Not every phone briefing you get is the same. Not every briefing you get is complete. If you don’t know what you are missing, you might miss something important. In some cases, getting a local briefer can be important to ensuring the best information, and maybe a little local interpretation, about your flight.
As Lockheed Martin has consolidated some of the Flight Service Stations around the country, the briefer you get may no longer be as close to your home airport as they used to be, but that doesn’t mean that briefers don’t specialize in specific areas of the country. It is worth selecting a specific state that will cover the area you are going to be flying. They will have the most experience with the local weather phenomena, local special use airspaces, and will probably be the most familiar with any local NOTAMs that may affect airports you plan to use.
Local Weather Phenomena…
How do you think a weather briefing for an area affected by lake effect snow (think West Michigan and Buffalo) in the winter will be from a briefer in Florida? What about a Michigan briefer trying to predict afternoon pop up storms in Florida?
Getting a briefer that is familiar with the state in which you will be flying is important. They will have the most direct experience with typical weather patterns, phenomena, and conditions that might affect your flight. While any of the briefers can read the charts, a briefer who has been working a region for 15 years will have some insights that others may not have.
To get the best briefer, think about where you are going to be flying. If I am going to be flying from Wisconsin to Alabama, perhaps the best briefer to select might actually be one that covers Alabama for a flight. Choosing the briefer from where you are departing may not always be the best choice. Think about where along your route the weather will be of the most concern and grab a briefer that covers that area. This may be very different when flying long cross-country flights.
NOTAMs – The Published Ones…
Not long ago I was talking with my Principal Operations Inspector (POI) at my local FSDO and he asked me if I knew if you got FDC NOTAMs when you called in for a brief. My answer was, only if you ask for them. He said that was what he thought too; until he conducted a checkride recently.
On a recent instrument checkride he was conducting, the applicant was asked about minimums for one of the approaches at the local airport they were using. My POI knew there were a number of FDC NOTAMs at the airport, one specifically affecting the minimums for that approach (raising the minimums). When the applicant got a briefing, he asked for NOTAMs and this particular NOTAM was not relayed to the applicant. Hmm.
We all know that when communicate with ATC using specific phraseology to get specific messages across. The same is true when we communicate with our flight briefer.
If we refer to AIM 5-1-1, we find a note that says that “Printed NOTAMs are not provided during a briefing unless specifically requested by the pilot” since the FSS specialist as no way of knowing whether the pilot has already checked the Notices to Airmen Publication prior to calling. Remember to ask for NOTAMs in the Notices to Airmen Publication. This information is not normally furnished during your briefing.” Just asking for FDC NOTAMs does not cover this, you have to specifically ask for the “Published NOTAMs” (http://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/notices/).
In this case the NOTAM had been around so long that it was now in print (in the AFD if you are going looking – or you can also find them at https://pilotweb.nas.faa.gov/PilotWeb/) and was not necessarily included in the standard briefing when NOTAMs were requested anymore. To get this, the applicant would have had to ask for “published” NOTAMs also in the briefing. Now, we don’t always get our NOTAMs on the phone anymore, and services such as DUAT, DUATS, or tablet apps such as ForeFlight and iFlightPlanner will typically include all NOTAMs in the listings for an intended airport, but it can be easy to miss. Especially if you are getting your information the old fashion way over the phone.
Knowing what to ask can be important. If you don’t have access to a source for published NOTAMs when you are getting a phone brief, ask the briefer to check for any published NOTAMs also.
Special Airspace Considerations…
As a pilot who has authorization to fly into the Washington, D.C. Flight Restricted Zone, I periodically fly in airspace that is unique. I have learned that when I do this, I don’t file my flight plans with anyone other than the Dulles Flight Service Station. Why? Because one time I filed with a Michigan Flight Service Station who was unfamiliar with the filing procedures for my access code that allows me to fly in that airspace. The result was an error in the process and the need to reissue my code. I figured this out only when I tried to leave the next day and was informed that my code was no longer active and that I had to get a new one, which made it a little tough to leave on schedule.
When flying in areas such as Washington, DC (which has a very large Special Flight Rules Area, a Flight Restricted Zone, and a restricted area – Camp David, that can go from small to very large with short notice), the southern coastal areas on the Gulf of Mexico of Florida that have active and complex restricted areas or other areas that have special airspace considerations, a briefer from Kansas may not be the best resource.
Getting good local knowledge when it comes to special use airspaces can be important during a briefing. Consider where your flight is going to be and what briefer might be familiar with any special airspace considerations to get the best information.
Too Little or Too Much Information…
Ok, so most of the briefers are great, but everyone has down days. Not long ago I was conducting a practical test for an instrument pilot applicant who got an odd briefing. We were trying to gauge what the weather was going to do later in the day and got a very thin briefing. Almost funny, if not a bit sad, was the way the briefer ended the session. He said, “We don’t really know what it is going to do today, you should probably just watch the Weather Channel.” Wow. I can’t really say I think the Weather Channel counts as an official FAA approved aviation weather source. It was a cop out on the part of the briefer.
Sometimes we get short briefings when we really need more information. This sometimes happens on days with inclement weather because the briefers are getting lots of calls and there is a backlog. It may also be that the briefer has said the same thing over and over to the last 20 callers and is just tired of doing the same thing. We are all human. If you feel like this is happening, prod for more information. If you feel like is something is missing, ask. They will get it to you.
In some cases, I feel like the opposite is the case. On a clear, blue, and a million gorgeous day I sometimes think the briefings get longer even though all I really need to know is if there are any TFRs or NOTAMs that might affect my flight. On these days perhaps fewer people are calling briefers and they are just bored looking for someone to break up an otherwise too quiet day. I am just guessing here.
The reality is that a standard or outlook briefing has standard items that are included, but every pilot and every briefer interact on the phone differently. The briefer has a great deal of information they can provide, but it is somewhat dependant on the pilot to know what they need and ask for it.
Ultimately, the briefing is the responsibility of the pilot and every briefing is a little different. Knowing what to ask for can ensure that even though briefings may vary, you get the right information from a source that is knowledgeable of things that could be of concern for your flight.