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AOPA's tips for navigating the FSS systemAOPA's tips for navigating the FSS system

AOPA’s tips for navigating the FSS system

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File multiple flight plans

Planning a long cross-country? Consider filing multiple VFR flight plans—one for each leg of your flight. Filing shorter flight plans gives you an advantage in receiving search-and-rescue (SAR) services should you have an accident or emergency. Flight service contractor Lockheed Martin points out that if your flight plan has a three-hour duration, SAR would begin after three-and-a-half hours. If your flight plan includes the entire trip, with multiple stops, and is active for six-and-a-half hours, SAR wouldn’t start for seven hours. Then searchers would have to cover the entire route.

Closing your flight plan in the air

Sometimes the best intentions are forgotten in the excitement of the moment. Although most pilots plan to close their flight plans once they are on the ground, occasionally they forget. As an alternative, you can close your VFR flight plan in the air when you have the airport in sight and are confident the landing is assured. Not sure how? If you have time to look at your chart, find the nearest VOR box and use the frequency designated with an “R.” You can talk to FSS on that frequency and listen on the VOR. You can also reach flight service on 122.2 MHz in most parts of the country.

Easy ways to give and receive pireps

During your weather briefing, the FSS specialist will mention that pilot reports (pireps) are appreciated. Pireps—reported by pilots for pilots—provide in-flight weather information that can give you a better picture of the conditions than a forecast. You can file and receive pireps en route by contacting flight service on 122.2 MHz, flight watch on 122.0 MHz, or on the frequency listed on your chart.

Get a speedy briefing

When a pilot calls for a preflight briefing, the specialists are tasked with making sure they provide the pilot with very specific information, including current adverse conditions such as icing and thunderstorms. If you just want certain information for flight planning purposes, explain that you do not need adverse conditions and then state the information you would like. Doing this allows the briefer to give you the information you need right away.

No aircraft ID? No problem

Pilots who use rental aircraft sometimes call flight service without knowing the N number for the airplane they will be flying. While an N number is preferred, you can also inform the briefer that you do not yet know the aircraft ID and that you would like to place your first and last name or other identifying information in the aircraft ID box. This will provide a quick and easy way to verify the briefing later if needed. Do not get a briefing under one N number if you will or could be flying a different aircraft. If you flew an aircraft with a different N number and had an incident or accident, there would be no record of a briefing under that aircraft ID.

Understanding the ‘flight plan mask’

When you call flight service for a briefing, the specialist’s computer system starts with a screen called the “flight plan mask,” which should be filled in by the specialist before providing the briefing. To reduce briefing times—and potential errors—you need to correctly supply specific information at the beginning of each briefing. If filing a flight plan, follow the flight plan form. For pilots wanting only a briefing, just nine items are needed (first half of the flight plan form, excluding airspeed).

Flight Watch is for weather

En route flight advisory service, commonly called Flight Watch, uses specially trained weather briefers to provide en route aircraft with up-to-date weather information and receive pilot reports. It should not be used for filing, activating, or closing flight plans, for standard weather briefings, or for any other routine matter. Flight Watch is available from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. local for aircraft flying between 5,000 feet and 17,500 feet agl. However, it can work at lower altitudes. When calling Flight Watch, give your position relative to a VOR and give the briefer time to tune his or her radios to respond to your call. For more FSS tips, take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s online minicourse, A Pilot’s Guide to Flight Service .

Weighing a briefer’s advice

During preflight briefings, the flight service specialist may issue the caution “VFR not recommended.” In this case, the professionally trained briefer believes that the flight cannot be conducted safely in visual meteorological conditions and that bad weather is present or may develop. This advisory does not mean you must cancel your flight, but it should prompt you to think carefully about the weather and your options. A briefer’s advice or recommendation during a briefing is not regulatory. It is up to you, the pilot in command, to make the final go/no-go decision.

Using dual frequencies

Pilots often contact flight service en route to get updated weather, open flight plans, or obtain other information. In some areas, the best radio reception will be near a VOR. Pilots transmit on a frequency such as 122.1R. The “R” indicates this is a “receive only” frequency for flight service briefers. To listen to the callback from flight service, pilots must tune to the associated VOR frequency. However, it is easy to confuse which frequency is for talking and which is for listening. Remember, “Don’t talk to VORs.” Pilots should listen to flight service over the same frequency on which they listen to a VOR’s Morse code when identifying a station.

Aircraft designators

Aircraft have many names, and in different uses they can all be correct, but for filing FAA flight plans and other services, aircraft models only have one official abbreviation. This is its aircraft type designator, and it may be different than you think. For example, if you have a Cherokee 140, you should tell the briefer you have a P28A. Cherokee Six? The correct designation is PA32; but wait, a Lance 2 is a P32T. What about a Cardinal? C177 is the answer; and a Pressurized Centurion is P210.

Abbreviated briefings

Abbreviated briefings are a great way to request specific information from flight service and shorten briefings. Just ask for an abbreviated briefing, provide basic background information about your previous standard briefing, if applicable (and at what time you received it), and then request the information you want. Only requested items will be provided. For example, “I need an abbreviated briefing. I received a standard briefing for a flight in the Flagstaff area two hours ago. I just need the TAF for FLG and any new TFRs within 20 miles of the airport.”

Kick the ‘K’ in airport identifiers

In an international context, airports in the 48 contiguous United States are prefixed with the ICAO country code “K.” Because Lockheed Martin’s flight service computer system is set up to automatically assume flights are domestic, pilots should not precede their airport identifier with a K unless they plan to fly internationally. Stating the K up front for a domestic flight could create extra steps for the briefer, thus slowing the process. Remember to phonetically spell airport identifiers to avoid miscommunication.

Reaching the first available briefer

The new Lockheed Martin flight service voice recognition system prompts you for your location in order to connect you to a local briefer, but you can also request “any” to reach the first available briefer in the country. While this can shorten the hold time to speak to a briefer, he or she may not have the same degree of local knowledge as a briefer trained for your region. The briefer can provide information that is contained in a standard, abbreviated, or outlook briefing, but you must interpret the weather data.

Find a local briefer fast

Under the old flight service system, it was easy to get in touch with a local preflight briefer if you called from a landline—your call was routed based on your area code. But it didn’t work for cell phones. Lockheed Martin’s FSS system, however, asks for your state and, depending on where you live, in which division of the state you are located. These divisions are called areas of responsibility. Find out if your state is divided and in which area of responsibility you are located. If you don’t want to use voice prompts, simply dial 1 plus your state code after 800/WX-BRIEF. Selecting the right area will put you in touch with a briefer who has local knowledge.

Spell it out from Alpha to Zulu

Use the phonetic alphabet to get a more efficient, accurate flight service briefing. According to a pilot and flight service specialist with Lockheed Martin, many pilots fail to use the phonetic alphabet when they contact FSS. All briefers know the phonetic alphabet, so it should be the default when spelling words. For example, when giving an airport’s identification, state “Departing Foxtrot Delta Kilo; Frederick, Maryland” instead of ”Departing FDK.” This simple tweak could help ensure that your flight plan doesn’t get misplaced in the system.

Build your pilot profile

Want to shorten your preflight weather briefing time? Set up a profile with flight service the next time you speak with a flight service briefer. Information such as your aircraft type, N number, and home-base airport will pop up on the briefer’s screen the next time you call, as long as you aren’t calling from a line that has its number blocked. After setting up your profile, your information can automatically be pulled up, saving you and the briefer valuable time. Learn more about setting up your profile.

Expedite your IFR clearance

Waiting a long time for your IFR departure clearance can be frustrating—especially when you remember the Hobbs meter is ticking and the avgas is burning. AOPA wants to help you get the most from your flying dollar and flight service, so follow this helpful FSS tip. If you’re trying to depart from a nontowered airport without a remote communications frequency, call flight service’s dedicated IFR clearance delivery telephone number (888/766-8267) to expedite your clearance.

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