FAA ‘Safety Culture’ or Snitching Program?

The opinion of a CFII on the front lines.

In the old days — and I mean prior to last November — we flight instructors could observe a student make a minor mistake in the airplane, and then watch to see how he or she resolved it. That’s not the way it is after February 2012. The FAA has installed a web-based “occurrence tracking system” in ATC facilities and now provides new guidance on what needs to be typed into that system. In short, controllers are being directed to snitch on pilots when we make a mistake. This is bad news for flight training, and here’s why: Instruction needs to be both corrective and nurturing, like parenting. Under the new rules, that’s no longer possible.

Were you worried the first time you sent your 16-year-old out solo with the car? Flight instructors get to relive that phase of parenting over and over again. As the airplane with only one aboard starts its ground roll, I ponder whether I left anything out of the training. Three landings later, I sigh in relief. (For other instructors reading this, admit it, you do, too.)

We teach three elements of flying: physical skills, the book learning and judgment. You can measure the physical skills. You can test the book learning. But you can only observe judgment. Talking on the radio is an area where the student needs to learn the judgment lessons himself. If he accepts a clearance for closed traffic, he’s going to have to learn that there are two elements of the readback: takeoff clearance and direction of traffic (right or left).

Trust me, if you, the instructor, intervene every time the student forgets which way to turn, the student will never learn to listen. It’s far more effective for the controller to give him an earful rather than you. I grant you, your relationship with the tower will be strained if you let it happen too often. But the student has to make the mistakes, learn, and improve while you are in the airplane – otherwise, he’ll turn the wrong way on his first solo.

The new mandatory ATC reports should worry all instructors. There is no allowance in the guidance for students and the learning process. The student is introduced to swimming at the deep end. What we’re seeing in our part of the country is a strict compliance with the letter of the order, including the filing of reports by controllers against pilots for the following (taken from the ATO rules):

A-7. Communication. Any instance in which communication with an aircraft was not established or not maintained as expected/intended, and results in alternative control actions or additional notifications by ATC, or a flight crew, or in a landing without a clearance.

Management has been told to monitor ATC in real time and by review of tapes. That puts the pressure on the controller to type everything into the reporting system: go-arounds, missed calls, repetitions and so on. The following morning, the output of the system prints out at the local FSDO. If there is a report, the aircraft operator can expect a call from an FAA inspector.

If there were an in-flight emergency or VFR pilot trapped on top, I’m hoping I do get a call. But here is a call I certainly did not expect to get: In the course of an hour of touch-and-goes, the solo student pilot got a clearance to land. It went in one ear and out his mouth. He did a touch and go, just like the previous four trips around the pattern. Yes, it was a mistake. But was it really worthy of several phone calls with the FSDO, a written statement and discussion of potential certificate action under §91.123?

The reality is we cannot change the edicts of the Air Traffic Organization. But now we must consider how we change our teaching methods. If we step in every time a student readback is incorrect, the student may begin to rely on us. That’s not good. It only delays the day he or she gets yelled at by ATC or worse – and we never get to see how the student reacts to a tough situation. We only get the phone call from the FAA after it happens.

I applaud the FAA for adopting a safety culture. But a safety culture implies a just culture; it’s going to take a while before that sinks in. While we’re making the shift, I recommend that student pilots identify themselves at initial call-up and carry a stack of ASRS forms on every flight.

The rest of us, we need to be on our best behavior.

The author is a certified flight instructor who wishes to remain anonymous.

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