the FBOs were getting more user friendly, and I had a lot more experience in the mountains and long cross country trips from MT to AK, FL and MI.

    I happened to be on a long trip when Lockheed took over the FSS functions (AK and MI stayed in state). Flight watch disappeared and RCOs were ‘NA’ for a time, so I adapted. Garmin began the x96 series that include XM weather, which adequately filled the information gap.

    A VFR flight plan is only for SAR. Before the satellites quit monitoring 121.5 ELTs, FSS and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center – AFRCC – handled overdue flight plans without a reported ELT with less urgency than an overdue with a reported ELT. An ELT by itself was treated with great suspicion because there were many things besides ELTs that could alert the satellites. Eliminating non-elt false alarms was the reason for moving to the 243 MHZ ELT. Here’s AFRCCs web site: http://www.1af.acc.af.mil/units/afrcc/

    With the deactivation of 121.5 satellite monitoring, the discriminator becomes a 243 ELT or annoying calls from someone who cares. An overdue flight plan by itself may or may not generate much interest, depending on how many times you landed in a friend’s pasture and forgot to close a flight plan in the past. Enter private trackers like Spider Tracks and Spot that remind others to care and a personal locator beacon – PLB – with GPS to make AFRCC care directly.

    AFRCC monitors satellite 243 ELT reports. They might be from an aircraft or might be from a hiker’s PLB or a boater’s EPIRB, so correlation to an overdue flight plan helps but isn’t the discriminator it used to be. Instead, AFRCC will call your contact by phone to see if you are overdue. 243 ELT/PLBs with GPS data are handled with even greater speed. In that case any deputy who knows how to program a good set of coordinates into a GPS can find you, no search required.

    Here’s the kicker: AFRCC pays the SAR bills for missing aircraft and certain missing persons by issuing a mission number. No number no pay. It’s up to the local SAR organization to dispatch a crew, and if they do it without that number the outfit could end up eating the bills.

    I said all that to say this: I think technology is overtaking FSS’ two functions of pilot briefings and SAR notification. Others are already available thru ATC. As far as pilot briefings are concerned I think the technology is there to replace it at higher quality to a phone briefing except for TFRs. Oddly TFRs/NOTAMS are handled inconsistently, which makes me wonder at how the servers at FSS, XM, DUATS, AOPA and others process the data to get different results.

    I suspect FSS’ role for SAR will also diminish as owners install 243 MHZ ELTs with GPS data streams, install ADS-B or add PLBs and Spot or Spider trackers gto their kit. I also suspect that by 2020 when ADS-B is supposed to be fully deployed and we get to buy new hardware, FSS will go away or merge with ATC.

    • tom
      tom says:

      Mea Culpa. Please substitute ‘406 mhz’ where I said ‘243 mhz’ in the above muse. 243 is two times 121.5 and was known as military guard before the changeover to 406.

  22. Mark C.
    Mark C. says:

    Well, I like talking with the briefers. The good ones will interpolate winds aloft and I can compare their calculations to mine. They add information born of experience to the forecasts – “that weather is predicted to come up by 18:00, but the change seems to be slower than the models show so I’d say it will be later than that, or not at all”. “If you’re thinking you may have to cancel your flight, I think you may be correct”. You don’t get that from a computer.

  23. Tony
    Tony says:

    Tom says,”Oddly TFRs/NOTAMS are handled inconsistently, which makes me wonder at how the servers at FSS, XM, DUATS, AOPA and others process the data to get different results.”
    Good point! As with all data, the accuracy needs to be verified by cross checking from several sources IF a go/no go decision or other critical decision is dependent on that information. There seems to be no obvious answer to this entire discussion except to use “common sense” and err on the side of caution when in doubt.

  24. gene stevens
    gene stevens says:

    You mentioned “but also the exact clearance ATC gave to the last 5 airplanes who flew this route.” I could not find a link on their site for that information. Could you reply with that link. I use FSS for every flight out of my home airport. With Camp David and the no fly restictions, I do need to check with upto the minute info. Once I tried departing and the president was arriving because of helicopter issues. I found out about the no fly restriction for that time upon landing. I had called FSS 1 hour before. ugh!! I now call before starting the engine. Also my last flight was my first without any paper charts. I had my charts & plates on the iPad2, approach plates on my kindle DX and my IFR database on the Garmin 430. Skyradar was nice for the ADS-B weather.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Gene, if you log in to FltPlan.com and create a new flight plan, you’ll see lots of routing options. This includes the last 5 filed flight plans for the route and the last 5 ATC clearances.

  25. Dave Oberg
    Dave Oberg says:

    Those of you saying you can do without FSS obviously are not flying in Alaska. While most of us here in town get our initial weather information for the day from the internet, once we are out the door and flying our primary, and usually our ONLY, source of weather information is FSS. We can’t receive XM up here, and cell service is nonexistent in most of the state away from the road system. Thank heavens for FSS and the RCO’s we use to access them. Maybe you high flyers in your speedy go-fast machines can do without FSS, but my Beaver and I rely on those folks daily.

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      Dave, there’s no doubt that Alaska is different. I would never advocate eliminating FSS up there. But between Denver and Washington, DC, I think we can solve problems easier than we can maintain FSS.

  26. Cecil
    Cecil says:

    Wow! I couldn’t disagree more! What we have here is a person who’s flight instructor never taught him how to use FSS, effectively. It is one of the things that I make sure I instill in my flight students; how to make use of this valuable resource including advantages and pitfalls. One big thing that I see many pilots do (not any of my former students) is the failure to pre-brief themselves on the weather *before* calling flight service. I print out a textual briefing and sit over a cup of tea and highlight the portions of the briefing that I would like to get more information about after the briefer gives their info to me. In this way, the pilot can approach the briefer, in a familiar/knowledgeable way and know if there are special directions they need to steer the briefing towards.

    It is all about preparation and training; if a student is not trained to use a resource properly – how can they possibly see the value offered in the service.

  27. Brice
    Brice says:

    FSS is very great resource for pre-flight, but I will take the author’s opinion with a grain of salt on the in-flight briefing. I think a majority of us would agree there is waste in the system. Maybe one could hope that “NextGen 2.0” (30 years or so from now) will bring some harmony to coms. Dedicated communication line to one briefer/controller who provides all information necessary for the flight in real-time and for the duration of flight. Like dialing up a WAAS channel (like for an LPV approach) unique to your flight instead of turning knobs for an approach control frequency that’s got every Wal Mart shopper on the same line.

  28. B. McDonald
    B. McDonald says:

    Mr. Zimmerman; In every sophisticated cockpit there is hidden in some out-of-the-way place, a relic that’s over a hundred years old !!! Although it has it’s inherent faults, when a catastrophic electrical failure occurs,and IF YOU”RE INTELLIGENT ENOUGH to know how to use it , it could save your RR end. A good weather specialist understands an area’s micro climates. The computer does not. I prey you’ll never loose your high tech grip on low tech stuff like real people that think, reason and sincerely care…

    • John Zimmerman
      John Zimmerman says:

      A “good weather specialist” who understands an area’s micro climates would be great. I just can’t ever seem to talk to those when I call FSS. It’s usually just a rehash of what I’m looking at on the Internet.

  29. Jeff Tait
    Jeff Tait says:

    Having flown professionaly for over 40 years, I can say that my use of Flight Service is inversely proportional to the years I have been flying. iPad,s and datalink weather, and GPS. I am just glad I stayed in the game long enough to enjoy these things. Makes flying easier and safer than it ever was.

  30. Ren Babcock Jr.
    Ren Babcock Jr. says:

    I don’t use FSS much either. The only reason they exist (for me) is to interpret NOTAMS. For some reason, I seem to miss NOTAMS when scanning the DUATS briefing.

  31. D. Smith
    D. Smith says:

    I am a Flight Service Specialist. I have been around when FSS was still FAA and there was at least 1 station in every state. It was a great time to work in FSS where you knew your small area and knew the micro climates and could give a great interpretation of the weather in the area of your flight. Now a days, the gov is making budget cuts and downsizing in anyway possible. As such, the FAA decided to take its first big step in doing so with FSS. As such, we now have only 6 stations in all the country. A lot of us don’t really know the micro climate of our area because our area has gone from one sate to s series of states

    • D. Smith
      D. Smith says:

      Or even a third of the country to 2 thirds of the country in some small cases. However, thats not to say that we do not know our area. Tecnically, we work an area thats two to three states big, much like a center would. As far as our knowledge of weather in general, a lot of us have college education in weather or we might have been doing something regarding weather like a weather observer. A lot of us are also pilots, so we can give you a good opinion on not just what the weather states, but give you our opinion as to how the weather impacts your flight in general. You would be surprised to the amount of pilots that call FSS for weather briefings and the questions that they have in regards to weather or notams or whathave you. I talk to 30 to 40 pilots a day. About half just want to file a flight plan and get weather just to be legal and for insurance. But the other half are those that need special attention whether its an incorrect routing or someone who needs a kick in the pants because they have “get-there-itis” who wants to fly through several convective sigmets in a 172 or whatnot. But theres a much bigger picture that the general pilot misses. FSS is a part of ATC. The online vendors are not. When you go missing and youre not on an IFR flight plan, we go looking for you, not the online vendors. If an airport closes, we’re the first ones to know about it. FSS issues those notams that closes your airport. If youre going to Canada, Mexico or anywhere else in the world, we get you the info that you need. We’ll help you with whatever question you may have.

  32. dallas
    dallas says:

    What’s concerning about this entire conversation is that there’s no clear answer to what seems like a very fundamental and simple question.

    In the 70’s it was pretty clear where to go, now it’s the wild west and the FAA is obviously back in…well…the 1980s.

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