Calling a Flight Service Station (FSS)
We have an amazing resource only a toll-free dial away—Flight Service.
It’s easy to be informed so don’t slough off the call. I know, you look out, winds are light, gear is ready, you’re running late, and you don’t plan to fly for that long—why bother with Flight Service?
The best reason is that, if a flight restriction has landed in your area, you need to know about it. The next best reason is that atmospheric surprises lurk and, by getting information from an expert, chances of needing that expert wing handling or reserve, decrease. Most of the time your briefer will have local weather knowledge, too.
And they want us to call!
1-800-WX-BRIEF (800-992-7433) is now run by Lockheed Martin under contract to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Their services remain the same: to provide pilot briefings to everyone including powered paraglider pilots.
In October of 2007 I was invited to visit the Kankakee Flight Service where manager Kevin George showed me around to explain what they do. I was impressed. Lockheed is obviously trying to win the pilot community over after a somewhat bumpy start in 2006.
Thanks to Lance Marczak of Kankakee for setting this up and for the helpful time of Kevin George and Briefer George Tuonenin. The FSS station this was done at is now closed due to consolidation.
Making the Call
Procedures have changed slightly but nothing dramatic. After dialing 800 WX-BRIEF (992-7433) you will get a menu selection. Say “Briefer” then respond until you get to the desired area. There are 18 physical locations and you’ll be routed to the one closest to your chosen area.
Tell them you’re an ultralight pilot, what time you’ll be flying, where, how high and how long. Give your name since they have to enter something in the “aircraft number” field. They work in Greenwich Mean Time, also called Zulu time, but if you don’t know the conversion just say “an hour from now” or use local time and say so. It’s best if you give the location referencing an airport give what you got.
Don’t sweat it if you don’t have all the info, they’ll ask what they need to fill in the blanks. As you’re doling out details, he’s typing into a computer, so you may have to repeat certain things anyway. Soon, a bevy of relevant aviation weather data pours onto his 3-screen display and he starts the briefing.
There are some minimum items they must cover but nearly all are relevant. Most briefers know what can be skipped. Airport NOTAMS (notices to airman), tower lights inop, and similar useless items aren’t required for our operation.
Some terms may be foreign but most are self-explanatory. For example, the briefing must include Sigmet (Significant Meteorological conditions) information but they’ll always tell what it’s about. For example, they’ll say “Sigmet 4 charlie for thunderstorms…” I’m sure we all know to avoid thunderstorms.
Calls are recorded which provides some protection for you. For example, if airspace is put up at the last minute, you can confidently tell an investigator you exercised due diligence in getting appropriate information. Regardless of what happens, whether a violation or conflict with another pilot, it looks good beyond the self-preservation value. Always use your correct last name for this reason.
More Improvements are planned but one that’s been implemented already are Pilot Profiles. You can ask to store your information under your telephone number then when you call them back, you can say that you have a pilot profile under such-and-such. The field he types in to pull up your information says certificate number but they can enter any identifying number. The feature is intended to speed the process by populating some data fields from stored info.
What you Should Know
I was impressed with how strongly George and Kevin encouraged pilots to call even if they’re not familiar with the lingo. The overriding message being that it’s much better to call even if you’re not “Mr. Aviation.”
It would still be helpful to understand a few things as covered in Chapter 7 of the PPG Bible. Namely how wind information is given and Z times. Briefers will frequently give information relative to these items out o habit.
Wind directions are always the way the wind is from in degrees where north is 0°, east is 90°, south is 180° and west is 270°.
Zulu time is local + x hours in the summer or local + x+1 hours in the winter expressed using the 24 hour clock. So for the central time zone, Zulu is local + 5 hours in the summer and local + 6 hours in the winter. If you’re summer morning launch is 7 am that’s 1200 Zulu. Californians (pacific time) must add 7 hours to local in the summer and 8 hour in winter.
Responsible behavior will help extend your acceptance in the aviation community. Unless we want to fly looking over our shoulders all the time, it’s always best to work with other users of the airspace system and this one first step. Hitting national news by flying in restricted airspace will not endear us to anyone.
Fortunately, we’ve been provided a capable tool at a hard-to-beat price. All we have to do is use it.