"Flying Blind, Flying Safe" by Mary Schiavo

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Flying Blind, Flying SafeParts of this book are disturbingly familiar for those who follow the FAA's internal infighting, politicking and intrigue. Mary Schiavo, as the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, tried to dig into the inner workings of the FAA, intrude on the good-old-boy network and root out mutual hand holding between the inspected and the inspectee. Unfortunately, she achieved only a modicum of success and a great deal of frustration. Of all the emotions -- and there are quite a few coming from this book -- Ms. Schiavo's frustration is at the head of the list. While we don't agree with many of her conclusions, the book makes interesting reading and provokes lots of thought.

In the book's analysis of the ValuJet tragedy, the author makes the case that the FAA had to have known that ValuJet was not as safe as other airlines. The inference is clear here: that there was a conflict of interest between the FAA job of oversight and the FAA job of promoting aviation. The FAA wanted ValueJet to survive, but in order to help that along the FAA did not do a good enough job of overseeing and enforcing all the rules.

While ValuJet is a particular case, Ms. Schiavo is also critical of the FAA inspectors, some of whom are not qualified to do their jobs. The main criticism she offers is the FAA's reluctance to do anything about its many shortcomings, some of which she, as Inspector general, brought to their attention. While we all know that any government agency is by definition "political", the FAA seems to have gone over the deep end in this regard.

How safe do we want our airlines to be? A friend who ran a charter service once related a story to me about a customer who asked how safe was the flight he was about to make considering the poor weather he saw outside. My friend replied, "We don't think about how safe, we just decide if the flight can be made safely -- if so we fly the trip, if not we don't go. It is either safe or it isn't."

Do any of us think about the fact that night IFR is not as safe as day VFR? Will you fly IFR in a single engine airplane? At night? We all know that nothing is 100% except taxes and the "D" word. So, how safe should a flight be?

Flying Blind, Flying Safe tells us that the FAA has a formula that gives a value to human life, and using that number decides if the extra cost of extra safety is worth it dollars that need to be spent. For example, if equipping the airline fleet with smoke detectors in their baggage compartments would cost $100 million, but it would only save 10 lives each of which is worth $1 million, then spending the $100 million to save $10 million in lives is not worth doing. This is not acceptable to the author. (Note: The numbers used here are not real numbers, just ones used for explanation purposes).

While equating human lives to a specific dollar amount is upsetting, there must be limits on what we would spend to make flying 100% safe. While we must strive to make flying as safe as possible, we must also realize that it is not without risk, even if that risk is exceptionally small.

Ms. Schiavo is equally damning of the internal FAA politics and normal operating procedures. The administrator job, she charges, is just a glorified flying club. The administrators used the job to get rated in all types of aircraft operated by the FAA, spending time in the cockpit when they should have been spending the time running the Agency. She writes, "I can't remember when I started calling these men the 'Kidney Stone Administrators,' but I do know that it became apparent to me early on that they were tolerated only because everyone at the FAA knew it was merely time before they would pass."

I found the chapters on the ValuJet crash, the FAA, bogus parts and other hard information on how the FAA operated and didn't operate to be interesting and thought-provoking. But when the book descends into aging airplanes, where to sit in commercial airlines to maximize your safety, which carriers have the best/worst accident rate and a final suggestion about which carriers not to fly, it loses credibility. There is more "scare" than facts in this part of the book and it diminishes the important issues brought out in the first part. Without regard for the law of holes which says, "when you are in a hole, stop digging," the book recommends that you carry your own smoke hoods, call the local FAA weather station to get a weather report to decide if you want to fly, avoid flying in thunderstorms and to keep an eye out for ice and snow on the plane's wings; then speak up and point it out to the cabin crew. All of this cheapens the effect and reduces the book to a trite "airline safety" novel.

On the whole, the book has some worthwhile sections notwithstanding the soap opera ramblings at the end. Read the first half, then pass it along to another pilot-friend.