Today’s Flight Plan
Today we are joined by Mike Glasgow of Lockheed Martin Flight Service. Mike shares some awesome new features to the Flight Service list of features that are available to pilots. These new and improved ways of opening, closing, and getting flight plan information are incredibly helpful, and you should know about them.
Not only is the classic 1-800-WXBRIEF something you should still use, but Flight Service’s new online tools and data methods make sure that pilots can get the information no matter where they go.
You’ll be quite surprised about some of the cool new stuff these guys have. Listen in!
Flight Service (1800WXBRIEF)
ACAS – Adverse Condition Alerting Service
NGB – Next Generation Briefings
SE-SAR – Surveillance-Enhanced Search and Rescue
EasyActivate™ and EasyClose™
Adventure Pilot iFly
Huge thanks to Mike Glasgow for joining us. He’s awfully passionate about these new features! Thanks for spending time with us, Mike.
Major thanks to the amazing Angle of Attack Crew for all their hard work over the years. Our team works incredibly hard, and they’re very passionate about what they do.
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Not an obscuration in your area, VFR flight not recommended. This is AviatorCast episode 34!
Calling all aviators, pilots and aviation lovers, welcome to AviatorCast, where we close the gap between the real aviation and flight simulation. Climb aboard, buckle up and prepare for takeoff! Here’s your host, Chris Palmer.
Chris: Welcome, welcome, welcome aviators, you’ve landed at AviatorCast. My name is Chris Palmer. The challenge of flight inspires me to be the best me. From the knowledge of the aircraft systems to the science, human factors, decision-making, flight skills and so much more, I’m just a different me when I’m doing all of those things at once as a pilot. I’m the founder and owner of Angle of Attack, a flight simulation training company which is bringing you this podcast today. AviatorCast is weekly podcast where we talk about the spirit of the aviator. We believe flying is an art form, one that we have to continually practice and master. This mastery is gained through a focus on continual learning, human factors, humility and a commitment to excellence. Show notes, transcript, community discussion and links for this episode can be found by simply going to AviatorCast.com.
So welcome to this, the 34th episode of AviatorCast. I’m so happy you are here week after week and number 34 was better than the number 34. So today, I have a really great interview lined up or you guys. This one actually ended up being a lot better than I thought it would but to begin with, I knew it was going to be great, so I am excited to bring to you guys. We will talk more about that in a second.
First, we have a review coming from iTunes. This is the primary place where you can go and review this show if you like it. This comes from Carl Lathong from the United States. He says “Fantastic. I recently discovered this podcast and I am glad that I did. Chris does an amazing job and it is clear he is both extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the art of flying. Chris educates and entertains with relevant and unique topics and phenomenal interviews. As a flight sim enthusiast, this podcast has inspired me to challenge myself to begin to learn more about instrument navigation and tower talk.”
Thank you Carl, much appreciated. Again, if any of you other listeners out there want to review our show, that’s the main place find out about us. You can do that on iTunes. We’d really appreciate that if you enjoy our show.
So today we have a very interesting interview lined up for you guys. This is an interview with Lockheed Martin Flight Service and specifically we’re going to be talking to Mike Glasgow who is the systems architect for the flight service there. I met these guys in Oshkosh. I didn’t necessarily meet Mike one-on-one. He didn’t tell me about all these things there, but he had a team of people talking about all of these great new features coming out with flight service, things that I think you guys will be really excited about, and things us pilots we should absolutely be using. Especially if you’re a VFR pilot and you’re not under IFR, this is something guys really should be using. I see no reason not to especially since a lot of these new features that you will learn about just make the whole process so much easier and so much more accurate. It gives you more accurate information for your flight and also increase the safety. So at the end of the day and we mentioned that here in the interview, that is what this is all about. We want to be safer pilots and we want to live to fly another day and with the help of flight service as part of your crew if you will, these guys can help you be more knowledgeable about what conditions are ahead and what you can expect from your flight, and they can also be there to help you out along the way. So a lot of cool stuff in this interview. This is a great one, so let’s get right into it. Here is Mike Glasgow from Lockheed Martin Flight Service.
Now, a special hangar talk segment…
Chris: Alright everybody, we are honored to have Mike Glasgow from Lockheed Martin Flight Service with us or 1800WXBRIEF, whatever you want to call it. How you doing Mike?
Mike: I’m doing good.
Chris: Great to have you on the show. I know it was a little bit hard to hook up because you’re on vacation and it’s actually Labor Day today when we’re recording this so I really appreciate you coming on the show to talk about what you guys have there over at Flight Service.
Mike: Yeah I’m happy to do it.
Chris: Great. So as always, we start out the show kind of getting to know you a little bit more. So along those lines, tell us a little bit about your aviation career and how you got started and how you kind of grew up and where you are today. Tell us about that.
Mike: Well, I’ve been with Lockheed Martin now for about 31, almost 32 years. We were actually a part of IBM and then got sold to Loral and then we got merged into Lockheed Martin, but I’ve been with the same group the whole time and I started in the ATC world in our company about almost 30 years ago, so almost my whole career has been in a group called Transportation Solutions and we’ve had about 10 different names over the years but we’ve been doing on-route and terminal automation systems for the FAA for literally 60+ years. I came over there and I worked software for a while and started moving in to the software architecture, focused mostly on NROOT for a while. And then one of the greatest experiences of my career was I got to work on a system called ATOP, Advanced Technology and Oceanic Procedures, and that was an oceanic air traffic control system that’s now installed in New York Center or Oakland Center and Anchorage Center.
And then right after that, around 2005, I got pulled into the flight services program that we had just won, and in the flight services it was kind of a new area. A real interesting program because as most of your listeners probably now, the FAA used to run flight services themselves but with the AAFSS contract awarded in 2005, it took responsibility for the services in the CONUS, in Hawaii and Puerto Rico and it basically outsourced the service to Lockheed Martin and we operate it on behalf of the FAA. I’ve been the system architect for that program for most of the time and over the past, I would say about four to five years, the system’s been there and been running for a while, and my focus really shifted at that point to what are we doing next, because it’s pretty clear that the future of flight services is not going to be what it’s been for the past 20, 30, 40 years, it’s going to evolve into more of an online component, and so figuring out how we participate in that has been one of my primary responsibilities.
Chris: Great, and we’re going to be talking about that in-depth today, exactly that transition, and also getting a little bit more familiar with those services. So for our beginners, because we do have beginners that listen to this show, what is flight service? What can they expect when they take part in your services? I know that’s a very general question because there are a lot of things kind of under that umbrella but if you can expound on that, that’d be great.
Mike: Yeah, no problem. So the way I usually describe to people who are not familiar with the flight service is to kind of contrast with an airline environment, so if you’re a pilot for United, you have an airline operation center, a dispatch center, whatever you want to call it, and back there, there’s somebody that’s planning all the flights, they’re planning all the equipment, they’re planning the crews, they’re figuring out what the routing is going to be, they’re preparing weather briefings. And all that’s provided to that pilot. The pilot doesn’t have to do it themselves. But if you’re a private pilot with your own aircraft, you don’t have an airline operations center back at the ranch that’s doing all that for you. You own the responsibility for planning your flight, for filing a flight plan, for getting the weather briefing.
And so flight services is kind of like the airline operations center for private pilots, for GA pilots. You can call us and now also online, you can file flight plans, you can get weather information, and that’s typically done in the preflight environment. We also have in-flight support so the pilots can contact us in-flight over a set of radios. We operate about I think it’s around 2300 radios and people call us to report weather or to get updates to weather information. Occasionally they call us because of emergencies, and then we also have a set of folks that do we call it the flight data position but they deal with search and rescue if VFR aircraft are overdue. They handle NOTAMs, they handle a bunch of other miscellaneous things. IFR clearings relay for example from ATC.
So in a nutshell, preflight briefings, taking flight plans, in-flight support and emergencies and then post-flight or flight data, dealing with search and rescue and NOTAMs and miscellaneous other things.
Chris: Great. A lot of fantastic information that really any pilot should have for any flight of magnitude. If you’re just buzzing around a pattern, maybe you don’t need all that information, but definitely good for most flying.
So, a question I didn’t put in our notes here but I’m curious what the transition has been from those that are taking part in the voice services going over the digital services. Are you still getting a lot of people calling in at the 1-800 number?
Mike: Oh absolutely. Aviation traffic has declined a little bit primarily due to the economy and I think everybody knows that, but we still handle a very large volume of calls. I think what you find is that pilots that kind of fall into two categories. Those who like the online world and those who don’t, and even some of the ones who like the online world, particularly students for example, they just need a little more help getting started. So we’re finding good acceptance of the online capabilities at least amongst the people who find out about them. That’s probably our hardest problem, is just getting people to know that they’re out there, but we’re finding good acceptance for the online capabilities, but we still have tons of people who use and still prefer the voice service.
Chris: Great. So what’s the primary way that someone would take part in the digital services because we know that for the voice services, basically wherever you’re at, you call 1800WXBRIEF, it will relay I believe to the most local station and you talk to basically a briefer there if you will. So what’s the way that you would take part in the digital services, where do people go for that?
Mike: Well, so there’s too many ways to do that. The primary one that is directly to us is our website which is called 1800wxbrief.com. You can create an account there, it’s for free and it’s accessible anywhere in North America. So that’s method number one. But the other thing that is perhaps even more important about our strategy in terms of going into the online world is that all the services, and we’re going to talk about some of these later on, all the services that we’re offering we also provide to anybody in the commercial marketplace who wants to use them, through a set of web services. So there’s a whole bunch of companies out there that your listeners are familiar with. ForeFlight, WingX Pro, iflyprinter.com, tons of them. A lot of good companies, and they all have access to anything they want to use from our online capabilities through these web services.
Our approach has been we’re going to do the website, and the website is where we first deploy things that we developed that are new. But very quickly after we get them implemented, we turn around and make them available through the web services. And we are not really trying to compete. We view them as partners. We’re not going to do apps. We’re not going to try to cover every single device that’s known to man. We’re just going to focus on our website, and then let all of our partners cover the different devices and platforms that are out there.
Chris: I really like that. So you guys are providing the actual data and then those companies can go, they can display that data however they want, they can get it in front of the pilots, get it in the most useful, most accessible form, and just kind of there just open and available for everyone.
Mike: That’s exactly correct. There’s a bit of model similar to that for a while out there. The thing I want to stress is though that we’re not just providing traditional data. When we talk about next gen briefings for example, we put a lot of emphasis on developing capabilities that allow either us or any of our partners to provide the information in a better way than what is currently available, because it is very easy to inundate a pilot with a ton of data, but what pilots really need, at least our mindset, what pilots really need are answers, not just a bunch of data. So we’ve had a lot of focus on trying to provide services that give more than just the raw data.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. Great and that was one thing that I noticed when I was in Oshkosh and what turned me on to the idea of actually getting you guys on the show is a lot of these great new stuff coming out that really enhances your services and I was just impressed with some of the ideas coming out of your camp there. So just a quick question before we get into some of those new features. I’ve always been curious what briefers go through as far as training. What type of training do you guys do for these guys? What is it like to start out as a non-briefer and go through school and then be someone that you can basically call up at 1800wxbrief?
Mike: Yeah, you go through a lot. We call them specialist internally and we divide them up into preflight, inflight, and that flight data position we talked about earlier. And a lot of pilots just call them briefers, but no matter what role you wind up be and you have to go through a very extensive amount of training, it’s about 10 months before you can actually do something for real, and they get extensive training. What’s probably the biggest area they get training in is weather of course. But there’s a lot of other things you have to be trained on because there are different functions that you provide if you’re preflight or inflight or flight data, so they have to get trained on weather, they have to get trained on the different functions in each of the positions, and they have to get certified on specific areas that they provide support around the country, and that takes about 10 months to go through all that.
And then once they’ve received that training, it doesn’t end. They have to have not really the exact amount but they go through a fairly large amount of interval training to maintain their currency, and they also get especially audited. FAA will pull tapes and make sure that briefers were doing things the way they’re supposed to do. So it’s kind of a never-ending process and it’s a pretty extensive amount of training.
Chris: Great. So can you take us through and especially the beginning listeners, take us through what it is like to call up 1800wxbrief and get briefing. You don’t have to go into too much detail but what is some of the information that you would get during the process, during that really preflight process is I guess what I’m going for in this particular case.
Mike: Yeah sure. And there are two basic scenarios there. One is that you’re a regular user of flight services and you have an account in the system. I’m not talking about the web account at this point, just the telephone. We call it a profile. Either you have one of those or you don’t. And if you have one of those, as soon as you call in, the specialist already knows who you are because we’ve recognized your phone number and we brought up your account, and typically what a pilot is calling for is they want to evaluate conditions based on a briefing to decide whether or not to fly, so they’ve got a flight plan in mind and they will give that information to the briefer. If it is a standard flight plan that they do frequently, they can retrieve it out of their favorites that the specialist has access to and if they don’t have a favorite, then you just give them the information.
Then the specialist will request a briefing from our automation and then they walk through the briefing. We start with adverse conditions which are things that could prevent you from going, SIGMETs, conductive SIGMETs, things of that nature, TFRs. They go through a synopsis. They go through current weather, METARs and PIREPs for example. They go through forecast information, TAFs, winds aloft, things like that. And then they go through a lot of information related NOTAMs.
The key thing is, if you look at the volume of data, this again ties back to the discussion coming on NextGen Briefings, there’s a huge volume of information there. What the specialist are able to do and this is what makes them so valuable is they can distill the briefing information down to what the pilot needs to know very quickly. So you might have the equivalent of 50, 60 pages of text to read through if you are on your own, but the briefer can go through that extremely quickly and net it out for you.
Chris: Right. That was actually one of the points I wanted to make was that even though I’m kind of a digital guy, I really like the proliferation of iPads in the cockpit and GPS and all that stuff, I like those things and I believe in the digital age as it relates to aviation. When it comes to my briefing, my weather briefing, I still want to be on the phone with someone talking about it and the reason why is because not only like you said, not only can they decipher the information that’s specifically for you, but you can have this QA session with them, and you can say “Okay, well maybe right now isn’t a good time to go but what about later or what about this route?” So actually having them on the phone is still one of the most useful things about it. Like you said, it’s a very very valuable resource.
Mike: Absolutely. I’ll throw in another plug for our specialists, because we think they’re fantastic. We hope they’re around for a long time. They do really, really good work. They had been a tremendous resource to us as we’ve tried to figure out how to make the online environment better because again, NextGen Briefings, you’re faced with this huge amount of information and one of the main things we’ve used to figure out how do we present that to the pilot in a more concise, quickly assimilatable matter is to look at how our briefers do it. And we spend tons of time essentially treating them as experts and debriefing them on how they do it. And then we try to mimic that to the greatest extent possible in our automation. Those guys really know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about.
Chris: Yeah. I’d never had a bad experience with them. Just for educational purposes, for the listeners, especially beginning listeners, flight service isn’t service that basically tells you you can’t go. It is not like air traffic control where they would prevent you from doing something that’s purely informational, but what I’ve learned is that they are invested in your success as a pilot and they definitely want you to fly safely and they want to give you all the information they possibly can to ensure that that happens. And getting into what we’re going to get into, it’s going to get even better where it’s not just this preflight thing but you get updates throughout, so that will be really cool to get into.
Chris: Alright. So let’s start to go down the list here with some of these services and if there’s anything else in between that you want to talk about, feel free to do so but if you don’t mind, I’ll just start with the first one. We’ll start naming [inaudible-00:22:27], how does that sound?
Mike: That’s great.
Chris: Alright. So the first new service that you guys are working are here is Adverse Condition Alerting Service. Tell us about that.
Mike: Yeah. So just to give the listeners a context timeframe-wise, we started deploying our online and sort of these advanced services in the fall of 2012. We actually did quite a bit of research and development investment work a couple years preceding that, and the ACAS, Adverse Condition Alerting Service was one of the very first things that we deployed specifically because of the safety benefit associated with this. The concept of ACAS is very, very simple. Pilots who use an online briefing service or call 1800wxbrief and talk to the briefer, they all know that as soon as you hang up or log off the website, the conditions continue to change. And the pilots generally don’t know about this. There’s exception. Some are more [inaudible-00:23:32] in weather and various ways to find out but a lot of pilots don’t have these backup resources that keep them aware of the changing conditions. So what we do, we do flight plan now, and it doesn’t matter whether you follow it over the web or follow it over the phones, it applies to every flight plan that we get, we start monitoring in the background as soon as it’s filed. And we look for new or changed adverse conditions since the 10th time you brief and filed and if we find one, we tell you about it proactively.
In the preflight timeframe, that generally involves text messages or email messages. In the inflight timeframe, we have integrated with four companies that at this point, Honeywell with their Sky Connect device, Spidertrax, a New Zealand-based company that has a strong presence here in the US, Garmin and Loran. And those devices all provide us an Iridium data link capability that allows us to communicate directly to the cockpit inflight no matter where you are. And so inflight that’s typically how we deliver the alerts.
Chris: So what would qualify as some adverse conditions that you would alert pilots about?
Mike: So they’re defined formally in an FAA document called semi 110.10 and that prescribes how flight services has to be provided. And the conditions they identify is adverse conditions include TFRs, SIGMETs, convective SIGMETs, AIRMETs, Center Weather advisories, urgent PIREPs, severe weather warnings and watches and I feel like I’m forgetting one but that’s close.
Chris: Yeah. All of those are super important, so say that you get your 1800wxbrief, you call in the phone, you talk to the briefer or the specialist and then you go through your preflight and everything, fuel up the airplane, that takes an hour, but during that hour, a convective segment pops up. This service will essentially provide that pilot maybe, since they’re still in the ground, a text message or an email will tell them about that change. Am I understanding that correctly?
Mike: That’s exactly correct. And what happens is if it’s a text message you signed up for and it’s your choice, you can sign up for one or multiple methods to receive it. The text message are very short and they basically just to identify that this is an ACAS alert, it is for whatever type of condition it is. Icing AIRMET or convective SIGMET, they’ll identify the tail number and the departure destination and the date and tiem of the flight and it’s got the phone number for flight services shown directly in the text message so you can just touch it to call flight services and ask. If you request the email version, we put all the detail, including a graphic that shows you where it is along the route of flight directly in the email. You can also go on the website. I can’t talk about who’s doing it yet but in the very near future you’ll see some of our partners are going to be providing the ACAS alerts using those web services we talked about earlier directly in their apps. We’re very excited for that.
Chris: So have you heard any feedback on this yet? Has anyone come back and this has saved them or made a big impact on their flight? Any good feedback?
Mike: Absolutely. I’ll give you two anecdotes. The first one is my favorite and I tell this, anyone who’s heard me give a talk on our services has already heard this story but it’s such a good one.
We were at the AOPA summit last fall in the Fort Worth and I was doing a presentation out front in the booth, just doing an overview of all the stuff we’re doing. We got to ACAS and there was a pilot in the audience and basically just kind of took over at that point. Pulls out his phone, kind of waving around and he says “Yeah, this ACAS stuff is great” and his specific story was he had just gotten a briefing, he had shut down his computer, locked up his desk, he’s walked out the door to fly and in the five minutes between getting the briefing and when he walked out the door, he got an ACAS alert for I think it was icing AIRMET and the forecast had changed and the thing was now 50 miles south of originally it was and it was right on top of him. He had checked at the last minute basically, getting ready to go fly and he wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. That’s how we portrayed it. I just think that’s a fantastic compelling example of the benefit.
We’ve had multiple pilots get those kinds of scenarios. More generally, after we had the service operating for about nine months, we did a survey of the folks who had registered for the service and 43% of the folks who responded told us that ACAS had told them about a condition that they otherwise wouldn’t have known about. Again, I think that’s compelling.
Chris: Yeah, it is. It’s very compelling. I think this is kind of maybe the first thing that I heard in Oshkosh and it just makes sense. It makes sense that you would want. You would want to know if there is a change in conditions especially something that serious.
Mike: Yup. And I don’t know if I’ve said this anywhere earlier in the conversation but it’s free. You don’t have to pay anything for this. If you’re using somebody else’s app and that’s the way it’s delivered or if you’re using one of the iridium devices, there is a cost for that device. But in terms of with flight services, there is no cost for the pilots for any of the things that we’re going to talk about.
Chris: Right, and there’s no reason why pilots shouldn’t be using these tools. And to be completely honest, most of these information is out there, convective SIGMETs, AIRMETs, all of that stuff is out there, where the pilot could go to aviationweather.gov, they could get it, but the problem is is that it’s not realistic to have constant updates on that on your own because then it just becomes a distraction. Really what this is is you’re gaining a partner. You’re gaining a team member, and that team member is flight service and they’re there for you not only in the text briefings if you want to get those online or any of the other online services, but they’re also there for the voice briefings, and then with this service, ACAS, they’re there for the conditions if they change, so really, really great service.
Mike: Yeah. I totally agree. Just two really quick comments about it, one way that pilots can view this is the way historically they’ve had to obtain weather information and adverse condition information is what software engineers refer to as a pull model, meaning they have to go pull the information whenever they want it. What this service is doing is basically changing the pull model into a push model where instead you had to go get it, we will push it to you as soon as we know about it, and that’s a big assist to people. And I was going to make one other point, I forgot what it was. If it pops to my head, we’ll come back to it.
Chris: Okay, so on to the next one if that’s okay. Tell us about Next Generation Briefings.
Mike: Okay, so NGB or NextGen Briefings has been our primarily focus. We released the first phase of it last fall in roughly October, and we did another chunk of it in spring, it was just before sun and fun. We will continue to roll out bits and pieces, but this sort of addressed most of the main things that we wanted to do there and it’s more refining and improving and we get user feedback at this point. So NGB really, you kind of have to back up and think of this at kind of almost the philosophical level first. The problem with briefings and I talked to pilots all the time. I spoke to a group of about 200 pilots in Dallas back in June and I asked them “What do you think of current briefings, current online briefings?”
And I always stress and I’m not picking on anyone in particular, it’s just sort of the way it was across the industry no matter who you were dealing with, “What do you think of the briefing?” and they pretty much always say the same times. “The briefings are huge. They’re hard to assimilate. I don’t always find the things that are actually important to me and I frequently give up in trying to read all of it because it’s just too much information.” What I use is sort of demonstration prop is we have a flight that we did a real briefing for. It was 165-mile flight from Altoona, Pennsylvania to Elkins, West Virginia on a pretty good weather day and the briefing was 50 pages long. So we’re basically giving people a small novel to inform themselves about all the conditions they need to be aware of. And I think the reason we got to this state, sort of within the industry is all the emphasis has been on compliance. When I say that, I’m not trying to say that compliance is a bad thing. It’s just that it should not stop there. So the FAA gave us guidance and it said “Here’s all the things you need to be provided in a briefing” and everyone sort of dutifully went off and made sure that everything that they said had to be there was in the briefing.
The emphasis was not on making that briefing information easy for a pilot to understand. And in a nutshell, that’s what NGB is all about. We’re still going to provide all the information that is required but that’s kind of a given. That’s sort of ground zero, and what we want to do now is put the emphasis on “Let’s that briefing useful. Let’s not just focus on raw data, let’s focus on giving the pilot answers and some reasons, things that help them understand the briefing much easier than what they usually had to work with.”
Chris: Great. Wow. I like that top-down view of it. So what are some changes just for example what a NextGen Briefing would look like comparative to an older briefing.
Mike: Well, some of the themes that you see through the briefing are there are a lot of graphics and the graphics are focus on the rooflight, not a conus level kind of rendering of things assuming you’re flying in the conus, but kind of zoomed in around your route and focusing on the weather or in the route plus a buffer. There’s an emphasis on automatic summarization and I’ll give you an example of that in a minute. There’s an emphasis on something that we call smart plain text translation. So plain text, everyone is familiar with encoded text and plain text, and the model historically has been that you get or the other and if you request plain text, the whole thing is converted to plain text. And what that does is take that 50-page briefing we’re talking about a couple minutes ago and then it makes it even bigger. And so our emphasis has been on not just being able to translate things but to translate the parts of the data that makes sense to translate, and sometimes that’s not everything.
Mike: For example, if you’re looking at the lat longs that make up the polygon for a SIGMET or something. It’s not helpful to translate those to plain English. What’s helpful is to see a picture of whether it is. So we focus on translating what that adverse condition is, that SIGMET, and not on all the extra text that is scattered in there with it, so smart plain text translation. And there’s a few other notions like that. In particular with NOTAMs, there’s a lot of emphasis on filtering because as you know, one of the things that makes briefings really big is the volume of NOTAM information. And it turns out there are reasonable ways to filter that based on what’s important that pilot that can really cut down the volume of data. So those are kind of general principles, and if you like, I could sort of describe just a couple of sections in a briefing to let you know how we dealt with them.
Chris: Yes sure, I’d love that.
Mike: If you remember we talked earlier about what is the content of the briefing, it’s adverse conditions and there are about six or seven or eight types and then there’s a synopsis and there’s current weather and forecast weather and there’s all the NOTAMs, a few other miscellaneous things. So altogether, there’s maybe 20 something different sections of data within a briefing. We basically have to go through every section and figure out “Okay, for this particular type of data, what is the best way to convey this information to the pilot? And the answer is always a little bit different. It’s not the same answer every time because the data is all different.
I think probably my favorite one that I like to show people is what we’ve done with TAFs, Terminal Area Forecast. The challenge with terminal area forecast is that if you’re doing a longer cross-country flight and if you’re leaving later in the day, you’ve got to figure out which forecast period within each TAF along your route of flight is going to be in effect when you get there. That can be a very non-trivial problem. You’ve got to take your Navalog or estimate it in your head how long is it going to take for me to leave from my departure time and then deal with Zulu time as well and then figure out which forecast, so we do all that automatically. We calculate a passing time for each TAF location and that’s based on forecast, winds and aircraft performance and your departure time, and then we use that estimated passing time to index into each TAF and figure out [inaudible-00:39:00] period and we color code it based on what the conditions are going to be.
One other thing again, the emphasis on our briefers and mimicking they do. They are required to tell pilots that the conditions can be different up to an hour either side when you get to a TAF because people are never exactly on time, they can be a little bit earlier or a little bit later. So we do all these automated analysis to calculate it out all for you, and then the most important thing is there’s a graphic, and the graphic looks kind of like a plot of METARs where green is VFR and blue is marginal and so forth, and we render a graphic and it’s along your route of flight and what it shows you visually is here’s what the conditions will be when you get to each of those TAFs, for your departure time, aircraft performance and forecast winds. And so at a glance, you can tell what the ceiling invisibility you’re going to be along your hold of flight just visually without having to go through and do all that analysis in the past, the raw text.
Chris: That’s really, really nice, I like that, because with a lot of services now, you might get something like that, but it wouldn’t be updated for when you’re actually going to cross that location, so it’s nice that it’s actually showing you the condition that you will have when crossing that area so that’s really, really nice.
Mike: Yeah. When we get to the end, I’ll tell you about one thing that we’ve got coming up here in the fall that builds on that basic TAF capability that’s really cool, has to do with pilots. Basically pilots, they ask us a lot. Just tell me what time to go and I have to fly a certain way, and what I want to know is should I leave in 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. or whatever and we can extrapolate on that TAF capability, provide a very nice tool to help them with them. But save that to the end.
I will give you one other example. Adverse conditions I think is another thing that was done very nicely. And what we’ve done is try to render in a way and by the way, people can go to the website and just create an account, it’s free, put in a briefing, put in a flight plan, get a briefing. Make sure in the briefing you click on the little button that says “NextGen” and you can see all these in operation. It’s not just a concept, it’s actually fielded. But what we’ve done for adverse conditions is what we want the pilot to be able to understand three things very quickly. Where the adverse condition particularly relative to the route of flight, what it is, and what are the timing characteristics of it, what the timing characteristics are relative to your flight. So what you when you go into the SIGMET is you’ll see a graphic that shows your route of flight and you’ll see the adverse condition plotted over the top of it and so immediately you understand where it is and trying to envision that from a set of lat longs and FRDs in the description of it, there’s just no comparison. You got it immediately from the picture. You can’t come close to look at that look at a text.
Chris: Right, exactly.
Mike: Then as I mentioned earlier with the concept of smart plain text translation, we go into the raw message and say it’s an icing AIRMET and the icing is from freezing level to flight level 230, we will pull out just that sentence and we translate it to plain English and we put it in this thing we call a summary box. So you get a very brief translated segment that says “Here’s what it is. It’s icing. It’s turbulence. It’s whatever it is.” And then thirdly, for the timing characteristics, we annotate the graphic with two time stamps, when you first enter it and when you last leave the adverse condition. It’s either going to be red, orange or green. And red means it is active when you’re going to be there, orange means it’s going to be active within an hour of when you’re there, and green it’s not active within an hour of when you’re there. And you also get a plain little English statement that summarizes that for you as well.
Chris: That’s really nice because if a pilot was concerned about say a convective SIGMET or some sort of AIRMET, they could make a note to themselves somewhere and it sounds like in the future this could actually be within the app, within some sort of app that they kind of know their entry and exit point from those challenges. I mean, obviously it’s not science. There might be some time on either end but it’s still good to know. That’s still good to know information.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Chris: Great. Anything else on NextGen Briefings?
Mike: Yeah, well we could spend a whole hour just talking about engine and be going through the different sections but I think it just gives a flavor, and I go back to what I said at the beginning. We basically through every section of the briefing and figure out what makes sense and go from there. One other thing I would tell any of your listeners who tried it out, if they see something and they think of a better way to do it or they got ideas, there’s a feedback capability on the website and we welcome that kind of input. I will absolutely tell you that pilots we’ve talked to at AOPA events and Sun and Fun and various places like that, the survey that did on ACAS, we absolutely have made changes to our system based on that pilot input. My view of this has always been in effect pilots are paying for this because it’s part of the taxes and so in my view, this is their service and they should have a voice and influencing how it works, so give us the feedback.
Chris: Great. I like that feedback part of it. On our last episode of AviatorCast, we talked to ForeFlight and they have a similar mentally as a company that they want pilots who are actually using it to shape it so that they do have that feedback component, and it’s great that you guys do to. Just from my perspective, it sounds like NGB or NextGen Briefings is something you kind of have to see to believe and so getting on to 1800wxbrief.com and looking at it there is a really good way to kind of wrap your head around the difference and it sounds like it’s very beneficial.
Mike: Absolutely. I tell you, not just trying to pat ourselves on the back here but people who have not seen it before who see the presentation for the first time, we haven’t ran into anybody yet who wasn’t quite enthused about it, so I encourage people to give it a try.
Chris: Great. Alright so now we have Surveillance Enhanced Search and Rescue. Tell us about that.
Mike: Okay, so again this is a simple concept. VFR Search and Rescue is a responsibility of flight services and historically what triggers an aircraft, a flight going into search and rescue is when it’s 30 minutes overdue in its destination. Any VFR pilot knows this and one of the big fears they have is forgetting to close their flight plan and closing the search and rescue to start up. Part of the problem with the old paradigm is that, let’s say you have a lengthy flight a few hours and let’s say there was a problem on takeoff that nobody else saw. The problem is if the aircraft goes down, no one is going to think about that flight for four or five, six hours, however long it ends, plus 30 minutes to be overdue, and then once they do start thinking about it, they have no information other than it was the route flight, here was the scheduled departure time. And so the search area basically becomes the entire route of flight.
So not a particularly elegant solution and also not good from a survivability perspective, and obviously the faster you can get the folks, the much higher chance you have of remaining survivors. So we want to do something to improve it and what we did was the same devices that we give the iridium connection to the aircraft. All those devices also have the ability to provide position reports. By the way, I keep saying iridium. It doesn’t have to be iridium. There are other devices out there. GlobalStar’s got a whole range of devices on their constellation. Right now it’s down link only but that will change over time. There are also devices out there that MRSAT and we don’t really care what the network is. It’s truly the capability and just the ability for us to interface with it.
So anyway, they give us the position reports and the pilot authorizes this. The companies can’t give us the position reports unless the pilot says they want the company to do that. We monitored the position reports through automation and if the aircraft stops moving or stops reporting or if the device supports an SOS that they can press a button and send that, we detect any of those and then it immediately goes to one of our specialists. Remember I said earlier that the flight data position, those guys are responsible for search and rescue. In the same way that they will get a message popping up that says this flight is overdue, they would also get a message popping up and saying, we have an SE-SAR alert on this particular flight. And the other thing that’s fundamentally different is in the past, if they got an overdue and they said “Okay, show me the route of flight with the position reports,” we never had position reports because those pilots very infrequently gives us a voice position report as they go along their route of flight.
Now, if they get the alert and they bring up the route of flight, we show them the last five position reports where the aircraft was most recently and that information immediately expedites the way the process works because we’re not going to start with a call the pilot and do a ramp check at the destination, do a ramp check at the origination and then start calling all over the flight, we know within this certain timeframe where they were and that allows us to tailor the actions that our specialist take to search in the right place sooner. So that’s the jest of it. It’s just allowing us to expedite search and rescue and to narrow the search area to a much smaller range.
Chris: Had there been any instances yet where this has been used?
Mike: Not to my knowledge. We do have about, I forgot the exact number we’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 100 or 150 or so devices that have been registered so far and flights that have been monitored. It’s the kind of thing where you hope you never use it.
Chris: Yeah exactly. I was hoping you didn’t have an answer for that.
Chris: Well, that sounds like an incredible service and again it just makes sense especially for those pilots that are kind of going out on their own, they’re doing the flight plan and everything but they’re going without communication and not under control or you don’t know their current position so it just makes sense to also have the SE-SAR there with them, so very neat. Anything else of that before we move on?
Mike: Yeah, well. I tell you what, the next one you had on actually relates to this and that was the EasyActivate and EasyClose so if it’s okay let me got and bridge those.
Chris: Yeah, sure.
Mike: One of the problems with VFR flights, a lot of pilots don’t file VFR flight plans and some of the reasons they tell us why they file VFR flight plans, one of the biggest ones is they’re afraid of forgetting the flight plan and causing that search and rescue to be started. Some of them just don’t want to do it because they just don’t want anybody paying attention to them or knowing where they’re going and we get that, but there are a lot of pilots out there that it’s really justa matter of convenience and fear of forgetting. And so we’ve tried to address both of those by doing things like integrating with companies like ForeFlight and other partners for filing purposes for example, but we’ve also focused on activation and closure. And so there are three ways and at some point in the not too distant future there will be four, but three ways that you can activate and close flight plans today.
One is direct on the website and you can do an assumed departure for VFR flight, you can go into an FBO and use a PC there to file your flight plan and there’s a dialogue on your homepage, you’ll see a list of all your currently filed flight plans and you can pick that one and say activate it and you can say activate it 30 minutes from now and then go out and fuel and do your thing and take off. You can also activate in apps that have integrated with the web services, so for example, Navigator is an Android-based app that you can activate in today, and ForeFlight is an iPad-based app that you can activate in today.
Chris: Great. So when they do something like that, dos it update their departure time kind of app that point, I mean, can they choose in the app, I don’t know about that feature in ForeFlight, how does that work? Would it update the data that you guys had for them to begin with?
Mike: So if you do an assumed departure on the website, we will update the departure with whatever you put in for the assumed departure time. I have to be honest with you. I don’t know exactly how it looks in ForeFlight. I think the way it works though and it’s similar to the third service I’m going to tell you about is that when you hit the button in the app, it activates it then. So the notion with something like ForeFlight is you’re carrying it to the cockpit with you with the intent of using it during flight. So whereas if you’re in an FBO on a PC, the assumed departure is important, but if you got an iPad with you, it’s not so important because it’s not a big deal so when you’re ready to go, you can activate and go. So I believe you just do it in the app and it’s effective at that time.
Now, the third one I was going to tell you about is what we call EasyActivate and EasyClose and this is another free service you can sign up for that what it does is it send you an email 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure and 30 minutes prior to arrival, and then the arrival time will adjust based on when you actually departed. And there’s a link in the email that basically says “Activate.” All you got to do is open the email, touch the button, you got a confirmation message and you’re active. And then in the other end, you pull out your phone. Somewhere near the top of your inbox, you’ll have the EasyClose message, open it, touch Close, you get a confirmation message right there on your window and you’re closed, and that’s it. And it’s very nice. We deployed that last fall and we’re seeing a real steady growth in the normal of people who registered through that service.
We’re tying it back up to the beginning but we’re trying to do is encourage people for our flight plans and this makes it very easy to deal with that concern of forgetting of close.
Chris: Right, exactly. Great. Pretty simple. It sounds like it works.
Mike: Yeah. As I mentioned, there was a fourth one coming.
Chris: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
Mike: Yeah. So I don’t want to preannounce for any particular company but we’ve got one that’s particularly interested and I suspect multiple to do this as well, but the Iridium device has given us more remote communications pretty much [inaudible-00:56:38] and so what that creates is the possibility to activate enclosed flight plans in remote locations, where you don’t have radio or cellular communications. So folks flying into Canada for example to go fishing or to remote parts of Alaska… It’s a funny thing, what happens in Alaska today for example, if you go out for a week, you actually create a flight plan that goes there and back and they keep it open that same time flight plan for up to two weeks just based on comments on the flight plan, and they just keeping it open, keeping it open, keeping it open. So we don’t really know if you got there okay and we don’t really know if you took off okay on the return, just at some point you come back into radio contact and they go from there.
What these Iridim devices will allow us to do is we have a flight plan there and a separate flight plan back and you’ll be able to positively confirm that you got there okay with a closed on the way out and when you’re ready to come back, you can positively say “I’m leaving right now,” and we’ll actually get it.
Chris: Wow. That’s really powerful. I’m from Alaska, I don’t if you knew that, so that’s definitely a problem there. When you got out into the bush, that’s where you are and there aren’t really services out there so something like that would be incredibly helpful especially because most of those flights are VFR.
Chris: Great. So we have one more item on the list here, the Flight Plan Close Reminders.
Mike: Oh, well okay. So that’s part of the activate and close capability really. It’s really simple. If you get to 20 minutes past your ETA and you still haven’t closed in some form, whether it’s over the radio or the phone, the EasyClose or through an app or whatever, the reminders basically are a text or an email that will show up and just say “Hey, it’s 20 minutes past ETA and you haven’t closed yet.” If you are signed up for EasyClose, your EasyClose link will also be in that reminder. If it’s a text message… It’s funny. We don’t actually put the link the text message because you don’t have to have a data plan on a cellphone in order to receive text messages. We don’t want to run the risk that someone who doesn’t quite understand that thinks that they can close it for a text because they received the text but they don’t actually have a data plan. The reminders for text messages are just reminders. The email reminders have the EasyClose link in them.
Chris: Great. And then I have a note here I wrote down earlier that you wanted to talk about building on a TAF capability of the NextGen Briefings.
Mike: Yeah. Okay, so before I do that, if you don’t mind, let me cover one other topic that relates to… So these Iridium devices more generically, what they are really doing is setting us up to do datalink to the cockpit. The first thing we did over this data link, a flight services data link, I call it FSDL, the first thing we did of course was the ACAS alerts going up. The second thing we did over that data link was position reports and SOSs coming down. The third thing that we have deployed using those devices is it PIREPs emission capability, and this is something that we just announced at Oshkosh, and we had two vendors of operation at that point in time. The first one was Honeywell Sky Connect. A great story with this. While the guy was testing this service out and he’s a pilot and flies a lot, he encountered unforecasted icing and it turned out a couple other pilots in the general vicinity also did and also some PIREPs and within 20 minutes, there was an NDWS AIRMET for icing published because of that. And that’s the benefit. If we can get more PIREPs from people, we can alert people to urgent conditions and we provide better data to the forecasters to update the adverse conditions that are published.
Chris: I actually didn’t know you guys updated forecast because of that, because I’ve always done PIREPs but I always thought it was just a PIREP to be a PIREP and that’s kind of what people would read but I didn’t know you actively actually would issue an AIRMET if there was an issue like that.
Mike: The important things in there, the AIRMETs, SIGMETs, all those things are issued by National Welfare Service and not by Flight Services specifically but when you submit a PIREP, after we validate it, in addition to using it for our own purposes specifically ACAS for the urgent ones, also ship it off to the rest of the world, which includes NDWS. And so they see it and they react to it and that’s how that AIRMET wind up being issued. But I thought that’s why it’s so valuable.
The second app that I would love to tell people about is it’s called AEROVI Reports. Those guys are kind of phenomenal. They have a very, very nice user interface. It’s a free app in the Apple store that people can go check out and I would strongly encourage it. And it really hit the nail in the head with one of the things that we think is really important when you start thinking about PIREPs emission from the cockpit, and that is we want to minimize heads downtime, for the pilot. The last thing we want them is trying to pretext the PIREP to send in to the system.
So what they’ve done is most of the data that’s required in the PIREP is automatically supplied. They have a defaults to a current location and they’ve got a very simple slider to go up to 30 minutes in the past. It defaults to your current time and it’s the time in the past and then it defaults to a current location. What I’m hoping they do is tie that slider to a trackfile so that if you do say 15 minutes ago, it pulls the location out of a track file instead of having the pilot have to kind of ask to lat long for it.
The aircraft type is configured into the app. The tail number is configured. And so basically everything that’s needed in the PIREP can be automatically filled in except the conditions, so the user interface could be as simple as touch an icon that represents moderate turbulence and hits end, and then everything else gets pulled in. They really, really did a nice job there and I suspect a lot of folks who over the next couple years, they’ll start to implement a PIREP capability. I think they’ll draw ideas that the AEROVI guys put together. It’s very, very nice.
Chris: Cool yeah, I like that.
Mike: So that’s really the third thing for data link. But the thing that everyone should sort of be looking forward to is that once you’ve got two-way communications between flight service and the cockpit, you can just kind of let your imagination go in terms of what are the things we could do with that. You’re flying in Alaska for example and frequently you have a radio communication, and if you’re going to vary your route because you have to because of weather and it’s going to delay you 30 minutes, it’d be nice to let flight services know that rather than triggering overdue. So you could amend your route, you’d be at far route at least in flight or extend your ETA. We could automatically push things to the aircraft based on proximity. Anchorage probably maybe has this but pilots are familiar with Digilatus. So if you fly into an airport with Digilatus and you sign up for the service, we could post Digilatus to you as come within range.
PIREPs solicitation is another concept we played around with. If we have an area where we would really like to have more PIREPs and we don’t have any, and we have equipped aircraft in the area, we could send them a solicitation which they don’t have to answer but they could say “Yes, I am experiencing turbulence” or “No, I’m not,” and that gives us again the weather service better information to refine the forecast.
Chris: Wow. Yeah. That starts up a lot of different avenues that could really be helpful.
Mike: Yep. Yep.
Chris: So tell us about this TAF capability in the NextGen.
Mike: Okay, so we’ll use that as a closer. I’m really excited about this capability. I was talking about the TAF capability at the summit last year ago and everyone liked it except for this one pilot, and he said “An hour either side is not enough. I need to know like a whole day.” To be honest with you, I thought the guy was nuts at first and I thought some people just cannot be pleased, but after talking to some more pilots, I realized that he was on to something that’s very important where pilots just want to know what time should I leave, and they could leave a broad range of time, they just want to know when they should leave to avoid bad conditions.
So what we’ve done is put together a tool we call the Departure Advisor. I’m not sure if that will be the final name or not, but what it is a table that gives you a range departure times, so I think we’re using about 12 hours and so each row represents a different departure time and along that row, what you see is that TAF picture I talked about earlier. You see all the TAFs color-coded and the way to read it is if I leave at that time, that row, here’s the conditions I will encounter across my whole flight as I task a different task. So when you see the picture, what you get is instantaneously you know, leave at 15Z or leave at 10 am or 4 pm or whatever, and you can see exactly what the conditions are that you’re going to encounter.
So we did the TAFs and the other thing we’re adding to it is a background shading along the row of the TAF circles that represents adverse conditions. So you get the TAFs and then you get background shading that tells you if you’ve got severe or AIRMETs, basically moderate conditions in addition to those TAFs, so it’s a very nice picture on a page to let you know “If I leave at this time, here’s what’s going to be” and makes it very easy to pick the best departure time.
Chris: And is that available now or is that a future feature?
Mike: That is our future feature, so the first half of do was just a TAF piece, our release, it’s targeted for around the end of October, and then adding the adverse conditions will be about the end of the year.
Chris: Okay, great. That sounds like another great feature because there’s a domino effect obviously that happens with a lot of accidents and when you’re talking about accidents especially those are at VMC into IMC, this could be one of those things that alleviates a lot of those concerns that people take part in this service or at least puts another barrier between them and a potential accident, and knowing when they should go or at least giving them a better idea, so I can see that being advantageous to pilots for sure.
Mike: Yup. That is certainly our hope. If you envision trying to make this calculation yourself, you could generate multiple briefings at different times, you could prepare a set of TAFs and get your Navalog and adjust it 12 different times. It’s kind of painful to even think about it. If you talk to our briefers, they get asked this question a lot. What’s the best time to leave? And the briefers have to go through the same kind of mental calculation as well. It’s very beneficial all the way around.
Chris: Yeah. I’ve definitely asked that question to the briefers before too especially when you’re dealing with some more intense weather that need to get around.
So, now that we’re wrapping up, I know that one thing people would like to know is how they can best utilize your services. So do you have any tips along those lines? It sounds like we’ve kind of already covered them, maybe just summarize for us how you would actually use your service.
Mike: I guess, whether you just choose to use the briefers which we fully support or if you choose the online services, I think the most valuable thing for pilots to know particularly in the online is that they’re not going to be phased anymore with this just overwhelming ton of data that they’ve got to wade through and figure out. So having something that helps you understand the data whether it’s a person or whether it’s NGB, I think that’s the most valuable thing I can convey quite honestly.
I think what happens for a lot folks now is they will request a briefing through one of the online services, they’ll check the checkbox, they’ll print it out, they’ll throw it into their flight bag, but they’re not really using it to the full extent that it could be and they will go to other services like aviationweather.gov or somebody’s weather and basically try to figure it out from there. I think what they’ll find is they get a more complete picture of how conditions are going to evolve and the timing of it by using what’s in NGB than trying to doing all that manually. And they’re not expecting that right now, at least in the online world. So just knowing that that’s there and it does tit for you, I think that’s the most valuable thing I can convey.
Chris: Yeah. Sounds really valuable. So other than that, do you have any final words for our listeners? That sounds like that’s a good note to end on but maybe you have something else for them.
Mike: No, I think that’s it. We’re trying to give them the best service we possibly can as I stressed earlier. We really truly welcome their inputs and feedback on things they like, things they don’t like, and we do listen to them, so I encourage them to check it out, sign up, again it’s free, and let us know what you think.
Chris: Great. And there’s nothing to lose, only things to gain, so you may as well go and try it out and I’ll make sure to give the listeners plenty of opportunity to click on links and also I will wrap up with them after our conversation here. So thanks Mike. I really appreciate you coming on this show. It goes back to the original reason I want to meet with you guys. A lot of exciting new features coming from Flight Service. Very ingenious features that I know will help pilots and assist us to fly safer and be safer which is our ultimate goal, is to live another day and fly another time. So I appreciate all your hardwork. It sounds like you’ve been invested in this sort of thing for years and years, so keep up the great work and thanks for joining us.
Mike: Thank you Chris, I appreciate it and I always value a chance to let more pilots know about what we got out there.
Chris: Alright, thanks Mike. Appreciate it. Take care.
Mike: Okay, bye.
Chris: Okay, a huge thanks goes out to Mike Glasgow from the Lockheed Martin Flight Service Team for joining us today. We certainly learned so much from you Mike about flight service and more of kind of the internals but also a lot about these new features that are coming out that just enhance safety for us pilots. We really appreciate all you guys do, always being a voice of reason out there and a voice of information for us to be able to reach out to and learn more about the path ahead for us when we’re going out on our adventures as pilots. So thank you so much to your team for all the dedication you guys have to providing these great services and for you, the listener out there, for you that just heard all of these great stuff, I challenge you guys to go try this out. You really have notjhing to lose. You don’t have to pay any money for this. Go check out what these guys have to offer especially if you’re a real pilot. This is stuff that you can absolutely use and definitely gain some information from.
Maybe you’re not even in the United States, this is information that perhaps that you can learn more form and maybe you can write your local flight service wherever you are in the world and tell them about some of these services. My guess is they’re already working toward that, but all that said, this is something that’s very useful. You should go out and you should try it. We will definitely have links to all of these stuff that we talked about here in this show including some of the services like ForeFlight and some of those other apps that you can get. Or you can get the information from flight service actually on your flight deck which is super, super cool. So again, thanks Mike for joining us. It was a great time and I know that I learned a lot and I’m inspired to use your services to a higher level.
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