A tremendous amount could be said about observing strategy. See the article by Joan Wrobel in the book ``Very Long Baseline Interferometry and the VLBA'' (1995: ASP) for a good discussion. That book also contains a lot of information about VLBI and is a good reference for all observers to have. Other important sources of information are the ``VLBA Observational Status Summary'' and ``General Instructions on Observation Preparation'' (which is sent to scheduled users). These and many other useful documents can be accessed on the Internet from the ``VLBA Information for Astronomers'' page. This section of the SCHED Manual will be limited to a few important concepts to keep in mind while scheduling. It is assumed that the observer already has a reasonable idea of how much time is needed per source, what frequencies to observe, etc. The suggestions here are more oriented toward smooth observing, processing, and calibration.
The fringe finders can also be used for ``manual phase cal''. This is the process of aligning the phases and delays on all individual IFs. This is simply done by running the fringe fitting program on the calibrator and applying the results to all data. For this purpose, it helps to have a scan with all antennas at reasonably high elevations simultaneously.
Finally the fringe finders typically make good bandpass calibrators because then have good SNR in each spectral channel.
One is to try to obtain the flux density of a compact calibrator at a close enough time to the VLBI observations that variations will not be significant. At the time of the VLBI observations, some of the larger antennas can be asked to measure flux densities of sources being observed (see the TANT command. Better yet, if you have a phased array, such as the VLA, or can get an hour or so of VLA test time, accurate flux densities of your VLBI calibrators can be measured. In order to do this, be sure to include a VLA flux calibrator (usually 3C286 or 3C48) in the VLA schedule. You don't need to record VLBI data on it. This method can go awry if the calibrator has intermediate scale structure that is compact to the interferometer but resolved out by VLBI.
It is also possible, and perhaps preferable, to rely on the apriori calibration of the VLBI antennas. For this, it is best to look carefully at your data and determine which subset of antennas is giving consistent calibration. With the VLBA at intermediate frequencies, it is possible to get the flux scale right to within a few percent this way. You just have to be sure not to let any antennas with bad weather or other problems contribute to the flux scale. In the AIPS calibration task CALIB, use ANTUSE to limit the gain normalization to the antennas whose gains you trust. Also specify a generous minimum elevation, such as 30 degrees, for the gain normalization.
When using the apriori gains for absolute flux calibration, care must be taken with bandpass calibration and channel selection. The gains are measured using the full bandwidth of the baseband channel - they are based on total power measurements from the baseband converters. Such gains apply to the average across the full baseband. If you attempt to apply such gains to a data set with the edge channels removed, there will be an error of a few percent because those edge channels typically have lower gain (which is probably why you removed them) and the average for the remaining channels will be higher. You can deal with this either by doing the calibration including all edge channels, or by doing a bandpass calibration based on all channels. Bandpass calibration brings all channels to the average level.
If you are going to rely on apriori calibration, be sure to obtain some data at close to the frequencies at which antenna gains have been measured. These frequencies are given in the vlba_gains.key available by anonymous ftp to ftp.aoc.nrao.edu. This is the file that you will need for VLBA calibration. At those frequencies, the Tsys used in calibration and the gain are based on the same values of Tcal so the Tcal value cancels out. If you observe at other frequencies, you will be depending on the Tcal values being correct (or at least having the right ratio) at your frequency and the frequency where the gains are measured. That is not assured.
For any of these methods to work, it is best to include a strong, compact calibrator and to observe it several times to check consistency.
There appears to be an offset of on the order of 6.5% between Tsys values measured with the legacy VLBA system's baseband converters and Tsys measured with the new, wide-band RDBE. The cause of that offset is not yet understood, but is thought to be some issue with the old system. During the transition, the gains distributed are for the old system. An adjustment appears to be required to for data data calibrated using Tsys measured either by the RDBE or by DiFX and gains derived from the old system (all gains distributed so far as of July 2012). For a discussion of this effect, see /htmladdnormallinkVLBA Senesitivity Upgrade Memo 34 https://science.nrao.edu/facilities/vlba/publications/memos/sensitivity-upgrade/index.sensimemo34.pdf. Stay tuned on developments in this area.
With the older media (including currently (2012) in use Mark5B and VLBA disk recording), the recording media should be stopped occasionally to help prevent major amounts of data loss if something should go wrong and, on non-VLBA controlled stations, to allow disk bank changes. Two minute gaps every hour or two used to be used for readback tests with the tape systems. Tape is no longer used, but an equivalent data integrity test is likely to be built into the disk based systems in the future. Also, if the disks are not stopped, all the data ends up in one file. If there are problems closing the file, the data can become unreadable. As of early 2008, it is recommended that a gap of 30s or more be inserted every hour or two. In fact, any pause in recording will start a new recording scan, but beware that SCHED prevents gaps of less than MINPAUSE seconds. For field system controlled stations, (most non-VLBA stations) gaps should also be inserted to allow bank changes. The VLBA can switch between mounted disk banks (modules) on the fly, but the field systems need a pause in the data recording. Such gaps should be inserted every 22 minutes for recordings at 1 Gbps and proportionally less often at lower bit rates. These gaps need to be more than 10s long.
Also, the effective beam of the phased VLA (or any other phased interferomenter such as Westerbork) is the synthesized beam. This can be less than an arcsecond in the worst cases. This places far greater demands on source positions required for observing than is typical at single antennas. Be sure to provide positions of sufficient accuracy, which can mean 0.1 arcsecond.
Anyone using the VLA for VLBI should consult the VLBI at the VLA guide.