A few years ago, one of my flying club partners and I were preparing to launch the club’s trusty Cessna 182 Skylane from our home airport in northern Virginia to the Tampa area, where we would base the bird while we enjoyed the annual festivities of Sun `n Fun. Being dutiful and safety-conscious pilots, we went to the computer and summoned a standard briefing from Flight Service. And then we commissioned the slaughter of at least a small spruce – not to mention the spillage of the chemicals composing that expensive ink – by hitting the “print” key. We then hauled the resulting “briefing” – a NYC-telephone-directory-sized stack that was anything but “brief” – to a nearby table to figure out what mattered for our specific flight on this specific day. We felt a lot like prospectors panning for gold, sifting lots of rocks (e.g., volcanic activity in Montserrat) in search of a few nuggets of valuable information (e.g., the temporary air traffic control tower at our destination airport).
The NextGen Briefing
The good folks who work for Lockheed Martin Flight Service (LMFS) have been every bit as frustrated to deliver this kind of experience as the pilots have been to receive it. If anything, their frustration is even greater because they see it on a much larger scale. But they have been working to do something about it. Over the past few years, LMFS has been reaching out to pilots to get our unvarnished opinion about what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. They have been feeding that information into their overall research and development effort, and directing resources into service improvements that enhance safety, efficiency, and convenience.
One of the first changes was the pilot web portal, which has acquired over 10,000 registered users since its initial release in 2012. Sign-up is free – your tax dollars have already paid for the service – and you’ll find lots of benefits waiting when you register.
Here’s where the “less is a whole lot more” part comes in. When you enter a route, request a briefing, and choose the “NextGen” briefing option, the system gives you all the information available to Flight Service specialists. Phase I – rolled out in the fall of 2013 – provides both text and graphics for Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAFs), Meteorological Aerodrome Reports (METARs), adverse conditions (e.g., Airman’s Meteorological Information (AIRMETs), and area forecasts. The NextGen approach uses color coding and dashed-line boxes to direct your attention to those items relevant to your particular route as you progress through it. Bringing up the TAF tab, for example, might give you six pages that show the weather conditions keyed to the expected progress of your flight. You can easily see how a 30-minute delay might make the difference between IFR and improvement to MVFR or VFR conditions.
That’s all great stuff, but there’s more to come this spring with the launch of Phase II. The element I am eagerly anticipating is the LMFS NextGen filtering of NOTAMs. Need I say more? But there is more – expanding integration with your favorite web service and app vendors, Adverse Condition Alerting Service, surveillance-enhanced SAR capability, and an EasyActivate/EasyClose VFR flight plan option that will soon be available through apps.
It’s all there waiting for you – what are you waiting for? (FAA Safety Briefing – MayJun 2014)