Where Playground Bullies Go to Work
- Erika Armstrong
As he stood there, arms crossed, smug smile on his face, I knew instantly this is where playground bullies go to work.
Since I'd been in aviation for a dozen years at this point, I'd been through countless checkrides, thousands of hours of learning, training, upgrades, proving runs, ramp checks, checkouts, and safety audits. I've seen this before and have met this type of FAA representative, so I took a deep breath and let the psychological warfare begin:
FAA Aviation Safety Inspector (ASI): "Wait a second…what's that? What are these colored collars on the circuit breaker panel?"
I check my watch. I have 173 passengers waiting on the plane in MSP. It's snowing and I still have to deal with de/anti-icing. We had several items deferred to the MELs and this random ramp check is ironically becoming a safety issue because this is no longer about safety. He's been in the cockpit for 30 minutes, I've answered every single question, shown him all the proper paperwork, and now he's just having his own power trip. This is about him showing me his FAA power. He's looking for something, anything, to use it.
Me: "The mechanics put colored collars on the circuit breakers to identify the hot battery bus items."
FAA ASI: "Show me in your Operating Manual where you’re allowed to do that."
Me: "There isn't anywhere in our Ops Manual that says we're allowed to do that, but it also doesn't say we can't. Coloring a collar around a CB has nothing to do with safety. It doesn't interfere or change any function of a CB. It's just a cosmetic marker, it's function has not been modified."
FAA ASI: "They do interfere with their use. These collars are a grounding safety item. It's a modification of an original part."
Sigh. Okay. How do I end this? I grab our General Operations Manual (GOM) and go to the back where there are layouts and actual pictures of our Circuit Breaker Panels. It doesn't address the collars, it's there for a different reason, but I'm going to get him on a technicality.
Me: "Okay, let's do it this way. Would you agree that our GOM is a document that the FAA has given approval of?"
FAA ASI: "Yes, of course."
I flip to the very end where the CB panel pages are and show him a couple pictures of the panels that have the collars on.
Me: "Here is our GOM. It is an FAA approved document and here you see pictures of the collars. The FAA approved the manual which means everything inside it…so are we good here? We were supposed to push 10 minutes ago."
FAA ASI: "But it doesn't say anything about the collars. You're not going anywhere until I call back to my supervisor…"
Me: "Yes, please do. Could you make the call here and put them on speaker phone?"
He looks at my First Officer and Flight Engineer and knows he's got to save face somehow. He definitely won't let me win. He admitted he'd never ramp checked a woman pilot before, so there may be some other issues at play here, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
FAA ASI: "I'll just step out a moment so you can get ready for departure."
We are ready and he knows it. He steps off the jet bridge and comes back in less time than it would take to actually make a phone call and talk to his 'supervisor'. He continues to stand in the cockpit writing on his clipboard for several more minutes. Pages flip. He writes.
FAA ASI: "We'll let you depart, but we're advising your company of the violation."
In my head, a thousand responses. Violation of your stupidity? Violation of common sense? Violation of your ego? Etc. You get the idea.
Me: "That's fine. I'll be on the phone with the Chief Pilot when I get to LAS and explain to him why we're now 25 minutes late for departure…and I still have to go get deiced."
Since I was the captain on a commercial airliner (Part 121), I had some previous experience so knew how to deal with this, but the first time I was ramp checked years earlier flying for the Red Cross, I was completely incapable of standing up for myself. I assumed the FAA reps were all-knowing Aviation Gods. I didn't know my power, or theirs. Rogue inspectors exist because pilots and flight departments don't know their rights or limits of the inspector's authority.
What do you do if you are a small flight department being bullied by an FAA ASI/POI? What if, for example, you're adding an aircraft to your fleet and your ASI won't approve conformity because he wants a weight and balance document from seven years ago, the nose gear tire placard says 60-65 PSI but the POH says 60 PSI, and they want a wiring diagram for something that was removed long ago…and another 4 pages of non-safety items along those generalities that they decide they want completed before approval?
How about a flight department that has been operating for almost 20 years, have dispatched over 85,000 flights and then they get assigned a new inspector who during their first inspection, threatens to shut down operations because they have never seen a flight department use an eLearning vendor for ground training before. The POI/ASI states that they prefer doing it the 'old fashioned' way and wants a check airman to do an oral examination for the entire flight department rather than use the eLearning platform, simply because the ASI is unfamiliar. Nothing to back up their opinion on the 8900 list.
The majority of FAA inspectors are professional, respectful, intelligent aviation enthusiasts who want nothing more than for you to be safe and have a great day. There is a reason why aviation has become so safe and part of it is regulation, as much as it pains us. But, as in any organization, you will have an occasional rogue agent who likes to bully and harass because they've been handed the baton of power. It becomes a sport to see how many ways they can make your life and living painful by using gray areas in the regs and strong opinions.
When I put out a request for examples of FAA bullies, my inbox was flowing over. Not just old stories but current despite the efforts of the FAA to be more kind, gentle, and collaborative. Each story needs to be run through the filter of perspective. Often the operator feels intimidated because of the long list of corrections requested, that's normal and legitimate…and yes, expensive for the operator.
But the stories of intimidation and even bribery that rise to the surface are of concern. It continues to create an environment that encourages illegal operations. The reality is that the aviation industry is too big to monitor everything and operators know it. Having rogue ASIs weaken the safety of the entire industry.
Knowledge is the key to power, so here is the checklist for dealing with confrontation with someone at the FAA who can decide your financial and flying fate:
Show Me Yours and then I'll Show You Mine
There are a variety of situations where you might be confronted by an FAA representative (with a mask on, of course). If it's in person, the first thing they are required to do is show you their Personal Identity Verification card (PIV). Random meeting or not, if at any point the conversation turns towards an investigational mode, respectfully ask for their Form 110A / FAA photo ID again and take a picture of it. Say thank you. Take a deep breath.
Human beings are hardwired to defend themselves so if you are accused of doing anything wrong, your instinct is going to be to dig in and hold your ground right then and there. You are going to want to explain and defend yourself. Your best bet is to just listen and don’t say anything at this point.
Be Polite, But Be on Your Way
During any encounter, unless you've been observed doing something unsafe or illegal, once you have shown them (don't hand anything over to them) your license, medical and ARROW documents, you have no further obligation to them. Be polite but be on your way.
An ASI cannot board your aircraft without permission and you don't have to give it to them. They are allowed to inspect the aircraft and look in the windows starting with basics like seatbelts and seats. They will/can determine the general airworthiness by inspecting items for damage or deficiencies that would affect the safety of your flight. They can also ask when the last VOR check was completed, determine if an ELT is installed, and check the expiration date of the battery. And they can inspect all required placards and aircraft inspection plates.
Part 135 ramp checks are a little different in that the ASI must be given free and uninterrupted access to the pilot compartment. During these checks, you are defending yourself and your company procedures. They can even ask to ride along for an enroute inspection. This is very rare, but it can still be done. I'd be on the phone with the chief pilot and an attorney before they unexpectedly got on a flight.
My Part 135 ramp check only lasted fifteen minutes. I was flying an old Falcon 20, and while doing a quick-turn fueling in BNA, an FAA gentleman nabbed me at the FBO front desk while I was paying for fuel. I had been one of the pilots on the FAA proving runs for Part 135 certification of this aircraft, so when he showed me his credentials, I showed him mine. I also told him I had been on the proving runs and to go ahead and ask me anything about this airplane. He walked out to the airplane with me and admitted he'd never been inside a Falcon 20. At that moment, I knew I was going to win this game. I didn't offer up any extra information. I made him ask me for it, but I was gracious and gladly showed him inside and answered every question he asked. He sat in one of the passenger seats, asked a few friendly questions, and went on his way. That's how it should be.
This might sound extreme, but several pilots suggested this: If at any point you feel that the interaction with the ASI has turned from friendly to threatening and they are making accusations, ask to start recording the conversation. This can be used against you and it's a sure bet that you will have to have a follow up meeting with the FAA, but if you are certain that you need evidence of this moment, do it. This is your career and license on the line. Also ask for their FSDO manager's phone number and extension and be ready to make a call to that number right in front of them.
An ASI has no power to detain or arrest unless it's an extreme situation and you are clearly operating dangerously. They aren't going to impound your aircraft, so exit the meeting any way possible. Just leave and follow up once you've got yourself and your paperwork in order.
Show Me the Reg
It is your right to ask the ASI/POI to show you where the specific 8900.1, AC, NTSB, SDR data guidance is that they're referring to. If they can't find it, it's their own opinion. You can also ask the FSDO Office Manager to provide an opinion on a disagreement.
The contention is usually triggered in the gray areas of regulations. The solution is to err on the side of safety and common sense. What is the intent behind the rule? Are you trying to save money or lives? Is the ASI's request truly a safety issue, or are they just wanting you to jump through hoops for them?
In 2014, the FAA set up an FAA Hotline Program (Order 1070.1A) so you can call 1-800-255-1111, 1-800,322,7873 or 1-866-835-5322 to file a specific complaint. It's not for general comment or question. You can also email and send via US Postal mail, but you must research elsewhere to find where that is. Here is the link for you: FAA HOTLINE REPORTING FORM. Filing reports is a good idea, but the process might take some time.
A more immediate solution to any conflict with an individual ASI is to go over their head and talk to their district manager. Also speak to other flight departments in your area, even if they're your competition. The community needs to communicate and take names. If one ASI's name continues to come into the district office, maybe something can actually change.
Wait and Balance
When one person has control over another, there will always be conflict. That's normal, especially when your livelihood is on the line. The core of livelihood is live. Life. Both sides need to focus on the safety of the disagreement and be respectful of the costs.
Aviation has become incredibly safe and the list of reasons is long. At the top is the change in the overall safety culture and professionalism all the way down to the student pilot. Every step of the way, pilots are using self-discipline and respect for the industry to keep us all safe. Just like rogue agents, there are rogue pilots and flight departments and we need to deter both for balance. When either side is disrespectful of that culture, it puts the entire industry out of its center of safety gravity.
FAA Safety Team (FAAST) to get involved.
From the front desk of an FBO, to the captain's seat of a commercial airliner, Erika Armstrong has seen it all. She is also the VP of Business Development at Advanced Aircrew Academy, aviation professor at MSU Denver, and the author of A Chick in the Cockpit. Erika is keeping an anonymous source list of inspectors if you want to add to it at firstname.lastname@example.org.