Saturday, July 16, 2005

On the reliability of primary sources of information

Flight Service Stations are the official and primary source for pilots to get information regarding a flight. That being the case, I often wonder why more pilots don't complain about the level of service gained from that source.

If I plan to fly out of the local area of my departure airport, it is necessary to get a briefing from them, or I risk anything from unexpected weather to losing my license for failing to know about a temporary flight restriction. Given those high stakes, I am often disappointed at the failure of Flight Service to provide.

I have seen briefers do some amazingly stupid things, and nobody seems to ever get in trouble, except the pilots who believe them. I had a briefing not long ago, knowing I was going to a fly-in, and knowing ahead of time that a temporary control tower had been set up, and yet the briefer failed to mention anything about it. So I had to tell him. On another flight two weeks ago, I was heading to, ironically, Leesburg, VA. Instrument flight the whole way, since the weather was obviously instrument conditions. I filed an instrument flight plan. The briefer never bothered to mention that the runway lights were out of service, and there would be no instrument approaches going in there. I only found out halfway there, from the air traffic controller.

These are serious problems, and not restricted to small aircraft. Airline and corporate pilots don't have it any better. Several months ago, I was witness to an incident that nearly became a runway incursion accident, partially stemming from bad information that a briefer gave the pilot of a corporate jet. And who is at fault? No matter what the cause, it appears to be the pilot that always takes the blame. I have yet to hear of a briefer even being reprimanded.

Today wasn't really all that bad, but the briefer was either new at it, or uninterested. Not sure which, though I did get a very similarly disinterested briefing from the same guy a week ago. He did manage to come up with NOTAM's (Notices to airmen) all by himself. Not a bad briefing really, except that I am really not fond of having to repeat flight plan information multiple times. I've arrived at a point where I am so tired of bad briefings, I often just hang up when I hear the voice of a briefer that I know will not be helping me very well.

It isn't always that way, but this scenario is becoming much more common. Sometimes I get the feeling that the government is hiring briefers directly off the street, requiring only that they do, in fact, have a pulse and are capable of simultaneously sitting in a chair and answering a phone.

In the last month, I have received briefings from people who I am convinced know nothing about weather, people who can barely understand the English language, people who might understand it, but have trouble speaking it or understanding the written form, people totally uninterested in or incapable of providing assistance, and even one man who I am convinced was drunk at the time.

The majority of briefers are probably not so bad. But I have friends who have been violated for unintentional infractions that directly resulted from bad information given by a briefer. That situation seems to be growing more and more common, especially here, being less than 30 minutes of flight away from the heavily guarded airspace around Washington D.C.

Inside the Washington ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), there are an average of 10 violations daily. The news only reports the occasional single-engine plane that wanders too close and causes panic in the streets of the Capitol. But these events happen every day. Many pilots have suffered heavy penalties for these violations, but only a few of those overseeing enforcement have any realization that it is not always the pilot's fault. I have two friends who are among those numbers, neither of whom posed any sort of imaginable threat, both of whom had to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to beg the government to graciously allow them to keep flying.

The latest trend, which should make all pilots angry, is that if you have any sort of violation regarding the Washington ADIZ, regardless of cause, you will get a bare-minimum 30-day suspension. One friend was violated not long ago there, and it was directly caused by a bad briefing from Leesburg AFSS. He had asked for the specific dimensions of the zone, so he could avoid it. Based on the briefer's statement, he was more than 5 miles clear of the space. Based on the actual dimensions, he was inside the space, and got in trouble for it. Even after it was obvious where the problem lay, he received no help. The FSS claimed that the Freedom of Information Act actually prevented him from being permitted to get a transcript of his own briefing, as proof that the briefer was at fault. The FAA, knowing all this, still violated him. He used the NASA form properly, and managed to keep flying, but now he is eliminated from that option for the next five years.

So I keep calling Flight Service every time I fly. I keep putting up with bad briefers and inadequate briefings, sometimes calling back in the hopes of getting better information from someone else. And I keep hoping that I'm not the next pilot to get violated.

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