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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Public Service: System Mindset

I know that some of you must think that I’m an anarchist. I have BMW-ed—that’s “bitched, moaned and whined” in California speak—about most of the regulators of aviation at one point or another. Whether it’s the FAA or the NTSB, I have my concerns. After 40-plus years in the helicopter business I have seen instances of abuse of power that reinforces Lord Acton’s (1834-1902) statement that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…”

I hold the belief that it’s not the people in the systems that become abusive; it’s the system they work in that generates that mindset. The overwhelming majorities of the people in these organizations are true believers in professional aviation and have the same flame of enthusiasm that propels most of the folks in the helicopter world.

But there is a subset in all bureaucratic populations that covets power. To them policy is a tool to be used for self-interest, or at least self-aggrandizement. This is really unfortunate because their actions set the tone for all of the participants—both regulators and users—going forward. Early in my career one of the pilots working for the same company as myself was assigned to one of our remote bases for the day while the aircraft assigned to that base was in maintenance. The pilot flew a Bell Jet Ranger from our home base to the remote base and started moving folks on and off an oil platform located about four miles offshore.

On one of the flights while at the platform, a rear door opening mechanism failed internally in the closed position. After inspecting the door the pilot realized that he couldn’t fix it so he put one passenger in the front left seat and returned to base. When he arrived at the satellite base, he called home to our director of maintenance (DOM) who told him to ground the aircraft and that he would have a replacement door flown to a nearby airport so that the broken door could be replaced.

The next thing the pilot knew, an FAA inspector shows up and demands to see the logbooks on the helicopter, which were of course at the home base where they belonged. The pilot then got a call back from our DOM instructing the pilot to fly the helicopter by himself to the airport. The airplane with the door was enroute and should be at the airport within 30 minutes.

The pilot did as instructed, flew to the airport and was immediately met on the ramp by another FAA inspector who promptly violated him for flying an aircraft with an inoperative emergency exit. Never mind that there is absolutely no way for the pilot to access the rear door to exit the aircraft even in an emergency. The pilot went to FAA court—you know, the one where they set the rules, own the court you’re playing on, employ the referees and change the size of the basketball, and hoop depending on what section of the country you’re in. The pilot lost two months of flying privileges in the months of June and July. Back in those days a pilot’s income was heavily based on summer time contract work so this fellow probably lost a third of a year’s salary.

Does anyone really think that the FAA’s mandate of enhancing safety in civil aviation was furthered by this nonsense? Do you think that the FAA’s action caused any of the pilots that were familiar with the facts of this case to trust or respect the FAA to a greater degree?

All of this brings me to a message I got from the Helicopter Association International (HAI) suggesting support for the House of Representatives Bill 3816, authored by Rep. Samuel Graves (R-Mo.) and the concurring bill in the Senate 1335 by Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.). The bill titled “The Pilots Bill of Rights” provides for the following changes to current FAA practices. Greater access to information during the investigation of enforcement proceedings, with a stipulated time requirement in which the government must respond before it can proceed. These bills require the FAA to initiate a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) upgrade program that will provide the pilot with more timely and pertinent information. These bills also require greater clarity in the FAA medical certification process.

The bill is 10 pages long and an easy read; imagine that, I can’t do it justice in the space allowed here. You will probably waste a lot more time on the Internet today than having the discipline to read this bill and send your opinion to your federal representatives. My take on all of this: What a shame that all of this is necessary in the first place.

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