Get Out of Jail Free

The ASRS program works as a "get-out-of-jail-free card" when a GA pilot might violate special use airspace.



The Friday before the Presidential election I was returning from Carrollton, Ohio, where I'd been involved in an FAA Aviation Safety Program. The weather briefing had indicated relatively good weather, including warmer than normal temperatures, so icing wasn't going to be a concern. There was a possibility of fog and some low level clouds for the departure, but otherwise the briefing was routine. All except the TFR (temporary flight restriction) at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, directly on my course.

Even in good weather I usually file IFR so the controllers can help me stay honest. Nevertheless, I do try to be aware of where the TFRs are in case I have to deviate or I'm misguided by a controller. The effective time of the TFR was late enough in the day that it shouldn't have been a problem. The TFR was from the ground to 3,000 feet within three nautical miles of some lat/long position and then it migrated a couple clicks down the road and then back again to its original position.

But my departure was delayed for a maintenance requirement. On my inbound flight the day before, the engine had run rough, and although I'd been able to smooth it out with an adjustment to the mixture, I'd also noticed that the EGT (exhaust gas temperature) of the number three cylinder was running hotter than the others. Normally it was the number two cylinder that got high marks for temps. Just to be sure, I wanted to have it checked before the return flight.

I consulted the AOPA Airport Directory that I keep on the passenger seat when Judith's not with me, to see if there was maintenance available at the Carroll County-Tolson Airport (TSO), but the airport information in the book only showed fuel with no maintenance services. I considered landing at Akron-Canton, but decided, since everything seemed to be working correctly, to go ahead and land at TSO.

It became obvious as I taxied in that there was a pretty active repair station on the field. Roy Hutmacher, who had organized the safety program, met me at the fuel pump and told me that someone named Leon had agreed to put my airplane in the hangar for the night. Good service. Leon turned out to be Lamp Aviation Service, an FAA repair station that was obviously capable of anything I needed done on the airplane. (After I got home I checked the AOPA Airport Directory online at the AOPA website and it indicated that Lamp Aviation Service featured: "Repair services: airframe, all small aircraft, FAA repair station, powerplant, radio.")

Leon agreed to take a look at the airplane. After checking the injectors, he pointed out that the spark plugs needed some attention and said they'd be able to get to them before my scheduled departure the following morning. Good service.

The morning of my departure, the plugs had been addressed but unpredicted low ceilings persisted. Waiting with Roy, an FAA safety counselor, for the ceiling to lift and after giving a presentation on "Good Accidents," those in which pilots had made dumb mistakes and lousy assessments of the risk, I was hesitant to launch into low ceilings. I figured it wouldn't look good. So we waited.

Power line towers on a ridge south of the airport periodically poked their heads into the overcast. Roy kept calling the New Philadelphia AWOS on his cell phone and reported that the ceiling was 300 feet and the visibility two and a half miles. Legal, but not wise. Even zero-zero takeoffs are legal under FAR Part 91, but not necessarily prudent. If everything works okay and you're sharp on instruments it can be done. But if something goes wrong, a zero-zero return to the departure airport would be highly problematic. The minimums for the lowest approach at Carroll County are 617 feet so a 300-foot ceiling would not allow a whole lot of wiggle room if I had to come back.

"Wanta get some lunch?" Roy asked as the day wore on. I declined. A light wind had picked up and there was some definition in the overcast. "It's starting to break up now," I said, optimistically.

I called Flight Service and changed my estimated departure time and got a phone number to pick up a void clearance when it was time to leave. I looked at my watch and realized the TFR at Williamsport was now posing a potential impact on my flight. Well, at least I knew where it was and could plan around it. As it was, I finally got off in time to be well past Williamsport when the TFR became effective.

Not everyone is so lucky. Jim, a good friend, called me recently. "Did you see me on television?" he asked. That's always an attention getter.

I hadn't. "It was on all the stations," he said almost proudly.

It seems that Jim, as is his wont, had invited one of the people from the FBO where he keeps his airplane along for one of his coffee runs to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, from Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey. Jim flies a Cessna 182 and pretty much limits himself to VFR conditions. It was a perfect day for a flight. Well, almost perfect as it turned out.

It seems the same time Jim was on his way for coffee, President Bush was on his way to campaign. Somewhere west of King of Prussia, Jim was met by a pair of F-15s. "They circled around me and then went off, so I thought they were doing some sort of practice," he said. When they came back and circled him a second time, he thought, "What do they want? I haven't done anything wrong." As he continued on his way, a State Police helicopter flew up next to him and the pilot signaled for him to land. Jim said he eventually made radio contact with the helicopter and asked what they wanted. They wanted him to land.

"I'm landing at Pottstown," he told them.

"We want you to turn back and land at Pottstown-Limerick," he was told.

He did and found himself initially surrounded by men who could have been mistaken for evildoers and subsequently in defensive discussions with the Secret Service and FBI.

After Jim related the story, I asked him if he'd filed an ASRS report.

"What's that?" he asked.

I was surprised that Jim, who remembers Newark Airport when it had a gravel runway, didn't know what the ASRS report was. "Think of it as your get-out-of-jail-free card," I explained.

But Jim wasn't the first aviation veteran who surprised me by being unaware of the ASRS (Aviation Safety Reporting System) program. A couple months before Jim's TFR encounter, I had run into a long-time Bonanza pilot who related an incident in which there was a question of whether he had violated some special use airspace. "The controller asked me to give him a call after I got on the ground," he said. He explained the situation to the controller and was under the impression the encounter wouldn't be reported.

"Did you file an ASRS report?" I asked.

"What's that?"

The ASRS was set up almost 30 years ago to encourage people to report problems, difficulties, misunderstandings, confusing situations or anything else that might lead to an accident to the authorities. Recognizing that admitting to the FAA that you might have made a mistake would give some reporters pause, it was decided that the system would be managed by NASA and not the FAA.

To further encourage participation in the program, the FAA agreed that the filing of a report with NASA concerning an incident or occurrence involving a violation of the FARs would be considered to be indicative of a constructive attitude. And since such an attitude would tend to prevent future violations, the FAA agreed that although a finding of violation might be made, neither a civil penalty nor certificate suspension would be imposed if the violation was "inadvertent and not deliberate and did not involve a criminal offense or accident or accident that disclosed a lack of qualification or competency."

The ASRS report does not prevent the FAA from determining and recording that you did violate an FAR. That mistake will go on your record, but the ASRS will give you immunity from whatever penalty would otherwise be imposed.

The immunity only applies if the report is filed within 10 days after the violation. There's some confusion about how often or how many reports a pilot can file. There is no limit to either how often or how many. The only restriction is that if a report results in transactional immunity (if the penalties were waived) then, although you can continue to file as many reports as you feel necessary, you can't use transactional immunity to waive another penalty for five years.

Each Aviation Safety Report has a tear-off portion that identifies the person submitting the report. When NASA receives the report, the tear-off portion is removed, time stamped and returned to the reporter as a receipt that can be used to prove a report was filed if that becomes necessary.

Since it was established 28 years ago, the Aviation Safety Reporting System has received and analyzed more than 600,000 reports from pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, maintenance personnel and others. The NASA ASRS website ( main_nf.htm) has useful information and a place to download reporting forms. If you don't have an ASRS reporting form in your flight bag, you should. It couldn't hurt!