10 min read

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.

50s Cessna 172

Airplanes certified over 60 years ago are still flying safely – the FAA deserves some credit for that.

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.

Class B airspace

Class B airspace isn’t fun, but it has worked.

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.

FAA mission statement

It does feel that way sometimes…

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.

Richard Collins
21 replies
  1. Brent
    Brent says:

    Fascinating piece. I especially like how you wrapped it up with how little (zero) direct involvement you’ve had with the FAA in your day-to-day flying. I think that sums it up for many folks; however, I fully appreciate the alphabet groups and other lobbyist for their help in “keeping it real.”

    Brent over at iFLYblog dot com

  2. Todd Copeland
    Todd Copeland says:

    Always great points but isn’t giving the FAA credit for great designs a little like giving a food critic credit for a great meal? Those designs would likely be as great with or without the FAA.

  3. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    I’ve often felt that the good that came from the FAA was a result of its usefulness as a repository of information. Over the years they have been able to collect information from the manufacturers, military, NACA/NASA, accident data, maintenance data and so on and file it in various useful forms, including rules. Many of the FAA personnel were even knowledgable and could dispense useful information. Most of the bad rules came from knee-jerk reactions combined with political pressure.

    But as the technology of basic aviation has matured, the amount of useful information to be collected and dispensed has gone down. In addition, the rise of the internet allows information to be more readily available; to the point that the FAA data collection function has become less useful. So they plug along with evermore employees rewriting rules in ever greater detail and slowly become a mere law enforcement entity.

  4. Duane
    Duane says:

    I am impressed with the professionalism and friendly, service-oriented performance of air traffic controllers over my years of flying. I’ve never been treated badly by a controller yet. I’ve heard a few radio exchanges where a pilot who clearly didn’t know his or her posterior from a whatever was handled rather abruptly by a controller, but deservedly so when the clueless pilot put other aircraft operators in danger. I’ve messed up myself my share of times and the controllers only tried to help correct the situation. I’ve also had on occasoin to reply “unable” to a controller’s instructions to do something that as PIC I was unwilling or unable to do, and again, we worked it out professionally and safely.

    As to the FAA bureaucracy, meaning those folks who don’t deal with actual pilots day to day, I can’t comment from personal experience. But from reading news reports and hearing from other pilots and mechanics who did have to deal with the FSDOs or airman’s medical branch folks. Different story altogether – meaning the FAA bureaucracy often acts stupidly like any other bureaucracy.

    The worst thing about the FAA is that, like any other bureaucracy, it is incapable of self-reform. It is very encouraging, therefore, to see the General Aviation Caucus in Congress intervening of late in the FAA reform process, from the now-mandated Part 23 certification reform law to the bill now making its way through Congress to eliminate the third class medical for non-commercial VFR flights. Eventually, elimination of the third class medical should also be extended to IFR flights. We seem to be on a roll with Congress.

    • Duane
      Duane says:

      I meant also to comment on Dick’s granting credit to the FAA for the longevity of so many successful aircraft manufactured many decades ago. I agree that FAA deserves some (but certainly not a majority of) credit … but only to the extent that certified aircraft are subject to mandated safety fixes via AD and requiring FSDO approval of significant airframe and powerplant modifications.

      However, like so many other things the FAA does, they’ve taken their regulatory control to the extreme in terms of not allowing reasonable experimentation with airframes and engines, by builders or owners, and certainly in the use of uncertified avionics … which stance I believe actually hurts aviation safety a great deal. We are in a time when exponential improvements in electronics/avionics capability are available at relatively low prices, yet these improvements are either not available at all or at least not at a feasible price to install in the certified aircraft retrofit market.

      The FAA absolutely must be forced to eliminate its requirements that only panel mounted certified avionics be used for either IFR or VFR flight.

      It’s time now for Congress to mandate a complete top to bottom reform/review of FAA rules as applied to non-commercial General Aviation, both pilots and aircraft. Rather than piecemealing changes here and there, it’s long past time to rethink the entire FAA regulatory approach.

  5. Louis Sell
    Louis Sell says:

    I am pleased to read so many understanding of the controllers. In all my years I’ve only experienced very few who were not helpful or confused.
    Like anything else trainees are in the controller system.
    I had a tower controller (trainee) who couldn’t keep track of the 16 in the pattern–I give up you folks sort it out, I’m going on break. So help me this is true!!
    Most important, when you get called to the tower for a friendly discussion start out by asking for a copy of the tower tapes, you have that right.
    First time it happened to me was from a trainee. I went to the tower and ask for the tapes, he was ready to chew off big chunks. The tower supervisor was there. He looked at me and said the tapes showed I did contact the tower but was walked on several times. End of discussion !!
    Another time the tower man was having “Ratchet Jaw” with a buddy on the frequency. I got called on the carpet for not calling. I simply said I wanted a copy of the tower tapes and it would show him blocking the frequency. I landed and there was no further discussion, period.
    Another was a female who went simple berserk because we were not doing things “Her Way”. The frequency went quiet and we never heard from her again. There were only about 5 airplanes on the frequency.
    Last,if what your given doesn’t feel safe YOU ARE PILOT IN COMMAND, REFUSE IT. By that I mean be courteous and state why you wish another routing and present you request in a command manner.

  6. Bob
    Bob says:

    I’d like to look at this from a different perspective in an effort to find assistance. Who has had problems with the FAA, specifically the Medical Division? I’ve been trying for a year to get my medical certificate approved, after an overzealous AME didn’t like a report from my primary doctor, didn’t discuss anything with me before bypassing the entire system and sending my paperwork directly to OKC. Since then, one battle after another, with different requirements each time and no consistency in information demanded. Oh, I’ve been flying for more than 30 years, but have now lost a job because of this.

    • Louis Sell
      Louis Sell says:

      Have you asked for assistance from the AOPA? They have medical and legal people who may be able to help you.
      Of course you must be an AOPA member and pay an additional fee to be a member of the legal assistance group, but I think you can get good consul from them.
      EAA also has people who can advise you.

    • Doyle Frost
      Doyle Frost says:

      Bob, I’ve had a “special issuance, (type II diabetes, with oral medication,)” since I got my license. Took six months for the initial issuance, then annually after that. In every case, OKC sent me the required information they needed, then took that to my primary care doctor, and had him write a report answering and supplying their data, (with a copy for my files at home, and usually, about a month or so before my last annual expired, I had my new medical in place. On my last issuance, they gave me a letter to go to my AME, that gave him permission to issue another, providing nothing from my primary care guy had changed.
      Because of increased costs, at all levels, I haven’t had experience in the last couple of years. AME costs are higher, and then also have to have more tests done, as well as more visits to my doctor, so it is getting out of sight to even afford just a trip around the pattern. And I understand they have downsized in OKC, and are running way behind because of staffing problems. Don’t blame the people at OKC, blame the beaurocrats in Washington, that actually head up the FAA, all political appointees.
      I will add one more thing: Make sure your primary care doctor gives the correct information, spefically that asked for in the letter from them, not spurious notes and other junk that doesn’t matter, (as my doctor did once, and I got a letter from them requesting me turn in my medical. Doc put down I was using a medication I was NOT using, and that set off red flags in OKC. That took about four months to straighten out, along with another trip to my primary care physician that created the problem. More money wasted, because of his inattention.)

      • David Wiggins
        David Wiggins says:


        Please contact your congressional delegation and tell them of your situation…we are trying to gain momentum in Congress for reforming medical requirements for private pilots.

        David Wiggins
        contact me if you need assistance. If you reply to this comment, I will get it…

  7. Rod Smith
    Rod Smith says:

    In the Pan Am crash at MSY,I had just departed in front of them by 5 minutes in a Navajo.I wonder with Delta 191(DFW)was not labeled the same?

  8. Pete Zaitcev
    Pete Zaitcev says:

    Richard’s apologism is impressive, but all that balances against what FAA did to destroy inexpensive private aviation. Sure they did not do everything in their power, and Part 103 is a testament to that, but they did a lot. And that is why all the good they did for airline and jet fatcats may be beside the point. Pretending that the only alternative is “aeronautical anarchy” is wildly fallacious.

  9. Louis Sell
    Louis Sell says:

    Lets clarify a point some think in error.
    THE FAA DOES NOT DESIGN AIRFRAMES AND/OR ENGINES. Airframe and engine manufacturers do the designing and they are free to design anything they want–the FAA has no say in this process.
    HOWEVER—should Jackleg Junkyard Aircraft wish to CERTIFY their design, now we are talking a different story. The FAA has specifications that must be met and it is up to JJA to prove to the FAA (or their designee) that the design meets the strength and airworthiness requirements set forth in the various regulations.
    Dick made mention of the Cessna 441 tail problem. The FAA designated a Cessna employee to approve the tests and he did. Later Cessna came clean and said the 441 should have had a Cruciform style tail but they had no experience designing one so management mandated a low tail !!!!!
    Much emphasis is placed on wiz bang radios and other navigation stuff. However, I think it is really because too many have no understanding of what really counts–Airframes–Engines–Basic flying skills. But they are wiz bangs on their fancy telephones and computers.

  10. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    As someone rather new to aviation I find the FAA bewildering. If one flies a certified aircraft we have to jump through hoops the guy with a RV 7 doesn’t. Richard hit it on the head with the difference in avionics.
    We both talk to the same people, why can my friend in a RV7 get a radio that costs half mine just because I’m in a 45 year old Cessna?
    We are now facing the specter of the ADS system and the thousands of dollars it will cost.
    Do I really need to spend $7K just to fly in controlled airspace?
    I read an article where it may be cheaper to scrap some business jets than equip them? Are they kidding? What of our old 172’s?
    I could just avoid controlled airspace, which I believe will change too, but then I won’t be able to easily fly either.
    Is it in reality the FAA’s attempt to further restrict private aviation and to allow big brother to watch our every move?
    Do I really have to spend $250 for a TSO’d LED landing light when I can buy the same thing for less than half that elsewhere? My experimental buddy can.
    Now I’m not advocating the owner should just be able to do anything he wants, I’m saying some of the rules should mirror what is happening in the experimental field for private small vfr aircraft. Commercial and biz jets are another story all together.

    • Louis Sell
      Louis Sell says:

      Solution—sell your Cessna 172 and see Van. He will sell you a kit that will fly much faster on as much fuel and you don’t have to worry about certified equipment. Of course you’ll have to put it together.
      Frankly, Jeff flying is not for the weak of pocket. All these new fangled geegaas are thought up by the rich lawyers in D.C. They don’t have anything else to do!!
      In case you haven’t suspected it, the system is being redesigned for Corporate and Airline aviation.

  11. David Wiggins
    David Wiggins says:

    With regard to pilot medical issues, if you haven’t heard of HR 3708 and S. 2103 please visit http://www.eaa.org/newsletters/140314_medical-rc.html

    AOPA and EAA are working with Congress to streamline third class medical certification. Essentially, the bill if passed will do away with the third class medical for most flight regimes, i.e. VFR below 14000 feet and 250 knots.

    Passage of this legislation will give private aviation a huge shot in the arm by reducing costs and needless regulation. I’m a retired Marine Aviator with 5000 plus hours, and I have been denied a medical. This is ridiculous…

    Please add your name to the petition if you agree with AOPA and EAA that we need to fix the medical certification process for private pilots.


    David Wiggins

  12. Peter van Schoonhoven
    Peter van Schoonhoven says:

    Nice article….I noticed the examples Dick gives listing some good things the FAA has done ( aside from controller interactions in flight) , the latest one was the creation of TCAs which I think happened over 40 years ago.

  13. Thomas Peterson
    Thomas Peterson says:

    I thought it was interesting that you mentioned that as long as you don’t bend anything you can stay off the FAA’s enforcement radar. I have to fly from place to place from work often and it makes me uncomfortable that there is a bit of bending room when it comes to enforcement. I would love to fly on airlines with trusted pilots who don’t bend the rules to their liking.

  14. Kim Catherine
    Kim Catherine says:

    I have finished this post and am definitely require more!

    I consider myself as a really picky reader and your
    work surpassed my expectations. The very last post I bear in mind to spark typically the
    same thoughts has been https://www.facebook.com/essayprocom/reviews/. Thanks to a new time
    well put in. Keep writing!

Comments are closed.