The highs and the lows
I was challenged to write something like this a while back and spent time looking at blank screens before finally formulating an idea. The challenge was to write about the good, but I feel compelled to write about some of the good and the bad. I have been dealing with the FAA, and the CAA and CAB before it, plus the NTSB, since 1951 so this will be brief and anecdotal. The whole story would be a zillion words.
I have always thought that the FAA does a good job of certifying airframes and engines. Certainly their work has withstood the test of time and because the roots are so old, all the way back to CAR Part 3 under which most airplanes flying today were certified, they have withstood the test of a lot of time. The current Part 23 certification standards were formulated based on the old CAR 3 regs. There is currently a move afoot to simplify some of the rules and this would be a positive step. Whatever, our airframes have proven to be brave, courageous and true. The engines are, too, but they require a lot of care, more than some pilots are willing to give.
It is true that there have been some mistakes along the way. Few were structural. Only the Cessna 441 tail problem comes to mind as a recent event. Most were with systems and I suppose some problems there are inevitable.
There is also a positive note on airplanes that the FAA does not certify, the experimental and light sport airplanes. Here, the FAA pretty much leaves folks to do what they do best.
Not so positive is the FAA’s work with avionics. You have read here how a lot of pilots flying certified airplanes feel about being deprived of the good low-cost (relatively) stuff that is available for experimental airplanes. What, they ask, is the difference between installing it in an RV and a Cherokee? There should be none.
One problem is with the FAA being logical in some areas and illogical in others. It is logical that airplanes flown for hire are held to a higher operational and maintenance standard. But is it logical to require the same avionics certification for a charter airplane and an airplane flown for personal reasons? I don’t think so. To be logical the FAA should separate every aspect of commercial flying and personal flying. That would include doing away with the 3rd Class medical. Don’t hold your breath.
Our air traffic control system is by far the best in the world. This is almost entirely due to the people, the working controllers, who make it work. Management has done a truly lousy job in the development of the tools that the controllers use and almost every upgrade to the ATC system has been with huge cost and time overruns.
When I was flying, I flew IFR virtually all the time. At the conclusion of a trip I usually felt like I had just spent a pleasant time with some old friends. The controllers are just as good to (and for) you in your GA piston airplane as they are to and for the crew of a Gulfstream 650 or Airbus A380. The service is remarkable.
The current air traffic control system came about very slowly, starting after a 1956 collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon. After that, a spate of collisions between general aviation and airline aircraft and military and airline aircraft, mostly in the 1960s, raised the decibel level of the discussion.
The greatest conflict between GA and the FAA came with the terminal control areas, TCAs, now Class B airspace. Hearings were held for each proposed TCA and an FAA person told me he actually feared for his life at the one covering Philadelphia. There was a lot of deep feeling and hostility.
Some in GA make a living by being opposed to what the FAA proposes. This is a check and balance that we need. This faction favored climb corridors instead of the circular TCAs. The military did have some climb corridors for really high performance aircraft but the FAA rejected this and implemented TCAs at the busier airline airports. Give the FAA its due, the TCA concept worked. In the only GA airline collision in a TCA the GA airplane was there illegally and without an operating transponder. I think climb corridors would actually have been more awkward and restrictive.
At the time, it was hard to convince the more gnarled old GA types that something was going to change around busy airports and that if the FAA didn’t get a plan cooking soon, the Congress would dictate something. At one point, the threatened “something” was a virtual ban on VFR flying in much of the airspace. The FAA actually helped us dodge that bullet by implementing the TCAs.
So where the FAA is pretty inept when it comes to implementing high-tech stuff they have done a pretty good job on the architecture of the air traffic control system.
I have always thought the FAA lacking in pilot testing and certification.
The low point to me was in the reduction in requirements for an instrument rating. Here, the FAA relaxed the rules in an area where there has been a serious safety problem for a long while. It was a rare case of the FAA bowing to pressure from special-interest groups. The checks and balances worked against safety in this case.
The written (knowledge) testing is at times almost pathetic. For example, long after GPS started becoming a standard in GA airplanes, there was nothing on the test about GPS. The same has been true of many other changes in what we do and how we do it. Likewise, GPS use on flight (practical) tests was a long time coming.
I renew my CFI every two years, using an online service. The content is FAA-approved and almost FAA-mandated. The propensity of educators to work at showing you how smart they are, not at helping you along or showing you something new, really comes across in these courses. There is little practical in them and I sometimes get the feeling that the content is designed around a personality and ability that I hope bears no relation to our instructors. The tired old saying, “if you can’t do it, teach it,” always comes to mind.
At one time in my flying the FAA actually took over all flight testing, casting aside what are now designated pilot examiners. Why did they do this? Simple, when the World War Two GI-Bill ran down their inspectors didn’t have much to do so to justify their jobs they had to get out and give flight tests. It didn’t work this way with the recent drop in new pilot certifications. This time I think they just doubled down on the bureaucratic paper shuffling.
When it comes to enforcement, pilots need to understand that so long as you don’t bend anything, violate restricted airspace, or create a scene in the air traffic control system, you are likely to stay off the FAA’s enforcement radar. They can’t do speed traps and DUI checkpoints or cruise around in hot cars looking for bad drivers. FAA enforcement is almost totally reactive.
When a pilot does attract attention, it can be a bureaucratic nightmare with one exception. A tragic number of pilots get the death penalty for transgressions because airplanes are quite adept at facilitating a bad end after egregious trespasses on the rules and procedures. The reports on these accidents usually reflect an “I told you so” theme.
Certainly giving people a gun and a badge brings out the worst in some but most of the FAA inspectors I have known have been good guys. One bad one can taint the pool, though, and that does happen. Some of you probably remember the vendetta against one of aviation’s finest, Bob Hoover. As I recall, that started with one inspector’s opinion and snowballed into a major event. Staying below the radar is the way to go.
One of the more bizarre government proposals came in the late fifties, when many were trying to discredit “see-and-be-seen” as being of value in collision avoidance. At the time, the Civil Aeronautics Board was the rulemaking entity.
The proposal was to require that 25-percent of each airframe be coated with high-visibility paint. I think we called it day-glo at the time. I painted the wheel pants of my Pacer with the stuff and couldn’t tell whether or not it would make the airplane more visible. It was, though, truly ugly. It didn’t take me long to paint the pants back like they were.
The most revolutionary rule change ever wasn’t the FAA’s idea. It came mainly from Congress and the NTSB and was spurred by the regional turboprop that spun in on a night instrument approach to Buffalo, New York. The new rule drastically increased the flying time requirement for first officers as well as adding a requirement for an ATP certificate to ride the right seat of an airliner.
It was a huge change and I don’t think it accomplished much. Is 1,500 hours of instructing in a trainer going to make a better airline pilot out of a person? Would that experience help a first officer in an event where the captain stalled the airplane and then overrode the stick pusher and precluded a successful stall recovery? After that turboprop accident there were a lot of barn doors to close but I don’t think they closed the right one.
I recall one really strange finding from the National Transportation Safety Board. A Pan American 727 crashed at New Orleans on a hot and heavy takeoff with a thunderstorm sitting virtually atop the airport. There was no mechanical issue and the proper operational procedures were followed. The downdraft and outflow from the storm was just calculated to exceed the performance capabilities of the airplane.
In an accident like that you would expect the NTSB to fault the judgment of the crew in attempting that takeoff at that time. No so this time. The probable cause was listed as an “Act of God.”
Most observers were flabbergasted by this finding. I wrote an editorial in FLYING questioning the finding. And I got word that the NTSB person who came up with this thought I had committed a foul by questioning the finding. The word I got was to the effect that he was just trying to do something new. Go figure.
A lot of years and a lot of history has convinced me that, as the old saying goes, we deserve the government that we get. Certainly the aeronautical anarchy that some people favor would not work. Consider that I could have flown my 20,000 hours in 57 years without ever dealing with the FAA. Over all that time, I never had to show my certificates to an inspector. And, no, I am not going to tell you how many times I have heard the old roadside “your license and registration please” in the 66 years that I have had a driver’s license.