Eye of Experience #45:
Those Nitpicking Feds

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Many people who work in the FAA are dedicated t aviation and to ensuring the safest, most efficient airspace system in the world. According to AVweb's Howard Fried, others in the agency, for whatever reasons, seem more interested in nitpicking various things that can trip up the unwary pilot or aircraft owner than making a meaningful contribution. Howard tells all.

Eye Of ExperienceI've said before and I'll say again, the folks in ATC (air traffic control) are, on the whole, the greatest public servants in the history of the human race. However, the Flight Standards division of the FAA is an entirely different story. The vast majority of people in Flight Standards are typical bureaucrats, shuffling paper and doing as little actual work as possible while putting in time waiting until they can retire and draw their pensions. Then there is a fairly large minority who, like some law-enforcement officers who abuse their authority, mercilessly harass the airmen (and women) they are supposed to help. These power-mad individuals are the real problem, and unfortunately they are reinforced and backed up by the management of the system in which they work.

Finally there is a tiny minority of Flight Standards Inspectors (Aviation Safety Inspector is the actual title ASI) who are truly dedicated public servants and who go the extra mile to help the folks they are supervising. I have been very fortunate in having had two of these fine people assigned to my operation as the Principal Inspectors supervising my operations, so I know that this type does indeed exist.

Ignorance

I'm not referring here to those who, through ignorance, cause problems, although this happens much more frequently than necessary. Examples of this include the inspector who, on seeing airplanes with certified Hartzell "Q-tip" props, grounded the airplanes "because they had bent props." Although the FAA is characteristically incapable of admitting that any of its employees can make a mistake, this one example was so blatant that even the FAA couldn't cover it up and sweep it under the rug. The inspector involved was sent back for more training.

I had a personal experience with mistakes resulting from ignorance when, several years ago, I had permitted my CFI Certificate to lapse so that instead of renewal I was required to seek reinstatement. The local FSDO Office Manager told me that I had to take both CFI written (now called Knowledge) exams again, although I knew this wasn't required. Sure enough, though I passed both tests with scores in the high 90s, the Airman Certification Branch advised the local FSDO that it was not necessary for me to have taken these tests and the results had been discarded.

The next step in this farce occurred when I went in for the check ride. I took in an Ercoupe, an airplane that is characteristically incapable of spinning. The Ops Inspector who was assigned to administer the flight check looked up and said, "I see you brought me an Ercoupe. What are you going to do when I call for the spins?"

I replied, "I don't have to do spins. I've already demonstrated them." He had on his desk a several inch-thick pile of records that I had brought in, including military records showing loops, rolls, half-rolls, spins, etc., as well as my recently expired CFI Certificate. Even so, he pulled out his Inspector's Manual and read me where it says, a CFI applicant must do spins on the flight check, or have an endorsement stating that he has received instruction in "spin entries and recoveries left and right." He said, "I don't see such an endorsement, so we can't do the ride."

My response was "To whom do I appeal?" Just then his boss, the Unit Chief (now called the Operations Manager) came walking by the cubicle where we were sitting and the inspector called him in. I sat there like a bump on a log, not saying a word while the inspector explained the situation. His boss looked at him like he was crazy and ordered, "Give the man his ride!" Of course, I had made an enemy for life by proving the inspector wrong in front of his boss. I later learned that that particular inspector consistently sought excuses to avoid flying, so perhaps it wasn't ignorance that caused him to attempt to turn me down for the ride that day.

The Cargo Net And The Cigarette Lighter

Every airplane has an equipment list which is issued with the airplane when it leaves the factory This document simply lists all the stuff added to the basic airplane such as instruments, avionics, etc. and the regulations say that if it (whatever "it" is) is on the equipment list it must be in or on the airplane and in working order, or certain procedures must be complied with. This regulation was written primarily for aircraft involved in commercial operations (FAR Parts 135 and Part 121), but that hasn't prevented overzealous inspectors to vigorously apply it to basic Part 91 operations.

Back when I was foolish enough to become a light single-engine aircraft dealer for Cessna as well as a Cessna Pilot Center for training, we were forced by our contract to buy four light single-engine airplanes a year, at least one of which had to be a 172 Skyhawk. Cessna made their profit when they sold the airplane to the dealer and they didn't care if he ate it. We usually bought two 150s and two Skyhawks. In each of these new airplanes would be a cellophane envelope about ten inches square containing a nice string net made from 1/8-inch-diamter white cord. On the equipment list would be an item showing "1 Cargo Net." We were certainly not alone in throwing this envelope containing the net unopened into a bin in the loft in the hangar. All the Cessna dealers and schools I know did the same thing.

The regulations state, however, that if an item is on the equipment list, it must be in or on the airplane or a specific procedure must be followed. It would have been a simple matter to remove the cargo net from the equipment list, but who is going to do that? Sure enough, a nitpicking FAA inspector violated a fellow school operator for not having a cargo net aboard the aircraft in his fleet although the equipment list showed each aircraft to have one. This, of course, rendered the airplanes "unairworthy" in the eyes of the FAA! You can be sure I had that item removed from the equipment lists of all our school airplanes (about a dozen at that time) before it should become my turn to suffer a violation.

Even worse is the case of the airplane owner who was violated by the Friendly Feds because the equipment list in his airplane listed a cigarette lighter, and although the receptacle was in the panel, the lighter element was not, thus rendering the airplane unairworthy. (The airplane owner was using the receptacle to power some other kind of portable electric equipment.) This seems to me to be the very ultimate in nitpicking but there are no doubt others equally as bad.

These examples are similar to the major air carrier that suffered a substantial civil penalty (fine of many thousands of dollars) for operating an unairworthy airplane because the on/off light on the coffee maker in the galley at the cabin attendant's station wasn't working. Please understand, the coffee maker worked quite well but the indicator light was inoperative and the airplane was deemed to be unairworthy by the FAA. How's that for nitpicking?

Example Of A Reasonable Man

The day after she acquired her Private Pilot Certificate, one of our students rented an airplane from us and took a girlfriend to fly some 65 miles away for lunch. They were in an airplane that was on our line but which we didn't own. Instead, a private owner, a doctor on the staff of a local hospital, leased it to us. He had bought the airplane new from a dealer on the field and leased it to them for a few months. Deciding that he would be better off if the airplane was on our line, he had moved it over to my school. During the six months or so of its lifetime, the airplane had gone through three or four 100-hour inspections. I foolishly assumed that everything was in order since it had been on the line at a reputable flight school. Boy! Was I mistaken. I already knew it was foolish to make assumptions, but I did it anyway.

When the newly minted pilot and her friend arrived at the distant airport where they were to have a pleasant lunch at the restaurant on the field, they disembarked and walked across the ramp to the terminal where the restaurant is located and they were met at the door by an FAA inspector from our District Office who was there to conduct ramp checks. Although by no means a close friend, I knew this guy quite well. The following conversation then occurred between the inspector and our new pilot:

FAA Inspector (after identifying himself): "Did you just arrive in that airplane over there?"

New pilot (proudly): "I sure did."

Inspector: "May I see your Pilot Certificate and Medical Certificate?"

New Pilot: "You most certainly may," (and she hands them over).

Inspector: "I see that you just got this pilot certificate yesterday and that Howard gave you your flight test."

New Pilot: "That's right."

Inspector: "I suppose the airplane paperwork is all in order?"

New Pilot (without really knowing): "Of course it is. Come on, I'll show you." (Rookie mistake. Never volunteer anything, especially to the FAA. If she had just kept quiet, he would have been satisfied and not gone out to look in the airplane.)

They then went out to check the paperwork in the airplane. Guess what?! Everything was in order except the Aircraft Registration. Prominently displayed in the pouch on the side wall in front of the left front seat was a temporary registration slip that had expired several months previously.

The three of them then adjourned to the terminal where they called me.

I instantly knew what had happened I'd seen this before. The good doctor (airplane owner) had received the permanent (and valid) registration in the mail and dropped it in a desk drawer at home, promptly forgetting all about it. I explained to the FAA Inspector that this was no doubt what had happened and he agreed that it was the most likely scenario. Since this happened before my troubles with the FAA, and since he was a reasonable person, he said, "Howard, I'm through here now. I'm now going to walk out that door to the parking lot, get in the G-car and go home. Do you understand what I'm saying?" I replied, "I certainly do, Bill. Now I'll tell you what I'm going to do. While those two young ladies go into the restaurant and have lunch, I'll be flying down there in another airplane to bring them back. I'll call the owner of the one in which they flew and when he shows up with the permanent registration certificate, two of us will fly over there and retrieve his airplane. Until then it can just sit there." (What kind of example would it have been had I accepted his kind offer? And what if something had happened while those two ladies were flying the airplane back with an expired temporary registration certificate?)

A couple of days later the owner brought in his permanent registration certificate which had sure enough been laying in a drawer at his home and we retrieved his airplane, all this at his expense. Not only had he learned a lesson, but I had as well in my case it was to reinforce the old adage, "never assume anything."

I really cannot understand how it could happen to a nice, reasonable guy who had extended that offer to me since he was (and is) working for an agency that consistently promotes the really bad guys, but this reasonable inspector has been promoted three times since then and is now the Office Manager in a large FSDO in another FAA region. Perhaps there is some measure of justice after all.

Making Up Rules

Besides mistakes in interpretation and picking flyspecks out of the pepper, there are some vicious inspectors who, with an agenda of their own, make up regulations as they go along. An excellent example of this is the inspector who told Mike Taylor, "Safety is not my concern. That's the job of the National Transportation Safety Board. My job is to find violations, and I intend to do just that!" (This from a man whose job title is "Aviation Safety Inspector.") This evil person then made up a regulation to fit the situation so that he could violate Mike. The really sad thing is the fact that the agency then closed ranks and backed him up! This started a seven-year battle that is still raging.

If a given inspector really wants to get an airman, he will reinterpret an existing regulation or make one up to fit the situation. That's what happened (among other things) in my own case when an inspector decided to strip me of my DPE after 17 years of being a faithful representative of the administrator. This vicious inspector told another operator, "I'm going to get Fried!" (That's a direct quote, and I have an affidavit from the operator to whom he said it.)

Mechanics

My treatment of the subject "Those Nitpicking Feds" has had its emphasis on pilots, but they aren't by any means the only ones subject to that kind of foolishness. This morning I was talking with a man who runs a maintenance shop and he told me he was required by a FSDO Inspector to get a ferry permit to fly a brand-new Cessna 172 30 miles to his facility from the field where it is based because one of the numerous Camloc cowl fasteners wouldn't seat properly a prime example of real nitpicking.

This man, who holds an Airframe and Powerplant Certificate with Inspection Authority, also told me of a flight school operator for whom he does the maintenance, who got violated because a Cessna 172 was missing a static wick, a device not required on the CE-172. Of course, if it was on the equipment list, it had to be there or the airplane would be deemed to be unairworthy.

That one reminds me of something that happened to me. As an example of the viciousness of some of these inspectors, I had a Seneca II based in a distant state for a specific project. When the FAA is out to get you, they mean business. They sent an inspector not only out of his district, but out of his region with specific instructions to ground my airplane. It was parked on the ramp in front of the FBO where it was temporarily based. In response to the inspector's demand as to which airplane was mine, the lineman pointed it out to him, and after crawling all over it, he issued a condition report and tagged the airplane because he found a static wick off which a couple of inches had been broken. Right next to where my airplane was parked sat a tired old BE-18 (Twin Beech) with pieces of the cowl hanging loose and oil dripping onto the ramp, but this obvious old wreck was not bothered.

Words

More than any other bureaucracy of which I am aware, the FAA is in love with words. Although not necessarily written by lawyers, the regulations are expressed in legalese, no doubt in an attempt to make them crystal clear, but doing so has had the opposite effect of leaving open the rules to a variety of interpretations. However, it is not only in the FARs that the FAA's love affair with words is apparent. I have lived to see the Artificial Horizon go through several name changes until it has become the Attitude Gyro or the Attitude Indicator, while the Turn and Bank, Needle and Ball, Slip/Skid Indicator and while the Gyroscopic Compass went through several changes indlucing Directional Gyro before finally becoming the Heading Indicator. This must thoroughly confuse the student as he or she goes through the literature studying the material for the Knowledge Test (which used to be called the Written Test).

Job titles within the agency have also undergone a series of changes. Inspectors in Flight Standards are all Aviation Safety Inspectors or ASIs but the Maintenance Inspectors are now Airworthiness Inspectors, and the first-line bosses who used to be Unit Chiefs are now Managers. The Accident Prevention Specialists or APSs became Accident Prevention Program Managers or APPMs, and finally Safety Program Managers or SPAMs.

And flight instructor endorsements, probably in attempt to defend against potential lawsuits, have become much more specific. In the old days it was sufficient to make an entry in the student's logbook, "Okay to solo" but now you must say where, when and in what kind of airplane and with what weather minima. We used to enter, "Okay for X-C" (a blanket endorsement for student cross-country), but now we must describe the planning and preparation, as well as the date for the cross-country flight, the weather conditions under which the flight may be made, the destination and stops along the way for each specific flight. My goodness, how they are complicating our lives!

This column was written prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but the illogical, unreasonable, knee-jerk reaction of the government is a prime example of my point. I suppose I could go on forever, citing examples of stupidity, ignorance, and nitpicking, but I'm sure you've got the idea and I'm out of space for this time.

Note: My new book, More Eye of Experience, is finally out. The prepublication orders have been filled and shipped and the book is now available online in AVweb's shopping area.

Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.