Friday, August 03, 2012
Today the president signed the "Pilot's Bill of Rights" into law, making FAA investigations more transparent, providing pilots with explicit rights to information about the proceedings against them, and reducing the likelihood of abuse of power by individuals within the FAA. As you read the text of the bill, remember that its genesis was an incident involving Senator Inhofe (the bill's sponsor) where he landed his Cessna 340 on a closed runway at the Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport in Texas.
Some of the published details about the incident indicate that the senator failed to check Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) prior to beginning his flight. The public record also mentions that there were large yellow Xs on the runway indicating it was closed, there were men and equipment on the runway, and that the senator's plane touched down and then lifted off again to "hopscotch" over the workers on the runway. Later, the senator departed from a taxiway after notifying an "airport official" of his intentions. He even made the claim that when it comes to checking NOTAMS, "People who fly a lot just don't do it."
All of the items in the approved legislation seem like good ideas and they confer many important rights on pilots who come under FAA scrutiny, but watch the explanation of the bill by Senator Inhofe and you may find yourself cringing. The senator refers to a non-towered airport as an "uncontrolled field." There is control at non-towered fields: It's called self-control in the form of right-of-way rules and procedures that all pilots are required to follow. The senator claims "... there has never been a central location ..." where pilots can view NOTAMs. Has the senator never heard of DUAT or DUATS? Lastly he refers to a "... controller in the valley ..." who cleared him to land. An approach controller does not clear a pilot to land at a non-towered airport, a fact that seems to have been lost on the senator.
The FAA required Senator Inhofe to undergo ground and flight training in order to avoid an enforcement action, but the statements made by the senator seem to indicate he still doesn't understand basic operating procedures at non-towered airports. If he were your student pilot, would you sign him off?
Okay, so US senators get different treatment that the average Joe pilot gets - this just in. The core problem is that the FAA NOTAM system forces pilots to find the proverbial needle in the haystack: You have to ignore all the irrelevant NOTAMs and determine which ones are germane. Not only are NOTAMs poorly organized, they continue to use bizarre and obscure abbreviations that only the FAA could dream up. Long-standing NOTAMs are published, which can make them harder to locate and easier to overlook. Important NOTAMs about temporary flight restrictions and changes to instrument approach procedures are mixed in with notices about ADS-B services. Why can't the FAA give TFRs, IAPs, and ADS-B their own categories?
The Pilot's Bill of Rights goes a long way to prevent abuse of power by the FAA, but it does nothing to fix NOTAM stupidity. This bill may have helped to shore up Senator Inhofe's image and if there is any doubt in your mind that people with connections and power get different treatment that the average person, perhaps the foregoing will put those doubts to rest.