• We're Not happy Until You're Not Happy

Over the years I've been faced with a severe case of what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance."

On one hand my experience has been that the folks that work for the FAA are, by and large, earnest, professional people with a real interest in aviation and safety. They've always treated me fairly (not to be confused with leniently). On the other hand I've met pilots and aircraft owners who profess something between mistrust and visceral hatred for the employees of the same agency. They really believe the FAA motto is, "We're not happy until you're not happy."

If you're among the latter, you can probably stop reading because what I'm going to write won't interest you.

To be entirely up front, I have to admit that my opinion is that the people who hate the FAA the most are the ones that have played loose and free with the regs the most, they're the people who treat "the Feds" as some kind of low lifes, and they're the people who receive, in return, just what they deserve.

Now that's not to say there aren't bad eggs in every basket. The apocryphal story of the Inspector who yellow tagged a bird with "Q-tip" props because its propeller tips were bent comes to mind. But consider that the basket of pilots is much larger (650,000) than the basket of FAA employees (50,000). And the number of those folks that you'll actually meet while committing the unnatural act of flight is smaller yet.

You don't have to be a math genius to figure out there are probably more asshole pilots than there are asshole Feds.

Yeah, I can hear you arguing percentages; asshole density, if you will. I don't buy it.

Sit in a parking lot by an airport fence and listen on your handheld, or sit in your cockpit and listen on your David Clarks. Y'all up there in the rarefied air can listen on your anorexic Plantronics too. How many times do pilots screw up? How many times do controllers? And which group is most likely to go into assholes mode when things don't go right?

Fact is, many of the FAA employees on the front line are pilots with experiences that you'd die to have, maybe even die from, since you may not be as good a pilot as they are. After all, half the pilots out there are worse than the other half. (Why do I hear a chorus from the tower, "More! Much more!")

But you wouldn't know those people from ATC and the FSDO have the depth of experience they do if you harbor a prejudice against them. That's true of everyone else in life too, come think of it.

When was the last time you took the time to go up in the cab and find out who the person is that's behind that voice your hear from the control tower? Have you ever figured out where the nearest TRACON is located and scheduled a visit to see what it's like to shepherd fast moving aircraft across a sector, essentially blindfolded?

All this reminds me of my favorite controller who once announced, when things were really going to hell in a handbasket,"All right, everyone stop right where you are, and we'll get this sorted out." Even the foreign student with minimal command of English flying up the downwind keyed the mike and laughed.

She's the same controller, I recall, who also told a bush pilot I was flying with in a busy Southern California weekend pattern "You have to do more than nod your head when I call you, 674H."

Mind you he's a pilot's pilot, an Alaskan 'Man of the Decade' for his selfless rescues, and a personal hero in an era when, as Styx puts it, "All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay." But he's also someone who hadn't talked on a radio in years, except maybe to check in on the HF while crossing some of the wildest water and terrain in the world so his wife would know he's okay.

Mutual respect is what it's all about, in a phrase.

Doubts? Go out and drive a car blindfolded while someone talks you through an empty shopping center parking lot. A controller who'd done that, to appreciate the problems of a scared VFR pilot in IFR conditions, saved a woman's life because he understood. She's my wife today, and I appreciate his dedication. She found herself solid IFR in a snow squall on her second solo flight...but that's another tale.


  1. You see the thing is, most Flight Standards people start out as refugees. The service has a unique vibe...lots of former and current military people, then there are the folks who got the perfect airline job, only to see it dashed on the rocks of economic reality - merger, bankruptcy, endless furlough. When I first started in FAA, one of my fellow Inspectors had been furloughed from Pan American for 12 years. He lived hand-to-mouth working as an accountant, and turned into a tried and true Air Guard rat. His story is not unique. After all, most folks dream about the left seat of a 747.

    This mix of style inevitably leads to some conflict. The really big guys in FAA (Associate Administrators and the like) want Inspectors to be schizophrenic. On the one hand, they want sensitive, feeling individuals who are politically correct, and can present well in public contacts. That all works fine until a VALUJET happens. Then the blood is in the water...then they want Andy Sipowicz in all his brutal glory. "How could you certify and then look away from such a shoddy airline, Mr Inspector?" The answer lies in the poor quality of senior FAA leadership. I digress.

    This cultural confusion leads to some very different personality types. The majority of my peers really care about reaching out to the industry, providing guidance on safe practices, and also letting the industry run their businesses. Unfortunately we have a small percentage of those with the "cop" mentality. These people usually are making up for a loss of esteem in some other part of their life. The average Inspector goes through a brief power trip that comes with any job related to law enforcement. In most cases, proper guidance, training and mentoring resolves the issue. Like any other part of our society, we have our 10%. While most laugh at the gent involved in the "Q-tip prop"issue, it turns out he was generally a pretty approachable person with very little background in general aviation. The people to watch out for are the arrogant, sarcastic power trippers. These days it is a lot easier to identify and give feedback on these types. Flight Standards has been certified under ISO-9000. That means that customer feedback is critical to our management scheme. Provide the feedback. It goes up high, and as we all know, smelly stuff rolls down hill.

    There is one thing that ALL Inspectors in General Aviation share...we get to pick up the bodies. They don't talk about that in the hiring announcements. It is just expected that you will be able to walk up to the smoldering pile of wreckage and sort it out like a big jigsaw puzzle. I can still see the five lumps of meat that was a family of five that died on the tennis courts of the Newport Beach Tennis Club. It was ugly work until we found mom's purse, intact with the family photos. Ugly doesn't describe how you feel when that happens. It doesn't get any better when you discover that the pilot was an ego centered jerk with more money than brains and very little stick ability. In a big hurry to race weather to his destination, he departed with no flight planning, no preflight check, and no engine run-up. The inevitable engine failure on his Aerostar left him with nothing to do but stall, and spin into his grave...with his wife and three beautiful daughters. What a waste.

    I guess that sentiment drives many of my peers...the desire not to see people waste the good things in life. There is a lot to be said for freedom, but even more to be said for liberty. We believe that as pilots we have to work smarter, look smarter, and be smarter. The unprincipled few who believe they have a right to do anything eventually will be able to do nothing. The rub here is that many well intentioned airmen will lose in the process. You see, the general public expects Inspectors to protect them from the "aviation crazies". While we try to educate our fellow citizens, it is really hard to talk about the power and beauty of aviation to someone who lives near Gillespie Airport and has listened to airplane noise because some idiot 22-year old CFI thought it would be neat to do an hour of touch-and-go landings in the dead of night.

    Well the rant is over. We care, and we need you to care. If that works for you, then aviation has a chance. If it doesn't, well I guess I'll see you at the crash site. I'll be next to the coroner as they bag up the bodies.

  2. Only one comment (so far) but what a comment !Beautifully said-very thoughtful-provocative --in keeping with the blog in word and spiriit.
    These thoughts come from worthy voyagers and help us all.