In the 1970s and 80s, I was fulfilling my aviation dream in the world of corporate aviation. For some of those who have been there or are there now, it can be a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes when things got sluggish, a company would seek an Air Taxi and Commercial Operator Certificate under CFR 135 (much to the bane of the flight department pilots). Apparently, a certificate had certain tax advantages that seemed appealing to a corporate CFO, and could allegedly save the company money. More important to me, it allowed the flight department to survive.
A few of the corporate pilots within my flight department had previously been that route with other companies. Several expressed a fear of having to deal with the FAA in a new and regular way; often referring to the local FSDO inspectors as a “bunch of arrogant bastards.” To them, there was rarely any comfort in having to deal with the local FSDO.
As a result, I now became very familiar with the FAA’s “CFR 135 Proficiency Check” rides. Since the local FSDO did not have a qualified inspector to conduct checks in the make/model aircraft that I was flying, they had to solicit other FSDOs for an inspector that was qualified. This only added to the frustration and apprehension of having to deal with someone new every time a proficiency check ride came due.
At one point, I asked the Operations Supervisor at the local FSDO about becoming a Designated Pilot Examiner to help serve the local need and reduce costs to the FAA by not having to seek outside assistance. Instead, the Operations Supervisor suggested I apply to the FAA to become an Operations Inspector, since the FAA was looking for qualified applicants.
I was at first amused by the suggestion, but did express an interest. Six months later, I got a call from the supervisor asking if I had completed the application. I can’t remember the excuse I offered at being so reticent, but assured him I would get right on it.
The company I was flying for had put their aircraft on the market, thus fate took over my decision to apply. Not long after, I completed the interview process and was sent a starting date.
The first year was spent going through the FAA’s “charm school” at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma. Most of my fellow inspector classmates were also in their mid-40s. We all shared the feeling that we were out to protect the aviation world and make flying safer.
After the first year, I looked back as I thought about the opinion that my former corporate pilot associates had: that FAA operations inspectors were a “bunch of arrogant bastards.” I came to the conclusion that they were probably right. Now, please stay with me as I explain why I shared this opinion.
FAA inspectors are some of the few that are exposed to aviation’s “dark side.” None of my former corporate aviation coworkers had ever been out on a fatal accident investigation. Trust me, there is nothing that can prepare you for being out in the middle of nowhere looking at twisted metal (that looks nothing like an airplane) and the gruesome remains where a pilot and his passengers experienced their last moment on earth.
I can vividly recall the first fatal accident I investigated. The pilot, a very successful individual, had learned to fly while in college. According to his family, he always dreamed of the day he would have his own aircraft. He was rapidly climbing the corporate ladder and had reached that point in his career where he could afford his own airplane without adversely affecting his lifestyle. He was happily married with two daughters, ages 6 and 8.
As a private pilot, he had approximately 150 hours, mostly in Piper Cherokees. He had a tailwheel endorsement in a Piper J-3 Cub. I can only assume that he was going through a mid-life crisis, since, of all the aircraft that he considered, he ended up purchasing a high performance single-place homebuilt aircraft. It was much like a tiny Lamborghini with wings. I assume that he rationalized that all aircraft operate using the same basic controls, and that it would only take some getting used to.
On a beautiful clear Saturday morning, he departed on his very first flight in his newly-acquired aircraft. There were no observers at the small airport. The airport had no FBO or flight school. He never returned to the airport. It was two days before the wreckage was discovered. The aircraft had experienced an in-flight breakup. The only witness to the crash said that he thought it was a radio-controlled model airplane and did not realize that some actual aircraft are quite small.
Another inspector and I had to get the aircraft records and pilot logbooks. When we showed up at the pilot’s residence, the new widow and two small girls met us at the door. You could immediately tell that they had been crying non-stop for the past 48 hours. Their lives had now been changed forever. It was absolutely gut-wrenching for me since I had two children of my own. Nothing in my FAA training had prepared me to deal with this kind of raw emotion.
I look back at my 23 years with the FAA and all of the fatal accidents that I have investigated. You never get over the trauma. You swear that you will do everything you can to prevent accidents from ever happening. You hesitate before you issue any airman a pilot certificate or a company an operating certificate. You hesitate because you want to be absolutely sure that they will operate as safely as possible. And yes, sometimes in the process, you will be perceived as an arrogant bastard.