When Bad Things Happen to Good Pilots

** Illustration by Chris Gall**

In those kinder and gentler days (which may be more legend than fact), an FAA inspector who learned that your Mooney was sitting on its belly might have taken down the details over the phone, filed a brief report and even offered sympathy for your embarrassment and the cost of the repairs. General aviation activity was brisk and FAA field office inspectors were busy, so a gear-up airplane with minor damage went on the books as an “incident” — end of story. As recently as 1990, the Cincinnati FSDO had just 12 airworthiness and operations inspectors; today, although GA operations are down, there are somewhere around 60. Bloated staffing in FSDOs nationwide and a sea change in attitude means the agency can and will ferret out possible violations of the FARs and/or the lack of competency of the pilot or mechanic upon learning of any “event” or “occurrence.”

I suspect that, within a few days of passing your last written, you forgot everything you learned about accident reporting, except the name of the regulation — NTSB 830. And you haven’t obsessed over exactly which events the law terms “reportable”; you’d probably cover your butt by reporting anything involving bent metal, however slight. Well, that might have been OK back in those halcyon days when the FAA was charged with “regulating and promoting civil aviation.” But after the ValuJet accident in the late ’90s, Congress decided those missions were incompatible, and the “promoting” part disappeared. Today pilots and mechanics deal with a federal agency focused on regulation and staffed with a glut of inspectors to enforce them. But it’s possible to save yourself major time, money and sleepless nights by looking into what NTSB 830 says — in surprisingly plain language — about which events require notification and reporting and which do not.

Notice that this is a National Transportation Safety Board — not an FAA — regulation. All accident and some incident investigations belong to the NTSB. If you notify them of something they don’t consider reportable, they really don’t want to know about it. Trouble is that notification is usually made through an FAA facility, and when an FSDO learns something has taken place — be it an occurrence (flat tire on the runway), an incident (gear-up landing), an accident (stall-spin crash) or a violation (TFR incursion) — a huge, cumbersome and inexorable apparatus grinds into motion. Most pilots don’t understand that accident investigation is not an FAA function unless, as sometimes happens with “small” ones, it’s specifically delegated to them by the NTSB. The FAA’s mission is to determine who or what was at fault and whether it resulted from a violation of the FARs or a lack of competency. You can be sure an investigation will ensue, whether the event was actually “reportable.”

Today that inspector who learns that your Mooney is on its belly will tell you to leave everything as is. Personnel (a government term for human beings) will conduct an investigation, but it will take some time to “coordinate and assemble the team.” Meanwhile, despite howls from the FBO and airport manager, your flying machine is sitting in the middle of a runway. No, this isn’t always the case — sometimes sanity prevails — but I’ve seen it happen and recently got a useless firsthand account of exactly this kind of ugly situation in Louisiana. Anyway, whenever they manage to assemble themselves, you’ll be expected to be there with all aircraft and pilot records in hand.

Don’t be surprised to find five or six “suits” at the airport the next morning. Upon finding the damage is minor, an airworthiness inspector with a newbie in trail will declare this is an incident, but before you breathe a sigh of relief, understand it really doesn’t matter if it’s officially an “incident” or an “accident.” That simply dictates the weight of paper the FAA will generate. He and his trainee will comb through airplane, engine and propeller logs for properly documented required inspections, AD compliance and any related squawks or damage history (and grill the mechanic if he’s dumb enough to be around). The three ops guys, after examining your certificates and medical, will read your Miranda or Pilot’s Bill of Rights and solicit statements from you and any witnesses. You’ll need proof of your currency and legality — flight reviews, recency of experience and, when appropriate, endorsements for high-performance, high-altitude, tailwheel and instrument currency. The sixth team member is an aviation safety technician who records statements and fills out forms on her laptop. She isn’t an inspector but (here come the letters) a sort of secretary or paralegal who is somewhat familiar with aviation terms but a whiz with FAA forms and procedures. The personnel will be out of there in plenty of time to reach the FSDO before quitting time but may well return to finish up the next day. So it’s not uncommon for six GS-12s and 13s to spend 16 hours in the field plus heaven knows how much time in the office over a gear-up Mooney, at an average annual salary of $130,000 — and we wonder why our country is in debt!

But here’s the thing. It’s very possible — no, likely — that you didn’t have to report this event to anybody and could have dealt with your insurance company, your mechanic, your ego and your wife instead of being scrutinized by a small army of feds. The key is what NTSB 830 defines as a reportable event.

The NTSB requires immediate notification and reporting of “aviation accidents” and “certain incidents.” I’ve simplified and condensed it as much as possible; it’s important, so suck it up and read on.

An accident happens between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and disembarks in which any person suffers death or serious injury or the aircraft receives substantial damage. (If you're repositioning an airplane, such as taking it back to a hangar after fueling or dropping off passengers, it's not an accident). "Death or serious injury" is self-explanatory. "Substantial damage" is something that "adversely affects the structural strength, performance or flight characteristics of the aircraft and which would normally require major repair or replacement of the affected component. [My note: Damage to the firewall, buckled fuselage skin or evidence of wing spar damage usually means it's substantial.] Engine failure or damage limited to an engine if only one engine fails or is damaged, bent fairings or cowling, dented skin, small punctured holes in the skin or fabric, ground damage to rotor or propeller blades, and damage to landing gear, wheels, tires, flaps, engine accessories, brakes or wingtips are not considered substantial damage for the purpose of this part." (Emphasis added.)

What about those reportable “certain incidents”? For airplanes under 12,500 pounds gross weight, they are flight control system malfunctions or failures, inability of a required flight crew member to perform normal flight duties as a result of injury or illness, failure of structural components of a turbine engine excluding compressor and turbine blades and vanes, inflight fires, inflight collisions, and damage to property other than the aircraft that exceeds $25,000.

I know a lot about how the FAA and the NTSB work, a lot about owning airplanes and more than my share about pranging them. Reading NTSB 830 isn't exactly like reading Fifty Shades of Grey, but resign yourself to what Arlo Guthrie calls "the boring method" and memorize the important parts.

Advice About Unfortunate Aviation Events

  • 1. Try your level best to stay proficient and legal and not have one.
  • 2. If it's clearly within NTSB's definition of accident or reportable incident, do what the law says and notify NTSB through an FSDO or FSS.
  • 3. Make an informed, fact-based decision as to whether what happened can be called an incident. Be aware, however, that the FAA will almost always find out if the event occurs at a towered airport or when cops or a fire department respond.
  • 4. If the FAA does investigate, be honest, but think carefully before you open your mouth. If you're upset, aren't thinking clearly or can't remember details (often the case in traumatic situations), say so — and shut up. Think seriously about getting legal advice before you have any more conversations with the feds.
  • 5. File a NASA ASRS report within 10 days and preferably sooner. This procedure doesn't work — provide immunity — with any accidents or if there are injuries, but it sure helps otherwise.
  • 6. If your event happens in a bean field or at a private or nontowered airport, get the airplane into a barn or hangar, keep your lip zipped and threaten bodily injury to anybody around with a big mouth. (Just kidding — sort of.)
  • 7. Use the following checklist:
  • (a) Notify your mechanic and insurance company (the insurance companies I checked with don't require reporting "nonreportable" aircraft damage to the FAA, but you might confirm this with your own carrier or broker).
  • (b) If you did something dumb, kick yourself in the butt and then utter a prayer of thanks that nobody was hurt.
  • (c) Have a stiff drink.
  • (d) Call your wife (maybe).

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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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