Inhofe Incident: Did the FAA Cave?

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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.

Comments (49)

Did the FAA cave? Duh!

Blinded by arrogance or just blind? We'll probably never know. The issue of courtesy and consideration of the safety of others is a valid one (doubt this ever crossed Inhofe's mind). What about the passengers in his plane?

The aviation world is a cross-section of the general population which itself has no shortage of inconsiderate, discourteous, self-centered individuals.

Posted by: JEAN F REAT | February 13, 2011 9:22 AM    Report this comment

Absolutely! Sen. Inhofe's actions were reckless and smack of the attitude, "I am a Senator, and rules don't apply to me." As a senator he also has shown a reckless attitude and is a devout global warming "denier" and a supporter of a constitutional ban to same-sex marriage. In other words, "reckless" all around. The FAA should have thrown the book at this clown.

Posted by: Mark Neeser | February 14, 2011 5:23 AM    Report this comment

Somebody's head is up their (cave) if you can't figure out a good ole boy antic. Anybody else would be eating tadpoles right now for a living. Perhaps the good thing is that this sets a precedence for "our " future screw-ups.

Posted by: Horace Ferguson | February 14, 2011 6:08 AM    Report this comment

Of course they caved in did you expect anything else. Do you think any of us "regular folk" would have received the same treatment if we said we didn't do anything wrong?? Talk about "hazardous attitudes"!!!! Rules don't apply to me.

Posted by: JOHN WACKERMAN | February 14, 2011 6:37 AM    Report this comment

Inhofe is the poster-child for Washington arrogance. There are always some that are "more equal than others".

Posted by: JOHN AUSTIN | February 14, 2011 6:41 AM    Report this comment

If you have Ray LaHood as a buddy, you do own the system.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 14, 2011 7:35 AM    Report this comment

There are some people who should not work in service industries, and, reading between the lines, I guess the manager at the airport is one of those people. (He will not be the only on, many of the worse offenders are ex military used to having lots of brass bird poo on their shoulders.) If the manager refuses to take calls from a pilot, for whatever reason, doubts are raised. It could even be that the work was programmed deliberately on a day the Senator was due to fly in, which may be a mitigating factor and explain the sentence.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | February 14, 2011 7:45 AM    Report this comment

The arrogance is stupefying to me. When I worked in airport ops, if we closed a runway, the Xs were painted big enough for even a septugenarian pilot to see at a far enough range to initiate a go-around.

Paul nailed it when he said Inhofe's "committed to land" argument was BS. Even if he hadn't checked NOTAMS ahead of the flight, the huge Xs *should* have been enough to keep anybody off the runway.

Posted by: Will Alibrandi | February 14, 2011 8:24 AM    Report this comment

I just saved a copy of the FAA letter. If I ever do anything they challenge me on, I'll use the Inhofe defense.

Posted by: GARY BISHOP | February 14, 2011 8:25 AM    Report this comment

In the Seventies the FAA was more like a benevolent grandfather. Counseling and retraining was the norm. It was only after the law-enforcement-helicopter crowd arrived that everything turned into "enforcement actions" for violations.
I think Sen. Inhofe's treatment was appropriate. I hope this is a signal of a return to re-training rather than punishment for those who stray from the FARs.

Posted by: Clifford Haby | February 14, 2011 8:42 AM    Report this comment

I would agree with the above if his attitude had changed with his retraining. The purpose of enforcement action be it in aviation or motor vehicle is to prevent accidents and change driving/flying habits/attitudes. If the lesser action of retraining had changed his attitude I would applaud it. His continued statements show it has not.

Posted by: JOHN WACKERMAN | February 14, 2011 9:24 AM    Report this comment

Paul - A good perspective in your article, as usual. Under normal circumstances not involving a senator, most pilots would be upset at the FAA for a suspension in this type, in lieu of retraining and/or a 709 ride. And, often the retraining and 709 ride is what is done if the miscreant's attitude is good. The difference, here, is (a) the office held, which raises the spectre of favoritism if non-punitive resolutions are allowed in the counsel's office discretion,(b) the attitude of the pilot, as exemplified by stating that he doesn't check notams (!), and (c) the possible vision/proficiency issues that have come to light. I'd think he'd at best be a borderline case for retraining alone.

Posted by: Scott Dyer | February 14, 2011 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Hey, Oklahomans:

In 2014, remember this jerk's attitude about safety and his concern for others.

Posted by: Jack Woodhead | February 14, 2011 9:49 AM    Report this comment

"If I ever do anything they challenge me on, I'll use the Inhofe defense."

Spot on. The arrogant senator just gave all of us an excuse for poor flight planning that is in violation of FARs.

Posted by: Dean Billing | February 14, 2011 10:42 AM    Report this comment

As a professional I take great exception to the notion that "people who fly regularly" never check NOTAMs. I ALWAYS check them. It's not hard now that most flight planning happens online and the NOTAM section is right there on your screen. You cant tell me that this US senator was treated like any pilot. If this was me, I'd likely be looking at certificate action from the FAA. A 180 day suspension of my ticket/livelihood would be devastating to my family. It is correct to deduce that the real culprit here is attitude and judgement. The pilot community can see right through the BS about 'committed' to the approach. The FAA missed an enormous opportunity to publicly demonstrate it's commitment to safety by taking this potentially disastrous event seriously.

Posted by: Tyler West | February 14, 2011 10:49 AM    Report this comment

I might interpret "committed to the approach" as "I was low on gas in my twin and I have no alternate planned". Bad preflight planning snowballed?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | February 14, 2011 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Spot on this time around, Paul. Thanks for the follow-up on this story.

Posted by: Robert Davison | February 14, 2011 11:08 AM    Report this comment

I've worked on closed runways and closed airports. Senators aren't the only ones that do this. With no consequences.

Posted by: BYRON WARD | February 14, 2011 11:34 AM    Report this comment

I commute to work in my Arrow - same places every week and I always check the NOTAMS, etc. prior to departure. I wouldn't want anybody like Inhofe in the airplane w/me and I can only imagine what his students are like.

Posted by: Guy Cole | February 14, 2011 11:47 AM    Report this comment

A flight physical should include at least a perfunctory vision exam. He should be required to pass such a test with a physician in another state. Also any pilot who is so rushed that he can't find the time to check NOTAMs should seriously consider hiring a professional pilot.

Posted by: Richard Van Pelt | February 14, 2011 1:12 PM    Report this comment

Paul wrote, "....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."

So what's the beef? The FAA decided to go with what in does the majority of the time. Paul, et al, might have done differently, but it was not their decision.

The attitude factor is not an official issue. And it is filtered through an intelligent, unbiased local media ?? Anyone here do a direct interview with the Senator?

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 14, 2011 1:37 PM    Report this comment

No direct interview. Good point. But I think the ink-stained wretches got the NOTAMs quote right. He said it in two different interviews.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 14, 2011 2:13 PM    Report this comment

@Mark Neeser "As a senator he also has shown a reckless attitude and is a devout global warming "denier" and a supporter of a constitutional ban to same-sex marriage. In other words, "reckless" all around."

The notion that CAGW skepticism is a marker of recklessness is bogus. There's tons of people, scientists, engineers, etc that are highly skeptical of the claims of Gore, Hansen, et al. To call them reckless is intellectually dishonest at best.

As far as same-sex marriage goes, that's a purely political matter. I'd really hope that people can have disagreements about political issues like that without such name calling.

As to the incident in question, he certainly was reckless. No disagreement there. A better penalty would have involved license suspension until retraining was completed.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | February 14, 2011 2:37 PM    Report this comment

Senator Inhofe's actions were reckless at a minimum, but the punishment reflects the truth of the final "Law" of George Orwell's Animal House - "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Posted by: Leo Breckenridge | February 14, 2011 2:57 PM    Report this comment

Of course the FAA caved. I think Inhofe should have been treated as any other pilot would have been treated. Inhofe committed not only stupidity but also violated the FAA's regulations. Any other pilot would have had the book thrown at him/her. Inhofe's attitude is beyond forgiving: he had three others on board whose lives he held in his hands, plus those of the workers on the runway. He could have been killed and/or so could the others. I hope Inhofe's former student (now an instructor) covered the importance of checking NOTAMs. Inhofe not only needs a lesson in humility; he also needs lessons in common courtesy and in aviation safety.

Posted by: Manuel Erickson | February 14, 2011 5:01 PM    Report this comment

God I hate defending the FAA but in this case they couldn't win no matter what. If they had gone full slam dunk on Inhofe they would have be criticized for being over zealous because he's a Senator. So now that they have done what they did they are being criticized for going to easy on him. No win situation.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | February 14, 2011 5:28 PM    Report this comment

I was as perplexed by a couple of sophomorically and intellectually STUPID statements by, what I would assume were/are pilots, as I was by the Senators' statements. Fortunately Andrew Upson replied before I had a chance to hit the "Submit Comment" button. His response was far more collegial than mine was. Thanks Andrew.

Posted by: Burns Moore | February 14, 2011 6:19 PM    Report this comment

Checking Notams is a pain. At least on Duats or other FAA databases. When you ask for a weather and Notam update prior to a flight, you get information for everything within 1000 miles of your route. Its no wonder some pilots don't bother. The main reason I check Notams is so I don't get a surprise or a FAA sanction. FAA has not always been friendly either, they were so adversarial for a while I sold my plane. Happy to be back flying and hope they stay friendly.

Posted by: Don Senter | February 14, 2011 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Checking Notams is a pain. At least on Duats or other FAA databases. When you ask for a weather and Notam update prior to a flight, you get information for everything within 1000 miles of your route. Its no wonder some pilots don't bother. The main reason I check Notams is so I don't get a surprise or a FAA sanction. FAA has not always been friendly either, they were so adversarial for a while I sold my plane. Happy to be back flying and hope they stay friendly.

Posted by: Don Senter | February 14, 2011 8:16 PM    Report this comment

I want to give the Senator the benefit of the doubt because we all do or say something stupid (some people more than once). My problem lies with the apparent 'the rules don't apply to me' attitude. I wonder what would would be the FAA response if a Presidential TFR would have been affected; hopefully the Senator will have learned his lesson and correct his future performance.

Posted by: Patrick Donovan | February 14, 2011 11:31 PM    Report this comment

I agree with the FAA's response to the incident, although a checkride probably would have been more appropriate. Crucifying people for errors is - I think - counter-productive in an industry where continual learning is required. We've all made mistakes.

What DOES burn me up though, is the guy's attitude. I wish there was a clinical way of testing people for this level of arrogant stupidity, and preventing them from ever setting foot in a plane again.

Posted by: Michael Gordon | February 16, 2011 4:17 AM    Report this comment

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly pilots are ready to throw another pilot under the bus. The FAA has built a hostile relationship, but the pilot community itself seems even worse. There is really very little to go on about what was where, why, and when. As correctly pointed out, there is nothing illegal or even reckless about landing on an occupied closed runway -- and bear in mind this is an 8,000 ft. runway with the crew said to be at one end. Inhofe could have landed nearly a mile from the crew, but we don't know because the precise facts have not been reported. Why? Why was the "work crew" there with no notam? Could that difficult Airport Manager have sent a crew out in an attempt to screw up Inhofe? Why were alternative runways not maintained in usable condition (they are rated "poor"), operations moved to the taxiway, or threshold displaced as is common practice during runway repairs? You just shut down the only runway in good condition? The whole thing smells like a dead fish to me and I'm not buying it. There's more to this story and given that, the benefit of doubt has to go to Inhofe.

Posted by: Bob Newman | February 16, 2011 6:08 AM    Report this comment

Mr Newman said it perfectly. The pilot community has become an intolerant lot - so quick to condemn - We used to all have each others back - knowing it could just as easily be us on the carpet. Look in the mirror, gentlemen, it could be you next time.

Posted by: Clifford Haby | February 16, 2011 7:21 AM    Report this comment

A couple of observations:

Whether the runway closure was NOTAM'ed or not, in the TFR age of pilotage, one is an absolute fool not to check NOTAMS before every flight.

IMHO, a 709 ride would be the minimum requirement to rectify this... if a pilot can't see a runway closure from a one mile final and execute a successful go around in a 340, they have no business flying a high performance aircraft.

I've already squirreled away a copy of the article next to my medical and license as a hope-I-never-need-to-use-it Get out of Jail Free card

Posted by: Lee Slaton | February 16, 2011 9:02 AM    Report this comment

It is absurd to suggest that landing a perfectly healthy airplane on a closed runway with men and equipment working on it is not reckless. Inhoffe does not deserve the benefit of the doubt in this situation when he continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong and that the NOTAM system is archaic and ineffective. It is very hard for me to imagine that an airport manager saw him coming and then rushed a crew with heavy equipment out onto the runway and painted giant yellow X's on it to really get him. There was only one person flying the plane that day. Nobody on the ground made him land on a closed runway. He unapologetically makes us look bad.

Posted by: Tyler West | February 16, 2011 11:18 AM    Report this comment

I think Inhofe was wrong in his actions and attitude. I believe the FAA let him off lightly for the patently obvious reason.

That said, the NOTAM system is very difficult to navigate on any kind of longer flight. The amount of chaff vastly outweighs the amount of wheat, and with all the abbreviations it's sometimes difficult to tell what is the stuff that's going to bite you. So to some degree he has a point, though he doesn't make it very well.

Posted by: JON CARLSON | February 16, 2011 12:04 PM    Report this comment

Inhoffe got off with this stupid and dangerous landing for the same reason that Tim Geithner wasn't penalized for fileing a fradulant tax return.

Rules are for the little people, not for our masters in Washington.

Posted by: Jim Howard | February 16, 2011 12:05 PM    Report this comment

Granted the NOTAM system is archaic. HOWEVER, there a several programs and apps out there (including one on the FAA site) that translate the gobbley gook into plain english on the fly. (pun INTENDED ;-)

And yes, Jon, checking every NOTAM along your route of flight for a long trip is a bit of a pain. I don't normally check all of them myself. But I darn sure check for my intended destination and any alternate.

Posted by: Lee Slaton | February 16, 2011 1:26 PM    Report this comment

Someone with flight simulator skills should post an image of what the yellow 'X's look like on a 3 degree glide slope, 1 mile final, under what light conditions?

How many people have a good impression of what the downward visibility is from the 340 if he overflew the airport? Were there CTAF communications? Was a NOTAM in effect? There seems to be some doubt.

If you're paying for the care and feeding of expensive TIO-520s you might not do a go-around if your vision of the runway on short final suggested a safe landing could easily be accomplished.

None of the critics here were in the cockpit, therefore do not know what the facts are. I'm sure the FAA investigators (my Dad was one) had more conversation with the Senator than any of the local news media where the published quotes of "arrogance" originated. They made the call.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 16, 2011 1:49 PM    Report this comment

If you're paying for the care and feeding of expensive TIO-520s you might not do a go-around if your vision of the runway on short final suggested a safe landing could easily be accomplished.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 16, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

Note, I qualified the care and feeding of the engines relative what might have been (and did prove to be) a safe landing in the judgement of an experienced pilot.

You or I don't know where workers or equipment were relative to where the landing took place. I'm pretty sure the FAA investigators asked that, or, similar questions.

I wouldn't condone the public arrorgance issue either, if I were confident the issue was accurate. Too many times I see quotes repeated amongst the media, and soon they become fact. How many times did we hear the Facebook and Twitter were key elements in the Tunisia event, when it turns out essentially no one (

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 16, 2011 5:24 PM    Report this comment

"...For all we know, the Senator might also have come across as arrogant during their (FAA) interviews, or not. But, as I said, they made the call...."

The sentence above should be edited accordingly. Sorry.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | February 16, 2011 5:28 PM    Report this comment

Well written Paul.

I once flew as instructor for a guy going to take a 709 ride for having done precisely what Inhofe did.

Distracted flying, unprofessional flying from an unprofessional pilot.

And, as most of us expected, the dotgov took care of its own.

Posted by: Richard Sinnott | February 16, 2011 7:22 PM    Report this comment

Incumbents of all stripes get corrupted in a short time and we voters should vote them out. Voter imposed term limits are the wave of the future. Sen. Inhofe has been in the Senate way too long

Posted by: John Dill | February 17, 2011 4:58 AM    Report this comment

I would be much more likely to accept the FAA’s penalty for Sen. Inhofe if I thought for even a second I would be treated the same way in this circumstance. There should have at least been a suspension.

Posted by: Rod Pollard | February 17, 2011 6:57 AM    Report this comment

I hadnt seen it mentioned, but didnt read em all. How about the proper approach entry? No way even a half blind dummy could miss the big X while on downwind. I misght ad that I got a 30 day suspended for a way more minor infraction than his. Average Joe pilot would have gotten much worse punishment.

Posted by: Charles Heathco | February 17, 2011 9:51 AM    Report this comment

By the way, this guy has had several other questionable flying "incidents." It pains me to criticize a Senator who had putatively done a 'lot' for aviation but he thinks his shit doesn't stink. It does.

Posted by: Karl Schneider | February 17, 2011 6:50 PM    Report this comment

I owe a certain debt to Senator Inhofe because his advocacy of the age 65 retirement rule got me back into the pilot's seat. Having said that, his attitude is inexcusable. The term "compliance disposition" often appears in regard to certificate actions. That is, a history of intentional violations is a predictor of future bad behavior. Senator Inhofe not only admits his violation of the "all available information" clause but essentially tells us that he will continue to violate it in the future. If he were not a senator he might well suffer a full revocation for this.

Posted by: B Patton | February 19, 2011 12:52 PM    Report this comment

Except for the political partisans here, who, even if Inhofe had crashed into a school yard full of kids would find no fault with him, the real point is he was out of control, put peoples lives in jeopardy and gets a free pass. If I'd done that I'd be facing suspension--at a minimum. Pleaaase. Not thinking he got a pass has all to do with funding and job security for the senior FAA types.

Posted by: ROBERT M SHERIDAN | February 26, 2011 12:23 AM    Report this comment

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