Rick Cremer

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A decade ago Rick Cremer volunteered to take the FAA's Flight Standards division online. He built the Flight Standards Web page and joined CompuServe's AVSIG. He had been monitoring aviation bulletin boards, newsgroups and forums and could see that FAA needed a way to be able to talk and listen, so he took questions and gave answers until his retirement on June 1, 2001. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Rick about what he saw during his 28 years at the FAA.

Rick CremerRick L. Cremer was born November 12, 1945, in South Bend, Ind. His stepfather was a civil engineer for the state of Michigan, so Rick moved from Alpena to Traverse City to Detroit while his stepfather surveyed for the then-new interstate highway system. He took flying lessons in high school, but didn't finish his private certificate until midway through his four-year enlistment in the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard sent him to Alaska and Hawaii, and after the Coast Guard he got a degree in Aviation Maintenance Technology, and finished his ATP and his A&P certificates. Airlines weren't hiring, so he started his career with the FAA in 1973 as a controller at Jacksonville ARTCC, then moved to Flight Standards with stints at Jackson, Miss., Broomfield, Colo., and New York City before landing at 800 Independence Ave., where he stayed until his retirement on June 1, 2001. He served under all but three of the administrators of the FAA.

Rick had bought his first computer in the early '80s, and by the early '90s was online following the aviation bulletin boards, newsgroups and CompuServe's AVSIG. In '91 he proposed to his boss Tony Broderick to take the Flight Standards division of FAA online. Rick became the agency's online mouthpiece and ombudsman, taking questions from the forums and newsgroups right to the people in charge at the FAA, and, more important, giving quick and accurate responses to the questions. Rick spent his last ten years at the FAA giving online aviators a voice at FAA HQ, and worked hard to bring standardization to an agency prone to fiefdoms and turf wars. Although he's retired, he's still at AVSIG taking questions and giving answers as time permits.

How did you get interested in flying?

I started flying lessons in high school whenever I could scrape together enough money. Then I enlisted in the Coast Guard for a four-year commitment and started working on airplanes in the Coast Guard. When I got out of the Coast Guard I had a private pilot's certificate but I was farther along with my Airframe and Powerplant certificate than the flying experience. I finished my formal education in Florida working full-time and going to school full-time and finished my A&P and my ATP at the same time, so I was pretty busy. Having both of those certificates helped me get hired by the FAA.

Was your goal to get into the FAA, or did you want to fly a line?

I applied to a number of airlines, but in the early '70s the airline business was an economic mess, and I was trying to get hired when they were laying people off. I didn't have a lot of flight time, and back then if you didn't have 1,000 hours of heavy jet time they weren't really interested. I had an interview with National Airlines as a flight engineer at the time you needed an A&P certificate to be a flight engineer but right after my interview they started furloughing people and eventually went out of business.

I was flying a King Air for a local corporation, and instructing at a junior college in St. Petersburg, and an old friend of the family who had started with the CAA before it became the FAA offered to help me get a job at the FAA. Flight standards had a hiring freeze, too, but there were openings for controllers. I passed the ATC exam and got a job at Jacksonville Center. I did that for a couple of years, then I moved into Flight Standards at the Jackson, Mississippi GADO. It was a small office only about 12 people.

From there I went to the Denver GADO, to the general aviation district office in Broomfield which is no longer there. I was there for about three years, then I went to the New York FSDO actually an air carrier office but they called it a FSDO then to Washington in 1980. In 1982 I had an interview with Republic which is part of Northwest now and they were desperate for DC-9 pilots. By that time I had almost ten years invested with the FAA, and friends of mine who had left the FAA to fly for Braniff and PanAm had gotten furloughed and were coming back to the FAA looking for jobs. After seeing that, I decided I liked the continuity of having a steady job, so I spent 28 years with the FAA, about eight in the field and the rest at headquarters.

You served under all but three of the administrators in the agency's history. Who were your personal favorites?

FAA Headquarters at 800 Independence Avenue.
I met some of the administrators and others I never saw. I would say the one that had the best demeanor and management style was Don Engen. If he knew you and you saw him in the cafeteria you could sit down and have a cup of coffee with him and talk shop, and if he didn't know you you could still sit down with him and have coffee and talk shop. Jim Busey was another of my favorites I flew with him down at Hangar 6. Dave Hinson was another good guy.

Some were more newsworthy than others. Mr. Bond, for instance, and Butterfield, who spilled the beans about the tapes in Nixon's office. Some administrators McArtor, Richards and Helms came and went and you never saw them. Garvey, for instance, stayed up on the 10th floor and I never met her.

You mean we saw more of her at Oshkosh than you did at 800 Independence Ave.?

Yep. I think the administrators who actually had aviation experience seemed to be the best fit.

Walk us through what happens when a new administrator gets appointed. How do new priorities and attitudes get established?

The FAA is unique. It's more of a technical organization than, say, HHS or Labor. There are only a few political appointees the administrator, the deputy administrator, the chief counsel and the head of political affairs out of 50,000 some people, so I don't think the FAA feels the change in presidential administration like some of the more political agencies. A lot of FAA policies are more driven by what Congress does the Airport Trust Fund, for instance than who's sitting in the White House. I'd say that's especially true when it comes to Flight Standards and Aircraft Certification.

When Bush came in and ordered a halt on rule-making procedures it had some effect on us, but safety regulations were exempted from the halt and most of our rules were safety-related anyway.

Can the agency ever update its procurement rules?

I don't know. I was only involved peripherally in procurement issues.

Didn't you ever run up against it when you argued for an enhancement or something to improve flight safety?

There's a whole associate level of other FAA offices that got involved in those issues. For instance, when they dumped the IBM contract, and during the situation with MLS, Flight Standards really just answered questions about how the systems might affect pilots and pilot training. But I wasn't involved in the actual procurement.

I guess that's my point. Shouldn't the people who know what the system needs to be more efficient and safer be in charge of getting what they need to make it happen?

I still think sometimes the system gets a bad rap. All in all it works pretty well, around the clock, and you can fly IFR coast to coast and get down to 700 RVR at your destination. But procurement is a complex issue, and I'm not privy to the inner workings of it, and I'm not sure that beast will ever be tamed.

When I was a controller at Jacksonville I was a line controller in one of the high sectors, working FL 240 and up. It was called Keystone it was the east side of Jacksonville's airspace. I saw a lot of Dick Nixon flying between Washington and Biscayne. That time I spent as a controller really helped a lot later on for knowing how the system works. I'm probably one of the few pilots that has a current 7110.65 controller's handbook and reads it. It makes a lot of what's in the AIM make sense.

What was your favorite job in your time at FAA?

There were two jobs that I loved that tie for favorite. In 1991 Tony Broderick gave me the green light to represent the agency on CompuServe's AVSIG Forum. My job was to answer questions and provide a direct link from the agency to the pilot community. I was basically autonomous I had a manager and I'd fill out a quarterly report about the kinds of questions that had come up. That was a very rewarding job and I was the only person in the agency that had it.

Was taking the agency online a hard sell?

Absolutely not. Tony is a very progressive person who appreciates and understands technology and he saw the value in interacting with pilots. He had been paid a few visits in person by John Galipault, and I had been talking to John online. I drafted a proposal for me to join CompuServe and represent the agency. I sent the memo up to his office about noon, and about two o'clock it came back and Tony had written "Good. Go for it." I still have the memo.

So you didn't even have email yet when you proposed taking the agency online?

We had email, but it was always iffy whether it would get through. It was an early version of Lotus CC and it was a headache.

The other rewarding job was when the FAA paid for me to take some courses in webpage design and I developed the Flight Standards web site. We put the inspector's handbooks, and the FARs and Advisory Circulars, and we were one of the first at the FAA to do that. Again, I was almost autonomous with minimal adult supervision and it made those last ten years at the FAA very rewarding years.

Give us an example of an issue that originated on CompuServe and got resolved there.

There were two inspectors doing ramp checks at an air show in California. They were looking for registrations and airworthiness certificates on airplanes parked on the ramp, and what got me involved is when they checked a warbird that had no flight manual, and the inspector insisted that it had to have a flight manual. I think maybe John Deakin was the one who posted the question. I got the note and went down the hall and talked to some people about the inspector's handbook. I also talked to the FSDO where this had happened, and as a result, a few months later the inspectors were told not to do ramp checks during airshows. That's one issue that started and ended on CompuServe.

The issue of safety pilots logging PIC time came up online. I walked that down the hall, too, and got an interpretation that because a safety pilot is a required crew member when someone is under the hood, both the safety pilot and the person under the hood can log PIC time. A couple of times pilots had been told at local FSDO safety meetings that only one person could log PIC time, so we straightened that out.

The ticket program got a lot of discussion online. I took some of those messages to the folks in charge of the program and, as a result, the program was stopped and reviewed.

I noticed the name Henry Kisor in your list of Profiles. He emailed me a while ago and asked me about the process of a deaf person getting a pilot certificate. I told him about the medical requirements and the statement of demonstrated ability and here he is with his pilot's certificate and a book about his trip.

Another topic that gets talked about online is the STC process, which obviously hasn't been resolved yet. Field approvals might be buried in some file cabinet in some faraway FSDO, while it really ought to be online, and consequently we've got people reinventing the wheel to get an STC. FAA is aware of it, and I think it's getting better, but there's still a lot to be done.

FAA's regional structure.
My pet peeves with Flight Standards are the training of inspectors and the lack of standardization in the field. We've got ten regions and a hundred FSDOs, and CMOs [Certificate Management Offices] and CMUs [Certificate Management Units] and about 3,500 inspectors, some with their own agendas. You'll see someone get worked up over the corner of a placard that may be curling, or a burned-out map light, while they're ignoring something that really does effect safety of flight. Some inspectors aren't reading the handbooks they're supposed to be using. And all three handbooks GA, Air Carrier and maintenance are woefully out-of-date. We still have inspectors telling people that they have to do something or they can't do something based on incorrect information.

For example, the brake pedals on an airplane used for instruction. The issue came up, AOPA had to holler at legal, legal had to issue an interpretation, and all this started when a FSDO inspector went to a flight school and told them they had to have brakes in the right seat. Flight Standards has started the process of updating the handbooks and it's getting better, but it'll take time.

Another subject that got a lot of discussion online was what happened to Bob Hoover.

I watched the discussion on Hoover but because it was in litigation and part of an ongoing enforcement procedure, I didn't think it was appropriate for me to mouth an opinion.

Now that it's over would you like to mouth your opinion?

I read the transcripts of the hearings and articles in the various magazines and I think it could've been handled differently. I knew one of the inspectors involved I had flown with him when I was a student in Oklahoma City and from my perspective an emergency revocation was a little severe. I wouldn't have done it.

If an inspector decides that somebody's in violation of a regulation and documents it properly, it just moves up through the system through the manager, through legal, through the region and off it goes. Again I don't think there's enough standardization across the system. Some inspectors have too much leeway and too much power. When I was in the field I tried to give the consumer the benefit of the doubt and wrote more letters of correction and warning notices than enforcement reports. Some inspectors just need to lighten up.

In the literature we put out for the PACE program the Pilot Aircraft Courtesy Evaluation program we said that the programs won't be used for enforcement purposes, but if you show up with an airplane that's unairworthy, you're stuck. So some poor guy that flies his airplane 100 miles for a courtesy evaluation gets grounded because of a curling placard or something that makes it technically unairworthy but not necessarily unsafe and winds up getting a ferry permit but can't take his family back home. It ought to be more like the way they handle a car you get a notice and you get it taken care of but you don't have to leave your wife and kid on the side of the road while you go to the nearest garage to get your car inspected. It's just common sense.

Tell us about your retirement party.

Rick and his new LightSPEEDs.
It was wonderful. Tom Tyson was there, Anne Humphries, Doug and Sue Ritter, Pete McWilliams and his wife, Dave Halperin, and Tony Broderick came back from France a day early to be there. We met at a nice restaurant in northern Virginia, and stayed overnight at a hotel next to the restaurant. During dinner Pete told us they had paid for our room. I got two headsets, one for flying which I haven't used yet, and one for sport shooting which I have used. Some of the folks had to fly home, but some who stayed took a tour of the Smithsonian Silver Hill facility, then went downtown to the Air & Space Museum.

It was a nice party, and that's in contrast to when I walked out of the FAA on June 1st. After 28 years with the agency I didn't even get a goodbye handshake. But the important party was the CompuServe party. To get that kind of send off from those people meant a lot. Those are the people I want to stay in touch with.

How much flying did you get to do as part of your job?

Very little. Hangar 6 was kind of an on-again/off-again program. First there weren't enough people flying, then there were too many. I went for recurrent DC-9 training until the budget cutbacks in the early '90s. I got a little time in airplanes that I'd rent, but I'll have more time for that now.

What else will you be doing with your free time?

I'm hanging out my shingle as an aviation consultant. I've got a nice package I've been sending to some of the aviation law firms in DC. And I'd like to do some writing.

How about some media consulting? Maybe you could put Mary Schiavo out of business.

I'm exploring that, too.

Who took over your job as the FAA representative on CompuServe?

Right now there is no FAA representative on CompuServe. I'm still there, and you don't forget 33 years of stuff overnight, so I'll still provide answers as time permits. The problem is now I can't walk down the hall and get an answer right away. But I can tell people where to write or call to get an answer.

Rick's recommended bookmarks for aviators

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.