All eyes on the skies

As a kid, before you left for school, your mom would check the weather in case you needed to pack an umbrella or extra jacket. While they may be all grown up, pilots are required to check in for a weather briefing before they even get into a plane.

The last thing a pilot wants to do is worry about what the weather is going to be like between Point A and Point B so they rely on a team of specialists to keep them in the know. Flight Service Specialists working in NAV CANADA’s Flight Information Centres around the country are the team that ensures pilots have all the necessary information on what the skies have in store for them. Just like mom used to do.

The FIC in Winnipeg is one of eight that NAV CANADA – the company that provides air navigation services for Canadian civil airspace – operates across the country. NAV CANADA also owns and operates the air traffic control tower at the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport and the nearby area control centre (see The Hub, Spring 2015). The Winnipeg FIC is responsible for the airspace over Manitoba, Saskatchewan, northern Ontario and most of the western side of Nunavut.

The Flight Service Specialists working in the FIC have to be proficient in a number of services. With a number of roles to fill within the centre, each specialist must be able to do each job, as the positions rotate.

• Weather Briefings: When pilots call in to check on the weather conditions, specialists give up to date conditions between their point of departure and their destination. They are able to accurately report this information due to their in-depth meteorological training, which allows them to interpret the data and pass it along. This is especially important in parts of the country that do not have easy access to the Internet and cannot simply check the weather on their phones.

• Flight Planning: When a large thunderstorm looms between you and your destination, going through it is not an option. Pilots and flight service specialists work together to plan routes that get you to your destination as quickly and safely as possible. The specialists file the flight plans, which are mandatory in Canada and provide alerting services or ensure the pilot makes it to their destination.

• En route advisories: We all know how quickly the weather can change. Skies that were blue can turn ugly and turbulent in minutes. The Flight Information Centre is always available to give in-flight updates, so pilots can amend their flight plans to avoid inclement weather.

• Emergency Services: Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. Planes take longer to get to their destination than they should, pilots don’t check in at the appropriate place and time or an emergency occurs. When a plane is overdue or appears to be missing, flight service specialists are the first ones to start investigating the location of the missing aircraft. Whether it’s phoning airports to do a ramp check to see if the plane is there, calling pilots directly on their cell phones or co-ordinating further search and rescue efforts with the military, they are there to help. Each pilot has an emergency contact, and the airports all have a list of people to get in touch with in case of an emergency as well.

• Notice to Airmen (NOTAM): Notices to alert pilots of things that are out of the norm. These include radio frequencies that aren’t working, temporary no-fly zones for reasons such as military exercises and forest fires. The local airports will also report on conditions such as runway status, and the FIC passes that information along.

There are no days off at the FIC. A minimum of two people are working at any given moment 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. While there are more planes operating during the day and during the summer, there are still planes that need attention during the night and during the winter. Even on Christmas Day, you will find a crew of specialists sitting in front of their monitors, making sure everything is safe and sound.

While the jobs and skills of flight service specialists are quite transferable all across the country, one cannot simply show up at a new location and start working. They have to become accustomed to the unique characteristics of each region through local training.
The work station for a flight service specialist at an FIC consists of several monitors showing displays of meteorological information, a digital radio display, a phone and the all-important headset. The specialists have to take in a lot of data in a variety of formats, and it is their ability to process all of that information and pass it along in a concise and timely manner that keeps everything operating smoothly.

Specialists at the Winnipeg FIC are also the city’s official weather observers. When you get reports from the local weatherperson, they are getting their data from the information collected by the people at the FIC.

The flight service specialists at the Flight Information Centre in Winnipeg, and the other FICs around the country, have their eyes on the skies and their expertise ensures for the smoothest ride possible. Their constant monitoring of conditions means they truly know the skies better than anybody else.

Special thanks to Peter Hamm, Joel Favreau and Maria Fedorowich of NAV CANADA.

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