“Flying Blind, Flying Safe” by Mary Schiavo


Flying Blind, Flying SafeParts of this book are disturbingly familiarfor 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-boynetwork and root out mutual hand holding between the inspected and the inspectee.Unfortunately, she achieved only a modicum of success and a great deal offrustration. Of all the emotions — and there are quite a few coming fromthis book — Ms. Schiavo’s frustration is at the head of the list. Whilewe don’t agree with many of her conclusions, the book makes interesting readingand provokes lots of thought.

In the book’s analysis of the ValuJet tragedy, the author makes the casethat 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 betweenthe FAA job of oversight and the FAA job of promoting aviation. The FAA wantedValueJet to survive, but in order to help that along the FAA did not do agood enough job of overseeing and enforcing all the rules.

While ValuJet is a particular case, Ms. Schiavo is also critical of the FAAinspectors, some of whom are not qualified to do their jobs. The main criticismshe offers is the FAA’s reluctance to do anything about its many shortcomings,some of which she, as Inspector general, brought to their attention. Whilewe all know that any government agency is by definition “political”, theFAA 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 serviceonce related a story to me about a customer who asked how safe was the flighthe was about to make considering the poor weather he saw outside. My friendreplied, “We don’t think about how safe, we just decide ifthe 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 thatnothing is 100% except taxes and the “D” word. So, how safe should a flightbe?

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

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

Ms. Schiavo is equally damning of the internal FAA politics and normal operatingprocedures. The administrator job, she charges, is just a glorified flyingclub. The administrators used the job to get rated in all types of aircraftoperated by the FAA, spending time in the cockpit when they should have beenspending the time running the Agency. She writes, “I can’t remember whenI started calling these men the ‘Kidney Stone Administrators,’ but I do knowthat it became apparent to me early on that they were tolerated only becauseeveryone 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 otherhard information on how the FAA operated and didn’t operate to be interestingand thought-provoking. But when the book descends into aging airplanes, whereto sit in commercial airlines to maximize your safety, which carriers havethe best/worst accident rate and a final suggestion about which carriersnot to fly, it loses credibility. There is more “scare” thanfacts in this part of the book and it diminishes the important issues broughtout in the first part. Without regard for the law of holes which says, “whenyou are in a hole, stop digging,” the book recommends that you carry yourown smoke hoods, call the local FAA weather station to get a weather reportto decide if you want to fly, avoid flying in thunderstorms and to keep aneye out for ice and snow on the plane’s wings; then speak up and point itout to the cabin crew. All of this cheapens the effect and reduces the bookto a trite “airline safety” novel.

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