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Beyond the Flight Plan: Special Measures

We all know the real reason for filing a VFR flight plan (to speed up a rescue should we not arrive at our destination), but there are places where even the flight plan is not fast enough…We all know the real reason for filing a VFR flight plan (to speed up a rescue should we not arrive at our destination), but there are places where even the flight plan is not fast enough…

OVERDUE: When a pilot is 30 minutes late in canceling a VFR flight plan, the Flight Service Station (FSS) begins a telephone search. This usually turns up the airplane and pilot, who simply forgot to call and cancel. If it does not, the FSS will:

  1. Call the pilot's intended destination,
  2. then the departure airport,
  3. then airports along the filed route of flight.
  4. If these calls do not find the pilot one hour after the filed arrival time, a physical search is begun.
Translation: It may be *several hours* before help arrives -- even when a VFR Flight Plan is in use.

Problem: There are some places in the United States where enduring the effects of exposure (let alone those of a crash) means that waiting several hours for help is just not good enough.

The FSS system has established special zones where pilots can get help even faster than the conventional flight plan can offer. The system is called the Hazardous Area Reporting Service and there are currently six such areas and all cover frequently traveled routes over large bodies of water, swamps, and mountains:

  • The Long Island Sound Reporting Service, which includes both the Cape Cod/ Islands Overwater Service and the Block Island Reporting Service which are all operated by the New York and Bridgeport FSS's.
  • The Lake Erie Reporting Service, operated by the Cleveland and Buffalo FSS's
  • The Lake Michigan Reporting Service, operated by the Green Bay, Lansing, and Kankakee FSS's.
  • The Mid Appalachian Reporting Service, operated by Elkins FSS.
  • The Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads, and Dismal Swamp Reporting Service, operated by Leesburg and Raleigh-Durham FSS's.
  • The Everglades Reporting Service, operated through the Tampa VOR.
HOW YOU USE IT: Call the operating FSS either by telephone prior to flight or on the radio once airborne to request the service. You should be ready to provide the type of aircraft, altitude flown, indicated airspeed, position, route, and heading to the FSS. As you cross over the hazardous area, call in to the FSS every 10 minutes. If contact is lost for more than 15 minutes, search and rescue are immediately alerted -- so don’t miss a call. When you’ve successfully crossed out of the hazardous area, cancel the service on your last transmission to the FSS. Note: If two-way radio failure is experienced while using the service, pilots are expected to land as soon as practical and give the FSS a call.

BOTTOM LINE: If I were ever down in a swamp, floating in the water, or clinging to a mountaintop, -- especially at this time of year -- I would want rescuers on the way *now*, not one hour after my ETA. This system sends help, when it is needed, hours faster than with the standard flight plan. Next time you fly in one of the areas -- especially at night -- use this service! As pilots, we should encourage other Flight Service Stations to establish additional Hazardous Area Reporting Services across the United States, wherever unique dangers exist.

Editor's note: The AIM section on HARS is 4-1-20.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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