ADS-B: Now or Later?

Dynon glass panel with ADS-B weather displayed

I’ve been seeing more and more opinions from aviation writers about how aircraft owners should be equipping their ships for ADS-B sooner rather than later. The reasoning goes like this: the market for ADS-B compliant products is mature and competitive, so prices aren’t likely to decline much further. And if you wait until closer to 2020, you’ll be caught in a mad rush of owners trying to comply with the mandate and find it virtually impossible to get an appointment with the avionics shop.

Call me skeptical. Oh, not about the slow process at the shop — that part I can very much believe. But we’re talking about a piece of computer technology here. Five years is an eternity for electronics in general, and computer components in particular. Look how far glass panel avionics have come in the last half-decade. You get twice the product at one-third the price today.

Compare the $50,000 price of the ubiquitous G1000 with the new Garmin G3X Touch, for example. These products get cheaper while they add ever more features. It’s not one or the other — you get both at the same time. If I had told you in 2009 that a G3X Touchscreen system with synthetic vision, video input, a built-in WAAS GPS receiver, ADAHRS, magnetometer, OAT probe, and engine sensor interface would be available in just a few years for $6,000, you’d probably have said I was crazy. Most of today’s ADS-B-compliant offerings cost more than that all by themselves. But here we are, and I can’t help but wonder what will be available in five more years. I’m betting it’s going to be more powerful and reliable while costing less than existing boxes.

Another reason to delay: the Rule That Will Not Change may very well (wait for it) change. The FAA has been taking a hard line on that, claiming it will not under any circumstances consider a delay in the mandate’s effective date. But even the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has been witheringly critical. And let’s face it, the FAA is not known for completing their projects on time. “But this time will be different!”, the Administrator proclaims. We’ll see.

The Feds are also under pressure from EAA, AOPA, and others who are making a pretty air-tight case about the damage this will do to the GA rank-and-file.

[AOPA's] letter noted that the minimum investment of $5,000 to $6,000 to install ADS-B Out equipment is “far too high” for many GA operators, especially given that the general aviation fleet includes at least 81,564 certified, piston-powered, fixed-wing aircraft that are valued at $40,000 or less and GA owners have no way to recoup their costs. The actual number of GA aircraft valued at or below $40,000 could be much higher if experimental aircraft are also taken into account. Pushing ahead with the mandate as written will ground thousands of general aviation aircraft at a time when the industry is just beginning to recover from the recession.

It’s also worth noting that today’s ADS-B solutions are not always an appropriate fit for today’s aircraft. A good example of that would be a Pitts biplane. Where are you supposed to put all that equipment? If you’re choking down the bill for ADS-B Out, wouldn’t you want the “free” traffic and weather data that come with the expenditure? Take a look at this Pitts instrument panel and think about where you’d put a display — portable or otherwise. And keep in mind, there’s nothing extraneous there. Just about everything you see there is required by Part 91 for day VFR flying.

A typical Pitts instrument panel.  Not exactly tailor-made for the ADS-B era, is it?

A typical Pitts instrument panel. Not exactly tailor-made for the ADS-B era, is it?

Many airplanes are going to have this problem. It’s not limited to piston powered airplanes, either. I know several Gulfstream IV operators who aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to spend $1 million equipping their $3 million airplane (yes, that’s what some older G-IVs are worth these days) for ADS-B. They have other mandates on the horizon as well, including ADS-Contract and CPDLC, and must comply with the minimum equipment requirements for all the places they fly. To call it complicated would be an understatement. In fact, this is just as big a problem for the legacy jet fleet as it is for the light GA piston fleet. I’ve said it before and I’ll said it again: aviation’s fortunes are inexorably linked, whether you’re operating a bizjet, trainer, airliner, or ultralight. What affects one of us affects all of us.

Here’s something else to think about: even if the deadline slips a bit, the technical ADS-B requirements are not likely to change, so building a product that complies with the minimum ADS-B “Out” specifications should not only get cheaper as time goes on, but also come to market at a faster rate than we’ve seen with other avionics. Just a few days ago, for example, Garmin announced a (relatively) low-cost ADS-B solution that doesn’t required a multi-function display at all.

Most avionics upgrades are optional. This one is mandatory, so there’s a captive market out there and it’s logical to assume every OEM wants a piece of it. Technological progress aside, competition tends to drive prices down, not up. Is it crazy to think ADS-B solutions will be selling for half the GDL-84’s announced $4,000 price by the time 2020 rolls around?

Even if the price doesn’t go down a penny, inflation alone will shave off another ten percent of the effective cost between now and then, and give aircraft owners more time to save up. Flying is certainly not getting any cheaper, but if there’s one area where your money goes further than ever, it’s avionics — especially if you’re blessed with an “Experimental” placard.

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t schedule a date with your avionics shop for compliance, but if it was me, I’d be waiting until a lot closer to the deadline before pulling the trigger on equipment choices. Nobody can predict the future, but when it comes to avionics, you can feel pretty confident that the choices in 2020 are going to be less expensive and more capable than anything available today.

Trust Us — We’re Professionals

ipad-flight-deck

I’ve seen some ill-conceived policies emanate from the FAA over the course of my professional flying career. Some diktats are just busy work, while others fail to achieve an otherwise admirable end. But the worst are those that create the very hazard they are supposed to prevent.

Case in point: the recent adoption of 14 CFR 121.542(d), which prohibits the use of any personal electronic devices in flight. According to the FAA, this rule is “intended to ensure that non-essential activities do not affect flight deck task management or cause a loss of situational awareness during aircraft operation.”

Sounds great on the surface, doesn’t it? I mean, who could possibly oppose a rule which the Feds ostensibly see as the aeronautical equivalent of a ban on texting while driving? Keeping distractions at bay and pilots focused on flying has got to be a wonderful enhancement for safety.

But it’s not. The flight profiles of airlines, cargo haulers, charter companies, fractionals, corporate flight departments, and even private GA operators often dictate long stretches of straight-and-level flight with the autopilot on. Surely the FAA is aware of this. Now add in circadian rhythm issues associated with overnight flights, a dark cockpit with minimal radio traffic, and a flight crew pairing who have run out of things to talk about. There’s nothing to do but stare off into the inky darkness for hour upon hour. It’s a recipe for falling asleep.

Say what you will about distractions on the flight deck, but I’d much rather see a pilot peruse an issue of AOPA Pilot while in cruise than to have that individual zoned out or inadvertently napping. For one thing, the process of waking up takes time, whereas an alert human need only change focus. We already do that dozens of times on every flight anyway. Check in on the engine instruments, then answer a question from a passenger, then look out the window, then consult a chart. We do this all day long.

Is there much difference between reading a magazine and delving into the minutia of some random page of the Jeppesen manual when they’re both a form of busy work to keep the mind engaged during slow periods in cruise? I sincerely doubt a roundtable of experts in automation and human factors would have come up with a PED ban.

I can understand prohibiting them below, say, 10,000′ when the sterile cockpit rule is in effect. That’s a busy time for pilots, and non-essential items are naturally stowed at that point anyway. But electronic devices in and of themselves can be helpful in staving off the ultimate distraction. “Flight to Safety” author and Airbus pilot Karlene Petitt said it best:

Numerous studies have shown that one of the tips to help fall to sleep is to NOT watch television or work on your computer at a minimum of an hour before bedtime. The light suppresses melatonin production and stimulates brain activity. I’m not sure about you, but I want my pilots alert with stimulated brains. Give them something to do to keep them awake.

As many of you have probably noted, this rule is located in Part 121 and therefore only applies to scheduled airlines. From maintenance requirements to medical certification, their regs are the strictest around, so perhaps this seems much ado about nothing for a general aviation audience. But the FAA is of the opinion that this limitation should reach a lot further than United and Delta:

Recommended Actions: This prohibition on personal use of electronic devices on the flight deck in the final rule is applicable only to operations under part 121. However, Directors of Safety and training managers for all operators under parts 135 and 125, as well as part 91K, are encouraged to include operating procedures in their manuals and crewmember training programs prohibiting flightcrew members from using such devices for personal use during aircraft operation.

Will this eventually reach down to Part 91? Who knows. Even if it doesn’t, the real problem is that the FAA is spoon-feeding each and every individual action and prohibition to us without making allowances for the differences inherent in each type of operation. One-size-fits-all is wonderful for tube socks and scarves, but when it comes to flight safety, it’s just bad policy.

The smart way to go about this would be to leave it to the individual company, flight department and/or individual to determine what PED policy best serves the cause of safety. If you’re Southwest Airlines or a charter operator company flying VLJs, you probably aren’t flying long-haul trips and might be fine with reasonable PED limitations. Certainly using them below 10,000′ could be prohibited. But if you’re flying international cargo in a jumbo jet or hopping continents in a Global 5000 on legs of twelve or thirteen hours? That personal electronic device could be incredibly helpful in maintaining alertness.

Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, pilots are a professional lot who can be trusted to make their own decisions about portable electronic devices.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

A Stab in the Back

After a long night of flying, we were rewarded with this brilliant sunrise as we passed over Manhattan at 3,000 feet.

“Jeez, this is the worst muscle pull ever“, I thought while squirming uncomfortably on the bed in my hotel room. It was eight o’clock in the morning and we had just arrived in New York after flying a red-eye trip from Los Angeles. The transcontinental journey was smooth and quiet, our passengers snoozing in a dark cabin the whole night while we kept watch up front. The sky was just beginning to lighten when we shut down on the Atlantic ramp at Long Island’s historic Republic Airport and wished our sleepy customers a good morning as they trudged down the airstair and into the FBO .

Although it’s been defunct for decades, one can feel the heavy weight of the airport’s legendary namesake hanging in the air like a ghost on those misty early-morning arrivals into FRG. Republic Aviation first appeared on the scene there in the mid-1930’s, and over the next three decades built some of the most famous aircraft in history. The P-47 Thunderbolt, F-105 Thunderchief, A-10 Warthog, and even the pudgy-looking RC-3 Seabee amphibian. Eventually, the post-Vietnam downsizing of the U.S. military claimed the storied Republic factory, but the airport still stands as a testament to What Was.

F-105 Thunderchiefs under construction at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale, NY.  Though it acquired the unflattering nickname "Thud", the 105 was a capable fighter-bomber which served from 1958 to 1984.

F-105 Thunderchiefs under construction at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale, NY. Though it acquired the unflattering nickname “Thud”, the 105 was a capable fighter-bomber which served from 1958 to 1984.

We blasting out of Long Island, witnessing a brilliant sunrise during the relatively low-altitude repositioning flight to Teterboro, New Jersey. After hours spent staring into the dark sky, it was a welcome and well-deserved treat to be vectored directly over Manhattan at 3,000 feet while the amber hues of a fresh day splashed nature’s wake-up call across earth and sky.

If there’s one positive aspect of overnight flights, it’s the opportunity to witness a beautiful sunrise. Sunsets are okay too, but when you’re heading westbound they tend to last for hours and remain directly in your face as you race the time zones backwards. No matter how exhilarating, eventually they become too much of a good thing, especially when you’re 45,000 feet up and above much of the protective atmosphere. In fact, if you’re traveling fast enough, the sun will actually come back up while heading west. It must be strange enjoying a complete sunset twice on the same day. As supersonic business jets become a reality, I hope I’ll get to experience that first-hand.

I assume that "big apple" everyone's always talking about must be down there in Central Park somewhere...

I assume that “big apple” everyone’s always talking about must be down there in Central Park somewhere…

A Pain in the… Back

Anyway, I helped offload what felt like a quarter-ton of awkward baggage from the Gulfstream’s aft compartment before retiring to the Marriott. It was shortly after checking in to my room that the lower left area of my back began to ache. “Probably strained it lifting those bags”, I assumed.

Sitting in a seat for five hours and then hopping up to immediately start moving baggage is a good way to hurt yourself, especially in the ergonomically-incorrect confines of the -IV’s cargo area. It’s essentially a walk-in closet-sized space with a flat floor but constantly curving walls and ceiling. You’re literally putting square pegs into a round hole, and loading or unloading things doesn’t always allow for proper lifting posture. “Well, it’s not the first time I’ve tweaked my back, and I’m sure it won’t be the last”, I thought.

I took a couple of ibuprofen, expecting them to relieve the pain. But they seemed to have the opposite effect. If anything the pulsing discomfort of the strained muscles actually got worse, and no matter what position I’d sit, stand, or lie in there was no relief. “I must have really messed myself up somehow…”

It went on like that for a good hour or two before the pain finally subsided. It seemed logical that the discomfort might prevent the strained muscle from relaxing, so I resolved to take it easy for the rest of the day and allow the pulled muscle to heal. A bit of careful stretching and some hot water from the shower seemed to help, and eventually the pain went away. The rest of the trip was uneventful and I considered the issue resolved.

Later that week, my wife and I spent the day at her brother’s house in Topanga Canyon celebrating our niece’s birthday. That evening, we headed downtown to see LA Opera’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It took a while to get used to Previn’s style, and from where we were sitting the orchestra — located on the stage instead of in the pit — overshadowed the singers, but Renée Fleming still gave an an outstanding performance as Blanche. The role was written specifically for her, and it’s easy to see why.

After the performance, we returned to Topanga and as we were staying our goodbyes to the family, that dull aching pain slowly came back. What the heck is going on here, I wondered? Was it from sitting for three hours at the Dorothy Chandler? It was a mystery to me how I could have re-injured myself.

Eureka!

As we drove home, I suffered more and more as the ride progressed. Kristi and I tried to figure out what was going on. Knowing where the pain was located, and she mused out loud about the various body parts located in that region. I was only half-listening when she mentioned something about the kidney — and like a flash it hit me: I must have a kidney stone!

I’d had one about twenty years earlier, before I started flying. I reported it on my very first medical application (and every one thereafter via the “previously reported–no change” schtick). It never prevented me from obtaining any class of medical certification, although the FAA’s aeromedical branch did send a letter asking for a couple of tests back when I first started flying.

As luck would have it, my ‘eureka’ moment occurred on a Friday evening at the start of a three-day weekend. I phoned my doctor’s office and received a return call from a nurse who basically said I’d have to wait until Tuesday to even schedule an appointment. Four days! And who knows when I’d be able to get on the doctor’s calendar.

An urgent care center wasn’t going to be much help, because they wouldn’t have x-ray or CT machines. The only timely option for determining what was going on would be an emergency room visit. At first I demurred. Even with insurance, a short trip to the ER can easily cost a thousand dollars. I’d seen that first-hand. But the following morning the pain was still there, so Kristi dutifully drove me to the Hoag Hospital in Irvine and within 30 minutes had confirmation of my suspicions: a kidney stone.

Kidney stones rarely present pain in the  kidney or bladder.  It's the tiny tube connecting the two that's the problem.

Kidney stones rarely present pain in the kidney or bladder. It’s the tiny tube connecting the two that’s the problem.

That was the bad news. The good news is that it was fairly small and located at the bottom of the ureter, the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder. These little rocks only cause pain when they’re stuck in the ureter; once they pass into the bladder, you’re home free. The doctor estimated that the stone would be gone within a day or two, so he prescribed a pain killer and sent me on my way with a fine strainer to urinate through in order to catch the tiny object when it exited the body. In theory, the stone can be analyzed by a lab in order to determine why it formed.

Sure enough, a couple of days later that damned thing passed, just as the doctor said it would. The chief pilot at my company swears up and down that drinking a Coke helps a stone pass. He said it worked for him. Just to be on the safe side, I did drink one and the stone went the next day. Of course, the ER doctor said it would happen quickly, so who knows.

It was a huge relief, and not just because the pain was gone. As a contract pilot, I am not entitled to any sick pay, paid time off, or other benefits aside from those I purchase on my own dime, and since I obviously wasn’t going to fly with a kidney stone, I was out of work until the situation was resolved.

Honesty is the Best Policy

The FAA allows a pilot to return to the cockpit once the stone is gone, but my episode happened to coincide with the expiration of my first class medical certificate, so I had to start thinking about the hurdles inherent in renewing that important little scrap of paper. It’s just as well because I would have to deal with it sooner or later anyway, and after an hour or two of research I realized that with a bit of forethought and planning, I could get the required tests done and obtain my new first class medical without too much delay.

After a kidney stone episode, the next medical renewal will require a KUB x-ray study to prove you are stone-free, as well as a few simple blood tests and an analysis from a urologist about the possibility of complications or kidney damage. Between the internet, AOPA’s medical specialists, and a good Aviation Medical Examiner, I was able to arrange the required exams and obtain the necessary documentation within a few days.

There’s no doubt that medical certification can be a pain in the rear, even if you’re in perfect health. It’s expensive, time consuming, and there’s plenty of debate about whether it even contributes to flight safety. That’s why there’s a a bill working it’s way through Congress to abolish the 3rd class medical: decades of glider and LSA pilot flying have shown that medical incapacitation is no more likely without medical certification requirements than with it.

This logic can tempt a pilot to omit portions of his or her medical history from their application. Though I’m not a supporter of medical certification for non-commercial aviators, it’s penny wise/pound foolish to do this, especially in an era of computerized databases. It’s easy for omissions to come back and bite you later. The penalties are severe and can include revocation of the pilot certificate itself.

One guy I knew omitted a health issue from his application and the Feds found out about it later by cross-referencing databases from different federal agencies in search of disability fraud. Though he never claimed disability, the omission came to light and caused him a world of headaches. Incidentally, he found the database cross-referencing to be illegal and sued the government. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anyway, a smart aviator will leverage the plethora of available resources to learn the FAA’s requirements and ensure the required data is on hand before going to see the AME. All the tools you need are out there. I know pilots who have had major brain surgery, organ transplants, weird blackout episodes, and more who still managed to get their medical certificates back. Color blind pilots, pilots with no arms, and even those who once took heavy medication for depression have obtained medicals. These days even some diabetics can get a certificate. But you have to know what you’re doing.

Charging into an AME’s office unprepared is asking to have your medical deferred to Oklahoma City, and that lands you in a bureaucratic hell consisting of delays and demands from people you cannot speak to directly and will never meet face-to-face.

The Great Mystery

Even physicians admit that they don’t always know what causes kidney stones. I read that one-quarter of the population will have them at some point in their lives. In my case, I have a theory: I think it has to do with the long-haul charter trips I’m doing these days. Or rather, my behavior on those trips.

I just got back from one where we flew nearly 12 hours (only 10 under Part 135, of course) over an 16+ hour duty day. While I’m well aware that the dry air and high cabin altitude cause dehydration, I never drink anywhere near enough water because I hate having to use the lavatory too often. And when I do drink fluids, on overnight flights it’s often something caffeinated to help keep me alert. Dehydration is a prime culprit for the formation of kidney stones because it allows the minerals being filtered by the kidneys to accumulate in sufficient quantities to crystallize.

Most people don’t drink enough water. I’m trying to be better about it, though. Since the kidney stone passed, a reusable plastic water bottle has been on hand everywhere I go. My brother-in-law had given us a reverse osmosis system for our kitchen, so we finally got that installed. I didn’t realize what a difference it would make in the taste of the water! We used to keep a Brita pitcher on hand, thinking that would remove most of the impurities, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the reverse osmosis process.

Women who have had them say kidney stones are as painful as childbirth. I can’t say with 100% certainty that upping my water intake will keep them at bay forever, but I’m going to give it my best shot. Kidney stones are the pits — literally.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

gulfstream-centerline

For as long as I can remember, “no news” has been “good news” when it comes to rules and regulations in the world of aviation. From field approval policy to sleep apnea to CBP searches and security theatre, any diktat emanating from Washington or Oklahoma City was sure to involve increasing demands of time and money while diminishing the usefulness and enjoyment of general aviation. That was the trend.

What a breath of fresh air it is, then, to hear of a well-suported and coordinated effort in both houses of Congress to enact legislation which would eliminate formal medical certification for many aviators.

Like the House bill, the new Senate legislation would exempt pilots who make noncommercial VFR flights in aircraft weighing up to 6,000 pounds with no more than six seats from the third-class medical certification process. Pilots would be allowed to carry up to five passengers, fly at altitudes below 14,000 feet msl, and fly no faster than 250 knots.

When the bill was first offered in the House of Representatives as the General Aviation Pilot Protection Act, it seemed like a long shot. Congress is not a known for acting boldly to free Americans from the heavy yoke of regulation, so one could be forgiven for not getting their hopes up. But now things are different: there’s a matching bill in the Senate, the House iteration has 52 co-sponsors, and the Congressional General Aviation Caucus has grown to more than 250 members.

Is it a done deal, then? Not at all. There’s no guarantee of passage or that President Obama would even sign the bill into law. But the sponsors and caucus members represent a good mix from across the political spectrum, and there are no special interests of any significance who benefit from the medical certification machinery, so I believe the prospects are encouraging.

This Pilot Protection Act is exceptional for several reasons. First, it goes far beyond even the historically pie-in-the-sky proposal fronted collectively by AOPA and EAA. When was the last time that happened? I can’t recall a single example. Typically we’ll ask for X and end up feeling extraordinary fortunate to get even half of it.

That AOPA/EAA submission, by the way, has languished on the FAA’s desk for two years and has yet to be acted upon by the agency. If one needed proof of just how sclerotic the bureaucratic machine has become, this is it. The delay is egregious enough to have warranted an official apology from FAA Administrator Huerta.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that this is a legislative move rather than a regulatory one. It’s an important distinction, because regulations are instituted with relative impunity by agencies like the FAA, while Congress passes laws that are not nearly as vulnerable to bureaucratic vagaries. In other words, if the FAA instituted the very same change in medical certification through regulatory channels, they could alter or reverse those improvements just as easily. A law, on the other hand, should prove far more durable since the Feds must comply with it whether they like it or not.

It’s a shame that this common-sense change requires a literal Act of Congress. And what does it say about the FAA that a body with 9% approval rating is coming to the rescue of the private pilot? Were it to remain in the FAA’s corner, this medical exemption would probably never see the light of day. I don’t just mean that it would not be approved, I mean it would never even be acted upon at all.

There is a certain schadenfreude which comes from watching the FAA, which is known for soliciting comments from the aviation industry only to ignore that input, suffer the same fate at the hands of the House and Senate. My only question is: what took so long? The last time Congress lent the industry a helping hand was with the General Aviation Revitalization Act. That was in 1994 — twenty years ago. While I’m thankful they’re finally getting off the bench and into the game, this boost is long overdue. I sincerely hope they will not only see it through, but look for other ways to help bring a uniquely American industry back from the brink.

An easing of the medical certification requirements will not fix all of GA’s woes. But if the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, perhaps this will at least get us headed in the right direction.

One final note: if you haven’t called your Representative and Senators to express strong support for H.R. 3708 and S. 2103, respectively, please do so! Unlike FAA employees, these folks are up for re-election in eight months. The closer we get to November, the more likely they are to listen.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2014/03/19/journey/.

Time for a Shakeup

ntsb-board

Last November the Federal Air Surgeon, Fred Tilton, unilaterally declared that mandatory screening for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in pilots would begin “shortly”.

The initial BMI threshold would be 40, with an ominous vow that “once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA.”

Tilton noted that “up to 30% of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA”. Between the fact that people with normal-range BMIs have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and his apparent zest for uncovering “every” airman with OSA, logic dictates that the eventual threshold would be in the mid-20s, if not lower.

The aviation community was up in arms pretty quickly, and for good reason. For one thing, the mid-20s are the upper end of the normal BMI range. It’s also worth noting that even the World Health Organization acknowledges that the BMI scale was never designed for application to individual people, but rather for statistical modeling of entire populations. BMI is based solely on weight and height, so it does not account for differing body types. Nor does it obey the law of scaling, which dictates that mass increases to the 3rd power of height.

In plain English, a bigger person will always have a higher BMI even if they are not any fatter. This penalizes tall individuals, as well as bodybuilders and athletes who are in prime physical shape by assigning them absurdly high BMI numbers. Likewise, short people are misled into thinking that they are thinner than they are.

Nevertheless, Tilton declared his intention to press on anyway, without any industry input or following established rulemaking procedures despite the fact that this scavenger hunt would break invasive new ground in aeromedical certification.

Then, even the Aviation Medical Examiners objected to the new policy, noting that “no scientific body of evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA has compromised aviation safety” and that providing long term prognoses is not part of the FAA’s job. The medical certification exists soley to “determine the likelihood of pilot incapacitation for the duration of the medical certificate.”

Without the support of the civil aviation medicine community, Tilton was literally standing alone. At that point, Congress jumped into the fray on the pilot community’s behalf and eventually forced the Air Surgeon to back down… for now.

While the battle may have been won, the war is far from over. Mark my words, this is not the last you’ll hear about this bogeyman. Tilton may be forced to consult with the aviation community or follow a rulemaking procedure of some sort, but his zeal for the topic means OSA screening will be back in one form or another.

To effectively combat such overreach, we’ve got to attack the problem from it’s true source. In this case, the Air Surgeon’s ammunition came from National Transportation Safety Board recommendations issued in the wake of a 2008 regional airline flight which overflew its destination by 26 miles when both pilots fell asleep.

… the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration:

Modify the Application for Airman Medical Certificate to elicit specific information about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea and about the presence of specific risk factors for that disorder. (A-09-61)

Implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea and require that those pilots provide evidence through the medical certification process of having been appropriately evaluated and, if treatment is needed, effectively treated for that disorder before being granted unrestricted medical certification. (A-09-62)

The NTSB serves a useful purpose in assisting transportation disaster victims and investigating accidents, but when it comes to safety recommendations, the agency operates in a kind of vacuum, divorced from some of the most pressing realities of the modern general aviation world. The reason is simple: their mission statement. It calls for the Board to “independently advance transportation safety” by “determining the probable cause of the accidents and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.”

While there’s nothing objectionable about their mission, note how there’s no mention of the cost these recommendations impose on those of us trying to make a go of it in the flying industry. Since it’s not part of their mission statement, it is not a factor the Board takes into account. It doesn’t even appear on their radar. The Board’s federal funding and their lack of rulemaking authority negates any such considerations. So a sleep apnea study costs thousands of dollars — so what? If it prevents one pilot from falling asleep in the cockpit in next half century, it’s well worth the decimation to an already down-and-out sector of the economy.

That’s been the logic for the NTSB since it was conceived by the Air Commerce Act in 1926. It worked well when aerospace safety was at its nadir — but that was nearly ninety years ago. As air transportation evolved during the 20th century, attempts at increasing safety have reached the point of diminishing returns and exponentially increasing cost. At some point the incessant press toward a perfect safety record will make aviating such a sclerotic activity that it will, in effect, cease.

It’s a problem for any industry, and it’s especially so for one that’s teetering on the edge of oblivion the way ours is. The good news is that this can be fixed. It’s time to shake things up at the NTSB by revising their mission statement to make cost analysis a major part of the Board’s function. They should work with stakeholders to carefully study the long-term effect each recommendation would have on the health and size of the aviation industry before they make it.

For what it’s worth, the FAA needs this mission statement adjustment just as much as the NTSB. More, in fact, because the NTSB can recommend anything it wishes, but the regulatory power to act upon those suggestions is outside their purview and rests with the Federal Aviation Administration. From medical approval to burdensome aircraft certification rules, the FAA is the hammer. We have to start somewhere, though, and the NTSB is in many ways the top of the heap, the place where these ideas get their start. It would be nice to see the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C. suggest such a bill to members of Congress.

One final thought: if government’s power really does derive from the “consent of the governed”, this should be an idea even the NTSB (and FAA) can get behind. Otherwise, they may convene one day and find that there’s not much of an industry left for them to prescribe things to.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog at http://blog.aopa.org/opinionleaders/2014/01/22/time-for-a-shakeup/.