Unusual Attitudes: An FAA Inspector's Winding Career Path

From accident prevention specialist to safety program manager — and when she decided to hang it up.

Piper Tri-Pacer
Piper Tri-PacerWikimedia Commons/Cory W. Watts

After my purgatory in West Chicago and three mostly great years in the Indianapolis FSDO, the FAA offered a transfer to Cincinnati. It was a bittersweet decision, and my boss, Jay Peterson, rather obliquely suggested I might want to stay put. He understood I was anxious to get back home, but he also knew the Cincinnati manager’s reputation for being a hard ass. Jay was a good man and an excellent supervisor, and he was genuinely concerned about me and “Capt. Queeg.”

Maybe he was right — I liked Indianapolis, and it liked me. But it had been a long struggle to get home, and I hoped it was because the Cincinnati manager wanted me; in my heart I knew the decision had likely come from the regional office. They needed to fill the accident prevention specialist (APS) slot at Cincinnati and probably figured I wouldn’t be too much trouble there (which, of course, I would prove wrong). The APS job wasn’t seen as an upwardly mobile career path — certainly not the road to supervisory and managerial positions in the agency. In truth it had become a place to park inspectors who were slackers, troublemakers, without medicals, old or just plain incompetent but who couldn’t be fired because … well, c’mon, this was the government.

The program had its roots with a wonderful guy named Pete Campbell, a World War II B-24 veteran who joined the agency in the early 1960s. Working at the FAA Center in Oklahoma City, he was concerned with the dismal safety record of flight instructors and formed teams of FAA flight and ground instructors who created and conducted those “flight instructor refresher” courses still in place today. In Pete’s first seven years his team conducted more than 200 courses with more than 16,000 CFIs trained, and the accident rate was cut by an amazing 50 percent. In 1971 he organized and became director of the FAA’s Accident Prevention Program, which placed specialists in each of the nation’s 85 general aviation district offices — now FSDOs.

I saw him in action only once or twice but learned valuable lessons, like how you don’t need to wear polyester pantsuits and speak importantly from a podium, addressing a bunch of pilots or mechanics with a formal speech. It’s far more effective and valuable to talk simply and from your heart, tell stories and encourage a two-way dialogue. I always envied Pete with his rich, smooth and slow Tennessee accent.

The upside of an APS job was it allowed the specialist to plan and run his own program, but, by my time, far too many were doing far too little. The downside was the position was capped at the GS-13 level, but, heck, when I ended up as a GS-13 step 10, you taxpayers were paying me an annual salary well over $100,000. The job title had been changed to safety program manager (SPM), which sounded grander, but the work and the pay were the same.

I poured myself into it, and, OK, part of this frantic activity — lots of seminars and lots of check rides — was to avoid the office as much as possible. Part was because I truly enjoyed the work. I’d go in “for free” on Saturdays and Sundays to knock out the paperwork, and it wasn’t long before there were phone calls from my counterparts in the Columbus and Cleveland offices who were ticked off, convinced I was trying to put them in a bad light. I’m simply genetically incapable of sitting in an office or cubicle, trying to look busy.

Although — maybe because — the programs and I were popular, the guy who would be my boss for 13 years was not happy about his lack of control over a lady he saw as a loose cannon. He’d threaten to take over the planning of my programs, refused the government’s authorized rate for use of personal aircraft (so I flew for 11 cents per mile), issued verbal and formal letters of reprimand when I wore jeans to hangar meetings and DC-3 check rides, and actually made daily “Martha reports” to the regional office. I couldn’t work flex time, but I had to submit multiple leave and comp-time requests each time I had an evening seminar. It was a nightmare.

One truly comical aspect of the safety program was a short-lived mandate to conduct Pilot and Aircraft Courtesy Evaluation (PACE) programs.

We did two PACEs — one at Johnny Lane’s Lebanon Warren County Airport where he coerced a few flying farmers into showing up.

The airworthiness contingent managed to ground four of the five airplanes and a rather ample lady inspector inserted herself, albeit reluctantly, into the lone survivor — a Piper Tri-Pacer. Even though it was a cold day, the engine fired right off, but then the airplane sat there for a while and abruptly shut down.

“This oil pressure is nearly at red line,” righteously declared the inspector.

“Well, yeah, that’s because the oil’s cold. If you give it a few minutes to warm up, the temp gauge will start to move and the pressure will drop. They all do that when it’s this cold.”

With no little difficulty she uninserted herself from the Tri-Pacer, climbed into the G-car, announced that all the airplanes should be grounded, and headed back to Cincinnati. I talked to John, a safety program counselor and IA, and climbed in. Within a few minutes everything was in the green, so we went aviating, and I signed the pilot’s PACE certificate.

No surprise to find another reprimand letter in my growing file. The lady inspector, who later became the office manager in Atlanta, complained that I’d undermined her authority. Damned right, I had!

We tried one more at the Lunken FSDO with free hot dogs and pop, but only a swarm of honeybees showed up.

Toward the end of my 28-year stint with the FAA, somebody decided the program needed an overhaul. I knew that would end face-to-face contact between local pilots, mechanics and inspectors at meetings.

But I wasn’t quite ready to give up, so I presented myself at the Chicago regional office one wintry January morning. At a large rectangular table a rather grim, dour team of managers interviewed me for the Ohio position. I was snotty but enthusiastic because our program in the southern part of the state had been successful. But enthusiasm didn’t cut it, and it became clear that I wasn’t what the FAA had in mind. When I considered returning to operations work — reviewing manuals, conducting inspections, processing violations and handling waiver requests — I thought, no, it was time to hang it up.