A Kinder, Gentler FAA

Martha enacts "remedial training" for milder pilot offenses.

Unusual Attitudes

Unusual Attitudes

(January 2012) Some time back, Congress decided that the FAA's goals were just downright incompatible. How could a federally mandated regulatory agency "encourage and develop civil aeronautics" while enforcing the regulations and exercising its authority to levy fines and suspend or revoke certificates? So guess which functions were eliminated? Washington also reminded the agency that its customers are passengers ... period. It is "tasked" (as bureaucrats love to say) with protecting the flying public from people like us — pilots, mechanics, aviation companies and the airlines. Then, when things get too adversarial, a new administrator usually "comes on board" (another much-loved government phrase), proclaiming a new version of the old, a kinder and gentler FAA thing.

I remember a day in the FSDO, back in the early ’80s, when a newly appointed administrator, Adm. James Busey, held an agencywide teleconference. He seemed sincere about promoting a spirit of cooperation with industry (in government-speak, industry means anybody not behind government lines), and he said there were times when the complex, expensive and time-consuming task of processing a violation should be short-circuited. If a pilot did “something dumb” (my quote), the FAA should consider fixing the problem by hauling him into the office, reading him the riot act and putting his pilot certificate in a desk drawer for two weeks.

This pronouncement was met with glazed stares and a stunned silence. And immediately afterward the regional office assured everybody that “clearly, he didn’t mean ... obviously this wasn’t to be taken literally ... the administrator was simply suggesting some new initiatives. ... ”

Well, I thought he had made himself perfectly clear and meant exactly what he had said. But it didn’t happen and maybe that’s why the admiral’s FAA gig lasted only 2½ years.

Amazingly, something along those lines did happen in the ’90s with a simple and effective program that offered “remedial training” in lieu of some enforcement actions. It was an option in actions where there was no injury and the investigating inspector believed the training would assure future compliance from the offender. The “crime” couldn’t involve a lack of pilot qualifications or be deliberate, grossly negligent or a criminal offense, and it would generally be appropriate only for first-time offenders — but not always.

We’re talking about stuff like altitude busts, runway incursions, fuel mismanagement, gear-up landings, and airspace and TFR violations (except presidential) where the violation was inadvertent or the violator just had his head up and locked. The errant pilot (or mechanic) being considered for remedial training had to be cooperative, pay all costs involved and promise never, ever to do it again.

As a safety program person, I usually inherited these files — often, I suspect, because the investigating inspector didn’t want the hassle of processing a violation.

But I thought it was a great program that did far more good than taking some guy’s pilot certificate for six months. Besides, the violators were often pilots from outlying airports who lived on farms with abundant mushrooms, berries, squirrels, turkeys and deer. So not only was I protecting the airspace and saving the free world from aerial disasters, but I also was making friends with wonderful places to shoot and hunt.

After reading through an offender’s file I’d devise a training syllabus, usually three to five hours each of ground time and flight training to be taken from an instructor I’d select or approve. The program had to be accomplished within 21 days, and when the instructor certified that he’d given the training and the airman or mechanic was up to speed, the case was closed. As an administrative action it was expunged from the pilot’s record after two years and did not legally constitute an admission of guilt. Good deal when you come to that question “Have you ever had an FAA violation?” The answer is “no!”

I especially remember a pilot who had a 180 Comanche on a grass strip in mid-central Ohio, a vacation place in southern Florida and a girlfriend. They’d been in Florida for a week, but the lady was eager to get back to Ohio by Monday morning to open her shop on schedule. Unfortunately, the weather in northern Florida and Georgia had stubbornly socked in and the forecasts weren’t optimistic. The pilot had been on the phone to Flight Service pretty regularly for days when, finally, in the wee hours of Monday morning, the briefer told him it looked as good as it was going to get. So they launched at 3 or 4 a.m., planning on making a fuel stop in southern Georgia.

Maybe you know that, as dawn breaks in northern Florida and southern Georgia, dense and widespread ground fog is pretty common. But these two in the Comanche were on top, unaware that things were going to hell in a handbasket below until they tried to get into the airport planned for the fuel stop. With an AWOS advertising rapidly lowering visibilities and the fuel gauges heading toward “empty,” the pilot wisely called an approach controller for help. The controller vectored them toward two or three airports that were still VFR only to have them shut down in fog before they could get on the ground.

The pilot had advised that their fuel situation was critical and he wasn’t IFR-rated, but he assured the (very) concerned controller that he could fly an ILS; he had not only the equipment on board but also an autopilot that he knew how to couple to the approach.

“OK,” I’m going to vector you onto an ILS approach at an airport with a very long runway and really good approach lighting.”

Sure enough, they emerged from the clag somewhere well below minimums with really, really bright lights illuminating a really, really long runway lined with lots and lots of emergency equipment.

“What a sight,” he told me. “They closed down that whole airport just for us. You know, I never realized ‘Hartsfield’ was the name of that great big airport in Atlanta.”

“How long have you been making these trips to Florida in the Comanche?

“Oh, I’ve owned the airplane for about 20 years and I probably go down seven or eight times a year plus some trips out West.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that in 20 years — 150 to 200 long-distance flights — you’ve been able to stay VFR?”

“Well, usually I get on top and then I just fly around until I find, you know, a hole or something. Never needed help getting down before — oh, wait, there was that time at Houston Hobby. ... ”

Well, he was sincere and he loved to fly. The obvious “fix,” of course, was an instrument rating, but there was no way he’d ever get through the written. He was computer illiterate, and when I printed some metars and TAFs he wasn’t able to read them ... said he always called Flight Service for weather.

“OK, show me. Pretend you’re flying down there early tomorrow morning and call Flight Service for a briefing.”

I pushed the phone toward him and was able to hear both sides of the conversation. The briefer rattled off a bunch of metars, TAFs, notams and winds-aloft forecasts, and my “trainee” scribbled some numbers but never asked him to repeat, slow down or clarify. These scribbles were mostly unreadable, wildly incomplete and missed all the times on the TAFs when changes could be expected. When he hung up we compared his hieroglyphics with the weather I’d printed and it wasn’t pretty. He knew he had a problem, but more importantly, he was willing and eager to fix it.

There was a good instructor, a retired professional pilot, who lived near his home airport and was willing to take him on. They visited an approach control facility and then spent about 10 hours learning how to collect, interpret and evaluate weather reports and forecasts before he “graduated.”

The computer has radically changed the way most of us get weather briefings, and, by the way, those sites are perfectly legal so long as the weather ultimately comes from “primary aviation weather products” (NWS). I rarely call FSS except for another check on TFRs (and in this election year that’s really important) or to file a last-minute IFR flight plan. If you prefer a telephone Flight Service brief, that’s fine too, but it’s not easy to absorb all the verbal information, especially when the TAFs have multiple changes during the forecast period. I used to be reluctant to ask a briefer to slow down, repeat or translate the times into local, 12-hour clock time (yeah, 28 years in government and I still count on my fingers to convert from the 24-hour clock). But I finally decided to grow up, make damn sure I got both the details and the big picture and quit worrying about making the specialist slow down and repeat for this ditzy, airhead lady pilot!

Ring any bells?

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