FSDO Folly

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FAA officials harassed a Missouri pilot for no good reason, causing stress that was cited by the NTSB as a factor in a fatal accident, and then failed to properly investigate charges related to the crash, DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported this week. The report, undertaken at the request of Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, cites "evident bias and deficiencies in FAA's investigation" following the December 1999 crash that killed Joe Brinell, former College of the Ozarks director of aviation, and five others. The Cessna CitationJet hit a hillside about four miles from the runway when it descended below the minimum altitude on a GPS approach into M. Graham Clark Airport at Point Lookout, Mo. "The IG's findings underscore what we've long believed," Blunt said in a news release Monday. "The FAA apparently harassed Joe Brinell ... [and] to make matters worse, either by negligence or in a coverup, FAA inspectors abused their regulatory authority."

...Then, FAA's Investigation "Gave Rise To The Perception Of Bias"...

The NTSB's June 2001 report concluded that the crash resulted from pilot error under adverse weather conditions; however, it also cited in its investigative findings "pressure induced by others -- FAA inspector." Brinell's widow asked for an investigation into the FAA's treatment of her husband. While the FAA cleared itself in an internal probe, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) ultimately launched its own investigation and found fault with the agency. The internal FAA investigation concluded that while at least some of the Kansas City FSDO's actions concerning Brinell were not warranted, the FDSO was "not remiss in its oversight responsibilities or abusive in exercising its empowerment ... and the actions taken by the FSDO [Supervisor] were appropriate." Not satisfied with this report, Blunt requested the investigation by the Office of Inspector General. The OIG found "an evident lack of objectivity and an underlying bias in favor of FSDO personnel -- against whom the allegations were made -- thereby compromising the integrity of FAA's investigation." The OIG then undertook its own investigation of the original charges against the FSDO -- that staffers had harassed Brinell unfairly, thereby subjecting him to stress that may have contributed to the accident. "In reviewing [the FSDO's] actions," the OIG report says, "we found that they were unwarranted and the FSDO's justification lacked credibility."

...And OIG Recommends FAA Should Take Action Against Staffers

"This is the third investigation we have completed over the last three years involving fatal general aviation accidents and alleged improprieties on the part of FSDOs," says the OIG report. "In the two prior cases, we found that FSDO personnel were remiss in carrying out their regulatory duties. Our findings in this investigation are consistent with those of the previous two cases." The DOT report recommends that the FAA should exercise disciplinary and administrative action against the supervisor and inspector in the Kansas City office, including demoting the supervisor. The report also says the FAA must institute policies and procedures for inspections of license holders. Also, the FAA should inform Grace Brinell (Joe Brinell's widow) and Rep. Blunt of actions taken in response to these recommendations. With a bit of hopefulness, Mead concludes: "We note that FAA's Regulation and Certification program, including the Flight Standards directorate, is under new leadership and we are encouraged by their responsiveness and expressed willingness to take appropriate action in this matter." Blunt also offered some optimism: "The good news in all of this is that we finally have the truth," he said. "And the FAA can get started, under new leadership, implementing standards for conducting investigations of this type. Situations like this one should never become more tragic as a result of a government agency's negligence or apathy."

NOTE: Read the report on the crash at the NTSB Web site. Read the complete text of the nine-page Office of Inspector General report, in PDF format.