Who Needs A Certificate Anyway?

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From the curious headline file: Crash Pilot Had Certificate Revoked. We published that last week atop a story describing the fatal crash of a Cessna 335 in which it was revealed that the owner/pilot had apparently been flying without a pilot certificate for 21 years, having lost it by revocation.

A curious headline generated an equally curious response and became, if not a morality test, an ignition point on the value—or lack thereof—of government regulation. Asked one reader, “Did his lack of a certificate cause the crash?” The question goes to the heart of why the story ran in the first place. The lack of a certificate was the news hook. Otherwise, it’s just another fatal airplane crash and we don’t routinely run those unless there’s something spectacular about them, such as multiple fatalities or damage or injuries on the ground. Whether to run a crash story or not is sometimes an arbitrary decision that’s reached more by feel than formula.

But for this discussion, that’s secondary to what the lack of certificate had to do with the crash. The answer is: nothing. A slip of plastic simply isn’t determinative in whether an airplane flies, crashes or remains parked. But what’s behind the certificate certainly may be. That begets a question for those rugged individualists who believe the government ought to butt out of everything. Should anybody be able to buy an airplane, learn to fly it wherever he or she pleases sans any government licensing? Or even any insurance? Or approved instruction?

Or is there a reasonable public interest to be found in government oversight of training and licensing? Logically extended, how about certification of airplanes not used for commercial purposes? Should any company be able to sell anything it wants to the unsuspecting public, with caveat emptor the only restraint? These are not easy questions to answer because there’s no reliable data measuring the effectiveness of pilot certification, leading one commenter to inanely—but accurately—observe that far more pilots with certificates crash than those without. Other than that, Captain Smith, how was your maiden Atlantic crossing?

My own deep dive into this quicksand revealed more questions than answers. My research into the light sport aircraft accident pattern revealed that it’s between four and five times higher than GA on the whole. And while light sport is generally less regulated than the rest of general aviation, there are far too many unknown variables to conclude that FAA oversight impacts safety in any meaningful way.

Airports aren’t just places with runways and hangars. They’re also gossip mills. Most of us know people on the field who may skirt the requirement for a medical or perhaps even a certificate. I knew of one pilot who flew regularly and hadn’t had a medical in 20 years. You might expect the insurance industry to close the holes in this net, but there’s no requirement for aircraft insurance and some owners happily self insure. As a condition of hangarage, some airports require proof of insurance, but far from all do.

The FAA, thankfully, lacks the resources to conduct a dragnet of pilot scofflaws and I think we can all agree the impact on safety would probably be nil if they did. So as much as we all like to whine about the onerous boot of the FAA on our necks, the reality is that you have to almost work at getting busted. The enforcement net is wispy at best.

And if we’re honest here, we all have to concede that regulations are rubbery in the margins. If you’ve never busted the 2000-foot VFR cloud requirement, taken off a little over gross or flown an approach just a tad out of legal currency, post your affidavit below and I’ll put you in for a Meritorious Compliance Certificate.

Still, even if we nibble at the margins, most of us have a threshold beyond which we’re simply not going to venture. Flying without a certificate would be far beyond my personal pale and so would flying without a medical where one is required, even though I know the medical requirement is demonstrably silly.

It relates to attitude and consciousness of competence. If I think I don’t need a certificate and reject the medical and insurance if I can get away with it, then it’s a short step to thinking recurrent training and proficiency and an annual for the airplane are just for the chumps who believe that this rules crap has anything to do with risk mitigation. And once I have reached that point, I’m well on the way to being what I always hoped I wouldn’t be: a menace.

Comments (19)

I could see a world where there's an AMOC with certificate and medical requirements run by insurance companies. Either you keep doing things the old fashioned way with the FAA, or you pass an alternate training/testing regime that's run by a consortium of the insurance companies.

Plain English reg: "If an insurance company is willing to write you a smooth million policy based on their alternate training and medical testing requirements, if any, then you are exempt from compliance with any FAA rules on training, medical, and currency."

In all honesty, I imagine the insurance companies requirements for training and currency in this world wouldn't be much less than the FAA's rules. Maybe they'd be more rational with medical.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | September 20, 2018 10:59 AM    Report this comment

What the FAA does is provide a framework from which our industry can establish standards. Imagine if you could fly without certificates, insurance, or recurrent training. It would be chaos especially on the accident side. Who would investigate any accident with the hope of finding out the cause so future accidents could be avoided when each investigation would need to start from zero in determining the pilot's status and training, the aircraft's status as to maintenance or alterations...for that matter would it make any difference if you altered an aircraft ....there wouldn't be any repercussions.

I grouse about the FAA but I prefer that to the Wild Wild West of no FAA. Forget insurance companies providing alternative operating standards. That is an invitation to rob my bank account.

I am speculating here but I think there may be a link to the personality of individuals attracted into the Light Sport Aviation fold and the much higher accident rate. Thinking safety is like morality...it comes from within and you have it or you don't(or don't care). Either way if risky behavior is your thing, lack of FAA oversight may encourage more risk taking.

Posted by: Steven Morton | September 20, 2018 12:04 PM    Report this comment

When I taught A&P classes many moons ago, on the first night I'd talk about what it means to be an aircraft mechanic. Central to that was the discussion over the purpose of discipline. The purpose of discipline is to develop SELF discipline (when no one is looking). Aka honesty. We'd discuss how doing it right sometimes means taking more time or you don't feel like it or it doesn't fit the situation or it's harder or more costly. So that pretty much fits this situation.

As much as I, too, moan about the FAA, I DO see places where their oversight is required and where they serve a positive purpose. An example might be the difference in maintenance MO between an S-LSA and a certificated airplane. The manufacturer of an S-LSA could come up with onerous requirements unilaterally while the DAH manufacturer of a certificated airplane is limited to requesting an AD be issued. Witness the recent findings involving the C210 time requirements as a clear example of the advantages. The FAA said that only the maintenance instruction in force at the time of manufacture applies and the DAH cannot make changes without the FAA issuing an AD. That is a subtle but important distinction. I just wish they'd move faster than molasses in Minnesota in the winter time. OUCH! Someone just stuck a pin in my voodoo doll on the wall (near to Pauls) in D.C.

I was surprised to see some of the comments on the C335 accident. Be careful what you ask for, boys ... you might just get it. Just shut up and keep on rowing ...

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 20, 2018 1:27 PM    Report this comment

In the turbine world the insurance companies already set a standard higher than the FAA. When I got my CE500 type, the sim examiner told me I could fly 7 different models of the 500 series Citation but also said no insurance company would cover that without additional training in that model, especially the single pilot models. Some high performance piston models insurance standards are also higher than the FAA. Mr. Stencel says it best, "be careful what you ask for, boys ... You might just get it. Just shut up and keep on rowing"!!!

Posted by: matthew wagner | September 20, 2018 1:46 PM    Report this comment

Those that think insurance companies would be more "liberal" in setting standards for pilots have not had much contact with underwriters. The insurance company's primary goal is to minimize the amount they have to pay out for losses. So, their vested interest is to see that both pilots and their airplanes are as safe and bulletproof as possible. The reality is that the world needs someone to establish standards for pilot performance and aircraft construction or chaos ensues. Look at the history of the development of the steam locomotive to see a good example. Numerous explosions from boiler failures were causing wide-spread casualties, so the government and the society of engineers stepped in and established design standards. The FAA evolved for similar reasons from the early days of aviation and frequent accidents. At least the FAA has no monetary axe to grind.

As Paul said, contempt for certification is a slippery slope - either for pilot proficiency or aircraft design. There are some who worry that the new Basic Med may allow pilots with health issues (including older pilots in failing health) to sidestep the rules and continue flying. If you think it is hard to take Dad's car keys away from him, how about his airplane keys? Love 'em or hate 'em, rules are the goalposts that define the game. Who establishes them is not really the issue. We either play within the rules, or trouble eventually ensues. Then people scream for more rules....

Posted by: John McNamee | September 20, 2018 4:06 PM    Report this comment

Well Paul, there is one class of pilot that "skirts the regs" daily...sort of. Ultralight pilots. While I've never been um, man enough to fly one myself, the government leaves those fine folks alone. Of course flying into and out of regulated airports does indeed require one to follow the rules, and I personally think anyone would be a fool not to if just for their own safety, ultralights at least offer the budding pilot a taste of what flying is all about without the government all up in their biz, and that's a good thing.

Posted by: Michael Livote | September 21, 2018 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Yep, private or government isn't likely to be all that different for certification of pilots in a basic sense. The standards have to be standard and the pilots have to know them.

I think the desire to see a difference comes from how unchangeable the behemoth FAA is. It takes enormous pressure to get changes. Personally, I blame a lot of GA deaths on the FAA, the tort system, and the IRS every year (which leads to Congress and us voters).

Engine failures might be due to bad fortune or maintenance, but some are due to the fact we are mostly using ancient engine tech. Pilots lose control due to visibility when anyone who really thinks about it knows there should be a step between SEL and instrument proficiency which would meet the needs of so many pilots.

The extreme cost of everything flying is a result of government regulatory flaws. Do we really believe that the basic trainer would be the 172 we have today without the FAA?

Posted by: Eric Warren | September 21, 2018 9:15 AM    Report this comment

In a country where the Government allows illegals to drive, drive without insurance, own guns, form violent gangs, vote, and simply be deported if they commit even more serious crimes... then WHY is it a concern to public safety if a citizen flies privately in his private aircraft on a suspended certificate?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 21, 2018 10:06 AM    Report this comment

About 15 years ago I attended a seminar where one of the speakers was from the FAA and was talking about the Alaska Initiative. Included in the talk was the year's goals and the one that stuck with me was the FAA's desire to increase the percent of pilots in Alaska who had licenses by 4%, from 48% to 52%. Seems that Alaska had been operating on the "my granpappy taught my pappy how to fly, and my pappy taught me how to fly and I don't need no stinkin' guvmint telling me what to do."

Posted by: Rich Bond | September 21, 2018 10:32 AM    Report this comment

The market is speaking. Homebuilt completions now rival certified deliveries, and every homebuilt is going to private individuals instead of flight schools or companies.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | September 21, 2018 12:04 PM    Report this comment

There's a saying in China that compliance with the rules is inversely proportional to the distance from Beijing. In Alaska's case, it is about as far from the seat of government as you can get in the U S of A.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 21, 2018 12:07 PM    Report this comment

Why do we need stop signs, traffic lights, and speed limits? Why do we need people to enforce them? Why do we need driver's licenses? Why do we need minimum design, engineering, and construction criteria for our bridges, buildings, roads, houses, baby's car seats, stethoscopes, x-ray machines, microwave ovens, food dyes, etc? Why do we need standards of morality, politeness, and courtesy?

Without them, our selfish natures have proven to lead us to anarchy. And a lawless anarchist affects far more people than them selves.

As Paul so correctly, well described, this crash demonstrates an attitude and consciousness of competence. For this guy whose attitude was he is above the law, who spent 21 years of thumbing his nose at compliance to the most minimum requirements of safety and common sense, his perception of his competency outgrew the reality of circumstances and physics. He became a legend in his own mind.

Most people's perceptions are their reality. In this case, those perceptions affected the reality for his wife, the people on the ground, the first responders, and millions of people unfamiliar with aviation who now are aware of people flying airplanes without credentials...and getting away with it for years.

Because of his cavalier attitude, I am sure there will be an increase in ramp checks, scrutiny of medical compliance, lawsuits setting new insurances precedence, and who knows what more in a litigious society like ours. And all of this potentially affecting every pilot, and every aircraft owner, of which most have and continue to "play by the rules".

Did he know how to fly an airplane? Yes. Did he know how to fly an airplane safely? We arm chair quarterbacks cannot determine that. But there is no doubt, in my mind, his attitude demonstrated by 21 years of non-compliance to the most basic laws of US aviation and those whose job is to enforce them, suggests this is a good start to the understanding of the accident chain of events.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | September 21, 2018 2:03 PM    Report this comment

Some very deep questions here. Michael Livote mentioned ultralights. The government all but killed the ultralight industry by requiring "fat ultralights" be registered as E-LSA and eliminating training in E-LSA aircraft. One has to wonder if we had a thriving ultralight industry it we would have a pilot shortage. Anyway, did the FAA increase safety? Most ultralight pilots will say no. Ultralight pilots effectively self regulated for years including certifying instructors. Some ultralight pilots probably still do fly and train in 2 place ultralights. The alternative is people killing themselves. As we all know, training in any aircraft is essential to avoiding accidents. By the way, I have seen quite a few ultralight pilots who can out stick and rudder many GA pilots by a long shot. My conclusion is that a certificate does not mean much to being a competent pilot. Most important is the pilot's commitment to their craft. One the most competent pilots I knew was a former nuclear engineer who started with hang gliders, then built, sold and trained people in Quicksliver ultralights. He trained hundreds of people to be competent pilots. He never got his pilot's license yet he knew more bout flying about just about anyone I ever met. He just did not believe he should waste his money having someone try to teach him how to fly.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | September 21, 2018 8:11 PM    Report this comment

A really good 'game' is one with not too many rules, but just enough good rules to make it work really well. Too many rules or bad rules quickly ruin the 'game' and drives away the players.
There are plenty of 'advocates' who seem convinced that we need just 'just one more' rule and that will 'make the game great again'. Not so!

Posted by: Cameron Garner | September 21, 2018 11:53 PM    Report this comment

Cameron, you are absolutely correct; the best game is one with just the right number of "good" rules. Unfortunately, when you have people with no understanding of the game (i.e. aircraft design or pilot certification) making the rules, the game suffers.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 22, 2018 11:13 AM    Report this comment

I'm a free market capitalist kinda person that understands the premise of no licenses.. However, a recent friend just earned his instrument rating on his first attempt.. He's a smart guy and worthy of the rating.. His post comments stated that the examiner mentioned the prior 12 applicants had failed their checkrides for various ratings/licenses.. And that the examiner was glad to not have to bust another..

Imagine if there was no license requirements.. Those 12 applicants, and probably many more, would be flying amongst us.. Not to mention any security issues..

Posted by: Tom O'Toole | September 22, 2018 12:51 PM    Report this comment

Read today at dubyadubyadubyamypalmbeachpost.com/news/opinion/editorial-public-needs-better-protection-from-pilot-error/EPPZ3anSOmm3aOuQmj0v9O/ in an editorial purporting to prevent innocent deaths by requiring intense scrutiny of pilot certs and medicals

Think of it.

What you have here is a solution in search of a problem.

The PBPost editorial "solution" not only ignores the fact that you don't need a current pilot certificate OR medical to "file a flight plan"

but when they try to scare naive people with "It just needs to help deter people from dying." they fail to mention


There is NO connection between this selfish jerk's refusal to renew his piece of paper and this accident.

None whatsoever.

For chrrissake, there is NO connection between the tragic but part-of-living-in-the-21st-not-1st-Century accident that befell Banny Galacia and pilots flying with expired certificates.

None whatsoever.

People have been killed by garbage trucks backing up. Should we remove the reverse gear from all garbage trucks?

Why is such an inane unjustifiable editorial here, then? To create controversy where there is none. To inspire clicks. To sell newsprint. To give the few remaining staffers something to do. Since the Gatehouse takeover, they are desperately searching for assignments to justify their positions...why not grasp a single dry straw and hope to weave a basket from it?

The more emotional, the more it taps into superstition and the distrust of technology and the worst aspects of human nature...

the better.

Editors' credo?

If it BLEEDS, it LEADS !

This is the shyttiest desperate-for-column-inches "editorial" the PBPost has EVER run. Bar none. They should stick to editorial topics they know and have some intelligent perspective on: like politics. Or authentic news items of interest and value in education, medicine, agriculture, etc.

It was beyond ludicrous that they gushed over Alexandra Seltzer as some kind of aviation expert. She knows NOTHING about aviation. A fine reporter in her wheelhouse of local politics and crime...of corruption and shoplifting. You think she ASKED for this assignment? And talk about hype. Desperate for it, the Board describes the article as "eye-opening". Isn't EVERY article "eye-opening"? Otherwise it doesn't get printed.

The right wing and/or racist and/or fundamentalist Trumpettes like Arrow10, Irmo, backintheday, IceDick, Bowman, Boardwax etc etc ad infinitum relentlessly lambaste the PBPost as a worthless failing rag printing lies.

Nonsense like this gives them a grain of truth to teeter on.

The PBPost Editorial Board should recognize their mistake and strike this error, hoping few noticed..

Posted by: Doctor Dave | September 23, 2018 3:52 PM    Report this comment

Interesting discussion.

Dana asks "did the government kill the ultralight industry by requiring licenses?..." Dunno. But, I know I feel safer knowing that LSAs (aka "fat ultralights") are piloted by people a bit more aware of regs, and I hope a whole lot more competent. I have personal experience with ultralights driving in front of me while I'm on final to land my Cessna, and have heard of unreported hospitalizations from broken bones resulting from "unlicensed" fat ultralight "instructors" who didn't know how to do a basic W&B calcs, nor were they aware of performance penalties when on 90+ degree temps - BASIC density altitude stuff!

Back to Paul's article about "what the lack of certificate had to do with the crash." The answer is unlikely to be "nothing." While it's a stretch to assert that " A slip of plastic simply isn't determinative in whether an airplane flies, crashes or remains parked." his statement that "... what's behind the certificate certainly may be..." is on point. After 21 years of having no license (or likely no insurance) how many BFRs or other recurrent training had the pilot of the accident aircraft received? Absent any completed accident report, it's unclear (maybe even very unlikely) that he bothered with that little detail either.

Posted by: John Townsley | October 3, 2018 11:27 AM    Report this comment

There is a basic difference between having a pilot certificate committing one's self to be the safest pilot one can be.

However, we fly in an environment surrounded by other pilots flying airplanes where we count on all of them to be competent and follow the expected conventions and rules. All it takes is one careless pilot to ruin not only his own and his family's life, but to potentially ruin an innocent pilot's life as well.

My observation in my 68 years of flying is that those with current certificates are far more likely to be conscientious and safety minded that those without. Sure, one can not guarantee that there will not be exceptions, but we pilots "play the odds" every flight by attending to details like W&B, performance, safety, traffic awareness/avoidance, good communication, etc. and we also "play the odds that everyone in our flying environment will do the same.

It is a sham to propose that flying without certification will not change those odds, and rants like "Doctor Dave's" post (above) always amaze me that there are folks out there willing to post such stupidity.

Posted by: John Hunter | October 7, 2018 2:41 PM    Report this comment

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