February 1, 2001
By Thomas A. Horne
Complaining about blown forecasts and various other flight service briefing shortcomings is a nationwide pilot pastime. But don't think that we've got the market cornered on weather gripes. Briefers have to toil with aggravations, too.
One big problem that briefers have had to deal with involves dated equipment. To make a long story short, today's flight service station (FSS) briefers are using yesterday's—make that last century's—hardware and software to receive weather data and assemble our briefings. Installed in the late 1970s and dubbed "Model I," this equipment is now so old that it has become what the government calls "unsupportable." Translated, that means spare parts are no longer available; the personnel who originally installed and maintained the equipment have long since retired; and if something breaks it's likely to stay that way—and briefers will somehow have to work around the problem.
Model I work stations have some of the trappings of modernity—keyboards, monitors, and electronically displayed weather graphics. But a closer look reveals that most of the information on those monitors is text-only, and that graphics are available only via a supplemental package. A rotary telephone would look right at home in some Model I environments. At one Model I setup I once saw a wonderful example of high-tech mimicry. In one FSS office, hard copies of yellowing difax weather charts lay on a copy stand photographed by closed-circuit video cameras. The imagery appeared on the briefers' monitors on the work floor, just a few steps away.
A follow-on system to Model I—called, what else, Model II—was supposed to have replaced Model I in the early 1980s, but you know how things sometimes go. The will to change ran out, followed by the money, and Model II was put on ice. Forever. Some automated processes were added to the Model I suites (producing what's called the Model I Full Capacity, or M1FC) when flight service station consolidation and automation was begun, but for some 20 years that was it for FSS equipment upgrades.
Meanwhile, Direct User Access Terminal system (DUATS) debuted in 1990—first as a government program, then as an outsourced, private-sector flight-planning and weather information service funded by the FAA. The age of the personal computer dawned and then hit its stride.
The latest attempt to upgrade FSS hardware and software began two years ago with the beginning stages of the OASIS program. This promising title stands for Operational and Supportability Implementation System, and OASIS' broad goal is to give both briefers and pilots access to more and better briefing and flight-planning services. At first, the idea was for the FAA to do the hardware and software development for OASIS. But this work was eventually contracted out to the Harris Corporation.
Time passed, more time passed, budgets were busted, but finally the first OASIS work stations went into a test phase. In September 2000 the Seattle Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) became the first of the nation's 61 AFSSs to try out OASIS.
Unfortunately, problems with interfacing OASIS with the FAA's Weather Message Switching Center Replacement program (WMSCR) and other problems took some of the ebullience out of the IDU (initial daily use) demonstration. As of December 2000, many of these problems have been resolved, thanks in part to AOPA's participation in the program. Even so, OASIS remains in test mode.
But don't you worry, we're told, OASIS will be the future of flight service, and we'll all—someday—be the beneficiaries of a system that will make Model I/M1FC (if you're keeping track of all these abbreviations) look Stone Age.
OASIS uses commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS, to stay in abbreviation-mode) technology. This means that its work stations will use the same kinds of computers and software (Windows NT, as a matter of fact) that you'd find in your local Staples or Circuit City. This takes care of the obsolescence problems that plagued Model I. Under OASIS, if a component goes bad or—more likely—a hot new software version comes out, it can be plugged into the system with a minimum of fuss.
OASIS will be able to provide briefers with more graphical information than they ever had before. With today's creaky Model I system, a supplemental batch of weather graphics can be called up—surface analysis, weather depiction, winds aloft, prognosis, and sigmet and airmet charts, for example. With OASIS, local Nexrad weather radar imagery can be called up, plus national radar summary charts, lightning strike plots, and satellite imagery. Radar and satellite imagery can be looped to better observe a weather system's changing intensities and movements. Weather imagery can also be archived for reviews of past events.
More flight plans can be processed through OASIS' network of services, which also includes Notam dissemination and search-and-rescue services.
Another great promise of OASIS is fast response times. Briefers, for example, can respond to flight watch calls with much more timely information regarding storm intensities and movements.
What will we pilots notice about OASIS when we call up flight service for a briefing? The quality of the information should go up, of course, but the rest of the briefing process will remain the same for the time being. The switch to OASIS will be transparent to pilots. There will still be standard, abbreviated, and outlook briefings, and you'll still be able to file flight plans over the telephone. DUATS will also continue to operate as usual.
While we won't see or hear anything in the first few years of OASIS, the futurists in the FAA's weather bureaucracy see plenty in their tea leaves. They foresee a time when pilots can log on to an OASIS Web site and simultaneously talk to a briefer on the telephone (no word on who'd pay for your second telephone line) for a weather briefing. Similarly, flight plans could be submitted to OASIS via an online service. But these and other features are "PQ 3I" (P-cubed, in bureaucratese, which, further translated, means future enhancement).
Anyone who's surfed the many excellent aviation weather Internet sites realizes that all the so-called "advanced" weather graphics packages being touted by OASIS are available online right now, including AOPA's site. In fact, many Internet sites offer ambitious and useful weather analysis tools that go way beyond what's found in an OASIS setup.
For example, the National Weather Service's Aviation Weather Center publishes the Neural Net Icing tool ( www.awc-kc.noaa.gov/awc/nnice.html), which shows the vertical and horizontal extents of icing conditions. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) also produces an icing forecast tool ( www.rap.ucar.edu/largedrop/integrated/). Convective storm predictions can be seen on the AWC's Vertical Velocity Storm graphics ( www.awc-kc.noaa.gov/awc/vvstorm.html). Yet another FAA/AWC offering is the Collaborative Convective Forecast product ( http://ftb1.kc.noaa.gov/ccfp/advanced.html), which offers storm forecasts at two-hour intervals.
Use DUATS, or make a pass through the AWC and NCAR products, and you've got all the weather information you need to make a preflight go/no-go weather decision, right? Who needs OASIS in this scenario? With all this information, every man's his own briefer, yes?
Well, yes and no. The regulations, in FAR 91.103, make no mention of a "legal," government-approved briefing. The relevant passages say that before beginning a flight, each pilot in command must become familiar with all available information concerning that flight. You can construe this to mean that an FSS briefing would be mandated under the "all available information" provisions of this passage, but it is not specifically mentioned. Personally, I think a judge would include FSS in the "all available information" catch phrase.
"For a flight under IFR or a flight not in the vicinity of an airport," FAR 91.103(a) says, "weather reports and forecasts, fuel requirements, alternatives available if the planned flight cannot be completed, and any known traffic delays of which the pilot in command has been advised by ATC" must be included in the preflight information. However, all this can be learned via DUATS, various online sites, and several excellent flight-planning software packages. So, strictly speaking, yes—we can be our own briefers.
On the other hand, FSS briefers can help most of us interpret and advise us of weather information using plain English in a give-and-take format that's conducive to sound decision making. Go it alone, and you'd better be very well skilled in weather interpretation, abbreviation and symbol decoding, and elemental forecasting. Now who's his own briefer?
Besides, many Internet sites offering fancy new aviation weather products—including those mentioned above—are experimental. Most of these sites—implicitly or explicitly—warn viewers that the information posted is not to be used for operational decisions.
Still feel like self-briefing?
We'll keep you posted on OASIS as it evolves from the experimental stage. There's no doubt that this new program will benefit us all. The only question is when. It was supposed to have been in place two years ago. Now the FAA says it will be two more years. Oh, well. We can still go online. Just remember to reach out and touch your briefer telephonically prior to each flight.
Links to additional information on OASIS may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/2001/links0102.shtml). E-mail the author at email@example.com.
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
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