FAA inspector
5 min read

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.

FAA inspector

I’m from the FAA and I’m here to help – seriously.

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.

William Law
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28 replies
  1. Sam Heiter
    Sam Heiter says:

    Thanks for the reminder Bill, of why we do what we do. I’ve always remembered these words from your Master Pilot Award/Retirement ceremony. Hope retirement is treating you well.

  2. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    Wow. I don’t know what to say. I’ve always considered instructing to be in the same vein as examining and issuing pilots and their licenses respectively: There’s an awesome responsibility in both. It seems fitting to say to you what we say to many other heros: “Thank you for your service.”

  3. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    As an aside, I’ve known eighteen pilots to die in airplanes over the course of my fifty years of flying. Some of these pilots I instructed for a short while. I wonder sometimes if there was something I missed or could have said to prevent them from entering into situations they could not extricate themselves from. All too often we zip through the routine of teaching with a ‘catch as catch can’ philosophy. As my original, ex-navy instructor used to drill into me while pounding determinedly on top of the instrument panel: “Flying is a serious business. If you don’t believe it, then it will prove it to you in your final seconds.”

  4. Phil
    Phil says:

    Great article. As for the pilots with the “arrogant bastards” attitude, if a pilot takes the position “I don’t need anybody telling ME how to fly!”, then who is really being arrogant??
    And those are the pilots who probably most need someone to rein them in.

  5. Lance Wilson
    Lance Wilson says:

    Thank you Bill for what you’ve done. I am not a pilot ( but always wanted to be one) but the work you did made it safe for me to enjoy flying every time I got into an airplane.

  6. Al Browne
    Al Browne says:

    I am writing as a private instrument pilot of 30 years. My wife has recently expressed a higher interest in flying, and finally we purchased a fixed-gear-and-prop Cardinal for her to learn to fly. She has an exceptional instructor and I fly with her as PIC but from the right seat frequently.
    As with all of us whom have been flying for a long time, we have been witness to or at least very aware of friends that have killed themselves in airplanes. My wife is doing quite well with her flying, and I am beginning secretly to dread her solo endorsement. I know I will gut through the process, but I am resisting the temptation to “Mother hen” the situation. Perfection is not achievable for any of us. But knowing when someone is ready to embrace and employ their “License to Learn” is not something I ever want to decide. Hats off to those whom make these decisions daily, and are correct nearly always. It’s a huge responsibility, and must keep them up many nights.

  7. Otto Luft
    Otto Luft says:

    Besides being “arrogant bastards”, is it true that in the first part of FAA training, all of you were issued wheel barrows to learn how to walk upright?

  8. Tom
    Tom says:

    I was once met at the door by one such woman who’s husband was among the “missing”. Heart wrenching. Days later American flight 587 was scattered throughout her neighborhood.
    “They” are always “the arrogant bastards” until: the ‘savings&loans debacle’ crushes the US economy; the ‘dot-com’ bubble crashes the DOW; the ‘crooked E, Global Crossing, Adelphia, MCI, etc’ backrupt their investors and employees; the ‘Deep Water Horizon’ devistates the Gulf Coast; or when Wall Street plunges the world into a Second Great Depression.
    Government and regulation are not the problems. It is that ‘some’ have the resources to beat them into submission (hello Boeing) while the rest of us catch what flows downhill.
    Nobody likes to see the cop with the radar gun but everybody slows down and the road rage subsides.

  9. Tim
    Tim says:

    Are you sure you wanted to put this amazing display of intellect and organized thought out in the public domain?

  10. Zeek
    Zeek says:

    A younger brother was a Security Policeman in the Air Force. After a couple of tours as a flight line security patrolman and dog handler, he was assigned to an aircraft accident investigation team. He doesn’t talk much about that assignment, but it had a perceptible effect on him. Toward the end of that tour, he applied for and received approval for a change of his AFSC—to retail commissary management.

    Thanks for all that you do.

  11. David Yonker
    David Yonker says:

    Yes Thanks for your service Bill. I have had many different instructors over my 40 years of flying single engine planes. I have learned something new from each one of them. I give instruction on watercraft and am shocked at the number of people that don’t hear or believe some of the things you teach them trying to save lives. You just hope at one point they say that guy was right I should have listen better. I have had a number come back and say it happened just like you said it would….so they do remember you just hope they live thru it.

  12. Rick G
    Rick G says:

    That is an interesting view. I too worked for the FAA, with AF. I had done investigations from the desk. There was a crash just down the street from my house and I was first on seen of an aircraft accident where the pilot and passengers were taking there last breaths, the fire department hadn’t even arrived yet. The aircraft was so crushed it was impossible to get them out.
    I too spent my career thinking of ways to make flight safer for everyone. I left many years ago when i realized not everyone in the FAA had my view.

  13. Robert B. Monaghan
    Robert B. Monaghan says:

    Met with Bill Law at Indoctrination FAA Academy in 2002, me as an AS I/SPM, Bill as a budding AS I also. After years of F A A service, we could understand the weight of official attention to aviation safety in its various forms. Very serious stuff.Thanks Don!

  14. Billy
    Billy says:

    Learn something from each flight. When you think you know it all then it’s time to stay on the ground.

  15. Paul
    Paul says:

    I am not an Accident Investigator. However, I have had to visit the scene of several aviation accidents involving fatalities and one with 6 fatalities all burned beyond recognition. Those accident scenes still stand out vividly in my memory and mind’s eye and I hope they have helped me think more about safety and be a safer pilot. I would not wish those experiences on anyone though. Just short of 9,000 hours accumulated in 52 years flying, military and civilian, majority civilian, SE, ME, Rotorcraft, Instrument, military flight instructor.

    • Bob Morrow
      Bob Morrow says:

      First off all, thank you for your service. Over my 50 years of flying airplanes I have had nothing but respect and admiration for you. Just think about where aviation would be if we had no governing authority. Mad Max comes to mind. I have always looked forward to my next encounter with the FAA. Especially if it was too add a new certificate or rating. I mean how often do you get to demonstrate your mastery of flying skills to someone who is in charge of thoroughly evaluating you and either giving a thumbs up or down for your performance? Not that often is the answer.

      I think that those who don’t have this view might be a bit intimidated or put off by anyone with authority. Just about everyone has probably known someone who, let’s just say as an example, doesn’t like police officers. Usually it’s because they are not law abiding citizens.

      Lastly, I have never been a part of an actual crash investigation but have had several pilot friends who were killed in crashes. It’s ugly and I respect and admire you for taking on such a daunting task.

      Enjoy your retirement. It’s well deserved.

  16. Andy Condrey
    Andy Condrey says:

    Although not directly related to the fine work Bill did, I had an occasion to work with the FSDO folks. After starting as a student pilot and then stopping just short of my written and check ride, I decided to renew my student license and finish up. I made an appointment to get it, but the contact person was not there when I arrived. Two of the FAA folks that worked there who don’t usually issue them said they would make sure I was able to get my student license that day. Not totally familiar with the system it took a little longer but, within the hour, I walked away with my certificate. They were great and super nice to work with.

  17. Peter
    Peter says:

    Yes, if we stop everyone from flying, no one will be killed in aircraft accidents. The history of government regulation is replete with examples of perhaps well-intentioned attempts to improve safety. The normal effect is to stifle innovation and often decrease ugh unintended side effects. Sorry to say, the FAA is in the same boat overall, whatever one thinks of an individual who works for them.

  18. Peter
    Peter says:

    Can’t seem to edit, so will correct here. Meant stifle innovation and decrease safety through unintended side efffects.

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