Should FAA Inspectors Know How to Fly?

Beechcraft Baron 55 Wikimedia Commons/Spartan7W

When inspectors met Orville and Wilbur for that first ramp check on the sands of Kitty Hawk, the brothers ran them off and then complained to the government because these inspector guys didn’t know much about flying machines. FAA management opened a file on the complaint, convened working groups, assigned committees, consulted with cost analysts, assessed the environmental impact on the North Carolina coast and coordinated with legal experts. But not much changed until, luckily, World War II happened, and the agency suddenly had a bunch of veterans who knew how to fly. A handbook (4040) appeared, and an Events Based Currency (EBC) program was created to assure that every general aviation operations inspector would be current and proficient … uh, that is, when the budget allowed. Nonflying management determined that three hours in a single and three in a light twin every three months were sufficient to maintain at least some shred of proficiency.

Well, of course, things changed. The WWII contingent retired, replaced largely with people who coveted these well-paying, dependable desk jobs that only collaterally involved flying airplanes. What little flying did happen was under that EBC program, which was the first thing to be cut whenever there were “budget constraints.” So, inevitably, there were a bunch of inspectors who were something less than current or proficient. And when a rusty pilot (inspector or not) climbs into something even as basic as a 172, it can be ugly — an issue management addressed by mandating that the inspectors fly in pairs to keep each other out of trouble. It didn’t always work.

When I joined the dark side, we rented airplanes from private owners, as well as FBOs and flight schools. Then, after airplanes crashed, people got hurt or killed, and lawsuits proliferated, the EBC procedures tightened until, just before I left, aircraft rentals were restricted to Part 141 flight schools … and a CFI had to be on board. Obviously, incident and accident rates among FAA inspectors were still significant and embarrassing.

Inevitably, with little or no flying, once-proficient inspector pilots got even further behind the proficiency power curve; they’d philosophically remind each other what they heard (but found hard to believe) when they “came on board.”

“Forget about flying airplanes when you go to work for the FAA.”

Well, experts and committees that encourage a culture that limits an inspector’s job to oversight — believing he doesn’t need to maintain the level of skill and proficiency he demands in the airmen he’s testing — are flat-out wrong. But what’s really sad is that this attitude becomes endemic, and formerly skilled, active pilots find all sorts of excuses not to fly; they’re understandably more comfortable out of currency and safely grounded. But when funds become available, office managers get frantic about burning their office allotments, lest they lose the money in the next quarter or fiscal year.

I liked to fly, still knew how, and strongly believed an FAA safety-program inspector should arrive at an airport to conduct a seminar or monitor an airshow in a flying machine rather than a G (government) car. Understand, this wasn’t the norm; far too many safety-program people were in that job because they’d lost their medicals. Anyway, I usually managed to weasel EBC money from a manager desperate to spend it and rented airplanes for flights to and from safety seminars and flight checks. It was great … well, usually.

This March night wasn’t dark and stormy — yet. But a line of thunder-bumpers was moving on that track from Oklahoma up through Mississippi and into the Ohio Valley. Some rather unpleasant weather would be bearing down on southern Ohio late in the evening. The seminar was at Lawrence County Airport near Huntington, West Virginia. Forecasters advertised I could easily beat the weather home, and I knew we had plenty of rental money, so I submitted a request for a well-equipped Skylane we often used. But my boss needed to spend more money as we neared the quarter’s end, so he insisted on a more expensive, multiengine airplane.

“Take the Baron.”

He was referring to possibly the world’s oldest living BE-55, an A model that lived at Lunken Airport. I vividly remember my first flight in this thing with its owner, Ford Bartlett, because when we exited the runway and I retracted the flaps, the gear horn emitted an unholy squawk. Beech, as you may remember (if you’re really old), historically positioned the flap switch on the left side of the quadrant and the gear on the right — maybe thinking it would be harder to reach and take more thought. But this wasn’t standard, so after 1984 they reversed the switches. Thankfully, the squat switch worked, and we stayed up on the wheels.

I’d flown the Baron only once with Ford, obviously didn’t know much about the cockpit layout, and admitted — only to myself, of course — that I was less than comfortable. This would be a night flight home from Lawrence County Airport — narrow, short, poorly lighted and tucked under the Ohio River hills. Add the possibility of weather and unfamiliar and cantankerous avionics, and you have a recipe for what John and Martha King call a “risk management” issue. I told my boss I’d prefer the 182, but he said to take the Baron or drive a G car — covering his ass, of course, by warning me not to fly if I wasn’t comfortable. I, of course, would never admit I was less than an ace in almost anything with wings.

The flight to HST in the late afternoon was fine, and the airport operator’s mother was famous for her homemade pies, so the seminar attracted a crowd. Lots of people hung around afterward to chat, and the time went by. When I checked the weather for the trip home, I saw it was deteriorating more rapidly than forecast. It was hard to pull myself away, but I saddled up and, using the flashlight hanging around my neck, began a frantic but fruitless search for the cockpit and instrument-​panel lights. Finally, I gave up and used the flashlight to start the engines, did a perfunctory before-takeoff 
check, and blasted off. Airborne and safely over the hills, I pulled out the manual and rummaged until I found a cockpit diagram. Those damned light switches were little black circuit-breaker-looking thingies way down on the left-side panel. Who would have known (except a pilot with more sense and a proper checkout)?

I solved my problems with the 4040 program by buying my beloved Cessna 180. The program did need change, but in typical knee-jerk fashion, the change was far too radical and morphed into something remarkably cumbersome and unworkable.

Most people in the business have seen how difficult it is to schedule things — such as the initial CFI practical test with an FAA inspector — because sometimes an entire office is “out of currency.” Why? If you’re game for a mind-boggling experience, look up “FAA Flight Program Flight Operations Manual (FOM) Rev 6 — FSIMS” on your browser and you’ll see.

A monster called AFS-60 was created and contracted with a flight school in Addison, Texas. Now every quarter, every general aviation operations inspector “en routes” (rides a jumpseat) to Dallas and drives a rental car to Addison, Texas. On Day Two, the school gives ground training and three hours dual in a 172. Day Three is ground training and three hours in a light twin. If all goes well, Day Four involves driving back to Dallas and “en routing” home. Nearly a week to fly six hours.

Periodically, the whole thing shuts down due to budget cuts, contract negotiations and safety stand-downs (there have been accidents). As I write, only one GA ops inspector in our FSDO is “current” — better than last year when, for many months, nobody was current.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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