Plane & Pilot
Sunday, February 1, 2004

Faces Behind The Microphone


Twenty-six tips to help you get more from air traffic control


atcPilots and air traffic controllers share a unique relationship, a mutual trust and understanding that supports the modern system of flight. Virtually every time a pilot climbs into the cockpit of an airplane, he or she engages in some sort of verbal exchange with the ATC environment.
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atcPilots and air traffic controllers share a unique relationship, a mutual trust and understanding that supports the modern system of flight. Virtually every time a pilot climbs into the cockpit of an airplane, he or she engages in some sort of verbal exchange with the ATC environment.

Air traffic controllers can be divided into three primary categories: tower controllers, air traffic specialists (FSS briefers) and en-route controllers (Center and Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities, otherwise known as TRACON ). We interviewed controllers from each group to ask for their help in allowing pilots to take greater advantage of the system, and here’s what they said.

Flight Service Stations
Alex Cisneros is a flight service specialist at Montgomery AFSS (automated flight service station) in San Diego, Calif. As a specialist, he feels it’s most important to “adapt to every situation and every pilot’s needs.” He gauges his briefing based on the experience of his caller. If a pilot calls him, describes what he sees on various weather charts and asks for some greater interpretation, Cisneros will respond differently than he would to a pilot who identifies himself as a student who seems a bit nervous and unsure about how to ask for a weather briefing.

Cisneros also notes that pilots don’t call in only for weather briefings or to file flight plans, but sometimes they just ask questions. He welcomes these calls, since any clarification he’s able to provide will create a safer, more informed pilot. “My job isn’t to discourage you,” Cisneros says. “My job is to get you from point A to point B safely, and that’s what I try to accomplish.”

With that in mind, Cisneros offers the following tips.

1 Initiate flight planning by calling the Flight Service Station to request a standard weather briefing. Get the big picture and decide whether the flight is a go or no-go based on the weather, then closer to departure time, call in for an abbreviated briefing.

2 If you’re going on a longer VFR flight, file a flight plan and ask for the frequencies on which to open and close. Flight Service has these frequencies readily available and will provide them when asked.

3 Use the discreet TOLL-FREE 866 numbers to dial individual flight service stations instead of calling (800) WX-BRIEF. Calling the station closest to your departure or arrival city will offer the most accurate weather information. (List of flight service station telephone numbers.)

4 DUATS is a great tool, but it shouldn’t be your only tool. Nothing can replace an interactive briefing with a specialist.

5 Visit a flight service station, see what they do and meet the specialists. “Operation Take Off” is a monthly event held at many flight service stations that offers an introduction to the AFSS and previews the services available to pilots. This service is back in action following a brief hiatus after 9/11.

6 Utilize Flight Watch (122.0) for en-route weather briefings and to give pilot reports.

Patty Kast, another briefer at Montgomery AFSS, is a recently licensed private pilot. With the perspective of a student pilot in her not-too-distant past and having been on both ends of the microphone, Kast has a unique outlook and additional helpful suggestions for pilots.




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