Later this month, the nation's privatized, automated flight service station network will initiate the switch to a new way of managing and delivering data and pilot services. Dubbed FS21 (for flight service — twenty-first century), this systemwide upgrade involves several important structural changes — all designed to more efficiently and accurately deliver preflight and in-flight information to pilots.
February 19 is the kickoff date. That's when all flight service operations formerly carried out at the Leesburg, Virginia, automated flight service station (AFSS) will be moved to a brand-new facility just down the road in Ashburn, Virginia. Along with the move will come a sea change in the way flight service stations do business.
"We'll be using a single, common database for flight service specialists and pilots, using common data ser-vers," said Daniel J. Courain, Lockheed Martin Information Technology's vice president of flight services. "The basic setup involves the use of three hub facilities and a network of 17 satellite FSS facilities serving the entire continental United States." Alaskan flight service stations will continue to be administered by the FAA, through three automated FSSs and 14 local FSS facilities. FS21 also will incorporate an Internet-based flight-planning function that pilots can soon access online.
FS21 is the latest step in what has been a 20-year-long program to modernize and consolidate the flight service station system. Except that now the initiative is being managed by the private sector — through a 10-year, fixed-price contract with Lockheed Martin. AOPA worked to ensure that the outsourcing of FSS provides modernized flight services to pilots with the government retaining the ultimate responsibility for providing the service. What began in the 1970s with 305 flight service stations, 3,700 specialists, teletype machines, and rotary-dial telephones will — by September, the target date for FS21's reaching full operational status — become a state-of-the-art 20-station, 1,000-employee operation. Or, as Courain puts it, "one virtual facility, where physical location isn't really important." Ashburn is the launch facility for FS21.
The three regionalized hubs will be located in Ashburn (eastern region); Dallas-Fort Worth (central region); and Prescott, Arizona (western region). Each hub serves its region's contingent of what are called "continuing" flight service stations. A more accurate term might be "surviving," in that the rest of the 280 original FSSs have been eliminated over the years. In any event, the current thinking is that the power of networked computers and servers can more than make up for the kind of inefficiencies that rendered previous modernization efforts obsolete even before they were fully implemented.
The hubs serve as data repositories, each containing the same information as the others, and all are interlinked. This way, if pilot telephone calls inundate one hub, the overflow is quickly and automatically directed to another.
And if one hub should somehow experience a complete power failure (rare, because back-up generators are always standing by), the others are waiting to take over.
The information in the hubs is spread out among the 17 satellite FSSs, and more information is now available to more specialists. Local Notams (L Notams), for example, are now shared throughout the FSS network under the FS21 system. This means that pilots wanting to know about taxiway closures, runway lighting outages, or other such airport information for a distant destination would automatically receive it as part of the preflight briefing. Until FS21 is fully implemented, this information is not entered in a central database. You have to request it from the local flight service station serving the destination.
Search and rescue also is streamlined under the upcoming system. Locating the last radio contact from a missing aircraft will be easier, since any flight service specialist can search the main database. Before, specialists had to telephone individual facilities along the missing aircraft's assumed route of flight.
The 96 workstations at the new Ashburn facility are set up in four quadrants that circle a set of huge central display screens. At the time AOPA Pilot visited the new Ashburn site (the facilities retain their original call-up names, so you'd still address it as "Leesburg Radio" or "Washington Flight Watch") one of the quadrants was set aside for training. The rest were being tested.
Each workstation consists of a keyboard and three large flat-screen monitors. Specialists can custom-configure the monitor views so that, for example, the left screen can show weather graphics, the center screen can show textual weather, and the right screen can be used as a touch-screen communications keypad for calling up flight service, flight watch, emergency frequencies, or the telephone numbers of other FSSs.
The workstations run software called Flight Winds. A vast amount of information is stored in Flight Winds, and not all of it is weather related. For example, information on navaids and notams is electronically stored, categorized, and updated, as are instrument approach charts and airport information from airport/facility directories. This means that briefers will no longer have to shuffle through volumes of printed material to search for airport data. Now it's just a matter of a few keystrokes.
Workloads are divided into two main areas — preflight and in flight. Preflight duties account for about 70 percent of the workload, with most of that occurring between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time. This principally involves preflight weather briefings and the filing of flight plans. In-flight workstations are staffed 24/7, and these handle incoming pilot reports (pireps) of weather conditions, as well as airfiling of flight plans and in-flight weather briefings.
Some of you may wonder if FS21 will do away with walk-up briefings. The answer, AOPA Pilot was told, is that old-fashioned person-to-person briefings will still be available at a select few flight service stations.
New specialists attend a Lockheed Martin training academy in Prescott to prepare them for working in the new environment. Most of the new trainees have private pilot certificates, Courain said. Specialists transferring from "legacy" stations will be trained on the new systems at one of the three hubs.
The training emphasizes local weather and terrain features, navaids, and airways. This way, a specialist transferring from a West Coast to an East Coast FSS, for example, will be brought up to speed on the kind of local knowledge that formerly resided only with long-term employees rooted in a particular region.
Trainees and briefers are not professional meteorologists. Instead, the educational focus is on aviation weather, interpretation and analysis of graphical and textual weather products, and using Flight Winds to convey relevant weather information to pilots.
Courain said that the nationwide flight service network handles some 500,000 to 600,000 preflight briefing calls per month, with November through April being considered the "off season."As for flight-watch call-ups, the trend is downward. "In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were some 300 to 400 flight-watch call-ups per day," Courain said. "Now it's more like 30 to 40 per day — over the whole United States," he said.
Courain attributes this plunge in flight-watch calls to the growing popularity of in-flight datalink weather, and the airlines' increased use of ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting system) to relay weather information among airline crews.
Still, flight watch can be busy when the weather worsens, as we all know. Washington Flight Watch recently hit an all-time high in flight-watch call-ups, with 180 in a single day.
FS21 also incorporates an Internet-based flight-planning and weather-briefing capability. This feature is in a prototype stage as this is being written, but in March some 20 to 30 pilots will be selected to test Leesburg's AFSS Web site.
The Web site's pilot portal is designed to be used like many other commercially available flight-planning software packages. The site will be able to store pilot, aircraft, and route profiles, then use these to gen-erate flight information and file flight plans.
Among the more novel features will be the ability for the pilot and the briefer to see the same weather chart at the same time while strategizing about the weather. There will be no applications to download, so pilots can make all their entries directly online.
"It [the Web site] will be a good one-stop, 'go-to' place for pilots to obtain their preflight information," said Courain. "But it won't take the place of a traditional weather briefing."
For pilots, all these upgrades and internal changes will be transparent. You'll still call flight service, still receive a briefing from a (Lockheed Martin) briefing specialist, and still file your flight plans over the telephone the way you always have. It's just that the information you need should be more readily available to the briefer, and the briefing process should be more streamlined.
As for the Web capability, we'll know more after the testing period. We'll keep you posted as FS21 moves toward full implementation. After so many less-than-wholehearted efforts at FSS modernization, FS21 promises — finally — a major improvement in the way we obtain preflight data and weather information.
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