Inhofe Incident: Did the FAA Cave?
It's never a good day when the first e-mail you open has "I've got a bone to pick with you" in the header. But that's what reader Louis Ridley sent me last week. Why, he asked, had we buried the Sen. James Inhofe story? Actually, we hadn't buried it; it just dropped off the radar and we were remiss in not following up. But here's the story.
To rehash a little, the FAA proposed enforcement action against Inhofe following an October 21, 2010 incident in which he landed a Cessna 340 on a closed runway at Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport in Texas, a runway occupied by a working repair crew. The supervisor of that crew said Inhofe's airplane swished uncomfortably close to the crew, peppered them with debris and left him shaking.
The FAA's subsequent investigation determined that Inhofe was in violation of FARs 91.13(a), careless or reckless operation and 91.103 (a), the preflight/all available information clause. Inhofe said he didn't check NOTAMs before the flight and still maintains that pilots who fly a lot never check NOTAMs. So what did the FAA do about enforcement?
In lieu of a penalty, it required Inhofe to do four hours of ground instruction and three hours of flight instruction, with an emphasis on aeronautical decision making. He did this with one of his former students, something with its own set of problems I'll ignore for the moment. Inhofe presented the FAA with evidence of his training and the case was closed. But did the agency do the right thing or did it give Inhofe a good-old-boy slap on the wrists in deference to his senior senatorship?
That's hard to answer, but my opinion is that the penalty is in line with what the hoi polloi might expect. If it's too lenient, it's by degree. If it were me, I'd have required the Senator to complete a 709 recert ride to determine if he can actually see. (More on that in a moment.) I'd have gone for 30-day suspension, too, just to make the point. I took a look at the FAA database on infractions and penalties and was surprised to find that many are of this nature: A corrective letter, training or a 709 ride in lieu of penalty. In fact, in 2004, the GAO dinged the FAA for ineffective follow-up on the enforcement actions it does pursue.
As far as the actual event itself, it's not unreasonably unsafe to land an airplane on a runway occupied by either another airplane or a construction crew, provided everyone is on the same page and knows what's coming. That wasn't the case here. Having launched without a NOTAMs check, Inhofe just showed up and landed, ignoring the big yellow X and vehicles on the runway. Although I couldn't confirm it, the runway closure wasn't listed in NOTAMs, but that's somewhat immaterial to the issue of attitude, which is what this is really about. Following the incident, Inhofe said he couldn't find out about the runway work on his own because an airport official there "hates me" and wouldn't take his calls. Gee, I wonder why.
But the underlying problem here is Inhofe's expressed attitudes toward what got him into this mess in the first place. He told the Tulsa World that he saw the runway Xs too late to avoid a landing, explaining that at some point, you're committed and you can't safely abort. That excuse may fly with the mainstream press, but any pilot knows it's BS. In a single or twin with operating engines, you can go around at any point and all of us have been trained to do that. The exception is one-way-in-and-out runways, and this wasn't one of those. You can make the flyspeck argument about all-engine go arounds from below Vmc in a twin, but it's perplexing why he didn't or couldn't see the Xs and vehicles further out. Was he not looking or is his eyesight just that poor? That argues for the 709 ride to find out.
In one of several conversations with the Tulsa World, Inhofe said: "Approximately three miles on final approach to Cameron County, they said you are cleared for, that's the words I want to get exact, cleared to approach at Cameron County." Anyone with even fleeting knowledge of air traffic control will see right through this excuse. Cameron Country is a non-towered airport, Inhofe was VFR at the time and terminal or center controllers don't clear VFR airplanes for approaches or landings. Furthermore, you can't expect them to always know about or make you aware of runway closure information. That monkey is on the pilot's back. This kind of everyone-should-know-this stuff can be addressed on 709 rides.
But the real deal breaker here is attitude. The FARs don't have a provision for Intent to Commit Stupidity, but maybe they should. Even after the incident, Inhofe still maintains that most pilots don't check NOTAMS. A survey we did on AVweb reveals that this is wrong. Ten percent of respondents told us they rarely check NOTAMs before a flight, but two thirds of 1060 people who answered our survey said they always or almost always check NOTAMs before each flight. Inhofe said he couldn't commit to do that. Just too busy.
To me, this is a tantamount, at least in principle, to telling the judge who's just nailed you for a DUI that you're not sure you'll give up drinking and driving. It indicated a world class case of don't get it that even a 709 ride can't fix. Furthermore, it tarnishes the entire pilot community, making us all look like a rabble of arrogant, ignorant boobs.
There's one additional issue: Courtesy to your fellow man. When you see reduced speed limits in construction zones that save "give 'em a brake," do you? I do. It's just common courtesy. Same thing applies to workers on a runway. A hurricane salute from your prop wash is just bad manners.
Other than that, this one worked out just perfect.