Regional Pilot Attitudes

I have worked as an air traffic controller and pilot briefer in most parts of the continental United States and each area has its charms and its challenges.  There are truisms about the pilots who fly small private aircraft in each area, for instance, in the southwestern part of the country pilots just plain will not fly if there is any kind of low to medium cloud deck.  They are accustomed to bright clear skies…maybe some scattered cirrus.  In the late summer they do have thunderstorms to dodge, but the monsoonal storms are always very high based and not terribly organized, so a lot of pilots just go around.  Their trepidation is understandable – the mountains up here reach for the clouds like sirens flirting with a lover, and when they are entwined a pilot can quickly be enticed into cumulous granite.

On the other hand, pilots in the far northwest and on the east coast challenge the clouds at all altitudes.  They have to, otherwise they would never get their wheels up.  There are, of a necessity, far more general aviation pilots with Instrument ratings in those areas which allow them to fly through cloud decks. Their Achilles’ heels are the winds. I am not talking gentle breezes.   East coast pilots as a rule will not take off or land with more than 25 knots of cross wind, and they are very concerned with turbulence. 

Western pilots dance with dust devils daily.  Cross wind landings are commonplace where mountains deflect wind patterns.  Most western pilots research the passes to find those best suited to that day’s wind patterns.  They take the aircraft as high above the peaks as it is capable of flying and prepare to battle the downward flow on the lee side.

As a pilot briefer I could usually tell a “flat land” pilot – he’s the guy who asks for information on forecast winds at 3,000 feet MSL  (mean sea level) through Colorado.  I don’t think there is a square foot of Colorado at or below 3,000 feet!  

Flat landers from Texas northward deal with more tornados and huge chunks of hail than other places.  What’s more, they do not have to be anywhere near the storm!   I was driving down I-40 in the Texas panhandle one day.  Bright clear skies with what looked like anvil tops on the horizon far to the south.  Suddenly huge chunks of hail – grapefruit sized – were bombing the highway.  One of them hit my windshield.  Luckily its integrity had softened on the trip down through 85 degree weather, so it just splattered like a slushy. 

Pilots in the Great Lakes region are very concerned about icing and freezing levels.  I would be too.  I have seen Lake Effect icing clawing the sky for the unwary like some rabid beast.  No matter how good a pilot you are, this monster SHOULD scare you. 

I try to advise flight instructors to go the extra mile when teaching new kids how to fly an airplane.  They do commonly discuss weather patterns in their local area, but many won’t do an overview of other regions.  Density Altitude (DA) is an atmospheric condition not given much consideration east of the Rocky Mountains, but heat and the height of an airport above sea level can cause incredible stress on aircraft attempting to land or depart.   Add even a little extra weight and an aircraft will not climb break out of the ground effects.

I knew a pilot from Indiana who wanted to fly to Flagstaff Arizona.  From there he and his family were going camping up at the Grand Canyon.  He was all excited and mentioned that they had the plane packed full of camping gear, food, drink and bear repellent.  (It was as though he figured there would be no Walmarts west of the Mississippi)  Luckily I was not the only person he talked to about Density Altitude.  After speaking with me he did some research and decided that he could get beer in Arizona.  After he got back I had occasion to speak with him again.  He told me that even with the plane lightened he was amazed at how long it took the aircraft to land. 

One of the funniest stories I’ve heard about “unprepared” pilots concerns one who was flying through the desert with pontoons only.  He was from the northwest and was of the opinion that any waterway will do for landing.  That is until he actually saw what constitutes a river in that region. This intrepid soul was flying in southeastern Arizona where there are no lakes, and no waterways wider or deeper than two feet.  He called Tucson Flight Service asking for help as he was getting low on fuel.    Tucson did give him a heading to the only place he could land – the wastewater treatment plant.  

Seasons have a lot to do with how many pilots in any area take to the sky.  Snowbirds are not just elderly RVers in Arizona trailer parks, they are also New England pilots spending February in Florida.  Texans head to Montana to shake the heat in July, and whether there is snow or not, every Learjet in the country of Mexico is parked in Colorado over Easter. 

These are just a few personal observations. As always in any generalization there are exceptions and I know that every pilot who reads this is not afraid of a few clouds, snow, mountains, ice or turbulence.  All of you are brave, wise, and fun to be around!  


I Want This Job!


I was helping someone file a flight plan the other day and the pilot said he wanted to go here.  Here?  No, HEERE.  That struck me funny for some reason – pilot’s flying HEERE or THERE.  So I casually started looking at fixes used in flight plans and noticed that some names of waypoints, or intersections, seemed very….appropriate to the area the pilot was flying into.

Somebody at the FAA has a great sense of humor – whoever devises the 5 letter identifiers of the nation’s waypoints.  For instance in New England there are four waypoints:  ITAWT ITAWA PUTTY TTATT.  I’m guessing our mystery government employee is a Warner Brothers fan.  Southwest of that area on the New Jersey/New York border you will find references to Star Wars:  CHEWE, HANSS, YODAH, JABAH.

Although most letter combinations don’t seem to have a rhyme or reason, some are obvious.  For instance in the vicinity of Las Vegas you will see CHIPZ, RACES, POKRR, DEALR, CEASR, HITME and PURSE.   On the other side of the country, Melbourne, Florida is near the NASA launch site.  Waypoints there are appropriately named EARTH, APOLO, COMET, MOONS, LEUNA and ORRBT.   Tennessee memorializes some of its stars with waypoints called REABA, TWITY, and ELVIS.

MIKKI, MINEE, BUGGZ, and BUNIE live near Disneyland in Florida, while BUGSE still haunts Chicago.  You have COWBY in Arizona, and COBOY in New Mexico, though the Cowboy VOR (CVE) is appropriately in Dallas, TX.

Some of the waypoints you may only understand if you live in the area.  I grew up in Indianapolis and attended Butler University (BTTLR) where basketball (HUUPS) is played in Hinkle  (HNKLE) Stadium (STDUM).    Later I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico so I know that coyotes (CYOTE) are seen from Tramway Blvd (TRAMY) all the way to the Bosque (BOSQE) and Albuquerque ARTCC (ZABCO) is north of town.

Don’t go to Las Vegas if you want to get LUCKI – it is in southern California.  You will find IRISH WHSKY in Vegas, but a SHMRK is found in Alaska!

Painless Pilot Briefing


Painless Pilot Weather Briefing

(Or how to Help Flight Service Brief You)


 In air traffic it is a joke that an Air Traffic Controller tells pilots where to go. But a Flight Service Specialist tells pilots where NOT to go, and his method of doing that is by using a standard weather briefing format.

You have no idea how nice it is to have a pilot call us and rattle off (slowly) something like this:

“Hi, I am VFR experimental N5LP going from Albuquerque at 1430 zulu at one-two-thousand via Gallup to Flagstaff with two hours and 15 minutes enroute.”

That is BEAUTIFUL, in 15 seconds the pilot has given me everything I need for a standard briefing. The data that my computer spits out is based on that information. Most of the time the pilot will state a few items, and then I have to ask for the rest – and sometimes they will say “I don’t want a flight plan, just a weather briefing.” At that point I usually stop and explain that I am not filing a flight plan, and why I need each individual item listed. Here is the short of it:

VFR or IFR    This tells me whether or not you, as the pilot have the training and instrumentation to fly through clouds. I am not making a judgment as to whether a pilot SHOULD go IFR or VFR, it is not the briefer’s job to determine a pilot’s abilities. I want to know what you, the pilot, want to do, and whether or not I need to let you know that VFR is not recommended or if I need to read to you two pages worth of arrival and departure navaid NOTAMS.

Aircraft ID or Call Sign         All briefs, radio calls, and other data are recorded by the aircraft’s call sign – not the pilot’s name. The computer requires this entry to get us to the briefing data. Also, if someone is overdue and a panicked relative calls us, be sure they know the aircraft ID.

If you know that you are going to be renting an aircraft, but you do not have a tail number yet, then we can list it as NOACID and put the pilot’s name in remarks, but if you want to make sure your bases are covered, try to have it available.

 Type Aircraft Let’s face it, I am going to brief a small aircraft differently than a Learjet because Skyhawks do not usually need jet stream information, whereas a Learjet could care less about cloud bases enroute.

This section has elicited a lot of confusion over the past few years. Many pilots do not recall that there was a widespread re-identification of aircraft types about 10 years ago. It was one of those FAA documents that went out to everyone that says that after 30 years of a Cherokee being a PA28, all of a sudden it is really a P28A. It did not really matter much to the private pilot because he could still call his flight plan over to FSS and the old computers would take PA28 as usual.

However, the new FS21 computers “know” that there is no longer a PA28 or a HS25 or a T-45 type of aircraft – so they will not accept the flight plan until the correct aircraft type designator is used.   If you have any questions as to what your identifier is, Flight Service can help you look it up.

Also, we only have 4 spaces in the Aircraft type section of the flight plan form. I know you love your airplane, but if you tell me you have a Turbo C210 Retractable with all kinds of fancy modifications…..well, that’s nice……all I have room for on the form is C210.

 Departure Point-Route-Destination     Ok, it seems obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times a pilot wants to go from Albuquerque to Phoenix., but neglects to tell us that they are doing it by way of Silver City, or that he is really departing Albuquerque’s Double Eagle Airport going to Chandler Municipal in the Phoenix area.

Unless the right data is given the first time, I am not able to get the specific weather and NOTAM information for your airport, and if I am assuming a direct route, then I would not be telling you about a TFR for forest fires near Silver City.

Be sure you know the identifiers for your route of flight. You’ll be on the phone longer if I have to look them up for you. And even if you are VFR, please list your route according to aviation NAVAIDS or airports – the computer does not recognize lakes and highways. If you file a flight plan you can add lakes, highways and/or towns in remarks.

 Altitude           I am fairly good at guessing at what altitudes various aircraft can fly, but if you want the wind forecasts – give me an altitude. I am frequently surprised by experimentals, or by the rare supercharged turbo Cessna 172 and could easily guess wrong. Also, it’s OK to ask for winds at several altitudes and the briefer’s opinion as to which altitude would be best.

What cracks me and most of the people I work with up, is when the pilots “blame” us for a headwind and thank us for a tailwind!

 Departure Time         PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE learn to convert to ZULU! Each of us briefs pilots in time zones across the country. If someone in Hobokan, Indiana calls up and tells me he is departing at 5pm local time – I have no clue how that will relate to Greenwich Mean Time (ZULU). (Did you know that until recently Indiana had three different time zones?)

If you just cannot get the conversion mentally, a cheat to this is to simply say you are leaving in 30 minutes or 5 hours. Then I can glance up at my ZULU clock and add it quickly.

Remember when you are filing a flight plan that it stays in the computer of the agency that you filed it with until an hour prior to the proposal time, then it is transmitted to whatever AFSS or Center will be activating it. So if you call for departure more than an hour prior to the time your flight is proposed for, and you filed with DUATS the Tower (if IFR) or Radio (VFR), may not have received it yet. Also, the flight plan stays active on Tower and Radio proposed list for two hours past the proposal time before dropping out.

Time Enroute             This of course allows us to calculate the time period for which we need to scan for forecasts and NOTAMs.

The computer system is designed to route your call to the place you request first, but if all the Briefers for that location are busy, rather than keep you on hold it will look for someone who normally Briefs in the next adjacent area. However, if there is specific information about the airport or terrain you are flying into, you may want to ask the computer to route you to a briefer that handles your destination airport. Any Flight Service can file flight plans from anywhere in the country, but if you want to know specific data about flying restrictions around the Grand Canyon, you might want to ask for Arizona.

Keep in mind that because weather is always updated between the hour and 5 minutes past the hour, the best time to call for a briefing will always be 10 to 20 minutes after the hour.

The worst time is between 5 minutes till and 5 minutes after the hour. In most flight service stations, we do not perform the same duties continuously. To keep from getting stale, we rotate from the Pre-flight briefing position, through Flight Data, Radio, Flight Watch and other specialized positions every few hours, and we usually start this dance at 5 till the hour. For about 10 minutes, the specialists are giving and receiving our transfer of position briefings and changing the computer settings. As a result, this is when you will run the highest chance of being on hold.

Following the above format as you request a briefing is easiest for the briefer because she or he is tabbing between fields in the computer as you speak – if you give us the above data out of order, we may end up asking you to repeat information several times as we jump around on the page, wasting a lot of your precious time!


Rose Marie Kern has worked in ATC for over 32 years. If you’d like to ask Rose a question send her an email at