|AVIATION LAW. A recent AVweb editorial discussed the unfortunate case of flight instructor Mike Taylor, in which the FAA ordered the suspension of Taylor's certificates after his student ran out of gas during a solo cross-country flight. In this companion article, AVweb's aviation law editor offers ten tips to help you avoid getting in a similar situation.
August 18, 1997
|About the Author ...
Phillip J. Kolczynski
manages his own law firm in Irvine, California. He has a national practice,
concentrating in aviation, product liability and business litigation in federal
and state courts. Phil teaches evidence, product liability and aviation law at
the Aviation Safety Program, School of Engineering, University Of Southern
California. He chaired the 1990 ABA National Institute on Aviation Litigation in
Washington, D.C., and has spoken nationally at numerous aviation litigation
Prior to moving to California in 1983, he was a trial attorney in the
Aviation Unit, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., and the Litigation
Division, Office of the Chief Counsel, Federal Aviation Administration,
Washington, D.C. Phil graduated from Case Western Reserve School of Law,
Cleveland, Ohio, in December, 1976, and attended college at Marquette
University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1969 where he held a Navy ROTC Full
Scholarship. Before entering law school, he was a Marine Corps Captain and F-4
Phantom Pilot. He is a Commercial Pilot with instrument and multiengine
The key facts of the
Mike Taylor matter reveal
that an injustice has occurred, regardless of the legal technicalities. A
student pilot fails to refuel his private airplane on a cross-country solo
flight and crashes. The student pilot was warned by his instructor to refuel
before embarking on his return leg. The instructor's CFI and other tickets are
suspended for failing to provide adequate airborne VFR navigation training.
Improper VFR navigation training or a lack of it did not cause the crash. The
student simply used poor judgment, failed to refuel and his personal error
caused the crash.
Instructors should not be prosecuted for poor student head work. Could this
happen to any airman, instructor or otherwise? You bet! Let's discuss some ways
to protect yourself, using this case as an example.
What could a pilot, who was honored by the FAA as one of the "Best Flight
Instructors of The Year," have done to better protect his certificates? First of
all, when the airman found out he was being investigated, he should not have
responded to an interrogation by telephone from an FAA FSDO Inspector without
assistance of counsel. The record reveals he hired a lawyer after receiving a
Notice of Proposed Certificate Action. That may have been too late. My
impression is that the instructor's telephone conversations with the Inspector
did not go well and resulted in bad blood. The FSDO investigator's telephone
calls gave the inspector the impression that the CFI had not properly trained
his student. The CFI apparently gave inconsistent information to the inspector
regarding the nature, extent and date of flight instruction provided to the
student pilot. Moreover, the Student Pilot's Logbook entries did not match the
instructor's explanation of instruction given.
I'm not at all suggesting that the instructor falsified entries regarding
instruction. One problem, I suspect, is that he did not provide all of this
substantiation to the FSDO Inspector during the initial investigation. He later
produced proof that he had given adequate instruction. The inspector didn't
believe him. The NTSB Administrative Law Judge sided with the FAA, believed the
FSDO Inspector, and ruled the instructor didn't give enough training. According
to the NTSB's appellate opinion (Order No. EA4509), the ALJ was within his
discretion to believe the FSDO Inspector.
TIP #1. When you find out you are being investigated by the FAA, do
not talk to them until you are fully prepared to show that you did things right.
It may be prudent to consult an attorney at this stage, so that you can have an
aviation lawyer review what you have done and prepare you to put your best foot
forward when responding to questions from the inspector. Prepare for the first
meeting like a final exam. The investigator has already done extensive research.
It's better to spend money early to persuade the FAA not to file a Certificate
Action, then to insist that you are right and then be dragged into a hearing, an
appeal to the NTSB and an appeal to a Circuit Court. Defending yourself against
an FAA Enforcement Action is like performing an instrument approach: if you
start out on speed, on altitude and on glideslope, there is a high likelihood
that you will successfully complete the approach. But if you start out
unprepared, it will be hard to land on the numbers.
TIP #2. If at all possible, have the attorney accompany you when you
are interrogated by the FAA inspector. If a personal meeting is not possible,
have your attorney on the phone with you when you answer the questions. Don't
argue in the meeting. Display a compliance-oriented attitude. Point to the
ambiguities in the regulations. Strive for a consensus on what the facts show.
Offer to provide additional evidence to help satisfy the investigation. Prepare
a memo to the record as to what was discussed. In this case, the FAA Inspector
prepared a memo to the file, the CFI did not. Guess who the Administrative Law
Judge and the NTSB believed?
The initial Notice of Proposed Certificate Action against Instructor Taylor
was only planned to suspend his Certified Flight Instructor's certificate. When
the Administrator's Order was finally issued, after the informal conference, the
FAA was after all of Mr. Taylor's certificates. What happened in
the informal conference? Apparently, the informal conference between the
instructor's lawyer and the FAA went very badly and the FAA decided to escalate
its certificate action against the airman.
TIP #3. As a generalization, I recommend that an informal conference
include both the airman and the airman's aviation lawyer. The exceptions to this
generalization are situations where there is no hope for a settlement, or
circumstances where the airman is so angry or emotionally involved, that counsel
cannot depend on him to avoid making inflammatory statements, or say things
inconsistent with the facts. The inspector from the FSDO or his boss from the
Region will often attend the informal conference along with the FAA lawyer. The
purpose of the conference is to negotiate, not to fight! The airman's
participation can be very important in persuading the FAA to back off; however,
inconsistent statements can be used to impeach the airman in subsequent
proceedings. It is critical to be thoroughly prepared and to deal tactfully with
the prosecutor and his/her "police" inspector who veritably hold your fate in
TIP #4. Don't do informal conferences by telephone. The purpose of an
informal conference is to determine if the case can be settled or the charges
reduced. It is very hard to persuade the FAA by telephone, to drop charges.
Don't forget, they have already completed an investigation, prepared a report
and regional counsel has decided to bring a certificate action.
A National legal newspaper, "Lawyers Weekly USA" recently interviewed 20 of
the top trial lawyers in the country and asked, "Why do you win so often?"
- brilliance, no
- luck, no
- honesty, probably
- preparation, definitely!
TIP #5. Once the FAA made clear they were going after all of Mr.
Taylor's certificates, they had, in fact, declared war against him! I cannot
comment on how well the case was prepared and whether Mr. Taylor's lawyer did a
good job during the hearing. I can recommend that if your certificates are at
stake, you should equip your attorney with sufficient resources to thoroughly
prepare your case. I typically receive calls from airmen who say that they plan
to handle the preliminary dealings with the FAA themselves and only bring in an
attorney "when necessary" to save money. This strategy often proves to be penny
wise and pound foolish. It is essential to allocate sufficient funds to pay for
a thorough legal defense when preparing for a hearing before an Administrative
Law Judge. FAA Regional lawyers routinely conduct such prosecutions and are
skillful at persuading ALJs that the FSDO Inspector's investigation reveals a
violation. The FAA has extensive resources that bring to bear on their case. You
cannot hope to win unless you are willing to spend money to defend your
licenses. When you see an airman like Mr. Taylor having to take an appeal to the
NTSB and then being forced to seek reconsideration of the NTSB's decision and
then take an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, one recognizes how
expensive the process has become for him.
TIP #6. The higher you go in the license penalty appellate process,
the less the reviewing authorities are able to look at the specific facts of
your case. If you have not introduced adequate evidence in the initial hearing
before an Administrative Law Judge to protect your license, don't expect the
National Transportation Safety Board to overrule that Judge's decision. The
Board only reviews the evidence admitted in the hearing. Similarly, when you
appeal the decision of the National Transportation Safety Board, affirming an
ALJ's decision to allow your license to be revoked or suspended, don't expect
the United States Circuit Court of Appeals to review all of the facts of your
case and appreciate that an injustice has been done. The Appellate Court will
affirm the factual findings of the NTSB as long as they are supported by
"substantial evidence" and the ALJ has not "abused" his discretion.
What was wrong with the flight instruction given by Mr. Taylor to the
"student"? The FSDO investigator apparently felt that this instructor did not
give adequate airborne, cross-country instruction to the former Naval Aviator
who was a student, private pilot. The FAA Inspector probably felt that since the
Naval Aviator had received his instruction over 20 years ago and, apparently,
had not seen active flying duty during that entire period of time, that
substantial airborne, cross-country flight training was necessary.
The instructor was relying on the provisions of FAR 61.41, which allow credit
to be given for former military instruction. The CFI had contacted the FSDO
previously to find out if FAR 61.41 applied. He was told that students could
have credit for prior military instruction. The enforcement action FSDO
inspector testified that the instruction was inadequate. How can an airman
establish that he was acting in reliance on the advice of a FSDO inspector when
a second inspector subsequently takes a contradictory position?
TIP #7. If you want a quick answer from an FAA employee about proper
practices and procedures, are confident that the issue will never evolve into a
legal proceeding, feel free to pick up the phone and ask your question.
TIP #8. If you think that your ticket could be jeopardized if the FAA
later disavows the interpretation they provide concerning practices and
procedures, write to the FAA or send them an e-mail and obtain a written
response setting forth your responsibilities under the FARs.
TIP #9. If you have trouble getting a timely written response from a
government agency, arrange a meeting with the FSDO Inspector. Just happen to
bring along a neutral witness who is sufficiently knowledgeable about flying so
that he can understand the responses. Have him or her make a memo of the
meeting. Even if the FAA employee denies the advice given, you will have a
witness to prove what was discussed.
This Rule is designed to require that the FAA give Notice of an intent to
pursue an enforcement action against an airman. In some cases, a late complaint
makes it hard for the airman to mount a meaningful defense. Witness'
recollections grow faint and evidence is hard to locate many months after a
flight violation is alleged to have occurred. The Rule also embodies the
principle that justice delayed is justice denied. The Stale Complaint Rule is a
classic legal technicality.
Because the Stale Complaint Rule is a technicality, the Rule is not always
properly enforced by NTSB Administrative Law Judges or by the Board itself. One
exception not applicable in this case, is where the FAA alleges a lack of
qualification. However, the Stale Complaint Rule itself, provides clues as to
its potential unenforceability. See, 49 C.F.R. 821.33(a)(2). The Rule states
that the Administrative Law Judge of the NTSB shall dismiss stale allegations
- The Administrator can establish good cause for the delay, or
- The Administrator can establish good cause for the imposition of a
sanction notwithstanding the delay.
The FAA may argue that it has two excuses: (i) a good explanation for the
delay; or (ii) good cause to punish the airman even if there was delay.
Apparently, the ALJ bought one or both of the excuses in this case. Surprised?
I'm not. Case law has shown that you cannot completely rely on the Stale
Complaint Rule to get your client off the hook.
FINAL TIP #10. Those of use who primarily practice before federal
courts and state courts of general jurisdiction know that NTSB Administrative
Law "Proceedings" do not provide all of the protections that our clients enjoy
in Court. The rules of procedure and evidence are merely "advisory."
Administrative Law Judges can allow into evidence and exclude what they want.
The first point of appellate review is by a Board, not by an Appellate Judge.
The issues at stake are an airman's "privileges," not constitutional,
legislative and case-law protected rights. The FAA can take away your privileges
(certificates) if you don't follow their rules. Don't forget, they make all the
rules! One conclusion to be drawn from these points is that an FAA Enforcement
Investigation and their Prosecution must be handled with even greater skill,
preparation and caution, than a civil court case to be successful.
NOTE: The issues and recommendations discussed in this
article are based on hypothetical situations and do not constitute legal
advice. My objective is to alert you to some common issues so that you can
avoid or minimize legal trouble. Anyone with an aviation law problem should be
guided by the advice of his or her lawyer, under applicable federal and state
laws, after a full and confidential disclosure of all relevant facts.