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Fly out To Princeton AFSS


Fly out To Princeton AFSS

It was a beautiful Saturday morning in October when seven people in three Flywell aircraft took a short hop to tour the Princeton Flight Service Station (now operated by Lockheed-Martin); two additional members drove up. Joe Morgan, the manager of the station warmly welcomed us as we parked the planes in front of the building at the south end of the runway. Joe has worked for over thirty years at flight service stations around the country and had a wealth of knowledge and stories to tell us. He has seen it all, from teletypes to satellites; he has grown with the system, with all its various technology and knowledge dissemination methods.


The flight service station is an industrial-like building at the south end of the airport. The southern-most taxiway takes you to the apron the FSS shares with the Life Link helicopter operation in the adjacent hangar. Joe reminded us that walk-in briefings are still available for those who wish to stop by.

Before seeing the actual room where phone calls to Princeton are answered, we gathered in a conference room to hear background information about how the system works (there were many surprises!). After many hours designing the system using pilot and user input and requests, we have the current Lockheed-Martin system. Though there are still bugs to be worked out (both hardware and software) due to the immense complexity, it is amazing to see the results of this synthesis of technology.


The room where phone calls to the facility are answered was a dimly lit room with briefers at computer workstations. Each briefer has three monitors and a keyboard. Each has the ability to look at multiple sources of information simultaneously (from the proprietary L-M software, the U.S. government and the Internet). All briefers have a headset and they either type your information into a flight form or pick it from drop-down boxes on the form itself. Hint: if you have ever had to fill out a form on a web page, you know how tedious it can be. If you talk at a normal or slower speed, the briefer will be better able to get your information into the form with better accuracy. Better yet, establish a profile to cut down on the data entry for the briefer and speed up flight plan filing for you (more on that below).


When you call for a briefing and to file, you can speed up the connection to Princeton by dialing 1661 after the initial phone call is answered by the system. This puts you directly in the PNM cue. If your call is not answered within 20 seconds (due to call volume), it is routed to another facility with a briefing specialist knowledgeable about the upper Midwest. That means that your call would be first routed to the Dallas-Fort Worth facility and if that is busy, to the Washington, D.C. facility. Be aware that all briefers have access to the same information, whether or not they are located at PNM. If you have a really heavy Midwest accent, you may have to talk slower so those other folks in the south can understand you. Be aware that, statistically, the heaviest call volume at PNM occurs on Fridays, followed by Saturdays and Sundays. On the other hand, Joe reminded us that it is perfectly proper to ask a briefer to slow down. After giving their umpteenth weather report, briefers may get into a rhythm that is too fast for us to understand or copy. They have been trained to slow down when reminded, so donít be afraid to speak up.


Be Specific, Be Specific, Be Specific

Another key to a good briefing is to be specific with your information, especially when speaking to a briefer at other than PNM. That means spelling out (phonetically) your departure airport, route of flight waypoints, and destination. Imagine yourself trying to copy route information from a pilot who is at a small airport in Louisiana going to Alabama. You may not be familiar with the abbreviations for the waypoints and that is the rub with a system that was designed to be able to connect within twenty seconds. The only way to do this is to have calls forwarded to other facilities when the one you want is busy. I donít think most folks mind spelling things out, anyway. It gives us GA pilots practice with the phonetic alphabet and only takes a few seconds longer. Donít forget that you may know that you want to go to Springfield (Minnesota) but the briefer may not know which of the ten or so Springfield's in the lower 48 you want to go to. If you are specific, youíll end up saving time and confusion.


Another hint about being specific relates to radio work. Did you know that all radio calls to FSS are handled by the folks in the Dallas facility? Yes, even if you are calling Princeton Radio from somewhere over the top of Leech Lake, your voice is relayed to Dallas. This is another reason to be specific when calling them up. I wonder how many folks in the Dallas facility have ever heard of Brainerd or Bemidji (much less know how to spell them or know their identifier). Youíll have much better success if you help the folks out on the other end of the line with specifics (e.g. Princeton Radio, Skyhawk 1989 Echo, at Brainerd, Kilo Bravo Romeo Delta transmitting and receiving 123.65).


Set Up A Profile

A real timesaver that we were told about is setting up profiles. By calling a briefer and asking them to set up a profile for you, many of the FAA flight form boxes are automatically filled out by the FSS computer. That saves time and improves accuracy. Yes, you can even have a different profile for each of the club planes you fly. Profiles are tied to phone numbers. Thanks to caller ID, the FSS computer will recognize your phone number and when you specify the aircraft you are flying, the rest of the boxes will automatically be filled in (e.g. TAS, your name, address, contact phone number, home base, etc.). All you have to do is tell the briefer the variable information, such as route of flight, destination, fuel, etc. Now thatís a time saver. By the way, feel free to list more than one phone number in flight form box number 14. That is a trick Joe taught us because it may help speed rescue efforts if the FAA can get in contact with someone should you be overdue or contact you should you forget to close your flight plan. We were reminded that costs for search and rescue missions can be passed along to pilots.


The last tip Joe gave us was to go to the flight service website at www.afss.com. You can find a whole lot of information there, including pilot tips. Check it out some time when you are wishing you were up there but are down on the ground.


The trip up to the flight service station was fun and informative. This trip is highly recommended to anyone interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes action at our local flight service. Many thanks to Joe Morgan, too, for coming in on his day off to show us the facility. - Article Written by Rick Okada

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