FAA Nominee Quizzed On Aviation Knowledge


President Joe Biden’s pick for FAA Administrator Phil Washington faced a turbulent Senate confirmation hearing that included a Q and A from fellow non-pilot and staunch opponent of his confirmation Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. In what seemed to be an attempt to expose Washington’s lack of relevant experience for the job, Cruz asked Washington about the angle of attack sensors on a Boeing 737 MAX and what the correct response would be to disagreement between two sensors.

Washington made a game of it by replying that “human reaction needs to take over,” but had to fold his cards when Cruz pressed him further, saying that he wasn’t a pilot and couldn’t answer the question. Cruz said that was a “fundamental problem” with his nomination.

Washington was also quizzed on his involvement in a corruption investigation while he was head of the Los Angeles transit system and his lack of experience in aviation beyond his last two years as CEO of Denver International Airport. Democrats were anticipating the rough ride and circled the wagons around Washington, spinning his lack of direct involvement with aviation as a positive, theoretically making him less likely to be aligned or swayed by any of the many interest groups or companies in the industry.

Aside from the partisan hyperbole, a potential sticking point for his nomination concerning his military career was raised. The FAA administrator is, by law, required to be a “civilian” and Washington spent 24 years in the Army. If it’s determined he’s not a civilian he’ll need a waiver from the House and the Senate for the process to continue and the Republican majority in the House is likely to quash the nomination.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. I wouldn’t expect him to know specifics of how to fly a Max, but he should have been asked what he thinks about the legitimacy of the push for a 100LL replacement, and if the hype about the dangers of LL is backed up by credible authority. That, he should know.

    • Bill, The FAA Administrator and staff are way to important to be bothered by pesky G.A. issues. The FAA keep a couple employees in the basement next to the couple of registration folks to deal with that G.A. thingy stuff. Jet-A lobbyist fuel the FAA Admin. Office. ✈️

  2. In my line of reasoning, lack of knowledge in the field of aviation would make a candidate a GREATER risk to be swayed by some of the many interest groups the FAA rules cover.

    • Paul would be excellent but would never pass the criteria for appointment. His fatal flaws are that he uses hard data and facts, he full of common sense that isn’t very common in DC, and he’s a great communicator in plain language.

      • Excellent idea. Paul B. for administrator, and Mike Rowe for President. At the very least, how about filling these positions due to a person’s experience and qualifications, rather than what they look like.

      • Paul as Administrator wouldn’t work–he tends to speak what is really on his mind–instead of the indecipherable doublespeak of Washington.

        Instead, these posts are filled with career government lackey’s (defined: “serville follower” or “a person who is obsequiously willing to obey or serve another person or group of people”.

        Is it any wonder why government is held in so little regard by those it was originally designed to serve?

        It goes back to the old adage–“If you want to get something done, hire a busy man.”

      • I love Paul’s work and his forthright attitude but his fatal flaw is not having experience running a massive organization. There’s more to this job than being able to pass the ppl written.

    • Never happen, that would be far to sensible. Besides, I think Paul would be way too smart to let himself get sucked into that vortex.

  3. So a non-pilot asks a non-pilot a pilot question and deems him unfit for the job when he can’t answer? I’m not going to say being a pilot can’t be helpful, but shouldn’t there be at least someone who IS a pilot asking him questions during the confirmation hearings? Same thing for education, energy, transportation, etc; there should always be at least one person who has direct knowledge of the subject involved in all confirmation hearings.

  4. Ever since Langhorne Bond, I have always felt that the FAA director should have relevant expertise in the aviation field.Unfortunately so many political appointments are based on cronyism and not qualifications. Good to hear the potential appointee’s feet are being held to the fire. Another case in point, the Transportation Secretary.

  5. Why is there no “quiz” for the highest office in the land, or event the second? Shouldn’t that be the biggest quiz of all? All other top jobs require a certification, license or something!

    • That’s what campaigns and debates are for. Appointees unilaterally nominated by the occupant of the highest office have no such exposure to the voting public, only exposure to scrutiny by elected representatives of the voting public. Nominees for the various positions are in line for authority delegated by the occupant holding the highest office, hopefully to administer their department from a place of more specific knowledge in these fields than would be expected from the person in the highest office. The nomination process attempts to give the nation something better than a simple rubber-stamp approval of an unqualified nominee whose sole purpose is to promote a specific political agenda.

      If a certificate or license granted by the bureaucracy is a prerequisite to “serving the people”, that illustrates the problem and not the solution.

  6. There are few qualifications to be president of the United States so why should there be any qualifications for someone that works for the president?

    • Reference the qualifications’ thing for president, how’s that working out for the country for the last two and a half years?

    • William Buckley famously said in 1965 that he “would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Boston telephone book than by the Harvard faculty”. Spot on. Well, Boston might not be the best choice of cities.

  7. Expertise isn’t always a good indicator either, witness some of the technocrats whose performance turned out to be less than stellar. To a large extent these appointments are always a crapshoot.

  8. It’s been a year since the FAA has had a confirmed administrator, and Washington’s nomination has dragged on for eight months. Has ANYBODY noticed this? We’ve gotten along fine WITHOUT a head of the FAA.

    It should give people pause to ask “WHY do we have this useless position and associated bureaucracy?”

    • Here is the question, look at the qualifications of the current acting FAA head administrator who seems highly qualified specifically and over all, and ask why is Washington even being considered. The answer is that unlike the current acting director, he checks all the Biden Admin boxes that have nothing to do with actual job qualifications.

    • Actually, yes. The entire industry has noticed the lack of progress within the agency as the acting administrator works through his acting leadership structure to manage the agency, ineffectively. A year of ineffective decision making and stalled progress, leadership turnover, and historically low experience levels. What could go wrong?

  9. I admit, I’m of two minds here.
    I’ve seen projects saved by skillful people management without much knowlege of the specifics of how to reach the goal.

    On the other hand, understanding the goal is another matter. My concern here is that he doesn’t understaand the first principles of what the job entails, and might be antagonistic to them.

  10. Agree re: the nominee’s ability toboth lead and manage complex organizations. Your second paragraph is unhelpful.

  11. An FAA administrator must be able to “see around the corners” and sense when something is going wrong. This pattern recognition capability is only available to people who have experience in a field. Every week there is a new report of a runway intrusion and other situations that could have resulted in disasters. If you listen to the Biden administration, they tout the race and gender identity of the people they hire. I would much rather them promote the deep experience their nominees have in the field which they will administer.

  12. Agree, Raf. If you owned the FAA and needed a new CEO, would you pick someone who ran the Olympics or someone who is a former airline pilot with management expertise?

  13. Hi all,
    I posted this on another article, when acting admin Mr Billy Nolen testified in congress recently. They already have the perfect fit. I saw Mr Nolen at airventure
    last yr., he spoke at the annual meet the administrator at theatre in the woods.
    American airlines B757/767 rated, served in safety positions american, qantas,
    and FAA. Very knowledgeable, articulate, well spoken. adsb, mosaic, okc delays at aircraft airman and cert branch. WHY are they not making him perm faa administer?

    retired usaf and faa atc here .38 yrs. Weve had some doozies as faa administers.
    Mr Nolen moved up the ranks, knows the nuts and bolts. He’s the real deal.
    l nominate Mr Billy Nolen to be permanent FAA administer.

    michael r.

  14. It’s not clear what qualifications Mr. Washington would bring to the position. Having some relevant piloting experience would surely help understand aviation issues. Mr. Nolen has handled the job well so far and seemingly would be a good candidate for the appointment.

  15. There many text messages flying around from my fellow pilots aghast at Mr. Washington’s lack of aviation knowledge. The primary reason for knowledge and experience is it creates a fine tuned BS filter. It’s critical that an administrator has a good BS filter. Without a BS filter, all kinds of mayhems can occur.

      • If Pancho Villa was up for FAA administrator, I don’t think I’d back him. And knowing how things are, I might get called out for being racist even though we’re both the same ethnicity.

  16. While detailed oriented questions might not always be a fair litmus test for a strategic level leadership role, the fact that he lacks ANY knowledge about aviation is concerning. There must be other more qualified options to nominate to head the FAA.

  17. Not surprising at all. I would’ve been shocked if they chose someone highly qualified and informed. I think it’s arrogant to apply for a job that you’re not qualified for.

  18. Lets Call a Club a club the fact that he checks the skin color box is the real reason he was chosen my best friend a Black retired controller from Burbank tower would have been a great choice if skin color and aviation system knowledge was the only requirement but CEO type experience is required too I would of put a student pilot in front of him to ask questions, this would of punctuated the problem. with all the near mid-air and ground incursion deals its obvious people in the transportation industry are being chosen for reasons other than qualifications it is a clear and present danger to all of the pilots counting on Ground people to be competent, Very Dangerous in this “Brave new world”