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/.

Aviation Myths, Part 1

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Over the past decade and a half I’ve been keeping a mental list of frequently encountered misconceptions about flying. For some reason, I recently Googled “aviation myths” and found quite a few articles on the topic and it inspired me to finally set my own list to virtual “paper”.

This list is not exhaustive, but it does represent the myths I encounter most frequently. Some of these are misconceptions held by non-pilots, others are more common among student aviators or even experienced professionals. I’ve written about a few of these in the past, but thought it might be worthwhile to throw the whole list out there for others to chew on. I’m planning to make this a three-part series, with five myths per post.

Have you encountered any of these before? Do you disagree with any of them? If so, I’d love to get your feedback. OK, here we go!

Myth #1: Logging “actual IMC” is only allowed when flying in clouds or low visibility.

Some aviation myths and misconceptions are absurd while others are entirely understandable. This one falls into the latter category. Even a non-pilot would find it logical to assume that logging flight time in the “actual IMC” column would require one to actually fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Thankfully for those of you who are attempting to build instrument time, it ain’t necessarily so.

14 CFR 61.51(g) states that “A person may log instrument time only for that flight time when the person operates the aircraft solely by reference to instruments under actual or simulated instrument flight conditions.” In other words, any time conditions are such that maintaining control of the aircraft by outside visual reference is in serious doubt and the instruments are used in lieu of those references, one may log actual IMC flight time.

The classic example of this situation is flying on a dark, moonless night over unlighted terrain (desert, ocean, mountains, etc). If John F. Kennedy, Jr. had realized this, he might be alive today. He took off from New York and headed toward the island of Martha’s Vineyard on just such a night. The reported and actual visibility was far above VFR minimums. In fact it was a CAVU night. Unfortunately, without any discernible horizon to look at, his situation required flying on the instruments. It’s not something primary or instrument instructors often pass along to their students, but we should.

If my word isn’t sufficient on this issue, here’s an excerpt from an FAA legal opinion issued by the agency’s Assistant Chief Counsel.

As you know, Section 61.51(c)(4) provides rules for the logging of instrument flight time which may be used to meet the requirements of a certificate or rating, or to meet the recent flight experience requirements of Part 61. That section provides in part, that a pilot may log as instrument flight time only that time during which he or she operates the aircraft solely by reference to instruments, under actual (instrument meteorological conditions (imc)) or simulated instrument flight conditions.

“Simulated” instrument conditions occur when the pilot’s vision outside of the aircraft is intentionally restricted, such as by a hood or goggles. “Actual” instrument flight conditions occur when some outside conditions make it necessary for the pilot to use the aircraft instruments in order to maintain adequate control over the aircraft. Typically, these conditions involve adverse weather conditions.

To answer your first question, actual instrument conditions may occur in the case you described a moonless night over the ocean with no discernible horizon, if use of the instruments is necessary to maintain adequate control over the aircraft. The determination as to whether flight by reference to
instruments is necessary is somewhat subjective and based in part on the sound judgment of the pilot.

Note that, under Section 61.51(b)(3), the pilot must log the conditions of the flight. The log should include the reasons for determining that the flight was under actual instrument conditions in
case the pilot later would be called on to prove that the actual instrument flight time logged was legitimate.

I have logged actual IMC this way. Once you leave the Los Angeles basin, flying over the desert southwest on moonless nights can necessitate being on the gauges every bit as much as flying in a cloud. Even if there is some moonlight or a small town out there, the ambient light put out by today’s glass panels can obliterate the view out the windscreen. In those cases it’s completely legitimate and proper to claim that time in your logbook.

Myth #2: Flying without appropriate charts is illegal.

In my experience, this is one of the most pervasive myths out there. As with logging actual IMC, it makes sense. Why wouldn’t the FAA require pilots to carry current versions of whatever pertinent charts applied to their route of flight?

Answer: 14 CFR 91.103 already requires pilots to becoming familiar with “all available information” concerning a flight. How an aviator obtains that information is up to them. Simply requiring a person to carry a large folded piece of paper isn’t going to necessarily familiarize them with anything. Believe me, as an instructor, I see that truism put to the test every day. I’ve seen pilots with a 14″ color moving map display have absolutely no idea where they were or where they were going.

As far as the charts are concerned, the FAA details their policy on chart carriage on their web site.

The subject of current charts was thoroughly covered in an article in the FAA’s July/August 1997 issue of FAA Aviation News. That article was cleared through the FAA’s Chief Counsel’s office. In that article the FAA stated the following:

“You can carry old charts in your aircraft.” “It is not FAA policy to violate anyone for having outdated charts in the aircraft.”

“Not all pilots are required to carry a chart.” “91.503..requires the pilot in command of large and multiengine airplanes to have charts.” “Other operating sections of the FAR such as Part 121 and Part 135 operations have similar requirements.”

…”since some pilots thought they could be violated for having outdated or no charts on board during a flight, we need to clarify an important issue. As we have said, it is NOT FAA policy to initiate enforcement action against a pilot for having an old chart on board or no chart on board.” That’s because there is no regulation on the issue.

…”the issue of current chart data bases in handheld GPS receivers is a non-issue because the units are neither approved by the FAA or required for flight, nor do panel-mounted VFR-only GPS receivers have to have a current data base because, like handheld GPS receivers, the pilot is responsible for pilotage under VFR.

“If a pilot is involved in an enforcement investigation and there is evidence that the use of an out-of-date chart, no chart, or an out-of-date database contributed to the condition that brought on the enforcement investigation, then that information could be used in any enforcement action that might be taken.”

If you, as an FAA Safety Inspector, Designated Pilot Examiner, Flight Instructor, or other aviation professional are telling pilots something other than the foregoing then you are incorrect.

From a practical standpoint, some airplanes like the Pitts S-1 are so small that there’s no place to carry a chart. Even if you wanted to use one, how would you do so when the airplane is about as stable as an Robinson R-22 in a hover? Can you imagine the pilot of a Cri-Cri or BD-5J trying to use a chart while in flight?

I’m not discouraging chart usage. Quite the contrary, I carry them myself. In fact, there are times when it is legally required. The aforementioned Part 121, 135, and 91 Large Airplane rules call for it when flying under those regulations. Some Class B VFR airspace transitions require a current terminal chart (the LA Special Flight Rules Area comes to mind). But for the most part, they are not legally required for Part 91 operators, even when flying under IFR!

Myth #3: Perfect eyesight is a requirement to be a pilot.

This one is a holdover from the days when most pilots came from the ranks of the military, which did require perfect eyesight. Even today most branches of the military require 20/20 vision (or better) for pilot candidates (helicopter requirements are occasionally a bit less stringent). But even they will allow for corrective lenses in many cases once they’ve invested the seven figure sums that it requires to transform a person into a mission-qualified aviator.

The FAA’s vision requirement for civilians is — and has been for many years — that a pilot’s eyesight be correctable to 20/40 for non-professional aviators. Those requiring a first- or second-class medical certificate must be correctable to 20/20 for distant vision and 20/40 for near vision.

Color blind? No problem. You can still fly with virtually no restrictions. In fact, you can obtain a medical certificate even if you’ve only got one eye. Pilots can get medical clearance after major brain surgery. While on anti-depressants. After heart and other organ transplants. You can even fly if you’re completely deaf! I’m aware of at least one pilot, a woman named Jessica Cox, who has no arms and still flies her aircraft solo. She demonstrated that she could do everything necessary to safely operate the aircraft using only her feet.

These days, you can fly gliders and Light Sport aircraft without any medical certificate at all. Old airport codgers may complain about how things ain’t the way they used to be, but in this case that’s a good thing.

Myth #4: TBO is mandatory.

Time-between-overhaul intervals are not well understood by most aircraft owners. For one thing, while most pilots understand that manufacturers establish a recommended hourly interval between major overhauls, they are often unaware that overhaul is also recommended once it reaches 12 years of age. This is important because most mechanics will tell you that the greatest enemy of piston aircraft engines is lack of use. One of the easiest ways to maximize engine life is to simply fly the plane frequently. This ensures the oil is brought up to operating temperature, any water in the system is boiled off, and the internal parts of the engine are coated in a protective layer of oil.

For non-commerical operators, TBO intervals are simply recommendations. There is no legal requirement to overhaul an engine at any time. Nor does exceeding TBO void insurance or warranty coverage. Plenty of people take published TBO intervals with a grain of salt, preferring instead to allow oil consumption, spectrographic oil analysis, borescope inspections, and other such metrics dictate when the engine is ready for overhaul.

Even commercial operators don’t necessarily have to overhaul at TBO. The FAA often grants extensions to those intervals by as much as 50% or more.

Myth #5: Repairs must always be accomplished using FAA-approved parts.

Let’s say you’re fortunate enough to fly an original 1917 Sopwith F-1 Camel — one of the preeminent fighters of the first World War. Where are you supposed to go for parts? They stopped manufacturing them nearly a century ago.

Okay, that’s an extreme example. But there are plenty of orphaned aircraft types still flying. Even among those that are still supported, parts can be exorbitantly expensive, even to the point of rendering an otherwise fine aircraft economically unfeasible to maintain.

Thankfully, 14 CFR 21.303(b)(2) and 21.9 allow owners of an aircraft — any aircraft, not just a vintage warbird — to manufacture parts for their airplane or pay someone to make them as long as the replacement part is identical to the original. The only caveat is that the owner must participate in the manufacture of the part by providing specifications, design information, quality control, materials, and/or supervising the fabrication of the item.

A personal example: a Pitts S-2B in which I share ownership needed a new seat back for the pilot’s seat. The old one was cracked and slowly failing after years of hard aerobatics. Now this is literally a flat rectangular piece of half-inch plywood with wood blocks attached to the back side to hold it in place. No fancy curves, shapes or fasteners. Just a plain old piece of wood. As I recall, the manufacturer of the Pitts series of biplanes, Aviat, wanted something close to thousand bucks for that part. We were able to manufacture one for a few dollars.

If you’re the kind of person who’s handy and has access to the proper tools, you can manufacture any part for your aircraft. A wing spar, a new crankcase, a propeller, and anything in between. If you’re not so handy? You can still hire a machinist, friend, or virtually anyone else to make the article as long as you materially participate in the process and create a part that is identical to the original in form and function — in other words, “airworthy”.

EAA posted an 85-minute video last August entitled “Owner Produced Parts for Certificated Aircraft” which covers this topic in great detail.

[… continue reading in Part 2]