Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The radio, and the telephone, and the movies...

...that we know may just be passing fancies, and in time may go... [Gershwin, Our Love is Here to Stay]. Here's Ella Fitzgerald's version; listen while you read.

Gershwin didn't have the internet, of course.

But my students do. How should they get a preflight weather briefing, or file a flight plan? What part of the process is "here to stay?"

The answers to these questions are continually evolving, and I have had a few friendly debates with other flight instructors about what to do in 2008.

When I was working on becoming a private pilot, and for quite some time afterward, I relied on the walk in briefing. Flight Service Stations were everywhere, almost, and you could talk to a real person, look at the synoptic charts and prog charts and plot the radar report on the little sectional with the squares to see where the precipitation was. You have seen the data for this, but may not know what it means. For example, here is a radar report from Grand Rapids for this afternoon:

GRR 2135 AREA 2TRWXX 20/101 199/44 142W MT 510 228/24 C2837
AREA 2TRWXX 276/101 248/106 27W C2837
AREA 3RW++ 284/134 75/114 175W MT 510 228/24
^HL3 IK25 IP1 JK56 JN2332 KJ55663433 LH1 LJ64565233 MJ4256665 NH56426565 OH146
OL65 OO3 PI6

What does "^HL3 IK25 IP1 JK56 JN2332 KJ55663433 LH1 LJ64565233 MJ4256665 NH56426565 OH146 OL65 OO3 PI6" mean? There used to be a copy of a local sectional on the briefing counter at each FSS, usually covered in plexiglas. A grid was drawn on the plexiglas. The letters HL, IK, JK, etc. indicated a starting grid square in each row, and the numbers indicated the strength of the returns in each grid square; these were written in the appropriate square with a grease pencil. So, in row L, starting with column J, the return strengths were 6, 4, 5, 6, 5, etc. Rows K, L, M, and N are pretty full; that's probably the area of heavy rain from 134 miles on the 284 radial to 114 miles on the 075 radial, but it's impossible to be sure without a copy of the grid.

When a walk-in briefing was impossible, you could get a telephone briefing. It used to be that you had to have the local number, or know how to look it up, but around 1989 we got the "Automated" FSS. The automation really just referred to the phone system, because now there was only one number (1-800-WX-BRIEF, the same as today).

You call, give them a flight plan, and ask for a "standard briefing." Simple, and this method still works today.

Once in the air, you could get a radio briefing. You found a nearby RCO (that is, Remote Communications Outlet) and got the information over the radio.

You should get better service from Flight Watch, which uses the same frequency (122.0 mHz) at low altitudes all over the USA.

See my previous post on the vagaries of radio briefings.

Around 1990, "official" briefings became available over the internet, first by dial-up, then by TELNET, and finally by ordinary TCP/IP in a browser. This was called DUATS for Direct User Access Terminal Service. There are two online providers, DUAT, and DUATS.

(The history should be well-known, but the Wikipedia article is pretty poor.)

At the beginning, pilots whined about how many pages of output these services provided, and how much of it was useless; I don't hear this so much anymore. A little time in a simple text editor cuts out the stuff you don't need, and you can print the rest. A later plain language function persists, and even though it was designed by one of my best friends as an undergraduate, I hate it. The undecoded METARs and TAFs are nicely aligned, and in many cases you can find what you need by a simple vertical scan. You have to read the whole text version, no matter what, which was unacceptable when I was flying freight or air ambulance.

The biggest advantage of online briefing is that you never hear "VFR flight not recommended." They say this even if you are filing IFR.

Most pilots I know use DUAT or DUATS for their briefings, but many instructors introduce students to the process by having them call FSS on the telephone. This always leaves the student flustered, because he or she is being forced to communicate in a still-foreign language. As a consequence, they don't get the briefing. They don't know what to write down and what to ignore, no matter how many times you rehearse this with them before the call.

In my mind, a telephone briefing is an emergency backup; my primary briefing is online. So, I have chosen to start my students out with online briefings, and go back and do telephone briefings later. The Law of Primacy, right?

And now comes a new method: the telephone and the radio have given way to "the movies." Some Garmin GPS units offer near-real-time weather through XM Satellite Radio. The pilot has become a self-briefer. This must be a handful without a good autopilot, or a good copilot, but it strikes me as a good handful.

Now we come to the end of the song: "The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they're only made of clay."

Clay might be weaker than love, but it is stronger than airplanes.

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